How publishers can build successful communities

Publishers build communities

Why set up a community?

Communities can connect the most active members of your audience more closely – whether they are readers, delegates, or subscribers. They can create content and value amongst themselves, with minimal intervention from your editorial team. They are invaluable for research and insight – a window into the concerns and preoccupations of your audience. And they provide a way for your audience to access experts and editors all year round, rather than once or twice a year at a formal event. Plus engaged readers are far more likely to subscribe, join as members, or attend events.

What are the pitfalls with communities?

Just inviting a bunch of people to an online space and leaving them to it is a recipe for disaster. The experience has to be actively curated and hosted. Launching a community that then dwindles to nothing is detrimental to your media brand. As is one that is taken over by sales pitches and spammers. This article is designed to reduce the risk of you getting it wrong. But be aware, communities are not a quick fix. It might take a year or even two before it really takes off.

How to design your community?

First decision is who to invite. What is the ideal member profile? If in B2B are you focussed on a specific industry or discipline? Is there a target company size or level of seniority? If specialist consumer, is it a specific hobby, interest, or activity? What is the profile of your planned audience? And more importantly, who will you exclude?

Why would members want to be part of your community? Would they see it as a source of tips, best practice, and benchmarking? A guide to what products or services to use? An opportunity to meet like-minded individuals and (in B2B) business partners or collaborators? A way to share news and useful information? Don’t ignore the emotional benefit of feeling part of a group, of belonging to a congenial club. The clearer you are about your members’ objectives, the easier it will be to explain what the community is for.

How to get started

Begin with a core group who know (and trust) you and ideally know each other – maybe those who have attended an in-person event. Make them feel special by being your “pioneers” or VIPs. Appoint a community host from your own publishing team who has some authority in the sector or topic and is prepared to invest the time. This role could be spread across two or three people. Create a plan for the first few weeks – topics to raise, content to share, questions to ask.

You may need to line people up to comment to begin with – you have to stage a few discussions among the more confident members to encourage the others. Invite some mavens – people who are well connected and happy to share their views. In these early weeks and months, moderate carefully – you are modelling behaviour so encourage and praise the positive contributions, make friendly introductions, and stop sales pitches, disputes, or irrelevant discussions. Keep this up – it might take six months or more.

What features does your community platform need?

The tech is not the most important thing: it’s the members and the host. However, there are a few useful features to check for in your preferred platform. You will need to be able to control who joins – either by sending invites or approving requests to join. A member directory (with real names) makes it feel more like an exclusive club – and encourages good behaviour. You will need a way to organise topics or threads, so members can find relevant content. And ensure it is easy for members to add content, links, documents, or message each other directly. A good mobile UX will broaden the range of occasions when members can browse posts and add their comments.

How do you build engagement in the first year?

Be patient: you have to fake it till you make it. Have a core group of “friends” you can ask to post or comment, while the majority just read and lurk. In most communities only 10-20% of members ever post – the rest just observe. But they still do get value from it. Welcome new joiners and make some public introductions. Ask questions in your own posts. Set up polls and surveys which are easier to respond to than public threads. Create dedicated threads for common actions – eg events, hiring, supplier feedback, useful resources. And keep going.

How to establish a valuable community over the long term?

You have to be in this for the long haul – you may not get the full value from your community for a couple of years. Encourage members to recommend contacts to join (depending on whether this is linked to paid subs or membership of course). Create articles from posts and share them on your website, social media or email newsletters with a link back to the group. Maybe create a dedicated email round up for members with highlights of recent posts to encourage them to come back to visit the community.

Reach out to people who have lapsed or disengaged to draw them back in. Refresh the group with new members on a regular basis. Establish member only events – could be in person or virtual round tables or discussions, to build personal connections. Ensure your community hosts can invest enough time to keep the discussion flowing and encourage more to contribute. Ask your members from time to time what you can do better.

What is the ideal community size?

Given that 80% or more of community members tend to stay quiet, you may need to get to 200 or more before you start to build momentum. B2B communities can work well on smaller numbers. Specialist consumer communities might need to be larger. Don’t be too quick to split a group into subgroups – let it get a bit large and unwieldy before you divide it. You can always have separate threads or topics.

Unexpected benefits of strong communities

We all know that engagement drives loyalty, so you should see better renewals and higher sales of event tickets among community members. A strong community should drive plenty of referrals and show steady growth in new members. Your audience are more likely to respond to your research, surveys, polls, and benchmarking. And just “listening” to conversations is a great source of insight into the hot topics. I have sometimes done textual analysis of posts to spot trends. If you run in-person events, a community is a good hunting ground for speakers. And connections forged in an online community can help break the ice at an in-person event.

How to find out more

If you run a publishing or media business, you might enjoy being part of the Speciall Media Group, a community that I have run for over two years. We have more than 200 publishing and media leaders as members – and we exclude vendors, suppliers, and consultants so it is principally a peer-to-peer best practice forum. It’s free (for now) and invite only – here is the link to request to join.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has acquired, launched, built, and sold specialist media businesses in print, digital and events. She now advises niche consumer and B2B publishers on developing new products and digital revenue streams as a consultant and NED.

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