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.

Things we learn from Obama: calls to action reap rewards in online communities

The Wall Street Journal blog had a post last week about The Secret Behind Obama’s Nomination (it was social networks). Even though I’m not totally convinced by how much of a secret it was, I did enjoy the article and agree that Obama more than Clinton (and more than McCain) has made great use of social media.

The WSJ post discusses a lot Obama’s tactics and use of both his own site ( and on sites such as Facebook and MySpace. However, I want to dwell on a simple but incredibly effective aspect of Obama’s own site: it is very easy to get started. In fact it’s hard not to get started. Obama’s site is a model of how to engage people and why calls to action really work in online communities.

One issue we spend a lot of time working on when building online  communities at FreshNetworks is how to ensure and encourage participation. How do you design and build a community site which will make your target audience want to take part and then take the step to actually take part, contributing something or adding to the community in some way. The best and simplest solution is just to make it really easy for the community members to do things and to make it very clear to them what the benefits are. Obama’s site is a textbook example of how to do this and, I believe, this good online strategy and design has led to the impressive online community and support that is being spoken of.

When you first visit Obama’s website, there are two features on the landing page that power this community:

  1. Calls to action: A list of very clear but very direct ways in which you can get involved in the campaign by registering to vote, hosting an event, volunteering, taking action. Whatever I might want to do, big or small, I can do from the homepage. They make no pretence that the purpose of the page is to point you in the direction of all the ways in which you can help the Obama campaign. But this makes absolute sense. If you visit the site, the chances are that you want to know more and may want to contribute in some way. By placing these very direct calls to action in such a prominent position on the homepage, they are actually making it very easy for the visitor to do exactly what they want to do on the site, without having to hunt around. It’s easy, it’s simple and best of all it’s effective.
  2. Replaying my own activities: Once signed in the homepage changes. Rather than just a set of calls to action, the site lists all the activities that I could be involved in (attending a rally, hosting an event, knocking on doors, raising money) and then tells me how much of each I’ve done in the last week and the last month. This information is also available to the other members of the community. Different communities have different purposes and work for different reasons. Obama’s is a community of purpose, one where people have a common goal (to get him elected) and are working together to achieve this. In such a community, information on what individuals and the community collectively are doing to achieve this purpose is critical. And by playing it back to me on my homepage it will remind me first of what I can do to support this purpose and secondly of how I am performing.

So Obama’s site is effective because it makes it very clear how I can take part and add to the campaign. Once I’m signed up it tracks what I do and reminds me how I can help. It’s simple and it works. Calls to action are perhaps the single most important element to make sure you get right in your community. You need to sign-post how people can take part. Let them know what they can do and the kind of activities that you expect the community members to want to do. Links and headings should be powerful, telling you what to do and the benefits. Sites who have a strong strategy of engagement usually get this right. Those without such a strategy don’t.

  • On the Convention: New Media Stream Into an Old Tradition
  • The politics of social media
  • Online Social Networks in Politics: Promise, Frustration and…
  • Close Encounters Of The Republican Kind: McCainSpace Relaunches
  • Survey: Record number of Americans following election via Web
  • McCain Lags Behind Obama in Online Fundraising, Social Networking Popularity
  • Online Community Numbers that Don’t Add Up

What if you don’t want them as a brand ambassador?

I have to admit that I have never been to an Olive Garden. In fact I only know it from an episode of Will & Grace, and only realised it was a real chain when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal yesterday. And not only is it a real chain, but it has a great and loyal following.

One famous brand ambassador in particular takes every opportunity to tell us about the brand. Sounds great, the kind of endorsement many brands dream of. The only problem is that this particular brand ambassador is not completely wanted by the brand.

Kendra Wilkinson, a Playboy cover model, television star and one of Hugh Hefner’s three live-in girlfriends, professes deep love for the Olive Garden Italian restaurant chain [...] To the consternation of Olive Garden’s marketers, who have spent millions crafting the franchise’s family-friendly image, the 23-year-old adult-entertainment star and aspiring real-estate mogul repeatedly uses her spotlight to rave about its midprice eateries

Ms Wilkinson’s brand advocacy is strong and she uses a mix of traditional and social media to spread her thoughts on the brand. Pictures and endorsements on her MySpace page are particularly effective as she has more than 730,000 friends. On one hand Olive Garden is getting the benefit of the kind of amplification of brand advocacy that you get in social media. But for them, this advocacy may not come from somebody they want associated with the brand.

