With loneliness being the hot topic in the lab, we have been exploring various ways to turn the problem into an opportunity, including better utilising online communities. More specifically we began researching and running very small tests to look at What is the place of digital networks and how are they best deployed?

1.1          What is already out there?

Through numerous searches and conversations, online communities can broadly be categorised in two ways; product based such as Starbucks coffee or Apple, or support based such as Macmillian Cancer. There are however exceptions to this rule; TripAdvisor, MumsNet, Steam or MoneySavingExpertForum for example act as a hybrid between both categories offering both support and products. These are considered as some of the most successful online communities. A fact which could be attributed to their clear purpose to attract its users and the mutually beneficial relationship that is built up through using the forum. Author of ‘Buzzing Communities’ Richard Millington states that to gain the most success is to have a clear question – so for TripAdvisor it is where should I go on holiday? For Macmillian it is can anyone relate to what I am going through?

It is important to note that all of these communities are web based and therefore not pulling users away from a familiar gateway to them. Also the most successful are those that allow open content and not restricted to people that register to them (although most offer read only for guests).

1.2        Our Turn

With the knowledge of what makes a successful online community we began to think about what a community centered on reducing loneliness could be like. It would undoubtedly fit under the support banner with various community activities and groups being advertised through it. Unlike Macmillian or British Heart Foundation however, loneliness isn’t as openly spoken of or acknowledged.

The Team and I decided to do a quick social experiment where we would label one of us (Tom pulled the short straw) with a sign saying ‘I’m lonely’ and sit in a public place. The full video can be watched here (at about 24minutes in) but as a summary all those that walked past acknowledged the sign; some awkwardly looked away, some tried to ignore and one or two said a sentence as they carried on walking. One person engaged, and not due to the proclaimed loneliness of Tom but of his dog Taz. The stigma of loneliness was paramount to the extent that Tom, although seemingly happy with his social life, suddenly felt lonely because of the label.

This test cemented to us that to label a community for lonely individuals would be counterproductive. It would need a less obvious route.

1.3        My Experiment

This result got me thinking about how people would currently find out about ways to get involved in the community. I decided to find out for myself. I recently moved into a brand new development which isn’t directly connected to any of the villages close by. There is no pub, no school or shop – just approximately 200 houses, a park and lots of dog walking paths. All my neighbours are brand new too and my immediate neighbours are not local to the area. If I didn’t have my job and my partner, how would I fill my time, make friends and socialise?

As so many modern day stories go – I googled it! My local council listed lots of different groups and events – most of which were aimed at parents & children, those with disabilities or the elderly. All of which don’t apply to me. I then scrolled further down the search engine results and found a group which was dedicated to outdoor activities and walks – great for me and my dog but the events all happened in summer. Then I found my local facebook community group where local businesses were pushing events or activities to join in with. It was soon pretty clear that there was a pastime for any interest I could think of and because it’s on facebook I’m now alerted of any new posts and always informed. It’s not something separate from what I already use and therefore no hassle and appealing.

1.4        External Experiments

In keeping an open mind I began to look at the problem from a different angle – instead of the user finding the group, what if the group found the user?

In 2013 the RSA ran a pilot under Gaia Marcus to test a diagnosis app in a doctor’s waiting room in Bristol. The app, called 'Social Mirror', was designed to select groups in the local area based on a person’s interests and was in hope that it would reduce the amount of times a patient would visit the doctor. The app was highly successful and was able to differentiate between those who would benefit from group activities and those who wouldn’t. In other words those who were lonely and those who weren’t.

However, the app became passive and required people to have a curiosity to try it – it was not something they already use and could only be found in the doctors’ practice (although I’m sure going forward it would have been trialed in other locations). Furthermore it didn’t break down the barrier of reaching out to people – it only showed you places you could reach out. We concluded that if we were to consider a similar approach it would be better suited as a go to guide for our housing mangers and front line colleagues to help connect customers with what would best suit them in the community. Conversely, away from the diagnosis, we have to ask the question is it any different to what a conversation and google can do?

1.5        Customer Feedback

As with all our work in the Lab we published a blog about the idea of creating an online community for Bromford.

The comments all indicated that creating a 'Bromford' network to better connect people would be exactly the wrong direction of travel.

One customer spoke about use of Facebook being purely community lead and nonhierarchical. Although digital social networks won't be for everyone they can extend the reach of offline activities. 

Other Facebook groups - often accompanied by blogs or websites - proved to have much more life than ones where Bromford was always present. The process has been organic and unforced and therefore likely to be more sustainable. Why would Bromford disrupt that? 

1.6        Conclusion

It is very easy for us (Bromford) to think of our communities as the schemes and neighbourhoods that we build but that would be wrong. To a customer, their community doesn’t stop at the point the Bromford homes stop so whatever we could have created wouldn’t be big enough or inclusive enough. Furthermore it has the potential to replicate what already exists, be it in a raw form. Also it is a fair assumption to believe that people who are willing to join online community groups and forums are probably the same demographic who have the required skills to search online for further activities and groups – be it through google, their local council or facebook.

Our conclusion is we need all our colleagues who are customer facing to be great connectors of both offline and online resources, bringing the two worlds together where needed. 

We have experience of opening our own networks like Connect and promoting third party community sites like Streetbank.  We know how difficult it is to get people to join another social network.

Rather than create more digital TOOLS our conclusion is we need people who can connect the many resources and skills already AVAILABLE.


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