news:rewired - “Community. You are doing it all wrong. Probably.”

Martin Belam by Martin Belam, 22 December 2010

One last post about news:rewired before I head off into the Xmas hinterlands. One of the morning sessions I attended featured Ed Walker, Neil Perkin and Anthony Thornton talking about building an online community from scratch.

Anthony’s tale about how he built a promotional buzz and community around his Libertines book was fascinating, not least because he did it with virtually no money to spend. He’d set up a MySpace page for the book (this was 2006 after all), and gathered an active community around it. They did things like help the development of the cover design, and became advocates for the book once it was available.

There was a little bit of old media in there as well still, as Anthony admitted that getting the appendix fact-checked by some of the most involved experts in the band’s fan base had improved the book, but it had also been a “wrench” to effectively admit that the book might not be 100% accurate in draft form.

I did wonder, though, how much the success was due to the fact that the subject matter, The Libertines, already had a passionate and engaged online fan base, of just the right generation. I’d imagine it would be a much harder trick to pull off if you were trying to publish a book on 18th century biographies.

That tied in with a point that Ed Walker made - there is no point replicating what exists, you have to see what is out there, work out how you fit in, and compliment it.

In Cardiff, where his YourCardiff site co-exists with Hannah Waldram’s Guardian Local blog, they have made a virtue of this. Despite working for different major publishing groups on what could be considered competing offerings, Ed and Hannah host joint blogging meet-ups.

Ed pointed out that for journalists, offline relationships can still be just as important as online ones. Thanks to the blogger meet-ups, when someone has blogged about a public meeting the paper hasn’t attended, instead of “ripping off” that content to go into print, Ed is likely to have a relationship with that blogger, and can phone up and ask for an credited quote instead.

One of Ed’s main themes was that “online, the possibilities are endless. So try things. But plan ahead”. Mind you, however much you plan ahead and guess what will be popular, nobody could have predicted that Toxic Terry in Preston would become a massive online community focus.

One of the key points made from the floor during this session was by Mark Jones from Reuters. He said that the profile of the people you need to carry out these tasks was something very different from the traditional roles in our businesses. Journalists tend to have joined the trade because they want to be content creators. The role of a good community facilitator is to step back from the limelight themselves, and instead let the focus be on the positive contributions of other people in the community.

I added that if you looked around the traditional newsroom, then think about the mix of content creators and curators you’d hire if you were starting a community focused website from scratch, you’d see a real disconnect in the numbers.

Anthony Thornton agreed, and argued that there are very few people who do have that skillset i.e. can be a journalist, and be tech literate, and have that conversation with your readers. As Joanna Geary had put it in her keynote: “We don’t have relationships with people, we have contacts, sources and readers.”

From the floor, Suzanne Kavannah of Skillset said you didn’t have to retrain everybody in a big organisation to be digital community literate, but you have to put the right team together: “You can't have perfect robots who are brilliant at everything” she said.

Which is a real shame, as I’m known for arguing that most of the problems we currently face will be solved because ‘in the future, there will be robots’. Tongue-firmly-in-cheek of course...

And finally...

I had a really good day at news:rewired, lots of great ideas and conversations, and I look forward to the next one. You can find the videos from the online community session gathered together here, and journalism.co.uk have also put together a link-by-link coverage package of the event.

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