How magazines can build community

February 2, 2009

Community was the hot buzzword around magazine offices last year, and it doesn’t seem to be going away soon. Magazines aren’t just print products anymore, of course – to fit in these days, you have to be a multiplatform brand that builds community among your readership, makes use of social media, fits in some user-generated content… things have become a lot more complicated.

Of course, just because everyone else is doing something doesn’t mean you should, or even that it works. Case in point: social networks. Many magazines/magazine companies have been integrating social features into their sites, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but I like Steve Smith’s perspective on MinOnline:

Brand hubris leads too many sites to construct their own social networks (a la Facebook) in the truly bizarre belief that their visitors (who already have vibrant Facebook communities) really want to build another one at a magazine site. Chant the trendy mantra magazines are communities to ourselves often enough at every industry conference, and I guess eventually we believe it.

This is so true. Think about it: if you don’t have the time or inclination to join eight or nine different networks, why would your readers? It’s unlikely you’ll be able to duplicate Facebook’s success, and even if you could, it’s an open question how much real money they’re making from the site. For every Facebook or Twitter there’s a pile of social sites that will never find success.

But back to magazines. How can we build community around our brands, and should we? I think the answer is a qualified yes. Qualified because it really, really depends on each individual case. General interest magazines have the hardest time here. It’s hard to find a nexus to build a community around when your publication has no true focus. Trying to target every Canadian woman between the ages of 25 and 45? Well, guess what – most of them are already quite happy on Facebook and probably a few other sites. What can you offer them that they don’t already have?

Niche magazines, on the other hand, have it easy in a way. Runner’s World has an extremely vibrant community, centred around its forums. They got in the game early enough that no one else beat them to it – if there had already been a hugely popular online running community by the time Runner’s World got around to building its own, it probably wouldn’t be as popular. Take the knitting community: Ravelry is a very popular – and very good – social network that revolves around knitting and crocheting (still in beta last time I checked) and was started by a couple of entrepreneurs. (As an aside, never underestimate knitters, especially online. They’re everywhere.) Interweave Knits or another knitting magazine could have started it first and been successful, but they didn’t – and it’s a whole lot harder now. Finally, one of my students introduced me last week to the magazine The Chronicle of the Horse, out of Virginia. They have very busy forums and a fairly new social network (Chronicle of My Horse) that is, obviously, focused on the horse-loving community, which, like knitters, is a pretty ideal target for online community building (highly engaged, geographically dispersed).

This is a very long way of saying that you don’t have to do everything online. For one thing, it’s impossible. For another, you’re a magazine: your strength is on producing good editorial (or at least I hope so), so build on that strength. Build on what readers know and trust you for. Smith suggests a hybrid of magazines and social sites, in a way: “participatory content”, or building debate around your professional editorial, and “content participation”, or putting your staff in the middle of the conversation and building community from that angle. And I agree with him: there’s a lot we can do to build community online without trying (and failing) to be the next Facebook.

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One Response to “How magazines can build community”

  1. Matthew Says:

    Great post–nice to see this being discussed. A lot of my clients ask for things like “web 2.0 features” and “Digg buttons” without knowing what they are, or why they want them.

    It’s not difficult to take advantage of someone when they don’t have all the facts, and I see a lot of people just going ahead and charging their clients to add these features that aren’t needed or appropriate. So instead of a vibrant, dynamic site, you have a ghost town that’s not very inviting to new visitors.

    If you’re a magazine and hiring someone to build your brand/website, and they aren’t explaining to you the why and why-nots of these aspects, you should probably hire someone else. It is the designer’s job to explain these things to a client (the same way a print designer should be telling their clients the reasons why they need high-res images), but that doesn’t always happen in reality.

    If you do want to add social media to your site, take advantage of things like Facebook Connect (http://developers.facebook.com/connect.php) and OpenID (http://openid.net/). Both are ways to let people you are members of established networks to use that information to contribute to yours. Like you say, if you’re already part of 8 or 9 networks, where’s the incentive to join a new one?


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