Serve It Up: Frameworks for Curating Content in Communities

michaela_hackner_0.gifleah_stern_ready.gifBy Michaela Hackner and Leah Stern, Forum One Communications

During a recent presentation, NPR shared that their number one competitor was Pandora. Huh. NPR is a well-established news organization; Pandora, on the other hand, is a community of music lovers that share their data to shape online “radio stations.”

Content is now multi-directional. It’s hard to pinpoint where it’s initially generated, and more importantly, how to identify the best information out there. With information overload all the time, and fewer than 24 hours in a day to consume it, users have turned to online communities to play the role of content curation. And they’re winning out over traditional media sources. With features like faceted search, topical groups, and the ability to rate, share, and subscribe, users are now relying on their peers more than ever to help them discover the best content.

What is content curation?

Content curation is the process of gathering, organizing, and highlighting the best content for a particular theme or audience, regardless of where it was originally created or posted online. Curation has generally been used to describe the work of those who create collections for libraries or museums, but it increasingly applies to those working online too. Many thousands of people –in both formal and informal roles, in organizations or as individuals—are creating collections of relevant materials from a sea of available information.

Understanding your audience

Content curators use their knowledge of the space to guide their audience toward a set of content that tells a particular story.

With any communication, you need to identify and understand your audiences first. Content curators use their knowledge of the space to guide their audience toward a set of content that tells a particular story. Curators must be super familiar with what their audience is looking for, so they can serve that content up to users without the users needing to go in search of the right materials. In particular, curators of online communities have to know their members, the community’s brand and purpose, and the content available in the community at any given time. We recommend doing some thoughtful user research before digging into content curation. That effort will help ensure you’re reaching the right people and engaging them on the content they care most about.

The new online communities

So what is the newest generation of online community? They’re everywhere: some of the most popular websites are communities. Pandora, Twitter, Facebook, Etsy, and Reddit are all essentially communities that curate content for users—or allow users to curate content—in different ways. If you have a group of users who log in to see a set of content that’s not available to the public, you’ve got a community.

There are three great models for curating the best content for your community.

Organizations curating content for users

Some organizations curate the information in the community for their audiences. Rent the Runway creates collections like “Girls Night Out” or “Cocktail Attire”, which feature items that might serve a particular purpose for their customers. Those collections are tailored (pun intended!) to help women find dresses that fit their personal look and style.

News blogs like Gawker and Upworthy rely primarily on content curation by editors and curators who comb through online pieces and submissions and highlight a collection of items focused on a particular interest (Gawker’s io9 site, for example, focuses on entertainment, science, and sci fi). Both sites are also focused on strengthening their communities. People identify themselves as part of the community by commenting, re-sharing, and engaging with other members. uses algorithms and content curators to suggest other meetup groups that their members might be interested in joining, based on their current interests and groups. Each of these sites is highlighting the most valuable content so that people come back to the community over and over again.

Users curating for themselves

Many sites also allow users to curate content for themselves. Anyone can create a list of favorites on Rent the Runway, a wishlist on, or a playlist on Spotify, or follow favorite news sources on Twitter. You can also subscribe to meetups and curate your own calendar on based on your interests.

In all of these cases, the platform provides a tool for people to sort and gather the best content for their needs. The content providers assume that there will be some set of content that is important and useful to each user, but they recognize that their offerings are so broad (and users’ interests so specific) that users need a way to sort and identify content for themselves. In vibrant communities with a diverse user base, any given user is likely to be interested only in a small set of activity within the community. In that case, the ability to curate a personal “reading list” is a great way to keep users coming back.

Users curating for each other

By harnessing the creative work of your community, you can make the community even more valuable to your members and start to understand what they care about and how they want to interact.

More and more sites are recognizing that their biggest strength comes from leveraging the curation talents within their communities. There is significant overlap between users curating for themselves and users curating for each other; many people start by creating their own collections and then realize that they’re happy to share their work with others.

Mixtapes are the original user-curated content. For many people, they were simply a way to make a great playlist for a long car ride; they could also be expressions of friendship (or more!) to be shared with other individuals or groups. Today, smart organizations are leveraging this creative instinct toward curation to help users explore content within communities. Etsy highlights user-created collections of items each week. Pinterest allows people to create collections of images, and then share them with their followers. On Amazon, an item’s page will often point the user toward user-created lists that include that item, to help customers explore similar or related items. On Spotify or Pandora, users can create playlists and share them publicly or with a list of friends.

Enabling users to curate for each other takes the pressure off the community manager and helps the community thrive. By harnessing the creative work of your community, you can make the community even more valuable to your members and start to understand the ways your users organically sort, categorize, and understand your content.

Tactics for communities

Now that you’re a believer in the power of curation, how can you leverage the benefits of curated content in your online communities? Below, we provide several tactics that you can use together or independently to draw out the most valuable information, encourage your users to curate content, and keep the momentum going.

  • Publish early and often. Create an editorial calendar that has dates and types of material to help the community stay fresh and active – and then make sure the community manager is responsible for meeting that schedule.
  • Sort and classify content. Develop topic pages (e.g. human rights) and function pages (e.g. fact sheets) to help the community find the most relevant information for them. Give them tools to sort and classify content themselves, and you’ll soon see that organic classifications rise to the surface – provided you’re using analytics to understand your users.
  • Give great examples. Provide templates, like a list of questions to answer in a blog post, to help users understand how to contribute to the community. A clear call to action supported by an example can help push constituents to add their voices.
  • Ask your community what they want. Make sure you’re tapping the pulse of your community at least quarterly, if not more often. Encourage users to share feedback via email and participate in brief interviews or surveys, and use that input to shape the kinds of content you’re generating and soliciting.
  • It’s all about your people! Cultivate great contributors by seeking out the experts and innovators in your field, the “researchers” with an eye towards learning and sharing information. We all can name a few folks who are always eager to share links and connect people. Provide positive feedback, recognize them publicly and privately, and find ways to include them in your strategic planning.
  • Promote new content. Enable content notifications in your community. Let people subscribe to updates and be notified when new information is posted in their topic areas of interest. Embed social media icons to allow users to share content across their other communities.
  • Calls to action. Create a good user experience by making information design intuitive (so people can find what they’re looking for quickly) and by placing clear calls to action around content (so people know what they’re supposed to do). For example, “Share this!” or “Let others know what you think.”
  • Identify and empower a great community manager who is super familiar with all of the content and can recognize trends and leverage them in blog posts, e-newsletters, and community announcements. A good community manager can make strategic connections with users, invite specialized contributions from power users, and politely encourage posts from community members. These tactics can promote an up-to-date and content-rich community.

What gets measured matters

Hopefully you’re already capturing data in your community using a tool like Google Analytics or Omniture. Drill down into the data. Explore what content is most popular, and how people are finding it. Discover the most popular downloads and search terms that people use within the community. Create more of what people want, and less of what people don’t want, and use curation to promote your most coveted content.

Why should I invest in content curation?

Creating and supporting a great community is costly and time-consuming, but it can provide a fantastic opportunity for people to learn from each other and get to know each other. There are many factors that go into the success of a community: the users, the goal of the project, and the technical platform all play a role. But the key to a great community is great content. When a community has new and useful content that’s specific to the needs of its user base, people will keep coming back because they will see its value for their work and their lives. Thoughtful and deliberate content curation is the best way to ensure that you can find, highlight, and share great content within your community, and help your community thrive.