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Online Communities "pure business preservation" for publishers

Online Communities are "pure business preservation" for publishers, said FT Alphaville Editor Paul Murphy, speaking at yesterday's AOP forum on developing communities online, chaired by the Guardian's Head of Communities Meg Pickard.

Murphy added: "Your readers will tend to be a unifiable, unique bunch: you have to listen to them and build a culture where you're responding to their needs."

In building a community online, as has done this quarter with the Long Room, pre-launch research will only take you so far - ultimately, you have to take a leap of faith and be prepared to adapt and learn as you go.

Speakers at the forum called for a holistic approach to community building: with simplicity often overlooked, said Richard Cole, Head of Communities at Current TV, we need to take into account all manner of different levels of users.

Benefits of Online Communities

For Cole, the benefits of developing your online community are clear, ranging from an increased volume of content and understanding of your target audience, to the potential scoops provided directly by your users.

Expanding on their commercial potential, Steve Semelsberger, Pluck's SVP of Sales and Business Development outlined how communities drive repeat page views, as well as enhanced user insight via registration data.

In breaking down your readership into verticals, communities are also bringing new and innovative opportunities for sponsorship, he said.

"We'll provide the venue, users hold the party"

Recruiting a Community Editor has been crucial to Farmers Weekly Interactive's online success, said its online editor, Julian Gairdner, as he advised fellow publishers to do the same.

"As journalists, we can't produce everything that our users want", said Gairdner, giving the example of the massive contribution of its user community in driving editorial during the foot and mouth crisis.

FWI's community is effectively supplementing a profitable online business, with 20% of traffic now coming from user-generated content.

Building Engagement

While FWI's Community Editor is continuously calling and meeting people to build engagement online, Current's Cole said he was also "massively keen on rewards" for driving interactions on the site.

He urged publishers to "push the ego drivers within your site", a virtual badge for your top users, for instance, "broadcasts your rewards system", and has an instant cache that can't be matched offline.

Trends to watch in 2009

Semelsberger said the trend to watch in 2009 would be syndication of user comments across the web, from publisher sites to Facebook and YouTube.

For Richard Cole, in the wake of the immediacy of Twitter coverage during the Mumbai terror attacks, "speed of delivery will define how we consume content - there is no way publishers can match this - it's all about how we can most effectively repackage this content."

In a matter of weeks since launch, core members of the FT's Long Room community are already so tight-knit, they are arranging to meet up in the flesh for their own parties.

The overall message from speakers was clear: for building engagement online, understanding your readers and harnessing their own expertise, publishers' communities online will play a key role, but must continue to develop in line with user behaviour and demands.

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