September 2011

Following the session which delivered pointers to lots of useful Google tools, next up was Facebook. This was a slightly more structured session, in that it was opened by Richard Allan formerly involved in the Power of Information taskforce, now head of European policy at Facebook. He introduced a colleague from Facebook who shared a wealth of interesting hints and advice on how organisations can make the best use of Facebook pages. Their presentation was followed by three insights from colleagues who make use of Facebook pages to communicate the work of their organisations: Ally Hook from Coventry City Council, David Bailey from Staffordshire Police, and my own colleague from DFID: Simon Davis.

Hard to know where to start with the Facebook hints – but in essence, the room was probably split between people who have already some experience with pages, and this half was nodding in agreement with most of the examples given – and the occasional “oh, I wish I’d known that was possible….”, while the other half were there to absorb and ask lots of questions. Overall it served to re-affirm a lot of the things we are doing and it was good to hear from colleagues who are in the same situation.

Working with Pages

The advice centred on making use of ‘pages’ – and we saw lots of useful examples of what can inform your choice. NATO, for example has a page for the organisation, the Secretary General  and for heads of specific sectors (e.g. Dr Stefanie Babst).

If you have a high profile person as your head, especially if that person has a political role, it is advisable to keep that separate as it is easy to link the two together – and it will enable visitors to decide whether they want to follow the organisation or the person.

Regarding personal pages – Facebook’s policy is to create landing pages for significant figures, usually by linking to their Wikipedia entry. This will be removed and replaced as soon as Facebook are notified that the individual has created their own. It was interesting to hear that this is also how Facebook deals with historical figures – go have a look at William Shakespeare. It’s unlikely to offer much interaction but does have over ¼ million fans!

Hints for raising the profile of your pages include tagging wherever possible, including photos, and using one high profile page in a sector to tag another. A useful reminder for page admins was that they can log in to Facebook and switch profiles – carrying out activities as their page.


Facebook has a profanity filter for inappropriate comments and it is possible to ban members from posting comments (although in the examples round the room this has actually been used infrequently in practice). Many organisations may also choose to remove the ability to initiate comments (e.g. post directly onto their page) whilst retaining (and indeed encouraging) visitors to comment on topics the organisation initiates.

Page administrators were reminded to look at Facebook’s straightforward guidance. Facebook will always post updates about changes that are made. There are also pages on safety and security – which should answer many of the most frequently asked questions.

Exit Strategies

An interesting question was around exit strategies- what do you do with a community once the campaign that sparked it off has run its course? If there was a new, similar page then the admin could post a few times and point fans to this new space – advising them to follow that too if they were still interested. Then, after a time, proactive activity could be ceased. An alternative would be to set up the page with a very broad title so it can be used as a platform for a series of activities allowing you to take your growing community along with you.

Coventry’s experience with Facebook

Both Coventry and the Staffordshire police showed how addressing a local audience can really benefit from a specific event. In Coventry’s case this was meeting a need for information during last winter’s unusually heavy snowfall which resulted in schools and public services being reduced. For the police it was how they were able to respond to the recent riots.

Coventry council made a conscious decision in their foray on to Facebook  to make their pages as inclusive as possible while building on earlier conversations about specific council business. They named the page simply “Coventry” and while they didn’t hide the fact it was council initiated (if you looked closely) the main branding was more general-images of Coventry instead of the council logo.  There is a team of people behind the page – no automated posting of material, and they aim to stimulate conversations and answer questions.

Echoing our own experience at DFID, when there is a critical voice or bad natured comment their first reaction is not to block it or step in with a counter comment. Instead they watch and wait and very often other members of the community will step in.

Their key period of expansion was during last winter’s heavy snowfall: they went from just over 500 fans to 11,000 in 2 weeks! They had direct links with schools and quickly became the official source of information on which schools were closed – in one instance countering the cheeky initiative of a young pupil who managed to convince a local radio station that he was a headmaster and got them to announce his school was closed! They quickly confirmed and broadcast that the school was open.

Ally confirmed the value they find in Facebook insights, (Facebook’s inbuilt analytics package). The ability to find out a lot about their fans, how they find the page, what interests them plus a raft of demographic data, is hugely useful in helping to inform future focus and communications. She confirmed that sport, employment and potholes are their star topics!

Staffordshire Police

Key points from David Bailey echoed many of Ally’s. Fundamental was that social media formed the bedrock of their communications during the riots. They placed a notice on their website which directed people to Facebook for detail, and Twitter for up to the minute alerts. Key for me was their evidence countering the view that quickly spread in the mainstream media, that social media was somehow to blame for accelerating the riots – with calls that it should be switched off at the height of problems. Examples such as this demonstrate strongly that it is an equally, if not more valuable, part of the solution.

Elements included members of the team being highly alert to potential problems and quickly drawing up a communications plan with issues such as 24 hour working agreed so that the team could respond immediately. Senior members of the force were involved, including being interviewed for podcasts which served to reassure members of the public that the police were on high alert and ready to act. These podcasts were rebroadcast by local radio. The police, in a similar way to the Coventry team, experienced an unusual turnaround in that local media recognised their direct connection to a local audience and called them to ask them to publicise announcements!

