If used well, social media can be a fantastic free tool for anyone running a community consultation or mobilising residents to take part in neighbourhood planning.
While there’s no substitute for traditional methods of communication, such as door knocking, local meetings, posters and leaflets, Twitter, Facebook and blogs can help your campaign reach more people.
Here are five reasons why you should consider using social media for neighbourhood planning – and five golden rules to help you do it well. You can also download our in-depth Social media guidelines for neighbourhood planning for more detailed information about putting these into practice.
Five reasons to use social media for neighbourhood planning
- Start a debate
- If you’re collecting views from neighbours about the local area, social networking sites like Facebook are a good place to encourage debate – and perhaps reach those who are more comfortable using this technology than attending meetings. Hoylake Village Life, a community-run enterprise spearheading the regeneration of this Wirral town, asked their Facebook fans ‘What is top of your list for making Hoylake better than it already is?’ and received over 20 suggestions within one weekend.
- It’s an informal setting for people to throw ideas into the pot (some with a sense of humour, of course), while they’re online checking their own Facebook profiles anyway – very different from attending a scheduled meeting and having to stand up in front of everybody. What’s more, the Facebook Friends of anyone who comments will see that the have done so, meaning the debate sends ripples beyond those who are directly involved.
- Create a sense of identity
- Half the battle of creating a Neighbourhood Plan is getting people to feel a sense of civic pride. Online forums and social networking sites like Facebook are a good way of sharing photos (for example, from recent events, such as this one from Lynton and Lynmouth’s Neighbourhood Plan launch) or enthusiasm about the project.
- The Campaign for Queen’s Park, which is working to create the first ever Community Council in London, has opted for a closed online forum and a public blog to instigate debate, advertise events, share offers of help and generate a buzz about the campaign. (Anyone can set up a free forum like this one.)
- Connect in real time
- There’s nothing like being able to post comments, images, ideas and last minute changes of plan as they happen. Rather than have to wait for the next parish newsletter, you can update people on what happened at the consultation event, for example, as soon as it’s over, or even as it’s happening, via a smartphone.
- Twitter is also a good tool to do this. When we hosted the Planning Camp, for Neighbourhood Planning Front Runners, at the Eden Project, we encouraged people to live tweet from the event – helping to share it with those who couldn’t be there in person. By asking people to use the hashtag #planningcamp (essentially a label which lets people filter tweets by subject matter) anyone was able to follow the highlights of the event as it unfolded. Take a look at the results on Twitter.
- Establish a presence
- Being seen online helps give your project more credibility in external circles too. If you want to take your campaign to the next level, for example to get funding or to win the support of your local authority, you’ll need to prove how many people were engaged in the process. Numbers of how many Facebook fans, Twitter followers, blog readers or forum members can demonstrate that your project is an active, inclusive one.
- Network and get help
- Facebook and forums are a good way to communicate with people within your community, especially as many people are already active users of Facebook. Residents may not be so au fait with Twitter, but for community leaders it can be a great way to get in touch with people in other communities trying to do the same thing as you. Read our in-depth guidelines on how to find and give help on Twitter, and connect with useful people you’ve never met before.
Five golden rules for using social media in a neighbourhood planning context
- Post regularly
Make sure your online spaces don’t have tumbleweed blowing through them. That means making your social media updates as important a task as writing your newsletter. Share the job amongst chosen people in the community (multiple users can log in to the same Facebook, Twitter and blog accounts). You could also try to someone on board from within the area who’s really into these social networking tools (teenagers often know a lot about this!)
- Publicise your online spaces
Don’t forget to tell people in the community that they should ‘like’ the Facebook page or ‘follow’ you on Twitter. Include the link on your printed newsletters, or on a relevant website, remind residents at meetings, drop it into conversation on doorsteps if people are hesitant to actually ‘sign up’ to anything – they might just have a look online and be inspired by what they see going on.
- Try a range of social media tools
You’ll learn that different people like different ways of communicating. You might find Facebook best for getting residents involved, whereas Twitter is better for networking across the country. Don’t necessarily stick to just one tool.
- Create dialogue both ways
While it’s up to several key people to lead on social media and post regular updates, they should be facilitating* the debates, rather than being the only voice. For example, Facebook posts should ask questions and encourage participation rather than simply project information one way.
- Keep it visual
Never underestimate the power of images. Facebook, blogs and Twitter can include photos. The last thing people want is to read too much text. Use photos to inspire people to get involved.
Get free advice and access inspirational case studies for your neighbourhood planning on the Eden Project website.