How do we create a community? This question is frequently asked by editors as well as by marketing managers and other business people. More and more, I don’t think you can create communities.

Communities already exist. You can try and offer them a news service or a platform that the community finds useful and engaging, but forget trying to control that community or shape it to meet the needs of your media company. The community calls the shots, not you or your company.

In December, I attended the LeWeb conference in Paris. I was impressed by Chris Pirillo, who told us that people who view communities as “tools” are tools themselves. Control is an illusion. (In fact, during his passionate presentation, Pirillo said “control is bullshit.”)

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest a simple way to make your newsroom or website do a better job of connecting with the community you serve: writing meta-stories.

Meta-stories are stories about what’s happening on your website, and about what happens in the newsroom. They’re a great way to engage the community.

Tell a Story From Forums, Comments

We allow people to post comments directly to our newspaper’s website, but we intervene and moderate whenever the debate gets personal or off-topic. This is a story in itself. I have started writing a daily story about the comments on our site and in our discussion forums. I’ve been amazed by the hidden gems of insight I’ve found. It really is a story in itself to examine how people react when a story breaks, and how the discussion evolves.

It’s also important to have a forum where people can come together and interact. This is a way for them to help tell a meta-story. Using CoveritLive, I hold chat sessions each weekday (for between 30 and 60 minutes) with or without a special guest. (We’re a financial newspaper, so mostly we chat about what happened with the markets.) This synchronous contact with our community builds trust. Beyond that, often people make very useful suggestions, like “why don’t you publish that investment guide each quarter instead of only once a year, we really like and need it.” Or they suggest interesting new angles for news stories.

Allow the Community to Listen In

My next way to create a meta-story is very simple: I talk to my colleagues. I ask them what they’re up to, and what their thoughts are about ongoing stories. I just jot down a list of topics and ideas and post them on our financial blog. This becomes a story about what’s going on inside the newsroom as we prepare our reporting.

Go Where Your Community Is

Once I’ve written my meta-stories, I share them on Facebook and Twitter in order to try and reach an even broader group of interested people. But even though I use Facebook and Twitter, I suggest focusing on the places where the community tends to focus its presence and attention.

For our paper, we generate the most debate and comments on our website, rather than on Facebook or Twitter. Our audience is interested in finance and economics, which means they have an interest in innovation and technology. But they’re not geeks and aren’t necessarily tech savvy, meaning that only a minority of them actively use Twitter.

Even though I’m personally inclined to spend lots of time on Twitter, I force myself to hang out more on our site. Maybe it’s not the latest in social media technology, but it’s where our community hangs out.

They Actually Like It

At first I was afraid that community members would complain about my comment meta-stories: ‘Why did you mention his comment and not mine?’ It didn’t happen. People actually told me they appreciated the effort, even if they weren’t the one being featured. I also get the impression some of them have started writing carefully worded comments in order to be included in the comments story.

As for my colleagues, my fear was they would object to being quoted when they are in the early stages of their reporting. It seems, however, they have no objections at all. They actually seem to appreciate the fact that their work is being noted and updated, and all they have to do is to speak to me or to jot down what they’re up to — much like status updates, in fact. It gives the editorial work a stream-like, real-time web urgency.

Keep Things Simple

So forget about complicated community-building strategies. Meet the existing community you want to serve, talk to them, talk to your colleagues, write down the whole process, and put it out there for everyone to read. (This approach works equally well for those who work with sound or video.)

Then combine that with a synchronous session (such as chat) and have real-time interactions. You’ll be surprised how much your community will teach you — not only about the news, but about what you do.

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I’d love to hear about your suggestions and thoughts about using meta-stories! Please share then in the comments.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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