BETTER CONNECTED: Case study: How a community festival used social media – with 4 extra ideas for next year

Get out of the social media bubble, talk to real people and you may be surprised.

Digital skills may be valuable online but offline they’re part of a mix of things needed to make an event work.

One blogger has argued that its such a part of her life she didn’t think of ‘social media’ as such anymore. It’s part of life.

That’s fine for digital natives. But that’s not the case for people like Walsall artist Alan Cheeseman.

Together with a team of like-minded volunteers he helped stage a festival in the Caldmore in Walsall in the West Midlands.

Walsall Council chipped in with funding and support. So did social housing provider whg, the National Lottery and one or two other places.

Where’s Caldmore? First, it’s pronounced karma. Narrow Victorian terraced streets crowd around a small green hardly big enough to host a cricket square. Legend has it that Boy George lived there in his Walsall days.

Sari shops, balti houses, pubs and shops that sell cheap calls to the Indian sub-continent dominate the shopping area.

It’s a place where migrant workers settled amongst the indiginous English to take low-paid jobs in factories. The communities have remained while the factories they came to have gone to the wall.

It’s a place a mile square of three churches, a mosque and a Sikh temple.

It suffers from deprivation, crime and suffers the stigma of a prostitution problem that has eased.

But as the Caldmore Village Festival shows, the place has a powerful resilience and a creative and community-minded people.

In part its scores of micro-communities around the mosque, the church, the pub or the temple.

For this event they came together.

More than 11,000 came to 15 venues across three days for the festival.

Kibadi, Bollywood dancing, live music and dance brought people in. So did the Pakistani sport of stone lifting. An amazing sight where men lift carved stone.

Ask Alan what made it worth while and its not the numbers that excite him. It’s the little stories. It’s getting the tearaway kid to put a volunteer’s orange bib on and give him what could be the first piece of responsibility he’s ever known.

But what role did social media have in all this?

“Things like the internet. That’s for educated people really, isn’t it?” says Alan.

“I’m not sure how much of what we did actually helped.”

It’s a fair point and you have to admire Alan’s honesty.

In Walsall,the percentage of people online every day is below the national average of 60 per cent.

Caldmore is the place the Talk About Local project was invented for.

An initiative to bridge the digital divide and equip communities with an online voice the initiative trained Alan and set him up on a blog.

Sessions open to all backgrounds were run at a neighbourhood resource called Firstbase by community worker Stuart Ashmore where the basics of WordPress were explained.

As a tool for communities this blogging platform is as powerful as a printing press in the 19th century.

Easy to use and simple to master it gives an online presence to anyone with an internet connection.

Alan explained: “We used the blog. We’d update it maybe once a month and we had links to it coming from around 50 other sites.”

Alan was quietly impressed at the digital waves he did make: “I was quite suprised to see 1,000 hits in the week before the festival started.”

But as Alan says the main lesson is to see digital as just one part of the jigsaw. That’s something some forget. It may reach some people. It won’t reach everyone. So what does?

“Networking helps,” says Alan. “A piece in the local paper helps. So do leaflets.

“We made contact with several organisations and we found that their agenda was similar to ours in many places.

“But face to face is really helpful too. It is like a jigsaw. By doing several things you’ll reach a lot of people.”

In effect, Alan was doing the things that work on the web in the real world.

The message to the online community? Online is part of the answer. It’s not the answer on its own.

Or to put it simply, the equation is this:

Face-to-face + networking + leaflets + digital + newspaper support + community groups + public sector + council staff + ward councillors = a successful community event

The Caldmore Village Festival’s digital footprint…

Blogging – A WordPress blog with monthly updates.

Flickr – Walsall’s Flickr group members were invited along to the event too  were made welcome. Some amazing pictures came out of it. A group was created as a repository for images.

Plug into the blogging eco-system – Walsall news aggregator The Yam Yam – named after the way Walsall people are supposed to speak – plugged the event through its website, it’s Twitter and Facebook streams.

Twitter support – Walsall Council Twitter stream @walsallcouncil linked to new blog posts.

Link support – Links to the blog ended up on around 50 sites.

YouTube – A short film of the stone lifting attraction helped raise the profile.

Ideas for future online activity…

1. Twitter — A face to the organisation on the @hotelalpha9 would work brilliantly. Or simply a festival stream.

2. Facebook — In Walsall, Facebook is the platform of choice with 197,000 people registered in a 10 mile radius. A fan page for the festival will capture that support.

3. Flickr — Use the images from year one to promote year two. Bring the Flickr group back for a second year.

4. Foursquare — Add the venues to the geo-location game. Leave tips for things to do.

Creative commons pics:

Swissrolli: Police officer: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swissrolli/4673534659/in/pool-caldmorefestival

Stuart Williams: Wigs: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swilliams2001/4656475393/sizes/s/in/pool-1470631@N22/

Stuart Williams: Parade: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swilliams2001/4656478577/in/pool-caldmorefestival

Stuart Williams: Drummer: http://www.flickr.com/photos/swilliams2001/4656478577/in/pool-caldmorefestival