Learning about community strategies: 10 lessons

Back in February I blogged about the process of teaching journalism students to think about working with communities. The results have been positive: even where the strategy itself wasn’t successful, the individuals have learned from its execution, its research, or both. And so, for those who were part of this process – and anyone else who’s interested – I thought I would summarise 10 key themes that came through the resulting work.

1. A community strategy isn’t something you can execute effectively in one month

Perhaps the number one lesson that people drew from the experience was that they should have started early, and done little, often, rather than a lot all at once. There was a tendency to underestimate the needs of community management and a need for better time management.

Communities needed time to “grow organically”, wrote one; it wasn’t a top down approach. Members might also have felt they were being “manipulated” when weeks of inactivity were followed by a flood of posts, links and questions.

2. The importance of real world events

Many wrote of the strong effect that attending meetings, events, conferences – and even the simple knocking on doors – had. Get out there and shake hands.

3. Look at your analytics – and adapt

Some of the most useful pieces of learning came from close inspection of the metrics surrounding a website, Twitter account or Facebook page – whether during the project or after. One, for example, changed the content they were creating for a Facebook page when they noticed that the use of visuals was having “a significant impact” on the community’s life. They created a YouTube channel linked to the Facebook page to capitalise on that.

Another, who created a website for rating the performance of referees, noted how traffic was affected by a referee’s performance – giving them a useful insight into the types of subject matter that generated the most debate.

4. Content alone isn’t enough…

One student put this particularly well, admitting that he had misconceived his role and assumed that the content he was providing was good enough to draw a community “on its own merits”. Seeing the results of his peers, he realised the importance of “being active in the establishment and strengthening of a community”.

Others noted that “A community need not focus around a singular blog” and the best way of tapping into a community was “through relationships built with others” – reading others’ blogs, commenting and retweeting them, and asking for advice.

It seems like common sense that people are more likely to be interested in you if you are interested in them, but that’s something that needed to be discovered in a journalistic context.

Many had particularly well developed and impressive content strategies based on Richard Millington’s useful ‘How To Write A Practical Online Community Plan’ and other readings of the literature around community management. Those who didn’t frequently hit problems that might have been easily avoided.

5. …But engagement is hard without content

Some realised they had made the opposite mistake: focusing so much on building relationships that they missed the need for content. One noted the dangers of simply ‘collecting’ people. That was easy, they remarked. “It’s creating and keeping those valuable relationships that is the difficult part.”

A clear objective beyond simple membership helped with community-building, another pointed out, identifying fundraising as just one objective that could be adopted to help build connections.

Similarly, for a third student research by McMillan and Chavis came in useful: communities, they said, needed to create a sense of “integration and fulfillment of needs, [a] feeling of being supported by others”.

6. Think about sustainability

The timescale wasn’t long enough for this to become an issue, but it was worth considering. One strategy quoted the following “Online groups die without new members to replace those who leave”.

7. Find your role

It is sometimes better to fill a much-needed role in a community than to try to usurp someone else’s – especially when you don’t have the same access or knowledge (yet). When one person realised that they “couldn’t be one of the news breakers”, for example, they decided that their best bet was to become involved in the community and introduce talking points. They built social capital through helping out on Twitter, answering tweets or by asking questions. “By doing that I became known in the community.”

Likewise, another found that “offering to do a little bit of work went a very long way” and a third realised that they had been too focused on their own needs and should have been looking more closely at what the community needed. “I focused too much on herding a market as if they were sheep, and not enough on actually developing a community.”

8. Think about how people use the medium and whether that fits your objectives

A significant number of people seemed to feel that they had to choose between one medium and another, which led to the later realisation that one medium wasn’t enough, or wasn’t appropriate.

Tumblr, for example turned out (for one user) to be a medium where people did not engage on much more than a superficial level (they also realised that they needed a more specific goal beyond getting people to the site returning).

Many discovered the limitations of Twitter for continuing deeper discussion. And one noted the problems in Facebook’s connectedness where people “might not want to advertise their ambitions so openly to their friends.”

