Community management in journalism and beyond…

I used to visit a friend who lived in a gated community a lot. I took the bus to a stop a few metres away, walked past a large pair of black gates (better suited to the BFG), walked past the security guards hut, along a little lane that winded around lush greenery (including a cricket field), a large underground, multi-storey car park leisure centre and £1m houses.

The people who lived here could move freely in and out, but people like me couldn’t always get in. I had to check in with the security guard each time.

The Timespaywall has effectively created a gated community, where only its members can view content for a fee, of which I happen to belong. Having, on occasion, the need to access the Times for my course and I’ve always enjoyed the Sunday Times –it makes economic sense to an impoverished student. However many others didn’t and, as expected, the number of hits dropped and subscription numbers remain rather low.

Joanna Geary, the community web developer for TimesOnline, gave a speech. Even though she started off by declaring that she would not be talking about paywalls she did give some insight into why the paper has adopted this move.

Unsurprisingly, the focus of her speech was on reader loyalty. Without drive-by search traffic, the Times can only rely on its subscribers their wallets. Geary said that we’re starting to question the usefulness of attracting additional unique users i.e. people who don’t normally visit the website, and realise the (higher) value of long-term readers.

Speaking about the current state of affairs she said:

“We don’t do relationships in journalism – there are only contacts, sources, readers. They’re all people that we have a distance from us, we’re impervious to them.”

She added that beforehand, deciding whether a story was good and “newsworthy” was decided only among reporters and mostly by editors. Readers were left out of the equation – something which has to change if we are to inspire loyalty, which is created by identifying with a paper and its brand:

“I think there is a need now to explore that – to find out who our fans are. We need to know who they are and who keep coming back because we need their loyalty. Their loyalty keeps us in business, relevant, influential and doing the interesting things we do.

“Because we’re important to them, they’re should be important to us. And that has to be about what we do day in and day out as journalists.”

If the Times hopes that they push their subscriber numbers to a level that’s more profitable than trying generate advertisement revenue from attracting new, and passing readers, they have a long way to go. While I can’t agree with their business model, their understanding of growing and nurturing online communities is spot on. What do you guys think?

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