How to microblog in high heels

A geek girl's guide to social media and online engagement

#Newsrw: Harnessing the power of online communities

Today I did a presentation at news:rewired about harnessing the power of online communities. Here’s what I said, and the slides are here.

Lightning definition: what is a community coordinator? I’m embedded in the newsroom, I think about new ways we can engage readers around a story – this might be through comments on site, through social media or a special project designed to engage readers.

The first key point to developing communities in a way which will help your journalism – Be a game player – You can’t just watch or run the game to reach the end goal, you need to play it – sometimes with others – sharing tips and tricks & encouragement along the way – I’m NOT talking about ‘gaming’ in the sense of ‘pretending to be something which you are not’ – I’m talking about the true sense of a game – entering the spirit of teamwork to overcome obstacles and reach a mutual goal. Part of this is about connecting players to each others – which I’ll go into later.

But thinking about that end goal, what’s the motivation for readers when we ask them to get involved? I think our readers are motivated to engage with our content for two reasons – 1) because we’re the Guardian, and 2) because of the news story. Now these may be felt in differing measurements – but those who spend time leaving comments on news stories will certainly have both those of these interests as a motivating factor for getting involved. And engaging readers in a way which shows you understand their passion for the brand and the story will be the first step.

So what’s in it for us? Why engage? I recently heard Jay Rosen speak and he said that after the name, the Guardian & its reputation, and the people who work there –  the talent & experience of the staff, our most valuable asset is our readers.

Recently my colleague Sean Clarke did a piece of research on our crowdsourcing projects in news, and found that of the relatively small percentage of traffic which came to crowdsourcing pieces, users here would visit 30 times more pages than the average user, spend much more time on site. The users who contribute to crowdsourcing exercises also generated a large amount of traffic elsewhere on site. Higher proportions of users who participate are likely to be highly engaged (visiting the site more than 1 time a day) and registered with the site (giving us more data).

But our readers are valuable for more than spending more time on site, clicking on more pages and giving us data all of which is valuable to advertisers = but because our readers have a lot of something we would like: knowledge. Jay says: “the people on the receiving end have more knowledge, more contacts, more experience and more good ideas than a single journalist can ever have.” This was always true but the internet facilitates the closer connections to pass on the knowledge – but we have to get it flowing in.

He quotes Dan Gillmor, the first newspaper journalist to have a blog, who said in 1999: “My readers know more than I do.”And I think Dan knew what he was talking about.

Once we accept that our readers collectively know more than we do, the job of harnessing their power in adding to editorial coverage becomes much easier – combining this ways for our readers to share their passion for the Guardian and for the story – we’re well on the way to enriching our journalism through harnessing the knowledge of our readers – this may be submitting data, giving us new new leads, tip-offs, case studies, adding expert views, and ultimately helping to tell the whole picture.

Here are three examples of how we let the readers in to shape our editorial coverage in the newsroom at the Guardian.

Reality check was a new project from the newsdesk to see how we could incorporate our readers into day long investigations. Each day, one of the big statements from the government was fact-checked by Polly Curtis – in a cross between a live blog and long form journalism.

Framing here is important – that includes the language we use when asking readers for help, as well as being clear & specific about what we’re looking for – and Polly spent a lot of time in the first few weeks explaining to readers in comment threads what the project was about.

She acknowledged the best reader contributions in the live blog with credits – showing how much she valued readers’ knowledge & input.

The result was a community which developed around behaviour rather than topic – with readers being able to shape investigations as researchers, case studies and experts – going off to find a relevant pdf, giving their own experiences and thoughts for what we should look into.

  • Internships/workfare – Shiv Malik’s investigations into unpaid internships shows the power of building personal trust among users to sift out key sources and case studies.

We put out a Google form inviting anonymous users to come forward about different government intern schemes – a good way to crowdsource sensitive information and to get contact details to go with those anecdotal case study comments.
But part of the success we got back through the Google form was because Shiv had spent time speaking to readers in comments and on Twitter to show we were listening – and following up details readers’ submitted with special Guardian investigations no other paper was looking into – connecting with our loyal readers who believe in the Guardian and were part of the story.

When most people talk of ‘harnessing the power of communities’ a lot of people think immediately of crowdsourcing data & mining readers for facts and additional reporting.

There’s nothing wrong with crowdsourcing but it needs to be done in the right way, using the right language to show the point is about achieving a mutual goal – here the value is in mass participation – so online groups who already have close connections and engagement with each other, are more likely to react if the subject & callout is also right.

For the Guardian relay we asked readers to tell us about their hometowns to paint a picture of Britain as the torch stopped at places across the UK. It was obvious readers’ local knowledge was crucial to painting this picture – not only did they want to be part of a special Guardian project but it also touched into a passion for one’s hometown. Received 70 offers for readers to write for us, have had 100s of photos and 100s of posts to the n0tice board.

Similarly when we asked people to tell us their broadband speeds, we received 5000 of pieces of data back from readers who had spent time speedchecking their connections. And this was because it wasn’t just a topic people felt passionately about – but it was obvious the result wouldn’t mean anything without mass participation.

The last point which is really important from these examples – is to  think about how we display what our readers contribute is really really key – and something lots of editors forget – the end product – will this be of interest to other readers? How can we make it better? For example when we noticed our readers were sending in pictures of Venus and Jupiter dancing together in the skies, and we had hundred sent in, was a simple gallery the best way to show them off? Or plot them on a map because they were sent in internationally. We decided to ask a astronomist to analyse what our readers could see and explain more about how best to view the planets – something our readers were asking for in comments. So we gave something back to the users who had taken time to share their content with us.


Ultimately, what I want to show with these examples, is the best crowdsourcing and user-contributed projects work when it comes from the community, and you facilitate that, become a team player yourself, and help realise the collective goal.

The key to this is becoming a trusted voice among users, someone who speaks the language of the community, knows each user by name, and takes their thoughts and ideas seriously – showing you care just as much about the Guardian & the story as they do, and meeting them on a mutual level of respect – showing you value their collective knowledge more than your own through feedback, followups, and rewards.

Lastly, is no snazzy social tool to replace the human act of spending time reading comments, listening and responding – combining this with analytics tools to find out more about our users. But we need to get closer to our users to truly understand them and harness their knowledge.


Written by hrwaldram

July 13, 2012 at 3:45 pm

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