Liveblog: The Value of Building Community

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the liveblog of the BlogHer Food '10 panel "Voice - The Value of Building Community."

Here's the description:

No blog is an island; some level of community exists in every corner of the Internet, on every niche blog. But if that community isn’t continually nurtured and maintained, can it thrive? Let’s talk about supporting and giving voice to your community, and how it’s beneficial to you as the community organizer and to the overall food blogging community. Elise Bauer, already running her leading food blog, created the Food Blog Alliance. Considered an expert at growing by giving back, Elise moderates a discussion with Kristen Doyle, from Dine and Dish, who also launched the Adopt a Blogger program and the group food photography site, Culinary Snapshot, Ree Drummond from The Pioneer Woman who started her own online community, Tasty Kitchen and Alaina Browne, founder and General Manager of group blog Serious Eats. They'll discuss the hows and whys of building your community. You may feel like your blog keeps you plenty busy on its own, but there's no denying the power and value of giving your community a bigger voice.

Your liveblogger is Denise. Check back during the panel (2:30pm - 3:45pm October 9) for the liveblog!

Can't make it to BlogHer Food? Get the virtual conference pass now!

Welcome everyone!

This session is about community: What do you mean by community? What does it mean to create and nurture a community around our food blogs?

AB: Serious Eats will be 4 in December and is a food blog and community - one of the things we've done is community was always planned to be part of what we do. When we launched, we thought about creating a cocktail party type of experience. A bunch of people having small conversations and co-mingling. We aren't the experts, our community is the expert. We want to make sure we're listening to them. We have a combo forum/group blog so the community can start conversations. Also an area where people can share their photos. We are always looking for ways to expand our community and make sure we listen to them.

KD: We match new bloggers with bloggers who've been writing for a year or more. When you're new to food blogging you need to have a tribe to turn to when you have questions. It launched as a brand new site. We expanded beyond food to craft, design & lifestyle. If you know something, you should share it instead of holding it back. The more you share the more you personally gain. Culinary Snapshot allows people to share their wisdom and allows others to learn from them.

RD: I started Pioneer Woman in 2006 on a whim and slowly worked my way into posting recipes in my daily life on the ranch. After awhile I started realizing people on my site also had recipes they wanted to share. So I wanted to start a site and launched Tasty Kitchen in 2009 - I call it a happy level recipe site. Everyone posts their favorites and things that work.

EB: I started simply recipe in 2003. I also have Food Blog Alliance where food bloggers have written how-tos. I'm not very good at moderating stuff, so it's a little slow. Now I'm sending folks to Jaden's foodblog forum. I created food blog search too because I like to highlight other food bloggers when I'm writing.

RD: I wanted to highlight recipes of people who read my site but I also wanted to make it attractive for food bloggers to share their recipes. They can post their text only recipe and link back to their site. Like Elise, I'm happiest when I'm able to give people a chance to show their best work.

EB: When I think of community I think of "this" (the room) my foodblogger communities. What is the difference in your mind between a reader community and an audience?

AB: An audience is a one way conversation. Yuu're talking and others are taking it in but community implies a two way conversation. The web is inherently community friendly as opposed to magazines, with the exception of letters to the editor. Online you have comments and links. Passive members who are just reading and you don't know they are there. Community members are visible and talking = to you and each other.

EB: Do you promote and encourage conversation between members?

AB: We do we highlight community conversations on our homepage and give it the same status as other content.

EB: You make people register?

AB: Yes, it was an easy decision for us. We require user registration to comment, it's a huge filter to making sure people behave because they are accountable for what they say. We also have community guidelines. People don't always read them but it's helpful to have them to refer to. We contact people directly when they violate community guidelines - usually it's personal attacks and we contact them offline and remove inappropriate comments. It's like you're having them in your house, if they behave inappropriately you'd ask them to leave.

KD: A lot of your community members help you by reporting problems. They email us. They also help define the tone and will try and explain how things work.

EB: How many members do you have?

AB: 200,000 but a much smaller number are active.

Question: You were very successful very quickly, how did you develop such a huge community so fast?

AB: There are couple of things, I've been blogging in some form since 1998. I started a food blog since 2003. We think like bloggers, we understand blogging and the community - and it's the content. We produce a lot of content which drives traffic which creates community.

Our mantra is Passionate, Discerning, Inclusive. We try to be welcoming to people of all backgrounds and knowledge.

EB: How about you Ree? Do you have community guidelines or problems?

RD: I do have guidelines and moderate comments on Tasty Kitchen. You know the George Carlin words? I moderate those. I've found it's better if I don't hover. What I love about Tasty Kitchen is that when I started it, I started by asking people to comment with their favorite recipes for a contest and people were asking me to index these recipes and that's how Tasty Kitchen was created.

The big surprise is even though it's my site, it's not about me at all. My voice isn't the over-riding voice it's the community voice. The people have defined the voice.

It's so much better to build a community when you already have a site and readership, you can have a community grow up and out of that following. Companies wanted to build my community - but it doesn't work that way, there has to be a heart and purpose behind it. In my experience it grew from the voice that was there.

