The early Internet was a haven for hobbyists—a place where Star Wars fans or vintage bicycle enthusiasts could connect with one another and share a sense of community. Thirty years later, a lot has changed (for one thing, you’re probably reading this on a phone, as opposed to a 200-pound monitor), but in many ways, the Web still serves the same basic function. People like niche things, and like to meet other people who like them, too. And so they go online, and start talking.
A good number of these conversations take place on the expected channels—Twitter, Facebook, et. al. Less remarked upon, but just as vibrant, are the conversations that take place in publishers’ comment sections. Three of our partners—IGN, PC Mag, and Taste of Home—have built strong, tight-knit communities around specific (“niche”) topics that have endured for years.
In this article, we’re attempting to shine a light on some of the ways we’ve worked together to build and sustain their communities. We’ve drawn out two key lessons that any publisher looking to cultivate a larger, more loyal audience can take from these media brands.
- You can’t get too narrow.
There’s a battle between tactics for building community online, and it looks like “going deep” is winning.
This is worth learning upfront: you can never get too niche. Take, for instance, Taste of Home. First and foremost they’re a food website, and accordingly attract an audience that likes to cook.
But by branching out with additional verticals—wellness, home decor, holiday, entertaining, organizing, and more—they’ve managed to build thriving sub-communities within the larger Taste of Home world.
These, in turn, have spawned even more niche communities. And each member of each one of these communities returns regularly to Taste of Home—engaging with content and (as important) the friends they’ve made while reading it.
Articles, in a thriving community like this one, are just jumping-off points for involved, layered discussions.
- Conversation takes two.
Any thriving community of users online had leaders. On Reddit, these are moderators – usually composed of those passionate enough about the topic of their community to volunteer their time to support the operation.
For publishers with successful communities, these “leaders” are staff members and writers who love your niche as much as your readers do. Without this link between reader and staff, readers may feel like they’re talking amongst themselves, wholly separate from the editorial side.
Sure, this is an investment of time – but it pays dividends in loyalty, and staff needn’t spend too much time engaging at all. Simple acknowledgment of a few comments is often enough.
This kind of smart participation on the part of staff can easily bridge the perceived divide between publisher and reader. At its best, it can keep the conversation lively and spin it off in compelling new directions. Meanwhile, with OpenWeb’s sorting algorithm, the best comments are elevated to the top. This reduces toxicity, shines a light on high-quality conversations, and gives your staff a hint at who’s best to engage with.
So, now what?
Good news: these strategies aren’t solely the domain of niche publications. Any publisher, large or small, niche or widely-applicable (think of OpenWeb partners Yahoo! or AOL News), can use tools like the ones available in OpenWebOS to build, engage, retain, and re-engage the community.
Let’s have a conversation.