How to make the most of Facebook, part 2

June’s edition of Total Politics carries the second part of a two part series from me about how people in politics can get the most out of Facebook.

In the May edition of Total Politics, I went through some of the steps to get started with using Facebook, including getting your privacy settings right and pulling in content from elsewhere. But once you’ve done that, what next?

Facebook groups are a good place to start. You can hunt out groups that cover issues or organisations in your patch and also set up one or more groups to compliment your own campaigns.

To hunt out groups of interest, log in to Facebook and use the search box in the top right. On the search results page that comes up, click on the “groups” tab. Searching for the various different geographic terms that cover your patch and also the names of local organisations or events will help you find relevant groups.

Not all will be appropriate to join. For example, many schools have groups largely made up of current or former pupils. Unless you have a direct connection with the school, joining the group may come over as rather crass, or worse. More positively though, the chances are that several local organisations have a group and joining it is not only a good way of keeping in touch with what they are doing, but also the people who run it will often be glad of extra members as a sign of support and interest.

When you’ve joined a group, you will get any messages sent out by its administrators to its members. However, for many groups this feature is used only very rarely, so you also should keep an eye out for what is happening on the group page itself, such as comments made on the wall or new issues coming up on the discussion board (if there are these features). Facebook won’t send you email notifications about this sort of activity (except for replies to any discussion board posts you’ve made yourself), so you need to check for group activity when you are logged in to Facebook. Click on the groups button in the toolbar at the bottom (the one with the silhouettes of two people) and then “My Groups” at the top of the page. This will show you all your groups with recent activity.

Groups aren’t just for taking part in though; they are also for creating. If you are running a campaign and wanting to get people involved, creating a presence on Facebook is a great tool to help do just that. You have a choice between creating a “Facebook page” or a “Facebook group”. There are quite a few subtle differences between the two, and Facebook regularly adds to and changes their features. So rather than getting bogged down too much in the detailed differences, it’s best to think of the broad differences.

People are generally more willing to join groups and they are often seen as a relatively casual way of expressing support for something. Pages are a bit more formal, but you can add extra software to them, it is easier to get people to notice what you are doing with your page and you can get detailed statistics about the page’s traffic. In other words – when you’re wanting to do the equivalent of “sign up to support my campaign and have a bit of occasional news and chat” go for a group; for something bigger, longer term or more complicated, go for a page.

To create either, go to the group or page button in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen, and then (for a group) click on the create button in the top right or (for a page) click on the “Pages” option at the top and then click on the create button in the top right.

Make sure you have a clear, interesting title and upload a good, eye-catching graphic as the name and/or the picture is often all someone will see before deciding whether or not to join. Think also of the terms people may be using to search on Facebook as you want your group/page to come up in search results.

There are lots of further options you can set. It is worth taking a few minutes to get them right, and in particular turn off features you know you won’t be using. Otherwise people end up seeing lots of blank spaces and messages about nothing happening yet, which can be off putting.

Getting people to sign up and take part is then much like promoting anything: contact those you think will be most interested and ask. Each time someone joins, it will appear in their list of activities and on their profile page, so in turn other people may well see it and join too – if you’re campaigning on an issue that really interests people. You can then use the group or page’s features to keep people updated and involved, such as by sending messages to let people know about breaking news, uploading photos from the campaign or posting links to stories that have appeared elsewhere on the web.

You can also use Facebook to advertise any events you are organising – socials, campaigning sessions, meetings and so on. Some people spend a lot of time on Facebook, so putting your events on Facebook gets them where people are looking.

You can create your events freestanding, or linked to a group or page. Events come with an RSVP feature, which gives you an idea of how many people may be attending. Very useful for social events involving catering where you need to know how many delicious chocolate cakes to bake. When you have created an event, you can use the invite feature to send messages to people on Facebook telling them about it. Again, getting the title and picture right is important as people will often only look at these before deciding how to respond.

Facebook polls provide you with a neat way of getting rough and ready ideas of people’s views – and also people love taking part in polls, so they are a good way to get the interest and attention of the public. You need to install a (free) Facebook application to run a poll. There are several popular and widely used ones. To get one of them, type “polls” into the search box in the top right and then click on the applications tab on the results page. You will see lots of options. I like the simplicity of the Kremsa Design one, though some of the others offer more features (such as surveys).

The Kremsa Design poll can be added to your profile or to a Facebook page, plus there is a web address for each poll that you create which anyone logged in to Facebook can use – so you can promote the poll by updating your status and putting in a link, or posting a link on a wall or by putting it in a message to people – or by doing all of these things over a period of time.

Another good technique for getting people’s attention is to use Facebook’s “tagging” feature. This is a way of indicating that content on Facebook features one of your friends, and of drawing their attention to it. For example, suppose you are a councillor and you upload a photo of yourself and several residents at a local summer fair. If they are friends of yours, you can tag them on Facebook and they will get a notification that you’ve done this. Although the photo upload will also appear in the list of things you’ve been doing on Facebook, these direct notifications are far more likely to get noticed.

There is a range of items you can tag – including photos, videos and notes. With all of the items, when you are viewing them on Facebook there is a tag option; click on this and then select the relevant people from the list of friends that appears. And if there is someone who features and who is on Facebook but isn’t a friend of yours – now will be a good time to befriend them.

Facebook’s “like” feature is another way of highlighting content: it’s a link that appears next to most content on Facebook. Using this is both a way of letting the person who provided the content know you like what they did (good for a range of reasons!) and also it means that your friends will in turn see that you like it, bringing it to wider attention.

Particularly if you hold elected office, you can try using Facebook’s chat feature to hold an online surgery. Steve Webb MP did this very successfully earlier this year. You can get to the chat feature with the button in the bottom right corner of the screen. As some of your constituents spend a lot of time online, you may well find people are willing to chat and raise issues with you this way, even if they wouldn’t go out of their way to otherwise meet you or look up your contact details.

One final tip to help stay legal – imprints. The law is not as clear as it could be, but it is a good idea to play safe and put an imprint on your Facebook activities (profile, groups, pages) just as you would on a leaflet. For profile, the “about me” section is a good place to put it. On groups and pages you can put it at the end of the introductory text. Now that you are safely legal – experiment away with what Facebook can do for you!

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