#newsrw: Need some online buzz? Create your own personalised network with social media

So you’ve found your all-important content niche, you’re producing quality stuff – but how do you build up an audience?

It’s all about understanding your community, putting effort into building a network and producing old-fashioned quality content, according to a panel at our news:rewired conference on Friday.

First up on the panel was Tony Curzon-Price, editor-in-chief of Open Democracy – which he says “tells the unfolding story of democracy across the world”.

Curzon-Price says that while in the recent past promoting online content mainly involved improving an article’s ranking on search engines or increasing RSS subscribers – what he calls “diffuse networks”, which are now less important:

It used to be absolutely critical to get the piece you wanted read high in Google ranking, it took a lot of active work to get the piece in front of the right minds. I think that’s less and less the case.”

Nowadays, he says, “efficient distribution, where everyone around the world is consuming the right piece of media,”requires the understanding of person-to-person, decentralised networks such as email, Twitter, Facebook and even bulletin boards: “Most of our time should be spent cultivating small, powerful networks.”

Vikki Chowney, editor of Centaur Media’s Reputation Online site, which covers brand identity and PR, warns that one thing you definitely can’t do is buy a ready-made community off the shelf. There are no shortcuts:

You will find lots of tools that promise to give you instant gratification and give you 2,000 Facebook followers. But you need to remember that the quality of that community is very poor and therefore pretty worthless.

You will also get people who will create user-generated content for you. But if you’re going to build a community, paying people to do that on your behalf is just as much of a waste of time.

Instead, publishers should try to “light the touch-paper” and create their own genuine communities by making content discoverable, shareable and allowing readers to interact with content in a live setting. “There is a reason for the hype about Twitter,” she says: about 30 percent of Reputation Online’s traffic comes from Twitter.

But Chowney urges would-be social media gurus to remember that in one sense nothing has changed: “Traditional rules apply – it would be absolutely pointless to create buzz if we didn’t have great content.”

That content includes newsletters, wrap-up posts and columns – all of which contributes another third of Reputation Online’s traffic. And don’t forget the most old-school of journalistic tools: getting out of the office. “Going to events like this and meeting people, shaking their hands is important and means that I know the people who know what they’re talking about.”

Still unconvinced by Twitter? Then here’s a real-life example of how social media and personalised networks can create an online buzz very effectively: Mike Harris, public affairs manager at the Libel Reform Campaign, told the session how his site ended up securing three manifesto promises on libel reform before the election and a well-subscribed private members’ bill on libel reform.

About a quarter of the 184,821 unique users the site has attracted since the campaign launched last November came from links from just 10 sympathetic journalists and bloggers such as Simon Singh, atheist-in-chief Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre, of Guardian and fame.

Harris says the site’s second biggest driver is Twitter and again the trend is for a small group of influential users recommending the site to their followers: 4,819 unique visitors to came from 10 twitterers. One solitary message from twitterati figurehead @stephenfry brought in 1,918 visits.

On a technical point, Harris reveals that “We don’t have a Twitter account, we have a hashtag” – so instead of pumping out messages from a central Libel Reform account, the organisation instead promotes debate about the issue and encourages high-profile supporters to get involved.

Here’s an audio interview with all three panelists:

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