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Advice from an expert: Ilana Fox on how to get the best from your online community

Ilana Fox knows more about managing online communities than most.  In her career she has worked managing communities for the Daily MailThe Sun and online clothes company ASOS. While she was at ASOS she created from scratch all their  social media and community engagement. Ilana shared her tips for success with us.

1. Have a strategy in place before you embark

  • Be extremely clear about why you believe your company should be involved in interacting with customers / readers.
  • Work out your assessment procedure in weighing up which software and technology will help in your creation of the community.
  • Know who your competitors are, and determine who’s doing a good job and why.
  • Work out the different ways your community will make a positive impact on all areas of your company.
  • Work out the different ways your community can have a positive impact on both existing and potential revenue streams.

2. Be prepared for any eventuality – crisis management is important

  • Determine what the risks are of your company interacting with customers/readers.
  • Weigh up the legal differences between your company engaging with customers on social media vs us hosting your own community.
  • Think about the different types of moderation you may need, and work out resourcing, cost, and suitability before you launch your community. Reassess this at different points in your community’s life cycle.
  • Firm up how you’d respond if someone made a bomb threat against Head Office, or if a customer claims your organisation is racist. Know how you’d react now, so when the time comes you can move fast and appropriately.

3. Measurement is essential (both for community management and retaining your job!)

  • Determine how you – and your organisation –  defines success both within your community and in the wider company.
  • Plan how you’re going to measure campaigns that involve your customers.
  • Work out which tools you’ll use for sentiment tracking.
  • Make it clear to the rest of the organisation that it’s normal that only a small percentage of your active audience will participate in your community (before reminding them of the benefits!).
  • Ensure every stakeholder is clear how you’re going to measure ROI.
  • Have regular internal discussions about what success looks like to both you and those above you.

For more information check out Ilana’s website

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Online community management guidance from experts at The Guardian

The Guardian has a very successful online community that is run by some very talented individuals. We caught up with some of the people in the know to gather the best advice for you.

Anna Codrea-Rado: Content co-ordinator for The Guardian

“The key to community management is identifying and understanding an audience. What we’re doing with the Guardian Professional networks is all to do with niche professional communities and how we can provide them with resources that make doing their job easier. We aim to give our audience a platform for them to share their insights about best practise in their professional field.

Community management is an organic process that needs constant attention and nurturing. You need to put a lot of effort into to it in order to reap the rewards.”

Laura Oliver: Community co-ordinator for The Guardian

“I think the [most important thing in journalism is the]  rise and rise of internet publishing. The power of the web that we’ve seen in the last few months in Egypt, in Gaza a couple of years ago and in Iran in 2009 both by people on the ground and now by main stream media knowing how to take advantage of that.”

So there you have it: the importance of an online community for any business, especially journalism, should not be underestimated and the process that it takes to nurture such a community is a hard but rewarding one.


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Legal responsibility in an online community

Once you have an active online community the challenges you face as manager of that community can be tough. There is none such tougher in terms of the consequences if it goes wrong than the legal issues that can arise. These legal issues are also not so black and white.

The legal question: If a user writes a defamatory comment in an online community is it the user or the publisher of the online community who is responsible for it? And does the audience number matter?

Don't lose your money. Avoid defamation.

Rob Minto raises these issues in an insightful post on the Online Journalism Blog lookig at two landmark cases and their impact on the issue.

Case 1: A case of libel between Caerphilly town councillors Eddie Talbot and Colin Elsbury.  Mr Talbot sucessfully sued Mr Elsbury for £3000 for defamation after he tweeted that Mr Talbot had been removed by police from a polling station.

Case 2: Jane Clift lost her case against the Daily Mail, where she tried to obtain the identities of two users who left defamatory comments on a Daily Mail article.

Rob Minto makes the valid point that while the Tweet went out to Mr Elsbury’s 30 followers the Daily Mail comments would’ve been seen by millions.

Confusing yes?

Until the law becomes clearer on the matter, our top tip is avoid publishing or making defamatory statements in general. Just to be safe.

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Second Life- an online community that goes a step too far?

Second Life is an online virtual world that was started by Linden Lab in 2003. Since then its popularity has soared and the online community now consists of over 3 million residents and at least 180,000 unique users.  Residents are online personalities that operate through avatars.

Second Life Avatar

These computer generated avatars lead a life online at your command and you can use them to travel the virtual online world and shop. The idea is that through this online community you can live a second life.

However, Second Life raises several ethical issues that those behind online communities should consider…

Vice Magazine ran an interview with Sarah, a 25-year-old paraplegic dwarf from New Jersey who says her life is based around Second Life.

