The Young Collector
Let’s talk for a minute about Brimfield. No, not that one, another one (named for that one), a little farther west: Brimfield, Ohio.
Don’t feel bad if you haven’t heard of it. Most people haven’t. Brimfield, Ohio, gets lost easily, pinched as it is between the suburban sprawl that has bled south from Cleveland and north from Akron (situated in the middle of the Connecticut Western Reserve for you history types). A search for Brimfield Township in Wikipedia will get you a photograph of a dull gray wintry stretch of Interstate 76. That, and approximately 10,000 residents, is about all that is in Brimfield Township. Brimfield, however, is home to an Internet sensation.
Turns out, Internet sensations don’t necessarily look like you’d expect, so they can be easy to miss. In this case, the Internet sensation has a balding pate and an understated mustache, wears a blue polyester uniform and a badge, and spends his hours in public service, overseeing meth busts and hugging school kids. In short, Chief David Oliver (known as Chief Oliver or “Cheap Otter” to his youngest fans), looks pretty much like your stereotypical midwestern small town cop.
Where’s the Internet sensation part, you ask? About three years ago, the chief decided to start a departmental Facebook page. His aspirations weren’t lofty. He has said that he thought maybe a few hundred locals would take interest, and he hoped to use the page as a tool in keeping people informed about public safety initiatives, local news and events, and the occasional stray dog. Today, however, Brimfield Police Department’s Facebook page boasts over 80,000 followers. That’s as of this writing—the number’s been exploding lately as national news has shifted a fickle spotlight in their direction. And, just as a frame of reference, the number one police presence on Facebook? The NYPD has 178,000 likes, give or take. The number two? Boston, 85,000. The number three? Brimfield. Let that sink in.
How did that happen? The news stories often use the word “entertaining” when they talk about the chief’s posts, and there is certainly some of that. He’s sharp, smart, and sarcastic, and “mopes” (the chief’s preferred term for criminals) have a track record of some impressively stupid behavior. People may come to the Brimfield Police Department’s page for the humor, but they stay for the direct honest truth, and that, to us, is the powerful part. The department also monitors the responses closely and participates in discussion, offering a steady, unwavering view of the police perspective. (Debates prompted by marijuana busts, for example, are routinely met with something along the lines of: “Marijuana is illegal. I know we have those on our page who disagree with that. I get it. I also get that the police do not make the laws, we enforce them. Call your senator.”)
We don’t occupy the world the media tells us we do. After more than a year of following Chief Oliver and his crew on Facebook, in our highly charged political environment where the chief has posted about events in the world from the Steubenville rape case—and Serena Williams’s recent remarks on it—to an LAPD shooting of a Rottweiler, we couldn’t tell you his political affiliations. He issues local news reports about events at the Circle K gas station and area meth busts, offers informative posts about the signs of methamphetamine production, and intersperses it all with posts he calls “Chief’s Rant” or “Chief’s Babble,” where he offers his thoughts on everything from civility to society’s attitude toward cops to gun control. And no, you won’t agree with everything he says, but you’ll want to try because he’s sincere and likeable, you’ll find some seed of agreement, some common ground from which to start a discussion, and the disagreement will be civil, respectful, and orderly.
By being willing to do this and achieving this tone, the Brimfield Police Department now has Facebook followers in all 50 states and 29 countries. People from Australia say they plan to visit Brimfield when they come to the United States, people from Oregon ask the chief to consider a run for president, and people in his town are benefiting. A local printing company started producing “No Mopes” mugs and T-shirts, with all proceeds going to the department’s outreach programs (including in the wake of the Newtown shooting, cameras and emergency call buttons for the local schools). Through a book deal (No Mopes Allowed will be published by Gray and Company of Cleveland—Brimfield likes to keep it local—in September of this year), the chief and his wife will be able to support the Chief Oliver Foundation that they started, which will continue outreach efforts such as their “Shop with a Cop” program that pairs officers with underprivileged kids for some back-to-school shopping. It’s amazing what being willing to be honest, authentic, and a little outspoken but polite will get you, especially if you have the sense to turn down offers of reality television shows.