AB: The vision for our site has evolved. I imagined a very video centric site, now there's some video but not a lot. I didn't imagine it would have recipes but people love them so it's a big part of our site now.

EB: With Adopt a Blogger what have you done to help nurture the community?

KD: I can't say I've personally done a lot, I think that we as foodbloggers have such a unique community, we want to help others. I remember the first comment on my blog.

I met one of my adoptees last night, having someone who is there to support you - to have that one person who comments on your blog and helps promote you is so important.

It really just happened organically. My inbox is full of people who want to be adopted. After you've been adopted, a year later you're going to come back and adopt people. It's a family of community that just helps you not feel so alone.

EB: The thing for me with the foodblogging community, when we started there were less than 20 food blogs and we all knew each other. We'd get together, I'd drive to SF and meet people and it was a special time. People coming in now, and there are thousands of foodbloggers, it's still all about building relationships one by one and building that support network around you.

What we do can be really lonely work. I can not leave my house for days.... My food blogging friends make me happy, keep me happy.

KD: I'm learning as much from my newest adoptee as she is learning from me. So everyone has a gift they can share, don't think you don't have enough wisdom to share.

Question: Elise, you have a robust comment section and we do too - are comments enough to call it community? I'm terrified of letting users cross that line. We're so careful with recipe testing and I'm terrified to let that happen. How do you take a baby step without destroying a brand that you've built? (David Leite)

EB: I have the same question. I'd be so terrified. I'm a control freak.

KD: I think it's not for everybody.

RD: What are you afraid is going to happen? Elise copyedits my emails, by the way.... you can have a discussion forum community without letting them have total control. Do you want a recipe section or ...?

Question: I'm not sure, what's that first baby step? (David Leite)

EB: Food 52 - they started an ask a question. I think she's insane because you have to actually answer the question.

Audience Response: What happens is you ask the question and the community answers and the best answer gets a prize.

AB: I think you've already invited people in by letting them comment. You have to trust that they're going to behave and take that leap. Trust that people are basically good. The most important thing to know is community takes on a life of its own and you can't control it. You can guide it but not control it. Community building is like gardening - you have to tend it in order for it to grow. It is scary but is also rewarding.

Question: You're talking about weeding your garden. What about trolls? Elise has taught us to just delete them.

AB: Ban them.

RD: About trolls, there are different kinds of negative comments. Not every negative comment is a troll. There are legitimate criticism that's legitimate conversation. For awhile I said I wasn't going to delete any comments but now I do if they just post attacks or if they attack other members of the community.

KD: But your community will defend you.

RD: But I don't want that either.

EB: If you leave that up, that hijacks the thread so that's why I hide those. I don't want the discussion to go down that rabbit hole.

RD: Trolls don't really hate my hair, it's just sport for them to leave those kinds of comments.

RD: My earliest recipes were stripped down real America recipes - my lasagna has cottage cheese and someone replied "I can't believe you make that "HILLBILLY!" - I love that.

Question: A lot of us aren't ready for us to start a big community but we have Facebook fan pages. How do you manage that community? To me it's an extension of my blog that allows me to open up to my community without it being on my blog.

KD: I think you use your Facebook page really well. I know someone who asks what you're having for dinner and she gets a ton of answers. I think that's probably the only type of broad community I'm every going to have is a Facebook fan page.

If people know that you're going to put a menu plan on your Facebook page or ask for ideas or as a place to use contests or something, you'll grow that community.

EB: How many of you have Facebook fan pages? (most of the room)

RD: I think it's a great idea if you aren't ready to launch a custom community site. Having a Facebook community is a great way to build traffic so when you are ready you've got that built in traffic.

AB: We have them, one of the most interesting things is we post there daily with links back to Serious Eats (curated version) when we post there we try to have a conversation and we position content a little differently on Facebook. There are different people there from those who are on our site. There are people who just read the web via Facebook. They can comment or like something. It's easy.

Question: Most of the comments on this one recipe are great but 10% are 'How can you post this because it's horrible?' I feel like I should accept that feedback but I also feel like responding 'maybe you should try again - and make it exactly as I posted it (since they often say they've changed it...)'

EB: I had a negative comment on a recipe, 'I used celery seed instead of celery and it sucked.' I wrote back saying it was the celery seed.... I don't post the comments that aren't constructive. If there's nothing constructive, if it's just a personal taste negative comment that's fine.

RD: I don't have a lot of people to talk to on the ranch so forgive me.... I have this pecan recipe is just good, and I'm not very active in my comment section because it takes time away - but I tend to reply to single dads who ask me questions.... so this guy said the pecan pie was really runny (but tasted good) so I asked him some questions, he made it again, same thing - it's like soup. I said gosh I don't know try it again... third try, same thing. So I said maybe you shouldn't make my pecan pie anymore. He finally said, "I did use those egg beaters...." What does that have to do with building community?

AB: You were mentoring him.

