Guest post by Ben LaMothe
At last week’s news:rewired event at City University London, there was one session dedicated to discussing the state of online local news, and where it’s headed.
In news, a community platform is meant to offer another place where readers can interact with stories they read (preferably on the newspaper’s web site), write their own blogs, and upload varied things.
I’m a fan of them. They do offer an alternate outlet for discussion and the sharing of resources. And they do have the ability to bring a community together.
Instead, what I want to address is the “Field of Dreams” model for developing online communities. In this 1989 US film, Kevin Costner plays an Iowa corn farmer who is told to build a baseball diamond in his field because “If you build it, he will come.”
News organisations often take the approach that they know what is best for the community they serve (e.g. readers). They take their cues on where to drive content production by their circulation figures in print, and the number of unique visitors in a particular section.
When building online communities, often this approach is used. This is the build-it-and-they-will-come part of the “Field of Dreams” model. The thinking goes that a news organisation should develop online communities for every major residential community that exists within the readership area. Once the platform exists, people will flock to it and populate it with content.
This buckshot approach is not very strategic. It assumes that everyone will naturally make their way to their local community online, and all will be good.
Local people will find their community and they will use it to engage with others. But taking the longview, you will see that most of the communities you built for readers will be sparsely populated. However a handful will be doing very well, adding members regularly, and conversations ongoing.
If it were a normal web site, the “underperforming” online communities would be shut, with resources re-directed to the communities that are performing well. But since you’re running an online community for people to interact and share information, you can’t just close it because it’s not very full.
A better method would be “Field of Dreams” in reverse. Don’t build it until it’s clear why you are building an online community, and that the community itself wants it. Publish a story online asking for reader comment, or make a poll.
If it’s clear the community wants something like that to associate with their online experience of the newspaper, build it. But don’t build it for them — build it WITH them.
Go through product iterations, do user testing, find out what people like and what they don’t. Determine which communities in your readership area would likely benefit most from an online community for their area, and which are the most likely to have higher levels of engagement.
Having a more strategic approach to developing online communities within a newspaper also helps in the community management process. It means there are fewer communities to focus on, which means the manager can provide a better experience for those who are in the communities that were developed.
Instead of jumping on the bandwagon of developing online communities and going all-in by developing dozens of them, newspapers should see it as a business decision by asking themselves this: What is the most value for the money, time and energy that will go into developing and maintaining these communities?
Once you have that answer, you’re better prepared to develop an online community that will better serve your readers’ interests and needs, and ensure the newspaper isn’t wasting its resources.