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Brilliant lessons in building sustainable online communities

Triana Jarman
This post is adapted from a feature that first appeared on BusinessZone.
 
Sift, made up of Sift Media, Sift Digital and PracticeWEB, took part in Open Co Bristol and Bath, a US-inspired event that allows delegates to visit tech and digital business across one city in one day.
 
At the Sift session, company founder Ben Heald, Sift Media managing director Tom Dunkerley, Sift Media head of product and development Mike Crook, Sift Media head of marketing and operations Ian Robins and BusinessZone.co.uk editor Dan Martin gave an in-depth insight into how the company places community at the heart of everything it does.
 
This post outlines the highlights of the session. Full slides available on Slideshare.
 
Ben Heald: How it all happen
 
Sift was formed in 1996. I raised money from venture capital in the dotcom bubble days of 1999 – 2000. We survived the ensuing dotbomb years and had numerous adventures launching digital businesses. Today Sift has 135 staff, with satellite offices in London and Boston, and operates through three business units: Sift Media, Sift Digital and PracticeWEB. 2014 see revenues reach £8.5m and last year we made EBITDAE of £0.75m.
 
Sift has always had a community approach. I launched AccountingWEB in 1997 from my bedroom with the intention of blending the knowledge of the community with that of traditional information sources.  We quickly discovered that (despite their stereotypes) accountants loved sharing.  The continued growth of AccountingWEB is testament to that and is more vibrant that ever now with very active community digital engagement; alongside which we now run conferences and events.
 
Community needs active (and smart) facilitation, which is where so many other community initiatives founder; and it’s about getting the right balance between informing, engaging and stimulating an audience.  We see ourselves as comperes or ringmasters, and consider it a privilege that the accounting community is roosting with us on AccountingWEB!
 
We take a similar approach internally.  Running a business for over 18 years means that it has to constantly renew itself and just as AccountingWEB has to throb with energy so does our company.  We put a lot of effort how this plays out not just in the Sift offices, but also more widely in Bristol.  
 
One of Sift’s core values is to be open and as such it’s important to recognise that not everything works.  There some many community initiatives that we’ve tried but ultimately didn’t work out.  A few we sold, some we dropped, some we might even come back to!
 
My focus so far has been on Sift Media, but it’s important to reference the great work that Sift Digital, Sift’s full service digital agency does for its many clients.  Sometimes it’s focussed on community, but more often the remit is wider encompassing digital strategy, UX, creative or content strategy.
 
PracticeWEB is also involved in the accounting space providing a platform for 1,000+ financial services clients on a subscription basis.
 
Tom Dunkerley: Site-as-a-service
 
With an ever-changing media and competitive landscape, publishers have to put their audiences at the heart of their strategy. We can lip service that concept, and many do, but Sift Media is trying to really put that in action. 
 
​That means root-and-branch changes to the way we conduct business and not just within the editorial and content teams; it affects all departments and involves a major cultural shift across the business. This journey is very much a work in-progress, but we are making good headway, here's where we have got to;
 
We've redefined our purpose, using Simon Sinek's WHY, HOW, WHAT model – Our why is all about inspiring action from our audiences. 
We've worked hard at developing a new culture code; the values, beliefs and behaviours that will help us deliver our 'Why'
We're investing £0.5m in a Drupal technology platform that will provide an amazing user experience for our 750,000 members
We've implemented a data management platform, to enable us to gain greater insight on what our readers do, want and need 
It's an evolution rather than a revolution, but it feels a pretty exciting place to be right now.
 
Mike Crook: Building a new Publishing Platform
 
The heart of any digital publisher maintaining multiple titles is its technology stack. In this modern information age our platforms need to be able to listen, react and change to audience behaviour and client needs. The technology stack and its approach to development need to be built on a shared business vision. Pooling knowledge and insight from each publishing division to building a modern media stack for our information hungry audience.
 
We spent the first part of the year analysing our current stack, speaking with our publishing teams, engaging our audience and researching competitors in the publishing space, to build a business case and define our approach to our new media stack.
 
We realise that in order to grow and evolve as a business our platform needs to be redesigned from the ground up. Creating one core platform where developers can manage all our community sites, where editors can craft their stories with ease, where campaigns can be scheduled, monitored and analysed in one place, unlocking the power of our data and audience insight through our modern media stack.
 
We know that each community site is unique, and we need to ensure our stack has the flexibility to cater for this. Having been a digital publisher for 17 years Sift Media knows the key ingredients that make up an engaged community.
 
