We set up the Sandwell Facebook page back in November 2010.
Why? Well, plenty of people use Facebook. It’s free. And other councils were using it. We wanted to see what it could do for us.
We called the page Sandwell rather than Sandwell Council. Our aim wasn’t to create a page where people could “Like” the council – we wanted to give them useful information, ideas for things to do and news about where they live.
Our Facebook page’s “Likes” grew steadily over the next couple of years to around the 2,900 mark, but it really came into its own earlier this year when we had heavy snow over one January weekend.
Of course, people wanted to know if the schools were open on Monday morning, if the gritters had been out and if their bins would be collected.
So we told them. On Facebook.
People seemed surprised – and pleased – that we were using it like this. It meant they didn’t have to sit and listen to local radio for updates on school closures, or hang on the phone to speak to our contact centre.
And we were doing it outside of normal working hours, during the evening and over the weekend – the times that most people are on Facebook themselves.
People loved it, commenting on how great it was and sharing our updates with family and friends.
After that snowy period and a second heavier snowfall in March, more than 11,500 people Liked the Sandwell Facebook page.
So, why was our Facebook page so popular during the snow?
Put simply, we were using Facebook to give people the information that mattered to them. The things they really wanted or needed to know about.
Also, social media allows us to talk to people in the way they talk to their friends and family. We can be a little less formal, a little more human and (more often than you would expect) pretty humorous in a way we often aren’t in other forms of communication.
People like the human voice the Facebook page gives to the council. I like to think that this informal style means people think of the Sandwell
Facebook admin as a real person – not just a council-bot spewing out public service information.
During the snowy weather some of our posts were seen by more than 60,000 Facebook users. These days, we often reach as many people who read the local evening paper with a single Facebook post.
I won’t deny it’s not a commitment. When that snow came down, my sledge stayed firmly in the shed while I kept our Facebook page updated.
I’m happy to report that we’ve held onto the people who wanted to know if their school was open or their bins would be collected. They didn’t unlike our page as soon as the snow melted. We continue to share news, events and “good stuff” about Sandwell with them.
The best advice I have for anyone running a local government Facebook page is to be there and be useful when you are needed most.
Be that bad weather, an emergency or things to do during the school holidays – information that is important to people and impacts upon their lives is the key to engagement on social media.
Make hay while the sun shines. Or in our case, when the snow falls.
by Claire Bustin,
Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council