Al-Jazeera, Globe and Mail share 7 tips for online community success

The explosion of social media adoption in the last five years has pushed to the forefront the importance to businesses of online communities in developing an overall brand strategy.

As media outfits of all sizes and shapes grapple with the reality that they now have to compete with their very audience in disseminating the news, many of these organizations have come to realize that online communities play a role beyond being a source of comments for their opinion sections.

Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail and the controversial Qatar-based, 24-hour news network Al-Jazeera, are among those who stumbled on their early forays into user-genreated content, but today continue to develop effective ways of serving their online communities.

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Tony Burman, former CBC News editor-in-chief and current Washington-based Chief strategic advisor for Al-Jazeera English, and Jennifer MacMillan, communities editor for the Globe and Mail shared their views about online communities during separate talks at the recently concluded Mesh Conference in Toronto.

No more passive consumers

“More than ever, audiences are determining how the media will evolve,” Burman told shortly after his talk entitled Al-Jazeera Reinvents Television for the Online Age.

For starters, he said, people want their news available in a variety of media so they can consume it wherever and whenever they want it. Whether it’s on the TV when they get home from work, the newspaper on their breakfast table, the laptop at the office, or their cell phone in their commute to work.

But increasingly today, people are not content to sit back and consume the news, said Burman. “They want a genuine two-way relationship with their content providers…They want to respond, engage and create – to be contributors, not mere consumers.”

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This could be said for the target audience or target customer of an organization in various industries according to MacMillan of the Globe and Mail who held a media workshop entitled How to Handle Online Comments and Community.

“In whatever business you are at, you’ll find that people want to have a say and be heard. Social media technology has given people the tools to accomplish this far better than before,” she said.

On a daily basis, MacMillan seeks out ways to engage the Globe’s 35,000-plus Facebook fans, more than 40,000 Twitter followers, and tens of thousands of readers who leave comments each day at

“When you listen to your audience, take the time to find out what their concerns are and respond to them, you build the organization’s bond with them and strengthen loyalty,” MacMillan said.

7 ways to boost relationship with online communities

Here are some of the lessons that Al-Jazeera and the Globe and Mail learned about handling online communities:

It’s all about the community (not you) – Many organizations, said MacMillan of the Globe and Mail, have the mistaken notion that because it’s their company’s online community, they have to “control it and the issues it discusses.”  Communities thrive best when given room to grow, she said. Organizations should take care to act as moderators and facilitators in the discussion but refrain from using heavy handed controlling or muzzling of the audience’s voice.

Be present in the community you’re serving – One of the key advantages of Al-Jazeera’s reporters over those of Western networks is that they are generally based in the areas they are covering. “Most of the time other agencies just send out their reporters to a region when something breaks out. Our reporters have a pulse on the sentiment of the people and what is happening in their country because they’re present with them even when things are quiet,” said Burman.

Listen and respond – Comments given by readers or customers shouldn’t be left idle for long. Let people know that you’re listening to them by responding to their posts or comments in a timely manner. Organizations can go a step further by asking online community members to contribute ideas of how a business could serve them better. For example about a year ago, the Globe and Mail started an initiative called The Globe Catalyst. The program reached out to avid readers and encouraged to work with journalists to develop story ideas. This helps the newspaper go after stories that really matter to its readers.

Engage – During the outbreak of what is now known as the Arab Awakening, or Arab Spring,when uprisings in the Arab world broke out earlier this year, Al-Jazeera found out how valuable its online community could be in helping the organization accomplish its job.

During the Tunisia and Egypt revolutions, Burman said, dictatorships in those countries targeted Al-Jazeera operations by shutting down the network’s bureaus, confiscating equipment and barring its reporters. “The first images of the Tunisian uprising were not captured by Al-Jazeera cameras but by ordinary people using their cell phone camera,” he said.

When its journalists were barred, Al-Jazeera was able to rebroadcast (after they were verified of course) photos and video posted on Facebook or fed to the station’s site by the very people living in the enflamed region, said Burman. “Instead of having a dozen journalists on the ground, we discovered that we had thousands of ‘correspondents’ feeding out network sound, photos, videos and information.”

Empower – Realizing that it has struck a previously un-touched goldmine; Al-Jazeera is now focused cultivating a corps of citizen journalists. “These people are eager to help us deliver better coverage so what we can do for them is help them do it right,” said Burman. 

According to Burman, Al-Jazeera has set up a program to develop the basic reporting skills of would be citizen journalists.

Be transparent and accountable – Online community members want organizations they support to be open and honest about their activities and decisions, according to MacMillan. “Providing people with the accurate and timely information as well as an honest explanation goes a long way in developing trust,” she said. 

For example, she said, The Globe received as lot of flack from readers when it endorsed Stephen Harper during the last federal elections. The newspaper did not retract its position but explained the reasons behind its position and how the editorial board reached such decision.

By owning up to the decision and explaining how it was reached the paper got the respect of many readers she said.

Provide options – Your audience or customers want to be able reach you through whatever channels or devices they are most comfortable using, make sure you make it possible. Beyond their respective core distribution channels, Al-Jazeera and the Globe and Mail are open to their audiences through the Internet and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Audiences can also access their sites through computers and mobile devices.

“In this era, you can’t afford to be a one channel organization, your audience or customers are coming from all sides. You need to be there when they need you,” said MacMillan.

Nestor Arellano is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter, read his blogs on Blogs and join the Facebook Page.

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