She told Vice ” I get up, get washed for the day, go on Second Life, eat lunch and dinner, log out and go to bed. My world is Second Life; the only things I do in the real world are life essential”

She adds that she has had several online relationships on Second Life and lost her Second Life virginity; “I am a virgin in real life. I lost my SL virginity in 2004. I remember it being terrible. He mainly only used poseballs, they allow you to touch and stuff”

This seems like a worrying over-reliance on an online community especially one in which everyone hides their real life.  However,  it could be argued Second Life has changed Sarah’s life for the better.

The real difficulty is that Second Life makes a lot of money from vulnerable people. In 2009 the Second Life economy was estimated at $567 million American Dollars and users use real life money to obtain second life credit and maintain their membership. They are buying virtual goods and this means the good only exist on the screen. Is this a good thing to encourage users who place their trust in you to do? What’s your opinion?

Sarah herself sees no issue and is adament that Second Life is a worthy spend adding that her life ambition is to “be the number one model in Second Life”.

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An incentive to get interactive

A good contributor is invaluable and a key anchor to a successful online community. Registered users who comment or interact regularly should be nurtured and made to feel valued and recognised for their contributions.

However, at the same time the model of your community should not be compromised, often a line needs to be drawn between the content put up by those in charge of the site and the content put up be general users.

Interactive film review website Rotten Tomatoes manage to do this with their review system.

Anyone once registered can write a review about a film for the website. This review is then available for all to see and the rating given is added to all other user’s reviews to make an average “all critics” rating for the film.

For example, the film Chalet Girl has received an average review of 84 per cent from ‘all critics’. However if you want to know what the ‘top critics’ think of it they offer that average to you if you click on the link. In this case the ‘top critics’ gave it an average of 60 per cent. On the website “top critics”  are reviews from professional writers for national newspapers or magazines.

Through their system Rotten Tomatoes make their interactive users feel valued while at the same time establishing a system that lets you know what the ‘experts’ think. They also feature their favourite critics on their critics homepage which acts as an incentive to get interactive.

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Creating an online community from scratch: EastBound Magazine

City University’s annual XCity Magazine which is distributed to City Alumni, this year enhanced their online community through interactive features on the website. This included awards that meant the reader became a part of the magazine as they got involved through voting and online conversation. They were very successful in doing this and building on a readership that has been growing for decades.

However, what happens when you try and build an online community without any previous readership established?

This is the challenge a group of us faced recently when we set out to start a new East London area magazine called EastBound.

In this case, before we could even make our site interactive we had to establish an audience and then from this a community. When starting an online community from scratch there has to be a reason for your target reader to visit your site.

Sure- polls, competitions, comments, guest blogs and lively discussion is the ideal but before you can get that going you need people visiting your site in the first place.

What EastBound taught us:

Establish a need. There needs to be a reason that a user is going to visit the website or blog. In EastBound’s case aswell as having features that would interest our reader we put up event listings that they would need. By making the website a place to refer to for directions and what is going on each night in East London we drew in users.

Entertain and sustain. Keep the user’s interested with features, interviews etc that they want to read so they spend longer on your site.

Visuals are important– users aren’t going to stick around and interact if the site is dull to look at regardless of how good the content is. Use pictures, logos and colour to create a distinctive style that they can then on associate (positively) with it.

Encourage interaction and interact yourself– once you have established an audience make them into a community through polls, surveys, posts that encourage comment and comps. To start the ball rolling, start making conversation yourself. Make sure that you reply to any tweets or comments.

Use twitter, facebook and other social platform media to reach out to new users and keep contact with current members of the community. Asking questions about topical issues guarantees a response.

In simple terms- make it as easy as possible to be interactive.

The finished EastBound website

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Online Community advice from Matthew Parsons of Travel Trade Gazette

A lot of publications and businesses in general use online communities as a way to promote their business and increase their hold in their chosen field’s market.

Travel Trade Gazette (TTG) is a successful weekly B2B magazine for travel agents. It provides travel news, updates and features that are of interest and use to the reader.

When I carried out a work placement with TTG, Matthew Parsons the Chief Sub-Editor who also does a lot of work on their website told me how important it was to have an online presence. He said that to do this building an online community that trust and use you as their key internet source was essential.

And his advice on how to do this?

Read about online communities- understand the ideas behind the concept. He suggested a book that’s available free online as the key to success.

The Art of CommunityBuilding the New Age of Participation by Jono Bacon

The book sets out 7 key objectives and tells you how to meet each: think of these as the 7 commandments of online communities

– Develop a sttrategy, with specific objectives and goals for building your community

– Build simple non bureaucratic processes to help your community perform tasks, work together and share successes

– Provide tools and infrastructure to help contributors work quickly

– Create buzz around your community to get more people involved

– Track the community’s work so it can be optimized and simplified

– Explore a capable, representative governance for your strategy

– Identify and manage conflict, including dealing with diverse possibilities

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