BusinessWeek’s Shirley Brady on online communities and crowdsourcing

BusinessWeek Names Me As One of Four Social Me...
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Guest post by Ben LaMothe

Last week, we posted part one of our interview with Shirley Brady BusinessWeek’s first community editor. In this second part, Shirley explains how she interacts with BusinessWeek’s news desk and how the BusinessWeek community management strategy is changing, including how BusinessWeek utilises crowdsourcing.

How much interaction is there between you at the Community desk and the editors on the content-producing side? Do you advise on what you believe will get the desired reaction from the BusinessWeek community?

I’m constantly interacting with my colleagues to parlay reader feedback and suggestions to editorial. Part of this job involves standing up for the reader and voicing their concerns and desires (enough of them know me by now, and on Twitter, to email or DM me to express their views. My email address is also listed on our featured readers page.

And another part is almost media literacy – involving readers in our journalism, opening up our process while inviting and respecting their opinions on a subject. You’ll see our reporters on their blogs and on Twitter, for example, posing questions and gauging the sentiment on a story as they’re reporting it. They’re not only cultivating sources and building their own communities, but getting more informed about each story, and their beats, in the process. We create hashtags, put up daily polls and ask a lot of questions – it all helps inform editorial decision-making in terms of what will resonate with our readership.

Community management is becoming increasingly important in the news industry as organizations begin crowdsourcing aspects of coverage. How is BusinessWeek’s community management strategy evolving? What’s next?

How BusinessWeek’s community strategy will evolve will depend on the new owner, assuming McGraw-Hill reaches a deal to sell the brand (bids closed on September 15th). Hopefully whoever acquires BusinessWeek will value community-building and reader engagement as much as we do now, if not more. There’s a ton to still be done and ideas to take this to the next level, which I won’t detail for competitive reasons but hinted at above.

As for other news organizations starting to embrace reader engagement: hear, hear! It’s been gratifying to see the New York Times name its first social media editor, Jennifer Preston, earlier this year; and impressive to see the variety and inventiveness of strategies employed by my peers such as Mathew Ingram at the Globe & Mail in Canada, Andrew Nystrom at the Los Angeles Times, or Andy Carvin at NPR, or to see what the Wall Street Journal is doing with Journal Community and the NYT with TimesPeople – all smart media organizations that understand the need to foster their communities in ways that breathe life into their brands, engage people with their content and enhance their mission and value proposition to the reader. Everybody’s trying something different, and while it might not always take off with readers, this inventiveness and entrepreneurial spirit is clearly invigorating journalism at news organizations such as the ones I’ve named above and countless others, including beyond North America (I’m inspired by, for instance, the BBC’s Have Your Say and the Guardian’s Comment is Free initiatives).

As for crowdsourcing, as noted above, we actively solicit and value our readers’ involvement and “invite them into our newsroom,” as John Byrne puts it, to inform our news decisions and editorial process. But I also believe that excellent journalism (reporting, writing and editing) has to be at the core of what BusinessWeek and other news organizations do, even as we open our doors to our readers. We’re building community around our content, injecting readers into the mix, and shaking up any old notions (if they ever existed) that journalists have the market cornered on analysis and reporting – the Internet put paid to that idea, gladly.

As John’s fond of saying, it’s about treating each story (blog post, slide show, photo-essay, interactive graphic, podcast, video) as a spark that creates a camp fire, or in John’s words, “the journalism then becomes an intellectual camp fire around which you gather an audience to have a thoughtful conversation about the story’s topic.” I love that metaphor, as it really embodies what I love about journalism – the storytelling.

In addition to being a reporter and writer throughout my career, my first full-time job in journalism was on the TV side of this business as a producer for TVOntario 20 years ago. Even then, I jumped at the opportunity to set up forums and discussions on early BBS platforms (Genie, Prodigy, CompuServe) as I was eager to engage our viewers in what we were producing and get their feedback as we shaped our programming, lined up interviews and planned our on-air schedule. It also helped build buzz and interest in seeing the final product, and always sparked additional ideas for us to pursue.

It’s not far off from what I do now, although the technology has advanced, as the online community is just as lively and eager to get great content and contribute to what you’re doing: they’ll share ownership in your success if you’ll let them in. Give them a stake in your process and they’ll come back, especially if they’re treated as partners and not just pageviews. I think it also helps that I approach this as a journalist, which helps elevate and promote the smart conversations around what’s going on in the news, on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, around the industries and business topics that matter most to our readers.

