Monday, 24 September 2007

Creating and owning communities

A great day with Caspian on Friday. Caspian is a B2B house that publishes Real Business and Real Deals among other bright, savvy titles that bring a great deal of flair to their sector.

The session was a day’s introduction to writing and editing for the web.

Caspian, like many others, is taking its first real steps into the web and multi-media, so the main aim of the day was to work on how to ensure material created for print is adapted to work as effectively online. They were a bright bunch and picked up on things fast.

Because they didn’t need a lot of drill, we had time to look at the bigger picture too. So we could look at what sort of identity the various publications could have online. This was helped because I had the company’s communications director, Matthew Rock, among the delegates.

A weekly news-driven B2B title can create a good solid news-led website and immediately add to what it offers its readers: deepening the relationship; making it possible for the title to be the news-source of choice on a daily – or several times daily – rather than a weekly basis.

But what about monthly titles where analysis and comment are the attractions? What do we do with them?

Creating community has to be the key, and Caspian is making solid moves in that direction.

Already, their forums are rich in comment, and discussion often flows out from a particular piece of analysis, with posters offering their own experiences and advice.

The forums could become master classes, with the sort of advice and shared experience that is worth a fortune if measured in consultancy fees or personal coaching.

By bringing their journalists’ and other contributors’ invaluable advice online, and enabling readers to interact with the writers and each other, Caspian is beginning to crack the key challenge: creating communities that are hosted and owned by that particular title.

Now, I’m aware that not everyone thinks media companies can own communities. They accept they can help create them but believe that true communities have a life of their own and can’t be controlled – to expect to do so is old-media thinking.

I’m not so sure, and I believe there is plenty of evidence around to show that B2B titles do indeed own communities. During my day at Caspian we looked at some examples.

Take, the publicans’ title, for example. It has a fantastically close relationship with its online readers. They can comment directly on stories and, with major issues, the comments run into the hundreds – 360 is the highest I’ve seen there. Iain O’Neil, their online reporter, tells me he often gets great stories from his readers’ comments and feedback.

There are campaigns; a wealth of advice on coping with the smoking ban; on how to make money; on developing catering: a real master class in running a pub.

Clearly this is a vibrant community, and clearly it is a morningadvertiser community. That’s not to say someone else couldn’t start a community to serve the pub trade. Anyone could set up a group on Google or Yahoo or anywhere else and, if publicans liked it, it would grow. But it wouldn’t have the editorial expertise and wealth of high quality content that Iain brings to his site.

This should be our USP online: strong communities, valuable content.

Farmers Weekly is another example. It has a community editor, Isabel Davies, who told Press Gazette recently that the magazine’s online communities helped the title get vital information out to readers on the foot and mouth outbreak, and helped her hear back from those affected.

Isabel says: “The job of community editor is a new post…and a lot of it is about championing the voice of the reader. It really worked in this instance – they’ve asked questions and we’ve used our influence to get them answers.” (You can read her full PG dairy here)

It’s pretty clear that, particularly in extremis, farmers – or any community – will go to the home they trust. The challenge for B2B magazines is to create those homes, to nurture them and keep them their own. Do it well and you can own them, do it badly, and others will take on the job instead.

Creating and owning communities is perhaps more of a challenge for newspapers. I blogged recently on one potential community that newspapers have let get away to rival commercial providers.

Newspapers’ readership is obviously more disparate than that of B2Bs, but there are communities among readers, and the challenge for us is to find, serve and own them. If we don’t, someone else will.

I’m working with a number of regional newspapers at present on how to identify communities among their readers and serve them well enough to gain their loyalty – so that those newspapers' websites are the place that those communities chooses to come and chat.

The very local-ness of the regional press is a great strength here. Add to that the opportunities the web gives us for hyper-local and user-generated content, and we have one potential key to thriving online.

So, is it really old-media thinking to talk about creating and owning communities? Or is it, conversely, fanciful to suggest that communities are free-born spirits that no one can control?

No comments: