While we are citizens of the world, we live our lives in local communities. While communities thrive on real-world personal interactions, the benefits of those interactions can be amplified and supported by online networks and communities. In the last few years there has been tremendous focus on creating networks and communities that have global geographic reach, but increasingly there are opportunities to do just the opposite. Hyper-local online communities are powerful areas for collaboration, information sharing and more importantly, community resiliency and relationship building.

One area of our work has been in the creation of one of these hyper-local online networks for the community of Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. Salt Spring is one of the islands that make up the Gulf Islands in South-Western, British Columbia. Known as a vibrant local community for its artists, organic local food, entrepreneurs, farmers and stunning natural beauty, the island has enjoyed a tremendous strength of community fabric. Many people live on Salt Spring with an intention to be active in the community.

Strengthen Community with Digital Tools

In the last couple of years we have slowly been building the Salt Spring Exchange to be a dynamic platform for the exchange of ideas and stories that combine a high volume of interest in Craigslist style buy and sell features. The initial building block of what is now the Exchange was a much loved mailing list maintained by renowned island apple farmer, Harry Burton, the founder of the Salt Spring Apple Festival. Harry needed to step back from caring for the list because of the considerable work involved in supporting it. This is where we began to help.The strategy for the work on the Exchange has been to shift the interactions of the members from a mailing list only service, into a full featured online experience with community contributors, categorization, search and photo attachments that continues to be supported with mailing list functionality. This combination of online site, with real-time mailing list updates, has helped grow the Exchange into an online community site with an average of 15,000+ absolute monthly unique visitors who visit the site more than 65,000 times per month and view over 320,000 pages per month. (All data courtesy of Google Analytics) There are currently more than 4800+ registered members of the site, 6,000 members of the newsletter and more than 2,000 people who receive instant email updates when items are posted on the site. Since the inception of the Exchange, 40,000+ listings have been posted by members of the community. (As of December, 2010)

Social Media for Community Good

Much of the growth of the service in the last year has been complimented by an extensive use of social media to promote community stories and engage the community in conversation. The engagement work has focused mostly on the use of Facebook and Twitter, the two most dominant social tools used by the local community. Using a strategy of promoting important community events, notices and even emergency alerts, has helped grow the following of fans in Facebook to well over 3,000. Connecting interactions and updates on the main site with interactions in Twitter and Facebook, promoting others and engaging in conversations has helped support this growth. The site and its social tools are now becoming one of the main ways new residents and visitors to the island first engage with locals before, during and after their visits.

Mix of Revenue Models

There is tremendous work that goes into supporting not only the features and functions of the site, but the on-going support of social media management, technical support, community engagement, moderation, platform feature enhancements, security updates and backups. There has also been considerable effort to provide training and support to hundreds of local community members who have needed support to learn basic technical skills for using email, site registration and online posting. The island has an elderly population that has been heavily supported to help them enjoy the use of this resource. In addition, the site requires numerous paid services for hosting, backups, form management, polling tools, advertising, community memberships, various open-source developer donations, billing and collaboration tools. To further compliment the experience of the site, we’ve implemented a strategy that uses a mix of low-cost revenue sources that together are designed to create a sustainable financial model for the community service. The goal here is to keep as many of features and services available for free, or as low-cost as possible, so that the community benefits from a dedicated service that specifically meets the needs of island residents. This revenue mix includes local business advertising, premium listings for commercial postings, donations and monthly subscribers.

Community Building Strategy

This combination of providing needed community features and services, supported by social media and community engagement, founded upon a sustainable mix of revenue sources, is the strategy we have designed and implemented to ensure that this local island community continues to benefit from these services for years to come. In recognition of this work, contributions to the community, and the promotion of the brand of Salt Spring Island off-island, the Exchange was awarded the Business Ambassadors of the Year award by the Salt Spring Island Chamber of Commerce.