Customers sometimes do not know what they want

Image by Darren Hester via Flickr

The promise of co-creation is that getting customers involved in the innovation process, and letting them inform the design of new products, will mean that you develop a product that is better suited to their needs and will ultimately perform better in the market. Of course, it is not always this simple. Often customers don’t know what they want. They can’t necessarily articulate how they would design the ideal product, nor can they say what is wrong with the existing product. They may never have articulated what they like nor what they dislike, but this doesn’t mean that the product isn’t perfect.

Over the weekend, the New York Times looked at this very subject following revelations from ex-Google visual designer, Douglas Bowman. In an unusual move, Bowman explained on his blog the reason he had left Google. As the New York Times discussed, his description of the design process at Google raises a number of questions:

Can a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? Can its products become dull if they are tailored to match exactly what users say they want?

Bowman’s suggestion is that that answer to all of these questions is “yes”. That Google relies too much on data, as a proxy of customer input, and not enough on design skills alone. As the New York Times article report:

Mr. Bowman’s main complaint is that in Google’s engineering-driven culture, data trumps everything else. When he would come up with a design decision, no matter how minute, he was asked to back it up with data. Before he could decide whether a line on a Web page should be three, four or five pixels wide, for example, he had to put up test versions of all three pages on the Web. Different groups of users would see different versions, and their clicking behavior, or the amount of time they spent on a page, would help pick a winner.

This kind of user-input into the design process is what many think of when they think of working with their customers on new product development and design. They think of presenting a number of options to customers (or indeed to potential customers) and then asking them to evaluate each one and choose the one they prefer (or in this case to take their use of a particular design as a proxy for this choice). Of course, this is not necessarily the best way of co-creating with your customers.

Rather than asking people what they think about a particular set of designs they prefer (or which they use most), you can often get a more useful level of insight by engaging with them. Don’t ask them about solutions to a problem but observe what they discuss and say about the problems themselves.

Imagine you are a company designing kitchen equipment. You could involve your customers in the design and innovation process in one of three ways:

  1. Ask them what they want - ask what new equipment, tools or gadgets would make their life in the kitchen easier or allow them to do new things
  2. Ask them to choose between a set of prototypes - present a set of potential new products to them and ask them to choose which they want.
  3. Ask them to talk about what they do in the kitchen, what equipment they use and what problems they have

The last of these is most likely to produce the most insightful outcomes. Rather than asking people to get involved in the actual prototype products themselves, or to tell you what they want, get them involved further up the innovation funnel. Engage them and talk to them about what they use in the kitchen - what makes their lives easier, what would they like to be able to prepare and cook but can’t. Don’t talk to them about the equipment that, you hope, will solve their problems. Talk to them about their problems themselves.

By watching what people do you can then interpret this and begin a design process based on this information and this engagement. Then, rather than just presenting three options to people of potential new designs, you can approach them based on what they have discussed before: “there was a lot of discussion about x, here are some ways we think we could help with that. What do you think?”

This kind of engagement is where online communities really come to their fore. They let you engage your customer in a sustainable way. You can get to know them, their lives and the problems and challenges they face. It isn’t just a short-term process to “do some co-creation”, rather it is long-term engagement that fundamentally changes the way you innovate and develop new products.

Customers sometimes do not know what they want. It’s a fact. They do, however, know how they use what they have, the problems they face and the things they would like to be simplified. Understand what they do know rather than forcing themselves to make choices about things they don’t.

  • Design: it’s not all about you. (designmind.frogdesign.com)
  • Design Or Data? Ex-Googler Spills All After Landing At Twitter [Design] (gizmodo.com)
  • Google designer leaves, blaming data-centrism (news.cnet.com)

BBC and Business Week show it’s how you organise the information that counts

At FreshNetworks we spend a long time working with clients on the organisation of information in online communities. You can have the best content in the world, but if you can’t find it, then it’s of no use. You need to work hard to organise information thematically and make it easier for people to find what they want.

A few months ago the BBC launched its Topics in the UK - a first step towards this kind of thematic organisation across their site. Taking content from across its site, this section organises things by themes - first it was places, then people and now some subjects too. So whether you want to find out about Hong Kong, Nicolas Sarkozy or the Edinburgh Festival you can see all of the BBC’s content in one place. From TV programmes to editorial content, news or background information on subjects.

This is a really good use of the vast and constantly changing content that the BBC has at its disposal and makes a fantastic resource for the user. Rather than having to use the search function we can now find information grouped by themes we are interested in.

A report in the New York Times over the weekend suggest that a similar thematic structure is to be launched by Business Week. But their Business Exchange pages are going a step further than the BBC:

Each Business Exchange topic page links to articles and blog posts from myriad other sources, including BusinessWeek’s competitors, with the contents updated automatically by a Web crawler. Nearly all traditional news organizations offer only their own material, spurning the role of aggregator as an invitation to readers to leave their sites.

