A lot is said and written about the importance of digital and social interaction in modern publishing. But the debate seems to focus on how we, the professional journalists and editors, can use what they, readers and consumers, say and think about stuff.
But what if the readers are the creators and moderators of the site? That’s how Haymarket’s car site Pistonheads.com is run – community engagement on a grand scale, linked to editorial content and with a healthy display/classified ad business bringing in cash. It grew from a one-man start-up to the country’s second-biggest car site with 3.8 million unique users a month, 300,000 user posts a month and 140,000 cars for sale at any one time. Can community publishing really drive all that?
Publishing director Stuart Forrest was speaking at an AOP event on Tuesday titled Building smart communities and I cornered him for a brief video chat:
Getting the transition from big to small just right
Pistonheads is a fascinating case study for lots of reasons, not least because of its evolution from one-man operation to big media brand. It started in as a community forum run by a single founder for enthusiasts in 1998 and was bought out by Haymarket in 2007.
As the publisher of What Car? and Autocar.co.uk, Haymarket knows the auto publishing world – but did it know anything about community management? “When we first bought it… we didn’t know what to do with it,” admitted Forrest during his talk. PH users are very keen on cars, they’re not just looking to buy a new Mondeo.
Forrest says the challenge was “overcoming audience’s suspicions about what we were doing. They thought being sold to a big media owner was a pretty dubious thing… By interfering with what users do you might spoil what it is they came for in the first place.”
Every story that is posted on the site is seeded in the forums as standard. But the site’s staff don’t have to encourage users to take part in the debate – rather, they follow what people are saying and create new threads when it’s needed.
There are no avatars, no (from what I can see) integration with Twitter, Facebook, or anything else… just a name, the amount of time someone has been signed up and number of posts.
Offline presence crucial too
From just 50 people at first, the site’s free “Sunday service” get-togethers now attract up to 1,000 people (with more left wanting to join) – big car brands, including Porsche and Mini, offer their car parks to car fans who simply turn up, show off their motors and have a chat. Here's a video from one of the meets:
Forrest points out that after the site sent hundreds of fans to Porsche recently, the company upped its advertising spend, so this stuff does matter. And here are some quick-fire advice points from Forrest’s talk:
1. “Look after your moderators.” Pistonheads has at least 30, ranging from factory workers to doctors. It doesn’t pay but does rewards like event tickets, wine at Christmas, legal training and so on.
2. “Be open and transparent with your community.”
3. And the same with advertisers -be honest if you think the brand doesn’t fit. Because if the users don’t like something, they will let you know: “The temptation is the accept the money and run but advertisers don’t like being told publicly that their product is a bit of a turd.”
4. “Have clear ad fair rules. Enforce them rigorously.”
5. Saying “no” to commercial deals requires skill and judgement. “You get offered so many ways in which you can make money… but the pile of things we didn’t do is bigger than the pile we did.”
6. “Don’t be afraid to be wrong. But admit when you are.”
7. “Always listen to the community.”