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Credit: By Melissa Marques on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Today is the fifth Community Manager Appreciation Day, an annual event to highlight the work done by those who are dedicated to the support and representation of the voices of online communities around the world.

To mark the day, Journalism.co.uk asked community managers from international, national and regional news outlets to share their tips for engaging with online communities, and building strong relationships with your audience. Their tips also featured in Friday's Journalism.co.uk podcast.

Why is community engagement so important?

Nick Petrie, deputy head of news development at The Times and The Sunday Times said it is about "developing a loyalty" from your audience

"There's a lot more competition than there used to be," he explained, "and so building up a relationship with your readers – or in our case subscribers – and making them feel like they're a part of your community rather than a fly-by-night visitor, means you're far more likely to develop a loyalty."

"That's incredibly important nowadays because there's a lot less reasons to be loyal – people have a lot more choice."

Richard Moynihan, community and social media manager at Metro, added that, in the same way that newsrooms monitor analytics to see what stories work well, it is important to listen to feedback from your community.

"These are the people who are consuming your content or product and are going to be doing so in the future," he said.

"So in exactly the same way as it's important to look at analytics of how stories have done, and do more of what works, it's the same with community. If you're not actually listening to people, listening to what they think, and not getting feedback from them, you're essentially flying blind."

Moynihan also pointed out the amount of "growth potential" in community engagement.

"If you engage people and they recommend you to their friends, especially on social media, you've potentially got lots more people visiting your brand that you wouldn't be able to reach before," he said.

Encourage high quality comments

Bassey Etim, community manager for the New York Times, crowdsourced his community tips from the news outlet's moderation team.

You only have one comment to convince someone to read the commentsBassey Etim, New York Times"You only have one comment to convince someone to read the comments," said Etim. "Most people, when they're going through the comments section, they only read one, maybe two, maybe three comments. So you've really got to make sure that the first thing you're showing people is of high quality."

Of course, the way in which you moderate a community can also have a huge effect on the quality of comments.

However, Etim points out that it is important to note that moderation is not simple about removing comments that you disagree with.

"You're not moderating out dissent, you're moderating out disrespect from all points of view," he explained.

This is the touchstone of what the New York Times tries to do in terms of moderation, Etim said. "We don't want to moderate out any particular point of view, even if it is a really horrible point of view," he said.

"We just want to make sure people are respectful to one each other, and at least respectful enough to public figures and individuals named in our stories."

Another way of encouraging higher quality comments, Etim said, is to make commenters feel valued. "Reward comments that make you chuckle when appropriate and encourage creativity wherever it comes."

He added it is important to find a way to reward commenters in a way that reflects your publication. "For us, that means showing respect editorially, like choosing as NYT Picks some of the most well-written or interesting viewpoints we get."

Prior to its redesign, which saw comments lifted from underneath the article, to run alongside the content, the New York Times also experimented with selecting certain comments to run as Readers' Perspectives next to the relevant part of the story.

The idea of including the best of your community in editorial was also a point made by Nick Petrie, something he defines as "closing the circle".

involve your readers in the process of how you create and discuss your journalismNick Petrie, The Times"It's a way to involve your readers in the process of how you create and discuss your journalism," he said.

Petrie pointed to The Times's Cities Fit for Cycling campaign and The Sunday Times's NHS Reform campaign, both of which he said have involved their subscribers "every step of the way".

"That's a process of asking them what aspects of these issues matter most to them," he added, "and using their experiences and stories as case studies and examples of where we need to improve things."

Listen and learn

Another point Petrie makes is about the importance of really listening to your community, rather than just giving the impression you are doing so.

"I think, especially with numerous platforms, it's very easy to pretend you're listening but it's actually quite hard to make sure you've got the processes in place to follow it through," he said.

Petrie noted it is important to feed community tips and ideas back to the newsroom to show that you are not simply paying your readers lip service.

Richard Moynihan agrees, adding that it important to have a reason for any community engagement you do, rather than just doing it for the sake of it.

"For example comments at the bottom of stories – are you just trying to notch numbers up or do you really want an open dialogue with your readers and are you going to use that to shape future stories as well?" he asked.