This is an exciting step. As a reader I don’t necessarily mind where the content has come from, as long as it is clear to me when I read it. Online communities work well when they combine expert or editorial content with user generated content or input from other areas. Users want to see everything abotu a subject rather than having to hunt information down from a number of areas.

We often find that this kind of aggregation can be a good thing for the editorial content. It is this that binds together the other content and adds comment on it. The extra content acts as colour, exploring tangential areas or exploring some areas in more more depth. Thematic based information structure helps the reader, and it can certainly help the content providers too.

  • Topic Pages to Be Hub of New BusinessWeek Site
  • BusinessWeek Launching Topic Pages; Rejoices
  • Business Week Creates Business Exchange
  • Social Media: Strategies in Content and Commerce
  • Your Website Shouldn’t Be Just An Electronic Version Of Your Print Publication

New York Times and LinkedIn tie-up

I read in today’s Financial Times how the New York Times has struck a deal with LinkedIn. This is just a further example of the New York Times becoming more social (see our previous post here), and for the FT this is a sign of a significant change in the traditional media industry:

The deal, between the New York Times and LinkedIn, the largest online social network for professionals, is one of most far-reaching attempts yet by a traditional media company to tap into the booming popularity of online networks to super-charge its own services.

The deal means that personal profile data entered into LinkedIn will be used to make the content and advertising an individual sees on the New York Times site targeted to their industry, country, interests of profession.

This is a really interesting example for two reasons:

  1. It shows how traditional media and publishing firms are having to adapt to the challenges and opportunities presented by social media and social networks. They need to change the way that they offer their content and be prepared for people wanting to interact with it in different ways. The barriers between the social and the editorial are blurring.
  2. It highlights a significant benefit of social networks - the depth and richness of data that is gathered and kept by these sites. That the New York Times has struck a deal to use LinkedIn profile data to target advertising shows just how detailed this data is. With people adding and contributing to their social networks on an increasingly regular basis, the quality of this data will only heighten.

I expect us to see similar arrangements and innovations that build on these two reasons in the future. Social networks will seek to monetise the depth and quality of data they have gathered and traditional media and publishing firms are looking for new ways to target their readers. It would seem that a pairing of the two is a good solution and maybe the New York Times and LinkedIn will show us how good it could be.

  • New York Times to offer targeted stories to LinkedIn users
  • LinkedIn And New York Times Partnership
  • New York Times, LinkedIn Enter Content Partnership
  • Targeted ‘Times’ articles coming to LinkedIn
  • Study reveals the mainstream media should link out more

New York Times becomes more social

The New York Times launched a beta version of TimesPeople over the weekend. It’s their first step at adding a social layer onto their site - a recommendations service and mini-social network. It’s works rather simply:

  1. Sign-in as a registered user of www.nytimes.com
  2. Find ‘friends’ in the database or by importing contacts (currently only from gmail)
  3. Recommend or share articles that you enjoy or that you think that your friends would enjoy.

It’s the beginnings of a social network and maybe even an online community, and it’s great to see the New York Times add a social layer like this, but I really hope it’s the first stage of a broader social media strategy.

The opportunities for publishers to leverage the power of social media and social networking is huge. Sharing and recommending articles is just one of the things that people might want to do with a publisher brand and is also something that might be better done elsewhere. I can share articles from any site with my friends on Facebook; I can recommend news and content on Digg. I don’t necessarily need to do this in a site that is controlled by just one publisher.

What I want to do as a publisher site is to make the most of the content my brand produces. Understand what people enjoy reading, get them to comment on it, gather data on them and build a real understanding of what they do and think. I want to combine my editorial content with the UGC created by my readers. Get them to contribute to my content and enter into debates with other readers and the authors. I want them to rate content and by this I can know which of my authors produce content that is of most interest to the readers.

There are some publishing firms doing really interesting things at the moment. I met a large B2B publishing firm at a conference recently who award bonuses to writers based on the ratings their articles get on the site. The BBC News site has been developing, organising content by theme, engaging readers with comments and exchanges and making it easy for people to take their content with them to other sites.

TimesPeople seems to be a simple social layer added over the New York Times’s main site. I’ll be interested to see how successful it is, and to see how it develops. Will people actually use this comment and recommendation tool, or will they continue to do this in other ways and through other networks? Will the social elements of the New York Times grow to include some of the more exciting things that publishing firms can do?

Publishing is about content and content is about opinion and debate. Social media and social networking allows publishing firms to provide the stimulus for debate and provide the online community where this debate can happen. It’s going to be exciting to watch as firms develop in this area and TimePeople could be a first step in this direction.