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Digital campaigning for hyperlocal publishers - case study, campaigning template and report

A hyperlocal news site used social media. You won’t believe what happened next…

Using social media to challenge stereotypes and encourage participation: photo credit Star and Crescent 

The Star and Crescent, a little known news website from Portsmouth, recently ran a social media campaign that helped reverse a decision taken by the City Council to make financial cuts to its domestic violence service. This campaign was run during Nesta's Destination Local Action Research in Audience Analytics project in which we explored the impact that social media can have on the relationship between a hyperlocal news website and its readers. This post includes highlights from the six-month project that included ten participants from across the UK.

The tyranny of Facebook

All the hyperlocals that participated in the project were heavily reliant on Facebook for their social media engagement. This was because most of their readers were already on the site. Measuring engagement on Facebook is relatively straightforward — likes, shares and comments. But as we discovered, high-impact metrics don’t always indicate success. Facebook has a way of distorting traffic and attention.

One participant explained how a large number of likes and shares reduced the overall traffic to their site. Readers were just glancing at the headlines that appeared in their newsfeed. They weren’t clicking through to the main article. Qualitative engagement was also skewed because readers left comments on the Facebook page rather than the website. As the number of comments increased, they had little to do with the original update.

Some hyperlocals were also forced to use their limited resources to produce clickbait to increase their reach, or in some cases just to be seen. All the participants said that this approach to journalism was at complete odds with their values. They didn’t start a hyperlocal to become ambulance chasers.

One participant carried out an experiment that illustrates the tyranny of Facebook. They posted a video of a man mooning on Google Streetview. The video went viral, with more than 60,000 views on Facebook, which exasperated the team as they had put lots of time into covering issues that affect the day-to-day life of the local community. But the thing is, it wasn’t all bad news. The viral post increased visibility and engagement of other posts as well. Furthermore, when compared to other social channels Facebook is still the biggest source of traffic to the site.

Take charge! Set a goal.

Welcome to our history week. Here's a good place to start: the Bitterne Park clock tower.

Online engagement can’t just be about taming the capricious algorithms that control the Facebook timeline. Several participants decided to run short-term experiments to see if they could use social media to achieve a specific goal. The objective of each experiment was for the hyperlocal to create positive social impact with active participation from its readers. This could be online or offline. Could this approach help them establish a brand presence that was better aligned to their values? And would they create a platform-agnostic relationship with their readers?

Each hyperlocal was provided with a Common Campaigning Template to plan their experiment. To download the template via Google Docs, click on the link to the left, or you can access as a Word document at the top right side of this page. You can also see Star and Crescent's own completed template at the top right side of the page, which is what helped their campaign do so well. The template will help you define the goal you want to achieve, as well as helping develop a consistent narrative for your social media channels. Campaigns for this project were focused activities that lasted as little as half a day to a maximum of a week.

The hyperlocals set goals that were driven by the interests and concerns of the local community. Themes included — stopping cuts to local domestic violence services, supporting local live music events, and highlighting local history and local businesses.

Planning helps. No really, it does!

Inspiring messages and support making the cable co-op possible. One person at a time. #realmedianow #readthecable

— The Bristol Cable (@TheBristolCable) January 29, 2016

Choosing a hashtag can help you amplify your reach and present different themes with a consistent tone of voice. In each case, setting a goal helped the hyperlocals attach a clear outcome for their online activity. As a result they were able to allocate time to research content as well as prepare original material to run their campaigns. 

Using a campaigning template helped some of them define a multi-channel social media narrative that used a combination of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This narrative complimented the news stories. It didn’t just re-purpose the original content.

Participants also spent some time defining a tone of voice for their campaign narrative, which reflected their core values. Could they get their readers to think about the issues they were championing online and then take some sort of action?

Research + Tone of Voice = Attention

A few weeks into the experiments, all participants reported back saying they hadn’t anticipated the amount of time it would take to research and prepare content for their campaigns.

Planning a narrative helped the participants adapt their content to the syntax of different channels. So it wasn’t a case of dumbing content down to be noticed but about making it discoverable. For example, the same content was shared as a short paragraph on Facebook, as 145 characters on Twitter and as a series of hashtags to accompany an image on Instagram.

The change in tone of voice produced immediate results. One participant explained how they went from giving weather updates in a factual tone to a slightly sarcastic and humorous voice, which reflected the temperament of the local community. This change increased engagement with the followers of the Facebook page.

A Case Study

The Portsmouth Star and Crescent was a little known hyperlocal news website. At the start of this project they didn’t turn up in Google search results and you couldn’t find them on Twitter or Facebook. Then the team decided to run a five-day campaign to protest cuts planned for the domestic violence service. They used the Common Campaigning Template to organise the campaign.

As part of their preparation they found articles from other sources to share on their Facebook and Twitter feeds. The campaign wasn’t just about driving traffic to their website, but building an online community to create momentum. They scheduled these updates for the entire week. They also created original content and social media-friendly infographics. And finally, the team spent some time researching influencers online who could amplify their message.

The campaign boosted their social media engagement and increased awareness of their brand online. The major outcome was that the City Council reduced the size of the budget cuts to the service.

This plan of action also increased the delivery time as the level of engagement on social media was much higher than expected. The demands of the campaign spanned about ten days and represented an additional workload to the normal operational and editorial duties.

The extra engagement and visibility increased the number of submissions and news sources available to the Star and Crescent. This helped them publish a scoop that was picked up by the national press, including the Guardian and Mirror.

The magic bullet?

Telford-Live! Awards, 2016. Experimenting with tone of voice and formats.

The Common Campaigning Template was a framework for hyperlocals to attach a clear goal to their social media activity. Every participant who ran the experiment achieved varying degrees of success. Some saw immediate gains and others have acknowledged that it will take more effort to achieve any tangible outcomes. Some participants were able to boost their social media presence on their existing channels and others were able to launch a new channel and experiment with new formats.

Planning a narrative gives your campaign a clear structure. You may not always stick to the script, but if you have a plan it is easier to improvise in real-time in case your campaign isn’t getting any traction.

Offline matters. Wherever possible, signpost people to your social media accounts. If you are running activities and events, then share this coverage on your accounts in real-time. A couple of hyperlocals reported that their strength is real-time coverage. This is because of their relationship with the local community, knowledge of the area and access to different sources of information.

Real time coverage of the fire in Cowes by OnTheWight

Whilst there is no single approach to benefitting from social media. All the participants agreed that if you want to use it as more than just an afterthought, it is necessary to block time out to research and prepare content. Build in a period of discovery to understand the syntax and context of using different social media channels. This will help you get the most out of the medium in the long-term.

If you’d like to find out more about the Digital Identity framework, please visit this website. You can also follow me on Twitter at @gopaldass



Abhay Adhikari

Abhay Adhikari (PhD) is the Director at Dhyaan. He works globally with private and public sector organisations to develop innovation projects. His programmes have been commissioned b...