EB: What have you found most challenging?

RD: Mostly just technical challenges. No problems with moderating or the vibe, it's just the tech.

AB: I think the biggest challenge is understanding the community is a thing of its own and being comfortable with that while also guiding the conversation as much as you can. Once you set those parameters it takes care of itself. You still need to participate.

EB: Your community members feel ownership....

AB: We did a redesign of our homepage, in my mind not a big change, but I was wrong. The content was the same but the homepage design was different - our community said "Ah! It's different! Turn it back!"

It was hard to go through, we thought the changes we made benefited the community. A member said I feel like I went to bed and when I woke up and someone had rearranged my living room.

Based on their comments we made some changes. Next time, we learned from our mistake. We involved the community and shared it with them before we launched - we explained what changed and why. For the most part we didn't hear much because they were happy. You only hear from people when they are unhappy.

RD: When you have a community like that, you have to give up control.

EB: David (in the audience) would you solicit advice about redesign?

David (in the audience): I'd ask and consider their advice. I took a survey, got 6K responses which helped. I'd ask but I wouldn't necessarily change what I wanted to do because it's what the community said.

AB: Usually what we want is similar to what the community wants.

Question: how do you help your community stand out from others?

AB: It's all about you. The heart and voice of the community is not the same as another community's heart and voice so you attract those who feel like you.

RD: I didn't want to create something like All Recipes, I wanted simplicity - making it easy was important to me. Making the recipe sharing process easy. I don't think it's a zero sum game. I think some people visit one place and others visit another place.

I'd like to know what kind of communities you are all thinking about building.

Answer from audience - my local community that I live in. The people in my city know me as the person to ask food questions to. I get a lot of email questions, I'd like to build a forum for people to ask questions and get answers from others.

RD: Try this, threaded comments on your blog. I just implemented that and it helps community members help each other.

Question: You talked about one of the sites that allows you to answer questions as a group. Have you ever thought about Formspring or to let people ask you questions and you can answer when you have time?

(Panelists don't know about these tools - there's interest from the panelists and the audience.)

EB: I answer sometimes on Twitter but I often ask people to ask on the forum so I can answer a lot of people at once.

RD: The more small areas you spread out on, the harder it is for people to follow all of the conversation and you're spreading yourself thin.

EB: If Facebook would let me pull the conversation back into my site, it would help me to be able to track the conversation but I can't keep up with following the Facebook conversation. I just can't, it's too much for me.

Question: I manage online communities for 15 years - David trust your communities, nobody is going to mistake a community member's tuna casserole for yours. People understand - that's community and that's ok.

And people always hate redesigns, it doesn't matter. If they are long time members they'll stay or come back.

People who are interested in online community, Culture Conductor can help you so go over and ask question.

I know that food blogging was a small community when you started, for those of us who have small food blogs now, what would you recommend for those of us who want to try and build community? How did you move from a smaller community into something larger?

EB: A reader community or a big blogging community?

Question - How did you make the jump from a reader community to a bigger community?

EB: Is My Blog burning was great. Every month we had this event, and someone would host it. Sugar High Fridays. Blog carnivals. Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging. It brought people together. That was more interesting to me and was a way to build those connections all along.

From early on it was participating in the food blogosphere, developing a peer group. Little things, little connections I've made. The more you build your site the more there is at stake.

RD: The community driven initiatives that I've launched, like my photo assignments - those have sprung from a need. I didn't just decide to do this in order to build my community. I created them because of the community need (or desire).

Question (Michael Ruhlman): I completely organically did the BLT from Scratch Challenge because it was suggested on the site, in comments. The everyone should make the blt from scratch (make the bread, cure your bacon, grow your tomato.) You can't just decide them - you have to listen to the community and do what the community wants, is interested in, or needs.

Question: I remember having a conversation with Elise - people with large platforms don't have time to answer every question - so by having a secondary site she can answer a lot of questions all at once and brings in other authors to write great posts.

I have noticed that Tasty Kitchen is self-policing, a lot of people who don't have food blogs are there and it's a great outlet for a mom at home.

KD: We don't have a lot of support where I live. My mother in law thinks I do online surveys all day. Even if you don't have people in your life, we have a Skype group so people can ask questions and others can answer. You don't have to build a F2F community. Skype groups, yahoo groups.

EB: It's important to give away your knowledge. When I look at when I first started blogging, the big site, I just can't stand the site. I understand the guy is nice but I can't stand the site. It's been one of my motivations to make sure you find good content when you search online. But the only way we can move forward as a group is by sharing with each other. We aren't the big studios.

RD: (Phone - one of my kids is calling me - oops) It's even more relevant in the blogging world, it's not like in traditional publishing where there are years and years of experience to draw on and mentors.

EB: It's new and technology changes so quickly and I always feel like I'm behind. You all do Facebook better than I do.

When you're around people who give and share, you know that and you feel it and that's important.

RD: The love in your heart wasn't put there to stay, love isn't love until you give it away. (Sorry, I live in the bible belt, lol)