So what should a brand do if it gets an unwanted brand ambassador, and should they even worry about who is enthusiastic about them? In reality there is very little that you can do. Brand ambassadors are great - they enjoy your product and are willing to go and tell lots and lots of people about it without you having to do a thing (except continue to give them the great product you make anyway). You can really benefit from them, we know that people are much more likely to trust real people than they are a brand and so when these real people recommend your brand the power is great.

The problem is that you do have no control over the situation. You can’t control who will really enjoy your brand, and you can’t control which of these people will be passionate enough to tell other people. So maybe you shouldn’t try. Maybe you should do what Starbucks do, and never comment publicly about who may or may not have been pictured with your product. Let them get on and do their thing and talk about your brand if they want to.

What you can do, however, is work actively to find advocates and amplify their word of mouth. Your brand advocates can be very separate from the brand itself - but they are really passionate about you and so engaging them can bring real benefits. These people truly believe in your brand, they want to belong to it and want to go and bear witness, telling other people about it. Though you can’t control them, what you can do is to equip them with the tools to do this. The means to tell people and to pass on their brand advocacy.

You can’t choose who your brand ambassadors are, but amplifying the word of mouth of all these people will be only positive for your brand. And it will mean that it is not just the more famous ambassadors who are widely associated with your brand, others will too.

  • Olive Garden Would Prefer to No Longer be Playmate’s ‘Soul Food’ [No Accounting For Taste]
  • Olive Garden Shuns Playboy Endorsement; Sticks To Breadsticks [Public Relations]
  • What Happens When a Big Breasted Blonde Offers an Unsolicited Endorsement of a Family Restaurant Chain
  • Playboy’s ‘Girls of Olive Garden’ Pictorial Likely to Be Served Lukewarm, In Need of Flavoring [Service With A Smile]

Yet more evidence of online community benefits

A couple of days ago I blogged about some of the emerging analysis of online communities and their benefits from the Deloitte and Beeline Labs 2008 Tribalization of Business Study. I’ve  now seen the full slide deck and have posted this below.

For me, perhaps the most shocking statistic in this study continues to be that 34% of the communities studied did not have somebody charged with managing them. One of the things that people can easily overlook with online communities is that, although technology is important, these are social environments and so the social structure needs to be set up and then managed correctly. A good community manager is critical and when paired with an effective strategy and good technology it can make a community really fly.

I should also add that whilst the social aspects are important, so is technology. In fact another revealing statistic from the study is that almost one in ten of the communities studied had more than ten community managers. With good technology and an effective strategy you can really make this process more efficient. Meaning that a community can grow significantly, without a concomitant increase in bodies managing the community.

Anyway, here are the slides

  • Do Branded Online Communities Fail?
  • Companies failing with social networks
  • Why (most) online communities fail
  • Building your Community Strategy
  • Some Evidence of Online Community Benefits

Some evidence of online community benefits

So here’s another post on the Deloitte / Beeline Labs 2008 Tribalization of Business Study that everybody seems to be talking about (including me here and here).  They are running a webinar next week on the study and I came across some slides they will be talking about thanks to Awareness Networks.

Here are a couple of slides that start to show the benefits identified of online communities. The first shows what companies are doing with online communities and the second shows the benefits they are getting.

It is clear from this that amplifying word of mouth, innovation and online research communities that are the most frequent use of online communities in the study. This mirrors our experience of working with clients and talking to people in this space. All three of these can be uses of the online community and this medium of engaging people is great for achieving them.

Perhaps of more interest for me is the second slide that looks at the benefits people are seeing of online communities. Greater awareness (including through better organic SEO) is something that is a clear benefit for brands of a community, as is generation of new ideas. What is interesting is that almost 25% of firms reported that the online community led to each of: increased sales, more referrals and more leads. This shows the clear and immediate business benefit of the communities and so the more immediate (as well as the longer term) benefits they bring.

These slides are great and start to show some of the real benefits of online communities that the study found. Adding depth and detail to the reports that came out when this study was first released.

Usage of online communities

Business measures of success

  • Do Branded Online Communities Fail?
  • Corporate Social Networks Are A Waste of Money, Study Finds
  • Social Networking in the Enterprise
  • How Internet Marketers Can Create an Extra Revenue Stream
  • Companies failing with social networks
  • Why (most) online communities fail
  • WeAreMedia Module 5: Encouraging Online Participation - Some Tips from Nonprofits
  • OCRN: The Online Community Marketing, Growth and Engagement Report
  • Why Does Corporate Social Networking Fail?
  • Corporate Social Networks Are A Waste of Money, Study Finds
  • The Art of Conversation - It’s About Listening Not Marketing
  • Requirements for a social media network