How The Guardian Prepared for Brexit’s Impact on Community Engagement

Mary HamiltonWhen the results of the Brexit referendum were announced, the people of the United Kingdom reacted immediately online. Many of them chose The Guardian’s website as their venue, sharing their thoughts with the readers of one of country’s most popular news outlets.

When a highly-charged political issue like this comes to pass, I always think about my friends and peers who work community in the media, and the challenges they must be facing. If you want to talk about Brexit’s impact on comments, community and moderation, there is perhaps no one better to speak with than Mary Hamilton, executive editor for audience at The Guardian. She joins me to discuss the preparation and the impact, plus:

  • What Mary learned from building local audience teams in Australia and the U.S.
  • The ROI of on-site community for The Guardian
  • Are online comments of historical significance?

Big Quotes

“We have a strategy which is building towards membership. We know that some of our commenters are our most engaged audiences, they’re the people who are most likely to want to contribute to our journalism in a meaningful way, and we see enormous value in those direct relationships with that audience, and outsourcing that to other organizations doesn’t make strategic sense to us.” -@newsmary

“[If what] you mostly care about is that people are reading you, not necessarily the platform on which that’s happening, and you’re not bidding for a membership or even a subscription approach, then in that case, I can completely understand why you’d use the Facebook Comments plugin, because at that point you’re boosting the reach of your work off-platform, at the same time as maintaining that form of engagement.” -@newsmary

“[An] important thing about community that a lot of news organizations miss or don’t see value in, is what happens when you listen. The point of commenting isn’t just to let people make a comment. The interesting things happen with commenting, and with on-platform community engagement of all kinds, when you actually listen to what people are saying and then feed it back into your news generation processes.” -@newsmary

“What your readers can help you with in terms of the journalism is just astonishing. Genuinely incredible. And there are news organizations who don’t do that sort of work, who don’t prioritize that sort of work, and for them the value exchange and the value discussion is going to be different, I think. … It’s hard to justify it as community work, if you’re not actually engaging with the community that you’ve found.” -@newsmary

“I’m a huge believer in the power and the importance of careful moderation for ensuring that everybody gets to speak and also ensuring that people don’t end up just yelling at each other, with no purpose and no reason. … Because we know that people will speak on our comment threads who wouldn’t feel comfortable or confident speaking elsewhere. And when those people’s voices are heard, and those people are able to articulate themselves, sometimes change happens.” -@newsmary

“The Guardian has a massive, massive dataset of comments. We’ve kept every comment made on The Guardian since we opened comments, I think nearly 20 years ago now. That dataset provides an enormously, potentially valuable resource, not just for historians of the future, but also present-day sociologists, present-day people who are looking into the way that communities develop and react. I don’t think The Guardian or indeed, any other news organization alone, has the scope to be the avatar of, ‘This is how people reacted.’ But I do think this stuff is valuable, and is worth documenting historically.” -@newsmary

“[When dealing with an emotionally-charged news event in your community:] Prepare for the unexpected. Don’t build yourself an incredibly rigid plan and then try to stick to it, because what happens on the day will basically destroy whatever plan you had. Plan to be as flexible as you can be, so that you can react to what’s happening, rather than what you think will happen.” -@newsmary

About Mary Hamilton

Mary Hamilton is The Guardian’s executive editor for audience and has been working in community building and management – along with social media, SEO, growth hacking and analytics – for the last four years. Mary helped launch The Guardian’s Australian edition before moving to New York to build an audience team there, then coming back to London to head up global audience strategy.

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