Case study: how social media marketing got 25,000 Brummies to never send stuff to landfill

The Freegle logo
The Freegle logo

Way back in 2004 I heard about an idea called Freecycle which was stunning in it’s simplicity: instead of throwing an item you no longer needed into the tip, where it would only end up in landfill, why not offer it to someone else instead?

If they wanted it then they would have to come get it… – and that’s it: I said it was brilliant in it’s simplicity, didn’t I?

I loved this idea – partly because it could only be made to work on the web.  Trying to imagine how this idea could be implemented in an offline model only makes my head hurt: it absolutely has to be accomplished online.  Imagine maintaining a printed list of 25,000 people, with 500 or more messages between them every month, offering items, posting adverts for items wanted and also notifying the group when an offered item had been taken.  It makes me shudder to think the amount of time, effort and paper that would be needed to do this in the real world.

So: I looked on their website, fully expecting there to be a Birmingham group already created, but to my surprise there was none – so I created it.  After a few years the UK groups fell out with the parent US ones and parted ways and changed names to Freegle.

So – how did such a group using the most primitive social media tool around – Yahoo groups – get 25,000 people to sign up and consciously avoid sending stuff to landfill?

  • Moderation, moderation, moderation: we have a full time group of volunteers who moderate the site and provide guidance on the rules and etiquette to new members, and even more importantly stop the scammers and spammers taking over.
  • A truly excellent core idea.. – in other words, compelling content
  • A way to accomplish a worthy goal that was simply not possible in any other way but online.
And I would contend that these reasons for success hold true for any social media marketing effort you care to mention.  It doesn’t matter in the slightest if you use Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to publish your message – if there is no content there that people want to read; if new members are immediately swarmed by scammers and spammers ; and if the new medium doesn’t offer unique advantages not possible via any other means of communication.
Don’t just fall in love with social media marketing because it is the newest, best thing: the medium is never the message.  People were sending viral messages before the web: anyone older than about 35 will remember the jokes and cartoons that used to get send by fax, well before the web was a lint in Sir Tim’s eye.
Just because you can use social media doesn’t mean you should: if you have nothing compelling to say or you actively annoy your followers then it will be futile and deliver no business benefit.

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