For Part I, go here.
Why Build a Community?
In the past, media companies didn’t have to worry about building communities, because they didn’t need to convince people to engage: they controlled the means of distribution, so people didn’t have much of a choice. Ordinary non-journalists also didn’t have the ability to distribute their own content on a large scale.
That’s why media companies traditionally refer to their readers (or viewers) as their audience: the word implies one-way passive consumption rather than the active participation and feedback you’d expect from a community.
But the internet changed all that. NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote about the change in “The People Formerly Known as the Audience” — and it’s such a great post that I’m going to quote a big chunk below:
The people formerly known as the audience are those who were on the receiving end of a media system that ran one way, in a broadcasting pattern, with high entry fees and a few firms competing to speak very loudly while the rest of the population listened in isolation from one another — and who today are not in a situation like that at all.
Once they were your printing presses; now that humble device, the blog, has given the press to us. That’s why blogs have been called little First Amendment machines. They extend freedom of the press to more actors. Once it was your radio station, broadcasting on your frequency. Now that brilliant invention, podcasting, gives radio to us. And we have found more uses for it than you did . . . . You were once (exclusively) the editors of the news, choosing what ran on the front page. Now we can edit the news, and our choices send items to our own front pages.
A highly centralized media system had connected people ‘up’ to big social agencies and centers of power but not ‘across’ to each other. Now the horizontal flow, citizen-to-citizen, is as real and consequential as the vertical one.
By the way, this article was published in 2006. Change has been a long time coming.
Media companies now have two basic choices: continuing to see people as mere content receivers, or truly treating them like collaborators. The former choice is safer in the short-term, but it’s the equivalent of admitting defeat at the hands of the internet. The latter is risky, too — people are unpredictable! — but a number of publications are already finding a balance between being better listeners and staying true to their brands.
Make User-Generated Content Easy to Create
BuzzFeed has an entire vertical dedicated to user-generated content, appropriately titled BuzzFeed Community. It’s really easy to create posts (which is key): all you have to do is create an account, plug in text and pictures, and click “Suggest.” BuzzFeed’s Community editors sift through the submissions, and if the post is “good or fun or original or interesting or some glorious combination of those four things,” they’ll push it out to the company’s enormous reader base.
BuzzFeed Community is basically letters to the editor on steroids. Fan-mail to the editor, even — as NiemanLab put it, the writers have often “consumed so many . . . BuzzFeed posts that they’ve become adept at mimicking both their tone and their viral success.”
This vertical accomplishes two big things. First, it engages readers by giving them a chance to be featured and heard; you’re much more likely to be loyal to a brand that gives you a platform. Second, it gives BuzzFeed more content to work with and keep circulating (much of this content is evergreen).
Of course, relying heavily on user-generated content works especially well for BuzzFeed, because its bread and butter is simple viral content. Not all media companies are like that. Which brings me to my next point…
Involve Your Readers in the Reporting Process
ProPublica’s brand is nothing like BuzzFeed’s: the website has a sober blue-and-white color scheme, and the tagline is “Journalism in the Public Interest.” Fittingly, ProPublica has a completely different approach to community-building: it encourages readers to get involved in real reporting.
Just yesterday, ProPublica gave readers the chance to interview a former DEA agent about fighting drug cartels; they joined the discussion via Twitter and Reddit (now imagine if it had its own discussion platform?).
In November, ProPublica asked readers to help them investigate whether New York City landlords charge illegally high rents: “If you think your landlord is overcharging you, if you think your building should be rent-stabilized but it isn’t, or if you’re paying a ‘preferential’ rent and seeing big rate increases, please take our confidential survey below.”
Make Modern Distribution Channels Your Own
Rosen’s post has a great quote from Tom Curley, the former CEO of the Associated Press: “The users are deciding what the point of their engagement will be — what application, what device, what time, what place.”
There’s no point in resisting that. But if you’re smart about it, you can use channels to strengthen your brand and make readers more loyal.
Most newsletters are pretty impersonal: the same one gets sent out to thousands — sometimes millions — of subscribers, and they’re filled with content editors in a faraway office picked out.
Exercising editorial control makes sense if you’re creating a strictly news-y newsletter (e.g. “Major world events this week”), but it doesn’t if you want to give people content tailored to their idiosyncratic interests.
Many media companies create multiple newsletters with different themes or ask readers to specify which topics they’d like to read about, but that a) asks the reader to do more work and b) reduces the chance that readers will discover other kinds of content.
Plus, people aren’t always great at knowing what they’re actually likely to read. (For example, I like to think I have good taste, but Facebook knows otherwise: it’s learned from my behavior to show me articles about celebrities’ kids…)
The most advanced way to make sure your newsletters get opened is to invest in smart email technology. Segmenting is good; personalizing based on user behavior is better. The latter method doesn’t rely on assumptions based on age, location, etc. — it learns about readers by tracking what they’re actually doing on your site.
As a side note, smart email technology can also give you in-depth analytics on what kind of content is popular (and with whom).
In addition to distributing content on social channels, media companies are increasingly using them to have conversations with their readers. “Food & Wine Magazine, for example, hosts periodical Twitter and Facebook chats in which fans and followers can speak to selected editors or chefs about recipes and dining tips,” according to Mashable. “Conde Nast’s Traveler Magazine similarly encourages its followers to ask editors travel questions using Tumblr’s Ask feature.”
Plus, people love a good poll — Facebook’s had them for a while, and Twitter recently came out with them too. Media companies can use polls to get readers’ opinions about current events and ask what they’d like to read about next. That’s a non-scientific way of guiding your coverage, but still — wouldn’t it be awesome to read an article and know you were part of making it happen?
Not to get all Buddhist, but few good things come from holding on to the way things used to be. The people formerly known as the audience have spoken: media companies can stick their metaphorical heads in the sand until they become obsolete, or they can listen, innovate, and build real relationships with their readers.