Identifying leaders in a community – and the platforms that they used – was a strategy adopted by a number of students, some of whom changed their initial choice of technology as a result of research.

And looking beyond generic blogs, Twitter and Facebook proved an intelligent move for one person, who found Yelp a good place to attempt crowdsourcing.

9. Think about what contributes to a person’s standing in a community

Different communities have different ways of behaving, and having an understanding of this can make a big difference as you try to build relationships. This was quite an eye-opener, as we can often assume that what contributes to someone’s standing in the tech blogging community, for example, can be applied to others.

In one particular online financial community, for example, one student noted that new users have to build up a track record of either neutral contributions or correct predictions in order to be accepted. They also outlined specialised language used to describe online manipulators.

Another noted of a different community that to gain genuine membership of one community they needed to be posting “entertaining reviews, regularly”. A fellow user helped her understand “that you could not be stand-offish in this community” – she threw herself in.

And a particularly good piece of research into photo sharing groups noted their “unwritten codes of conduct”, including an emphasis on extremely high standards before acceptance into the group photo pool; not complaining too much when photos aren’t accepted; and the importance of contributing by joining discussions, adding useful links and understanding emerging trends.

10. Community management experience is useful

Finally, it was particularly heartening to read, over and over again, of the success stories that came out of people’s experiences – especially as the assignment had been greeted with such scepticism by some, and active antipathy by others. At least 2 students obtained jobs at major broadsheet newspapers as a result of their community experience, and a third at a major magazine publisher. A fourth sold her blog to a publisher as it had already become their biggest rival.

Many wrote about how they had changed their impression of community management through the process of executing the strategy. In particular the strategy had benefits in terms of building contacts and relationships, meeting and interviewing people for their project and building networks of contacts – not just in the UK but internationally.

A couple identified both strengths and weaknesses in this approach, which are not new to journalism. For one, relationships of trust meant that they received stories and releases before anyone else. But the same relationships meant that “there were times when I couldn’t use the information I did get.” Another noted how relationships could “take away your objectivity – or be broken if what you publish is not to the liking of the community”.

Others spoke of how involvement in a community broadened their scope, introducing them to new perspectives on their field.

It also helped drive traffic – many noticed a very strong impact on analytics, with traffic doubling and even tripling in some cases. One, who was writing for another site, found out that they had the most-visited story on it.

And there was an impact on engagement, with newcomers “turned into regulars” when they were asked to contribute.

Finally, and particularly importantly for aspiring journalists, engaging in a visible way helped raise students’ profiles and lead to work opportunities and conversation points. One made radio and TV appearances as a result of their involvement; they were approached to write articles for industry magazines, and are in discussions with a major publisher about content exchange. Another found their blog listed as a magazine’s blog of the month.

Many found that the reputation built in a particular community opened doors in terms of gaining access to interview subjects, events, and publishers.

And of course the project provided a useful talking point at interviews, with one interviewee at a mid-market newspaper specifically asking “what it had taught me about writing for a specialist subject and locating communities of interest online.”

I hope the above 10 points help provide a useful basis for further exploration. For my own part, I’ll be building on this with next year’s class – for which I already have some ideas…

Meanwhile, many thanks to all the students at City University who persevered with this assignment and who taught me so much in the process.

If you can add any other experiences or areas you think have been missed, let me know.


6 thoughts on “Learning about community strategies: 10 lessons

  1. Dixie

    I learnt a lot from this article. Before it, I haven’t thought about community management. Some points are really useful for PR people to think and use.

    And I just wanna know, if it comes a crisis, can community management help crisis management while talking to public online? I mean you mentioned that”think about sustainability” and”find your role”. so can members help to solve crisis? Or they just following?

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  3. Jessica Sparks

    What a great post! I really like numbers 7 and 8. Have you ever considered discussing the roles of connectors, mavens and salesmen (from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point”) as part of this exercise?

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