ProfNet Connect, the free online community we launched last year to connect journalists, bloggers, public relations pros, and experts, is coming up on its first anniversary in September. We’re taking a little time today to reflect on our first year (so far) and to share some things we’ve learned about building an online community.
ProfNet always had loyal groups of users, both in public relations and journalism, so we thought these groups might be interested in connecting and sharing information. Within the first month of launch, we had confirmation with thousands of people registering for the site. My colleagues Maria Perez (@profnet) and Evelyn Tipacti (@EditorEv) and I had our work cut out for us.
While it was gratifying to see so many interested people, the pressure was definitely on for us to deliver. It was imperative that we continue to grow not just in registrations, but interactions too. We will be the first to admit we were flying a bit by the seat of our pants in terms of how to manage and grow a community; we still experiment with tactics on a regular basis, but we were able to get some advice along the way.
Developing a Content Strategy for the Community
Since ProfNet is part of PR Newswire, we were able to access the wealth of knowledge from our own social media experts and those of our parent company. A sister company to PR Newswire, DeusM, is the force behind such great online communities as Light Reading, Internet Evolution and Enterprise Efficiency. We followed advice of its founder, Stephen Saunders, when it came to the frequency of publishing content. From the very beginning, we knew we needed a minimum of three new pieces of content a day to keep our community coming back for more, so we set that as our goal.
Once we had this goal, we were challenged to find a way to keep up. The good people at The Poynter Institute suggested to us that even though we weren’t a traditional media outlet, that did not mean we couldn’t follow some basic traditional journalist modes of operation. That’s when we started working with an editorial calendar and holding weekly editorial meetings. The calendar allowed us to organize our efforts and see where regular columns could fit in. The meetings gave us time to brainstorm new ideas. It’s also a time to reflect weekly on what is working and what is not.
We also learned it’s OK to promote ourselves. At Poynter, the 80/20 rule was mentioned. If you have good content 80 percent of the time, your audience will forgive your promoting yourself 20 percent of the time. We found this specifically in our main product, ProfNet Queries. We started to include links to content we had written on ProfNet Connect in our query email feeds, almost as if it was a newsletter. The content was related to the industry our customers are in, not just a random advertisement. It was a risk, one we would have pulled away from quickly if it failed, but we found that most of our customers liked what they were reading. We also discovered how effective email marketing can be.
Evolving the Community Site Features
We learned from the Agile development process that when you take regular intervals to review what is working and what is not in a very safe environment, it makes it easier to implement other changes in your process or on your site. There were a number of user-experience issues that came up over the year since launch. As a result of our process and platform, we are able to adjust features. We learned the site must constantly evolve with new features or placement of new features, and that surveying and testing is critical to this process. You can't be afraid to fail with something new -- just fail quickly and move on.
Where We Are Today
As a result of our tactics, ProfNet Connect has been performing phenomenally. In June 2011, the site had page views double from the prior month and there were over a third more unique monthly visitors to the site. Searches for profiles are up as well, as we find people are using the site to "connect" with one another. We found once we got organized, we got results and our community really started to grow. Our work isn’t done -- caring for and guiding a community with thousands of members like ProfNet Connect is an ongoing task -- and we know that to build on the success we found in the first year, we have to maintain our focus. But that’s OK. Caring for something you love is easy!
Author Sandra Azzollini is PR Newswire’s director of online content and community.