Including web comments in editorial is something Helen Harper, head of audience and engagement at The Daily Post in North Wales, has also had success with.

We're a big believer in getting readers' comments in the paperHelen Harper, The Daily Post"We're a big believer in getting readers' comments in the paper," she said.

One of the best recent examples is a story The Post produced on mobile phone coverage, Harper added. After spotting a tweet about poor Vodafone signal, the newspaper ran an article on its website asking readers what they thought about the subject on a wider scale.

"The response was tremendous," said Harper. "We got about a hundred comments in a very short space of time and this led to a double-page feature in the paper.

"It's now going to lead to a series of articles pushing on the problem of mobile phone coverage in rural North Wales."

Another thing that The Daily Post does to engage it's community is hold a weekly webchat called Ask the Expert, which are an opportunity for their readers to get tips and advice on anything from mortgages to holidays.

"The best one I think we ever had was with the head of tourism in Wales," said Harper, "and last week we had one on social media, which was great."

"We're finding it gets a really nice response and then it leads to a full-page article in the next day's paper." 

Ask meaningful questions

As Harper mentions, asking questions and putting call-outs to your community is a great way to engage with them and get them to contribute to your content.

However, to avoid the potential pitfall of asking questions that might be seen as too specific, or even too silly, Richard Moynihan said it is a good idea to first ask yourself whether they are things to which you or your friends might be able to respond.

"Sometimes I've fallen into the trap where you ask these questions to try and drive community engagement with things like Facebook and they're just dreadful questions and they don't make sense," he said.

"We once asked, on one of our stories, 'is this the biggest crab you've ever seen?' which is just so random and absurd, and definitely came under Betteridge's Law of 'if a headline has a question mark in it, the answer is usually no'."

Use all tools at your disposal

Of course, community management is not just about engaging audiences on your website and social media platforms.

Nick Petrie from The Times pointed out it is important not to forget about all the different tools available. "I think often people like to focus on the sexy, and the new, and the tools that are being talked about a lot and so often at the moment that's platforms like Twitter," he explained.

"However, there are tools that we let go by the wayside such as newsletters. They're actually a really powerful way of building a relationship with your readership or your subscribers; a really great way to remind them of the quality and depth and the breadth of what you publish."

Just last week Quartz blogged that its daily newsletter had gone beyond 50,000 subscribers.

"We put a lot of work into each Brief, so it’s been gratifying to receive such a positive response", the blog post said on Thursday (23 January).

Helen Harper also says The Daily Post has had success in engaging its community off-site by hosting regular social media cafes where they offer tips in using Twitter and Facebook.

"It's really good to get out into the community, meeting our readers so they know the people behind The Daily Post tweets or The Daily Post Facebook page. It shows that they're real people, it's not just generated by a computer."

Be as open as possible. If you're making changes, don't be afraid to actually run them past some of your most engaged usersRichard Moynihan, MetroRichard Moynihan also says community engagement is a good way to get feedback when making any changes or developments to your site.

"Be as open as possible," he said. "If you're making changes, don't be afraid to actually run them past some of your most engaged users. Get the feedback first of all rather than make all these changes and have a confused and possibly even angry community on your hands."

"If you involve people, if you're open about why you're trying to do things, get the feedback. It can actually help shape the changes you're making in a much better way than perhaps you would have thought of."

Stay calm!

Bassey Etim at The New York Times offers the final word in community management.

"Breathe," he said. "It can be overwhelming. If you're tense, you're more likely to miss something or make mistakes. Even in the midst of chaos, take a moment to breathe, get centred and then throw yourself back in."

  • We will look at different ways news outlets have conversations with their communities at out digital journalism conference news:rewired, which takes place on Thursday 20 February. Standard tickets have now sold out, but you can get access to videos of the workshops and sessions on the day with a news:rewired digital ticket.
  • We are also running a half-day working on searching social media and verification next month, which may also be of interest to community managers. The three-hour workshop takes place on Friday 21 February in London. Tickets cost just £90 +VAT.

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