Archive for September 25th, 2008

Exeweb: a social media success story (before we even had social media)

My friend Steve deserves many hearty slaps on the back and no small amount of congratulations. Exeweb, the forum he created for Exeter City fans, recently celebrated its tenth birthday.

But this isn’t another Exeter City football post from me – Steve’s site is a perfect example of social media in action, and has been such years before the term social media was ever invented.

Going further, you could put forward a significant argument that Exeter City FC would not exist were it not for Exeweb. More of that in a minute.

One thing that is immediately striking about Exeweb is the sense of community on the message boards. There’s a familiarity between posters you don’t often find on forums. Indeed, many of Exeweb’s users know each other offline but got to know each other through Exeweb.

The site has enhanced the activity that brought them together in the first place – supporting Exeter City. Strangers have met up for drinks, shared lifts to away games and even formed their own football team out of it.

Ideas are exchanged and friendships are made, and for exiled fans, the forum is an invaluable resource. These are not geeks or early adopters – they’re just football fans coming together online to share their passion.

Last May, when Exeter made it to Wembley for the Blue Square Premier play-off final, a London-based Exeter fan, Alan Crockford, hired out a nearby pub specifically for Exeweb users and their families to meet and drink before the game. Many new friendships were formed on that day and created a sense of togetherness that wouldn’t have been present if the fans had scattered around assorted pubs.

But Exeweb has gone beyond adding to fans support of the club. It has, quite literally, helped save the club from ruin.

Five and a half years ago, the club was taken over by businessmen John Russell and Mike Lewis. The previous chairman, Ivor Doble, was in his 70s and looking to sell. Russell and Lewis came into town as the proverbial white knights.

Lewis had been involved at Swansea City, where he’d controversially sold the club to £1 to revilled owner Tony Petty. Such was the force of hatred towards Lewis in Swansea at the time that he couldn’t travel to away games at the Vetch without police protection.

Russell, meanwhile, had been chairman of Scarborough when they were relegated from the League. He also had a conviction for obtaining property by deception. Had the fit and proper owner test been in place at the time, it is unlikely he could have taken over the club.

But at the time the pair talked the talk and promised to take the club to new heights, as all owners do. Were it not for Exeweb, they would have taken the club to new lows.

A few months into their reign, certain Exeweb users – a couple of them local journalists – started noticing a few promises and claims from the pair didn’t add up.

Money promised from a chairty event that, bizarrely, saw Michael Jackson speak at the park hadn’t materialised, and a promotional shot that featured new manager Neil McNab had been taken BEFORE the previous manager, John Cornforth, had been sacked. These were just a small number of the strange stories coming out of St. James Park.

Slowly, but surely, more and more members of Exeweb came to realise Russell and Lewis weren’t exactly the saviours of the club and the site’s message boards started to contain closer scrutiny of the pair’s dealings – scrutiny that suggested the club was in serious financial problems.

At the same time, the club’s Supporters’ Trust had been slowly gaining momentum, again thanks to Exeweb. Originally set up to help the club find funds to purchase striker Gary Alexander, the Trust’s aims had changed to getting fan represntation on the board and ensuring the club survived the financial crisis.

Exeweb gave the Trust a much wider audience thanthe offline world could provide it. Some of the key players in the Trust had their passion for Exeter reawakened through Exeweb, or got to know each other through the site.

At the end of the season, Exeter were relegated from the League and the nowRussell and Lewis were arrested (and subsequently convicted a few years later) for fruad. Exeter City FC was in massive debts and Ivor Doble had neither the money nor the energy to help the club.

In stepped the Supporters’ Trust, with volunteers – many of them brought together through Exeweb – giving up their time to do everything possible to save the club. And they succeeded by the skin of their teeth.

The club was hours away from going into liquidation when the Trust managed to get together a deal for the creditors and ensure Exeter still had a professional football club.

Granted, Exeweb couldn’t take the credit for this. But many of the individuals who helped save the club in the weeks after Russell and Lewis’ arrest wouldn’t have got involved had it not been for Exeweb.

As Damien Mills aka Egg, Trust member and one of the earliest critics of Russell and Lewis said in a recent discussion about Exeweb:

“In the summer of 2003, a series of meetings took place at the Exeter Airport Business Park premises of Ian Huxham’s Potbury Signs. Those meetings were, IMHO, absolutely critical in securing Trust control of the club and, in turn, its very future.

I can’t pretend to speak for all those present, and readily admit my memory isn’t what it might be, but I’m fairly sure that some of the key players within that disparate group of people – think former directors Barry Sansom and Geoffrey Styles to name but two – were brought together by ExeWeb.

Certainly, Terry Pavey, who played a very significant role back then, would tell you his passion for the football club was reawakened by stumbling across ExeWeb while exiled in Kent. Moreover, I’m firmly of the opinion that Russell and Lewis might just have ‘got away with it’ were it not for the opposition to them which, to a large extent, grew out of the site.

In short, I think anyone with ‘a bit of Exeter City in their heart’ owes Steve a debt of gratitude – all the more so when you consider ExeWeb is a labour of love for which, it seems to me, he receives plenty of brickbats and nowhere near enough plaudits.”

The Trust is now the majority shareholder in Exeter City. The fans, in this case, really do own the club. I consider myself proud that I’m a shareholder in the club I love.

For all the talk surrounding internet football venture, it’s got nothing on Exeweb. Steve’s site may not own the club, but many members of Exeweb are shareholders. Moreover, it brought together the fans at the club’s darkest hour, and was able to quickly galvinise them into saving Exeter City FC.

Steve has maintained Exeweb largely with his own time and money, and the help of volunteer moderators. Over the years, he’s had a fair few angry calls from people at the club, annoyed at things that have been posted on the forums – although many at the club know how important the site is.

He’s even had offers to sell up. He refused, to ensure Exeter CIty fans could continue to have an independent voice.

Exeweb’s popularity has spread. It has its own fan page on Facebook and there’s plenty of Exeter City supporters who use Facebook as a supplement to Exeweb. As social media tools expand into the mainstream, expect Exewebbers to filter into them.

Steve probably never set out to create a perfect example of a powerful social media tool. He probably never even envisioned the role it would play in the club’s future when he first set it up. But achieved his aim to provide a place online for fans of the club to chat. And that’s expanded beyond his wildest explanations.

I’ll leave it to the man himself to sum things up:

“As it’s evolved over the years, news sterted to pop up on the forum before I could type it up and if there anything people don’t know, they ask and get answers and opinion. As a model of web usability, that is as damned near to perfect as you can get!

What I’m trying to say is that I think this site is unique. The fact it’s survived ten years is testament to all of you as much as it is me.”

Steve, the web and all Exeter City fans salute you.


Harvest Twestival

I’ve long held that social media is a force for good and here’s a nice little illustration of this. Tonight sees the Harvest Twestival in a venue off Trafalgar Square.

But this goes beyond Twitter users simply getting to know each other – there’s a real conscience behind it.

All profits from the evening go towards The Connection at St Martin’s In The Field, which does sterling work with London’s homeless. Attendees have also been encouraged to bring along cans of food that will be donated to the soup kitchen.

It’s generated a real buzz on Twitter and shows how easy it is to get interest in these kind of events using Twitter. And it’s worth remembering that a lot of people on Twitter are likely to blog, Tweet, or use other forms of social media to spread the word.

Yes, it is also a party for us social media types – and a great way to make new contacts and friends – but it serves to illustrate just what can be achieved using such a simple social media tool. And that excites me.

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September 2008

Throw letters together and send them to me

Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com