From a development perspective we will build one core platform that all our sites feed from. Our approach to building the stack will be a modular one. We’ll create functionality that we can turn on and off, dial up or dial down, depending on the needs of our communities.
 
We will also look to third party plugins to complement our stack to create best of breed tools for our developers, editors, data analysts, sales, campaigns and marketing teams to create unique experiences for our audiences and clients alike.
 
Our development and migration plan stretches 20 months; we are now in month 3 and entering our 5th sprint. Taking an agile approach allows us as a business to create a minimum viable product (MVP) to launch the first site and continue to build additional functionality as we migrate the other community sites.
 
The first site to roll on to the new platform will be HRzone, throughout the process we have and will continue to reach out to our community members to understand their business challenges and how our community site fits within their daily work flow. When our HR community visit in February 2015 they will be able to experience their community in a whole new way.
 
Ian Robins: Using data to develop greater engagement
 
At Sift Media, communities have always been at the heart of what we do. Since the inception of AccountingWEB by Ben, each of our services have been designed to revolve around the needs of different professional communities.
 
With each our sites, we’re trying to design our services to support the daily workflow of our communities. We're aiming to be an integral part of their workflow to help solve problems, connect peers and surface the voices within our communities.
 
Over the last year, we started out on a journey to really focus on how we can create greater community engagement that builds sustainable communities.
 
To help us develop our strategies, we’ve been asking ourselves ‘How might we’…
  • Create the content that people need?
  • Build better experiences and services?
  • Measure the metrics that really matter?
  • Become audience experts in the markets we serve?

When we started to look into each of these areas, it all started with data. Data that would help us take actionable insights in our pursuit of answering our ‘how might we’ questions and create sites that service the needs of our communities.

About two months ago, we invested in a data management platform from Cxense to build greater understanding of our audiences. The data management platform captures how people are using our sites, what content they read and the interactions people take on our sites. From this, we can see exactly what's happening on individual sites or across all sites in real-time so we can use the technology to deliver relevant content that should be of interest. 

Right now, we've been putting the building blocks in place to start to working on our goals. We've been running the implementation of the project using aspects of agile project management. A core project group gets together each week to define key goals for that week, review our tests from the previous week and learn how we can improve things so we can build a more engaging experience for our audiences. Part of this process has been trying to identify the metrics that really matter to us so we can really measure engagement. We've been looking at our site analytic to understand how people are using the sites so we can define a key metric that we can focus on across the business.
 
We're in early stages of this journey but our vision is to integrate this data at the core of how we operate our sites. We’re doing a lot of work to make sure we understand our audiences and create the content and experiences they want to deliver on our goals. 
 
Dan Martin: Empowering Britain’s small businesses
 
In 2008 we sponsored a local design festival in Bristol and had six weeks to come up with an idea that wasn’t just another boring award ceremony. A conversation in the office kitchen later and we decided to launch our own version of Dragons’ Den. We called it The Pitch.
 
Using Facebook to market the event, 20 people applied and six contestants pitched for a couple of books and a certificate.
 
We never intended to run the event again but after the videos on YouTube attracted thousands of views, we realised we’d hit on something big.
 
In 2009, we took the competition around England inviting entrepreneurs to pitch on stage for the chance to compete at a final in London. In 2010 we added Scotland and Wales into the mix, and then Northern Ireland joined in. The competition has taken place in all sorts of weird and wonderful places including an opera house in Belfast, a nightclub in Liverpool and on the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival!
 
In 2013, we made a big decision and decided to bring the competition home. That October, 50 small business owners from across the UK joined an audience of 250 to pitch for the big prize and learn from expert business trainers.
 
Like the best startups, we've always moved with the times and while the feedback from contestants in 2013 was very positive, many commented that they would have benefited from pitch training and other guidance before the final event took place.
 
So in 2014 we introduced The Pitch Boot Camps.
 
100 shortlisted entrepreneurs were split into two groups in London and Manchester and got intensive training in pitching, digital marketing, online branding and financial management. After pitching on video, the business owners had the weekend to submit homework based on what they’d learnt.
 
The energy at the boot camps was amazing, and despite being competition rivals, a spirit of collaboration dominated the room.
 
Although our original intention was to replicate a TV show as a one-off event, The Pitch has developed in an offline extension of our online communities of BusinessZone.co.uk and UK Business Forums. At the heart of everything we do is supporting small business owners through each stage of their company’s growth. There’s lots you can do online but extend it offline as well and magic happens!
 
We’ve changed the competition a lot over the years but the boot camps have proved to be our best idea yet and they’re going to stay. Getting a bunch of energetic and committed entrepreneurs in a room with experienced experts is hugely beneficial for all involved.