What, you might ask, does this have to do with the antiques business? A great deal. Just ask Robert Hunter, editor of Ceramics in America. The Ceramics in America Facebook page has more than 3500 followers and reaches more than 20,000 people per week with his posts. Hunter posts interesting pictures, links to relevant news articles, and even eBay listings for neat ceramics-related finds. He uses the platform to publicize articles, exhibitions, and lectures about ceramics and pottery, and by doing so, has managed to cultivate a community of like-minded folks, a place where there are frequent discussions about the latest research and a place for people to “crowd-source” questions about (and, yes, show off) their latest acquisitions.
“Yes,” you might be thinking, “wonderful—a place for ceramics porn and geeking out over glazes. Nice of them to sequester themselves, but what does this mean for business?” More than you might imagine.
Ceramics in America is published annually by the Chipstone Foundation (the same folks who bring you American Furniture) and, according to Hunter, they sell about 900 volumes per year. That’s very respectable for a focused specialty publication, but, as with most journals, boxes of volumes from previous years tend to linger. So, recently, Hunter decided to see if he could clean house a little bit and if Facebook could help him do it. He set up a sale only for his Facebook followers, creating a sliding-scale discount that meant the older the volume, the bigger the savings. In just one week, he moved over 1200 back issues and generated nearly $20,000 in sales, just from sales to some of those 3500 followers.
We’ve watched these very tangible results roll in with great interest. We’ve been Facebook users (and mostly fans, except during election cycles) for several years now, but we’ve also questioned its effectiveness as a business tool, not because it’s of no use at all, but rather because it is—sometimes. The results seem varied. For traditional retail establishments that can offer coupons or want to generate sales in a hurry, places like your local pizza parlor that can post things such as offers for free pop for the first 25 likes or for the first 25 orders of a large pizza starting at 5 p.m., Facebook has always made sense to us. From what we’ve seen personally, however, cracking that formula for other businesses has been tricky and inconsistent. Generally, our cynical selves would say, for most retail businesses it appears to be more about gathering personal friends to “Like” your page as professional friends.
Too often, businesses and institutions don’t seem to be able to create real conversation. (We’ve even struggled to do so on our Young Collector Facebook page. Perhaps you can visit and help us out.) For many businesses, the conversation tends to be very one-sided and/or very flat, and this is not without reason. The Internet is full of tales of social media exploding in a company’s face: Applebee’s firing of a waitress, the NRA’s tweets in the wake of the Aurora shooting, Microsoft and KitchenAid’s political tweets, Gap suggesting that people shop on line while waiting out Hurricane Sandy. The list goes on and on. (No, really, it does. We’ll share some stories on our Facebook feed—you can “Like” us, if you want, and we promise we won’t ask you to ask your great aunt in Iowa to like us too, but you can also go Google “social media disasters” to read about some of these stories. In a tech-savvy age, everything you say on line is forever, and there are hours and hours of back-and-forth debates, curses, insensitive remarks, and just plain stupidity captured in screenshots for perpetuity all over the Internet.)
Another challenge is that Facebook—and all of social media—can be a huge “time suck.” It’s one of those things where you sit down for just a few minutes, you think, but realize that after writing up and proofing a Facebook post, double-checking a link, sharing the same post on your Twitter feed, and “pinning” the related articles and images on your Pinterest page, you’ve lost an hour. It takes a steady, regular commitment of time. You have to “feed” the newsfeed steadily. If you don’t post often enough, people will forget about you (and you’ll likely be penalized by algorithms that determine what kind of prominence a post receives), but if you post too quickly or too often, you risk typos, bad judgment, and audience burnout. Chief Oliver at the Brimfield P.D. has received some criticism about using taxpayers’ time while messing around on Facebook. He’s let it be known that the department’s Facebook page adds, yes, adds, as in above and beyond his normal paid work day, about three hours—three hours!—to his work day.
So tackling social media successfully, it would seem, is a three-legged stool of common sense and good grammar, time, and a real authenticity or willingness to speak honestly and have discussions that others won’t. Many companies have only two of the three, and they’re easy to spot as companies that post well-written but empty posts frequently or companies that offer up an honest take on things but only every three or four weeks. It’s a balancing act, and no one seems to have come up with the perfect formula yet, which is probably in part because no one formula will work for everyone. But, in the end, it turns out, as usual, your mother was right (Nat and Nora, pay attention): be polite, be a good listener, keep showing up every day, and just be yourself!
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” Andrew and Hollie may be reached by e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), via their blog (www.youngantiquecollectorsblogspot.com), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.
Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest