Corporate digital marketing has embraced social networking as a means to better engage with their audience. These two-way conversations help build brand loyalty, improve customer satisfaction, and provide better input to the product management organization.
When things go right, cheerful public exchanges with happy customers support the viral growth of new customers. When things go wrong, social dialog becomes equally important as the company manages damage-control (and they certainly test a company’s dexterity at marketing spin).
The Amazon review system is a simple form of indirect community engagement that demonstrates this effect in action. In a recent interview with NPR’s Lisa Chow from “Planet Money,” Amazon spokesperson Julie Law noted that “Even a product with negative reviews sells better than a product with no reviews at all.”
In the digital content publishing world, social networking means moving from a broadcast model to a two-way interaction. There are still clearly delineated editorial roles, but the publisher uses its digital outlet to engender conversations, build community, and support audience contributions and deputized “citizen journalists.“
Why would a publisher want to grow a community and give voice to the content consumer? Doesn’t this degrade the editorial product? One of the key business goals of community engagement is to drive both higher visitor traffic and more loyal readers, both of which translate to increased revenue. And if the community interactions are properly moderated, they can help shape and enhance the editorial message, making it more dynamic, lively, thought-provoking, and even actionable.
Search marketers (SEO) refer to loyalty as stickiness: repeat visitors are of course an indicator of the quality of your online publication, but they also help increase your rankings in the search engines, which track things like visitor bounce rates as part of their “quality of content” algorithms. Community engagement is also likely to lead to greater viral growth. A passive reader is less likely to perform an action, such as sharing an article with a friend, than a reader who is more actively engaged with both content and the community.
Most news sites fall short in community engagement and participation. Often this is simply an editorial preference; there is an understandable discomfort when you open up your editorial product to reader-generated content. Traditional news delivery models rely on the editorial authority of a one-way broadcast, but to develop a sense of community you have to foster conversations, which are two-way and less controlled.
This is a fundamental sea change facing the Internet today, but in news sites, commenting and Facebook “recommends” are usually the only means of conversation, and the reporter seems to have left the room. As a start, authors need to become more engaged in moderating their comments.
I believe that news sites should go even further and host moderated forums on popular topics relevant to their editorial focus. Forums are a place to share ideas and learn, but certain forum topics can even spawn actions: everything from charitable donations to political petitions. Gather a community, and the potential is quite remarkable. This is especially important for hyperlocal news, because they have an opportunity to become deeply entwined in the fabric of the community. Providing more than reporting, they can become a platform for sharing local history, voices, and events.
The trick is moderating those reader voices; you don’t want unmoderated spam comments and you want to guide a discussion, not open the gates to the barbarians.
Speaking of barbarians, while I appreciate and laud the professionalism and accountability of trained journalists, I’m also going to put in a good word for (shudder) citizen journalism. Most sites today permit discussion and comments, but your community can also actively participate by submitting articles, photos, and video. Again, the goal is not to invite a storm of rubbish, but to provide rich fodder to editorial while further engaging the community.
And finally, you need to manage smart editorial strategies as you create engagement across key topics and demographics. For example, you can establish forums and digital events around topic-based communities, with expert hosts and moderators. Or you might grow communities around demographic segments based on age, location, economic status, gender, or any number of lifestyle segments. The point here is to organize your communities around your editorial product, so that they complement and nourish each other.
Building community doesn’t require a large investment, but it does require participation from the authors, editors, and deputized contributors. It requires the community content to be moderated and guided. But the upside is increased audience loyalty, viral audience growth, and the potential for greater content inventory at comparatively little cost.