Build Communities Around Your Most Engaged Users

A big-name daily newspaper is trying a quiet test with a group of its subscribers—and the early success exhibited by this strategy makes it an idea that anyone with a community interest should keep an eye on.

The Boston Globe, like other legacy newspapers, has a lot of problems and some major issues to solve.

But it also has an audience dedicated to its mission—the kind of long-term subscribers who both care about their community and see that the Globe’s mission is just as important as it’s portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight.

Currently, the paper is contemplating a massive reorganization of its team with an eye toward digital—which might give more resources to the types of journalism that the paper is uniquely organized to build, while moving away from the everything-to-everyone model that’s long defined them to the public. (Boston media blogger Dan Kennedy has the details on that.)

But, today, I want to focus on a very small experiment that the paper is trying that I think associations should be watching closely. It’s being done on everyone’s least-favorite social network, Facebook. And it’s proof that, by thinking differently about what you’re offering your most dedicated members, you can succeed at using established tools in new ways.

Here’s the skinny: The Globe recently decided to create a Facebook group that is only open to its paying subscribers. It’s effectively designed to turn something that a newspaper might generally focus on—public-facing distribution—into a way to nurture the community that actually really likes receiving a pile of dead trees on their stoop every morning.

Reporters have access to the group, in case one of their stories becomes a point of discussion, good or bad. In addition, circulation folks have their eye on the group in case someone doesn’t get their paper—not an insignificant issue for the Globe, which just 12 months ago had disastrous delivery problems that were bad enough to drive headlines.

Small But Engaged

Matt Karolian, the Globe’s director of audience engagement, says that this approach is meant to take something that has worked well for the company—that is, Facebook—and apply it in a new context.

“We’ve squeezed all the water out of the Facebook page stone — where the pages are great and can generate a ton of traffic,” Karolian told Harvard’s Nieman Lab last week. “But there’s a whole bunch of Facebook that isn’t pages, that people use extensively but publications aren’t using extensively. And there’s untapped opportunity in Facebook groups.”

So far, the group is proving itself a useful benefit for the roughly 2,000-plus subscribers that are a part of it. Despite being a much smaller network of people than the newpaper’s 500,000-strong Facebook page, the group drives twice as much conversation on an average post. While the network is moderated to prevent heavily promotional content, the approach taken by Karolian and his team is mostly hands-off.

At this point, the group’s member count also is just a tiny fraction of the people who actually receive the paper in subscription form. ( According to a piece on Bates College’s website, the newspaper stands at a circulation of 250,000 on Sundays and 150,000 on weekdays—both numbers far removed from the their peak totals in the mid-1990s.) The Globe isn’t heavily promoting the effort and letting it grow organically.

Still, a strategy like this might prove handy for keeping the current subscriber base happy.

“For publishers who have a paywall, building as much value into the paywall as possible makes a lot of sense, and so far this group appears to be something of value. We want to be able to create more of these touchpoints for readers,” Karolian added in his comments to Nieman. “If other metro dailies could go ahead and do this as well, it would help us all have a much larger dataset to understand what’s successful, what isn’t.”

Building Community the Right Way

This approach might sound somewhat obvious to folks running a private community in an association, but I still think it’s worth analyzing, simply because they seem to be doing a good job putting the pieces together.

Putting your most passionate supporters in the same community and giving them extra TLC is the very definition of creating value—a huge challenge, especially for a newspaper.

Small steps like this one help to right the ship by bringing together the most active and interested community members in a more effective way.

And let’s be honest—comments on a newspaper article or on a Facebook page are terrible. If offering a narrower audience to its most engaged users helps raise the tenor of conversation, that’s probably a good thing for a newspaper.

Another thing I like about this is that there’s a customer-service element being brought into the group. And I don’t just mean among the circulation people. The idea that reporters are stepping in to play or offer perspective is inspired, and helps to encourage a more personal relationship with the news.

As I’ve said before, foundation is a hugely important part of building a community, because you only get to really do it once. The Globe can only do so much about the broader internet, but by focusing on the people who have the highest potential to engage certainly encourages positive trends down the line.

If there is a quibble to the strategy, it’s that the group cedes ownership to Facebook, which is, as we’ve discussed, a double-edged sword: It helps build the audience from pre-existing roots, but it comes at a cost of independence. Still, there are nonetheless many directions to take this basic idea—both in terms of technology (Slack groups, as tried at Gimlet Media, would also be a good strategy here) and in terms of narrowly focused groups themselves (free idea for the Globe: put one of these together for Red Sox fans).

Again, maybe this is obvious to your association. Maybe you’re already doing all this. But it’s good to see someone else get it right—especially in an industry as challenged as the newspaper business—because nailing the strategy is often the hardest part of the community-building process.

It’s one small, useful solution that could help The Globe solve a bigger problem.


Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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