Get Out! Running an Online Community Like a Political Campaign
I'm often asked what a typical day is like as managing editor of an online community. I often respond, "What do you mean by 'typical day'?" Running a hyperlocal online community like MyTopiacafe.com is more like running a political campaign than an online news site. You must be the candidate, campaign manager and media relations coordinator all rolled into one.
Many books and online guides for running online communities (like the Newspaper Association of America's recently published Online Community Cookbook by my Tidbits colleague Rich Gordon) detail many of the front- and back-end activities that are critical to successful sites. Gordon believes managing online communities does require an unusual skill set -- "part psychologist, part social worker, part police officer." And the cookbook hints that this unique personality may not be found in the newsroom where information and communication flow is more controlled. (Politely put, Rich!).
News pros who run community sites might be tempted to routinely put the the mechanics of building and maintaining the site ahead of "press the flesh" tasks precisely because that requires coming out from behind the computer.
Earlier this week I appeared on a local radio show to talk about MyTopiaCafe.com. The host invited me at a recent MyTopiaCafe.com Block Party for a Cause -- where our site partnered with a local nonprofit and restaurant to bring our online users together for a fundraiser.
To get folks to turn out for that party, I used low-tech tools like the telephone and e-mail. I also "worked" the event: discussing our sponsored nonprofit organization, and talking up our site's latest Helping Hands donation function. This wasn't idle chatter -- I was making connections and getting that valuable mic time at the radio station.
I'm often out in the community -- speaking at churches, meeting with nonprofit administrators, on field trips with students taking pictures... and generally doing whatever it takes to make and keep MyTopiaCafe.com in the forefront of local people's minds.
In this election season, we can learn a lot from successful political campaigns:
- Know your base. Understand your key constituents -- their age, where they shop, how many kids they have, etc. Tailor your content and site functions to meet their daily needs for information and sharing. Don't alienate this group.
- Stay "on message." When I talk about MyTopiaCafe.com, I emphasize a few key phrases: "building community," "making strangers into friends," and others that complement our written philosophy. (Yes, we do have a written philosophy.) Our content, functions, site architecture, and design all reinforce this message.
- Wear out the shoe leather. Hit the streets with camera and notepad in hand and go where the people are. Be willing to accept speaking engagements on a wide range of local topics. Recruit others to help evangelize your site and its uses. Don't underestimate the power of a few committed believers/users... and reward them when you can.
- Create strategic alliances. Target the groups or people who can get the most benefit from the site. In our case, nonprofit organizations use our tools to promote their services and events. We provide a donation exchange called Helping Hands where people can post their wish lists for goods and volunteers. I also work with local higher education institutions as a guest lecturer to talk about media-related topics. This allows me to tap into the college community -- including students with talents in journalism, photography, and Web development.
So call me the "hostess with the mostest." Running a community site requires an outgoing personality, a passion for people and their ideas, the ability to make connections between people and needs, and a commitment to keeping those campaign promises you make while on the trail.