Another notable element of their communication plan was to make sure their own colleagues knew what was going on. Families were reassured via the social media updates, and colleagues heard via a series of “news from the chief” emails. A nice touch was the creation of Wordles to illustrate the tone of online coverage – overwhelmingly positive and appreciative.

An evaluation of their activities has been published – worth reading.


DFID on facebook

DFID on facebook

Last but not least, Simon shared some thoughts on DFID’s Facebook activities. Key points for us are a move away from purely signposting content published in other places (primarily the website) and creating content specifically to publish on Facebook. We are focusing on creating a community where interaction is frequent. The most colourful evidence of this is a series called “Changing Lives”. This is the banner which introduces a whole series of stories about how aid has made a difference in people’s lives. We used a tool called thrusocial to create a landing page which we switched to be the default when people find us on Facebook.

We are experimenting with frequency of posts, but in general we aim for a steady flow – interspersing announcement of policy updates with lighter touch material such as a “Where in the world” photo competition and quick quizzes on news-prompted issues – for example an item on new research into ways of tackling malaria.

When we introduce links to material from other organisations, we will frame it as a question – again with the intention of stimulating debate, rather than simply directing visitors away from our space.

Another fascinating session – thanks to the team at Government Digital Service for organising. Finally, in a more than handy co-incidence, the following week I attended a brief meeting where two members of the new Twitter team in the UK shared their hints and tips – perfect fuel for my next post!

I’ve attended two interesting sessions this week with senior people from some of todays leading digital organisations: Peter Barron from Google, and Richard Allen from Facebook.

The first was a more informal session where Peter shared some of the many tools that Google makes available, and talked about some of the fascinating projects the organisation has supported. He also then participated in a lively question and answer session which I hope I have captured the flavour of.

The second was a more structured meeting, where Richard talked about how government can use facebook, and his colleague then gave a more detailed presentation on specific, practical issues. This was followed by fascinating presentations by Ally Hook, a representative of Coventry Council, one from David Bailey from Staffordshire police, and finally my own colleague Simon Davis.  I’ll blog notes from those sessions very soon.

Back to Google. The first tool we took a look around was insights for search  – something I faintly remember playing with a while ago, but not something we have used in earnest. It makes available all search traffic anonymously in a form you can interrogate – fascinating to see trends over time, or to compare two terms. Could provide really useful evidence to schedule timings around publishing material, or even to support search engine optimisation. If the majority are searching using particular terms, we should at least ensure they appear in our content, even if development professionals prefer to caption items with their own preferred terminology. Nb we have been using the Google adwords tool to gain similar insights recently, but I was impressed with the flexibility of insights.

Next up was Ngram viewer which arose out of Google’s massive book digitisation programme. It simply would not have been possible in the past to check the frequency with which certain terms appear in printed literature, but the vast amount of text now available via this programme, and the Ngram interface mans you can carry out quick searches for example which illustrate that the term ‘feminism’ started to appear in the 1920s and while ‘chivalry’ is not dead, it has certainly decreased significantly in popular usage.

Another tool which uses Google’s access to huge volumes of search data looks at which terms are being searched for around the world is Global Market Finder (and this one is linked to the adwords tool, giving an indication of what it would cost to purchase adwords in different countries).

On to more familiar ground, we had a quick tour of Gapminder – which I remember seeing a fascinating TED talk about a while ago – and is perhaps a sign of what might emerge from our own efforts across government to release masses of raw data. There was also mention in this context of Google Refine – a tool which helps clean up inconsistencies in datasets (eg when fields may contain UK, United Kingdom, and a number of other variations. I remember this being enthused about by several of the speakers at this years OpenTech event – so it certainly has its fans in the developer community.

Next up was Earth Engine – another tool which illustrates a key Google philosophy which is to make masses of information available to all. In this case it is satellite data, and the link above includes links to videos on YouTube which show how this can for example bring into sharp focus the real changes in forest cover around the world. You could imagine it could also be useful in disaster response situations.

One of the projects which raised a ripple of interest around the room – and a follow up link to a Guardian article about the project was ‘Life in a Day’ . A showcase for the functionality offered by YouTube to enable people to share films – which were then edited into a feature film which documents life around the world on one particular day.

As mentioned above, there was a lively question and answer session, during which many other tools were discussed.

A question about whether the oft quoted fact that Google employees are allowed 20% of their time to work on projects that interest them was confirmed as true (although this is not a mandatory activity – proposals do have to be discussed with managers and progress is monitored). One project that has resulted from this encouragement is the Art project

Another question was around reputation management – as a company gets bigger and more successful, do the criticisms get louder? Familiar to all of us, the answer was that a lot of effort is put into fixing problems as they arise, and being public about how they are fixed and progress of the issues.

Hard to believe, but all this was covered in a session lasting less than an hour – an excellent way to spend a lunch hour!

Note : A lot of the tools mentioned are also listed on google itself :

Next post – the Facebook event.