The words "community-led journalism" will elicit a shudder from many media professionals. It conjures images of stripped back teams and low quality content. So the vision of business websites built around their communities laid out by UBM chief content officer Adrian Barrick when we spoke to him last January won't have filled many of those working in the industry with confidence.
However, the model emerging at the firm's UBM Tech division in the US is a lot more nuanced than just stripping out the professionals and relaying on skeleton teams corralling an unruly mob of unpaid contributors.
We sat down with Barrick and UBM Tech CEO Paul Miller to see how the project is developing.
In June, UBM Tech shut its print editions and began converting sites to its DeusM community platform which is designed to allow readers to comment, contribute articles and let UBM monitor that activity. So far three titles, EE Times, Light Reading and Information Week have made the transition, with the remaining 20 scheduled to move over in the first half of next year.
The shift has involved the departure of editorial staff. However, Barrick claims those who left were mostly in senior editorial roles who "weren't writing any more".
"The structure of the team really reflected a commercial environment that had long gone," he says. "What we did was to re-engineer not just the size of the team, but the structure of the team. You need senior editors, but you mainly need writers and people who can help the community of bloggers."
Journalists still break news and write features, but they prioritise the topics the community are paying the most attention to.
Contributors, about 250 in the case of flagship title Information Week, are either paid very little or not at all. However, UBM Tech CEO Paul Miller insists his editorial teams are still able to apply rigorous standards by policing blog posts and copy editing and filtering contributions.
Unlike a lot of the blogosphere, we try to keep the tone where we want it to be, keep the content where we want it to be. We can say that seems like a piece of marketing fluff, or that's plagiarism. We are rejecting tons of content every day.
Is it working?
Miller says the community model has helped retain audience numbers during the shift to the new DeusM platform: "When you put a website on a new platform, you forget to put some of the Google pointers to begin with etc, we would normally expect something like a 20 percent drop after migration. That hasn't happened."
Instead of that expected 20 percent drop, Information Week page views are up 25 percent and visits are up five percent following the relaunch.
Miller says he is pleasantly surprised by the figures, but says that where the DeusM approach comes into its own is in how it ties together editorial staff and the community with the events business that drives the unit's bottom line.
-- Editorial: Even before trying to get readers involved in events, UBM Tech has focused on getting its own editorial staff more involved, both in terms of coverage and direct involvement such as chairing panels.
-- Contributors: UBM Tech is also using its contributors, both by inviting those proving popular with the community to speak, and by bringing them on to advisory boards to help choose which events to run and what topics to cover.
-- Audience: Another change has been a focus on building events around what the audience are reading and engaging with. If a particular topic attracts more interest and interaction from the community, organisers know that covering those topics is more likely to bring in delegates.
This is all tied into a more sophisticated approach to marketing, using data on what readers are consuming to work out what topics they are interested in and tailoring marketing messages accordingly. Miller says this has led to far higher levels of response, and UBM Tech is attributing hundreds of dollars of revenue on single events to the more targeted approach.
"It completely gels together," says Miller. "We've really managed to pull it together from a content perspective, but also from a database perspective. We know what content people are consuming, we know what to put on at the event and we know what invites to send these people."
Will it work elsewhere?
The audience for UBM Tech's titles is more at ease with blogging, social media and the language of "web 2.0", though Miller says they can be surprisingly conservative in adopting new technology. A comparatively high proportion of revenue also comes from delegates rather than sponsors, making that audience focus more important and profitable. Would the model be as successful in other parts of UBM's business?
Barrick thinks it will:
The reason I've spent the last year working with Paul is because this is the ideal test bed for UBM in developing a new model because this is the tech market, it's some of our biggest events and brands.
I think it's going to be different in every single community, not just the pace but the shape of it. But the one thing that having these engaged communities all year round does is it give you that connectivity every single day. Without that the world looks a rather scary place.
Will UBM still need journalists?
The logical extension of what UBM is doing at its Tech titles is to ditch the bulk of editorial teams in favour of community content. If you can get high-quality contributions from a community for free or close to it, why pay expensive journalists?
Barrick dismisses the idea, partly because it's so easy for other non-media firms to compete on those terms:
In our world our competition is not just traditional rivals, or LinkedIn, it's our own customers. People in the community can set themselves up as media companies. They can do media themselves. What sets us apart, is those editorial skills, partly the curation but also original stories and being able to work out what matters. That is still valuable.
Jasper's take: Is UBM building a new paradigm for B2B events businesses built around media? UBM Tech certainly seems to be on the right path, but we'll have to wait and see if audiences in other sectors are as prepared to get involved.
This strategy has been in place for a while, and will have been a major consideration for UBM in deciding which titles to sell and which to keep hold of.
The ideas Barrick and Miller are talking about are an attempt to enhance the way editorial output generates revenue by bringing writers closer to the people they are writing for. Getting closer to your audience shouldn't be a scary idea for anyone working in the media.
Barrick will be speaking at our Digital Media Strategies event in March. You can find the full agenda here.
Image via Flickr courtesy of E2 Conference.