Jon Clarke launched the UK hyperlocal site Beckenhamtown.us 2 years ago using the social network builder Ning. He sees the site as differing from traditional publishers in offering everyone a free voice, as well as providing a space to play out local debates around issues such as academy schools and parking zones. Here’s the interview in full:
Who were the people behind the blog, and what were their backgrounds before setting it up?
Me, and no one else, I’ve been in digital media at various ad agencies for over 10 years and therefore am au fait with lots of the ways to create and promote a website.
What made you decide to set up the blog?
The main reason was that I thought Beckenham was not well served with a ‘live’ and ‘community’ based website, there just weren’t any for what is quite a neighbourly area for neighbours to talk and share local things.
When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?
The site was set up in August 2008. I’m not a programmer or web designer so I used the Ning.com community website platform that allows one to cut and paste and move various features around to make a good community site. I then used my knowledge to bring in lots of dynamic content, widgets and RSS feeds to pad out the site and bring it alive.
I wanted to use a co.uk address but it was gone so I plumped instead for a .US address. I thought it best represented who the website was for and about – all of US in Beckenham Town.
What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?
Well I had created www.mediastarz.co.uk, an advertising community website, first, so I was able to bring in ideas from that, but lately HarringayOnline.com has been a lot of help.
How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation?
My site is independent, it’s owned by me, but its content is the community’s, they create the news, what matters to them they talk about.
More importantly, it opens up the town on the Internet to locals and with the added Twitter feed I run constantly it gives everyone a chance to know what’s going on, have their say and have a voice.
I mix in traditional news coverage on the website and Twitter feed and even sometimes via a satellite page of the site on Facebook. I reach out to locals wherever they are.
So all in all I’m a one stop shop for all reported local media and I hope users would see that and visit the site more because of it. But where I’m still different is that anyone posting has a free voice. It’s not like writing to a local paper only to find your voice, your letter, dismissed to the bin and not published. Local views are all worthy of publishing, that’s what makes a good community.
What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?
Three major moments have been the initial need for locals to know about a Council-proposed Car Parking Zone, that started great debate and at least put across on the site the free access of information which the council did not do.
Secondly, the heavy snow days and disruption to transport had me updating Twitter and the website with school closures and train delays – this brought in 100s of views those days.
Finally the recent debacle of council versus community over academy schools in the borough has brought a huge attention and audience to the website where locals are able to play out the debate and even local councilors have engaged.
The more the site gets local issues out in the open the better.
What sort of traffic do you get and how has that changed over time
The website has grown to 332 members, but daily unique users range from 200-300 a day and lately this has meant around 8000-9000 users over a month. That works out as 35-40k page views, with lots coming into the site via Google searches, Twitter and Facebook and this is only the top of the iceberg as the website is probably only known well around 12 roads in the town. I have yet to doordrop with postcards many many others.
Twitter followers are 850+ and this grows weekly too, even though the followers ebb and flow over the month as I’d expect.
I think the biggest conundrum I have is how to add more key elements to the site and make the best architecture and then the time to make all the action points I’ve scoped out work. I always want locals to know it’s easy to use and they should enjoy coming back to it and able to use it and share it with their friends and families. It’s getting there slowly, but as I know so well the digital landscape changes constantly and I’m updating as fast as I can to keep it the best it can be.
I even just created a mobile page at http://m.wbx.me/beckenham, so iPhone users can have quick updates covering site, Twitter and Facebook all in one place. But, that’s a work in progress and might yet get better still.