It’s all about the community, stupid

At BeatBlogging.Org I have noticed that many of our most successful beat bloggers have strong communities around their beats.

Community can trump content, but the best sites combine great content with a great community. Community is what makes people want to come back to a Web site over and over again. Ask an active Twitter user how often they are on Twitter each day. They might be embarrassed to tell you.

But it’s all about the community. A strong community, however, takes cultivation. It takes a moderator who is willing to mix it up with the people formally known as the audience.

That can be a scary suggestion for many journalists, but one-way communication will not build a community. And the Web is all about communities.

The SciGuy Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle sometimes has posts garner more than 100,000 page views. Not bad for a blog dedicated to a less-than-controversial topic like science (unlike political blogs, which are easy to generate traffic to). From the start, Berger has striven to build a community that people wanted to come back to everyday.

I strongly recommend you listen to my audio interview with Berger about building a community and forward it around your newsroom. There is no shame in stealing someone’s successful ideas, and you’ll find many successful ideas over at BeatBlogging.Org on how to innovate on the Web.

Some tips for building community:

  1. Read and respond to comments on blog posts — At first, Berger tried to respond to every one he could. The more he responded, the more other people responded. He was the catalyst for two-way communication taking off on his blog. A nice side effect is that his presence in the comments section helps keep the comments more on topic and civil. People are less willing to say outrageous things if they know the author is reading — and judging — their posts.
  2. Think outside of the box — When Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth came out, Berger took six readers to go see it. He took three skeptics and three people who believed in global warming or who were neutral. After they all viewed the film, they had a discussion about what they saw and if the film had changed their views. Berger then transcribed the interview and put it on his blog, and some of it ended up in the print edition. It was a smashing success.
  3. Ask for user input — If you’re serious about two-way communication, you should actively court user opinion. This can be as simple as ending blog posts with questions. Or it can be more in-depth like making online surveys for your users to take on big topics.
  4. Some of your users know more than you — This is one reason why some beat blogs allow guest bloggers. Kent Fischer covers the Dallas Independent School District, and many of his readers work for the district. Some of those people probably more about the ins and outs of the district than he does. So during the slow summer months, he is asking some of them to guest blog. Allowing users to hold the conch every now and then can be very empowering for them. It’s a great way to let them know that you value their opinions.