What comms pros can learn from Mumsnet

Listening and responding to the needs of readers are the most important ingredients of maintaining a community.

They’re also the key reasons high-profile website Mumsnet is successful, according to its Founder and CEO Justine Roberts @justine_roberts.

This morning I joined around 40 entrepreneurs, business owners, working parents and PR pros to hear her speak as part of the latest Groucho Breakfast organised by John Smythe and Engage for Change @engage4change.

Mumsnet Rachel Miller, Justine Roberts It was a thoroughly enjoyable way to start the day and I left feeling energised, enthused and with a brain buzzing full of ideas.

I’m pictured with Justine (centre) and Gloria Lombardi (right) of simply-communicate after the event.

Disclosure: I was invited to attend and received a complimentary ticket.

There was plenty to learn, not only as a business owner and comms pro, but Justine is a fellow twin-mum too.

What is it?
Mumsnet was founded in 2000 after she went on a disastrous family holiday.

Her idea was to create a website where parents could swap advice not just about holidays but all the other stuff parents talk about. It’s now the UK’s biggest network for parents, generating over 70 million page views and over 14 million visits per month.

The aim of the site is to:

  • Make parents’ lives easier by pooling knowledge, advice and support.
  • They try, as far as possible to let the conversation flow and not to over-moderate. Mumsnet is a site for grown-ups.

Justine Roberts MumsnetJustine shared the story of the site and the challenges, surprises and insights she has experienced engaging the nation’s mums (and dads) and her growing team, which brings its own set engagement challenges.

In common with all start-ups, it’s impossible to predict the destiny of the business and Justine says she had no idea that it would take off as it has, nor that she would end up with 80-odd staff.

One of the most popular areas of the site is “Am I being unreasonable” – I encourage you to read through and join the conversations. I guarantee you’ll lose an hour of your day without realising as it’s so interesting! The section was created after the Mumsnet team realised lots of threads started with that phrase.

If you follow me on Twitter @AllthingsIC you’ll know what struck me as I was listening to her talk today as I was Tweeting throughout.

I’ve created a Storify of all the content so you can read through everything that was shared online #GrouchoBreakfast.

What comms pros can learn from Mumsnet

  1. Take time to understand who your audience/community are – what do they like/dislike?
    Further reading: How to conduct an internal comms audit
  2. Provide guidelines, but trust people – posts aren’t ‘policed’
    Further reading: 300+ social media policies. Plus Mumsnet’s Talk Guidelines.
    “Our policy is to keep intervention to a minimum and let conversation flow, but we’re here to make parent’s lives easier, so where necessary, we will use our discretion to delete posts (or ban posters) if it seems in doing so is in keeping with this aim.”
  3. Don’t underestimate the power of peer-to-peer communication
    Further reading: A matter of trust – The Edelman Barometer
  4. Listen, don’t just talk: create two-way conversations to engage
    Further reading: Everything I’ve published on engagement
  5. Be clear about the purpose of your channels
    Mumsnet website: “Mumsnet heavy”, On Facebook: “Mumsnet light”, Twitter: “Mumsnet news” @mumsnettowers.
Evolving, adapting and responding
I like the fact Mumsnet has constantly evolved over the years, with the community helping to shape what it looks like. During the Q&A session I asked if there’s anything that has surprised Justine about the site.

Groucho BreakfastShe said: “The humour! I never intended it to be a site where people were humorous, but they are and I enjoy reading through the forum posts and laughing along with the readers and posters.”

Some of the most famous threads, which have hit the headlines, include the infamous penis beaker thread in October 2013.

It proved so popular Justine says “we had to buy new servers!” (Warning – that thread is not for the faint-hearted!).

Thoughts from this morning:

On responsibility as CEO and being at the helm of a community:

  On the idea of controlling conversations:

On growing a community – and what people think of it:

I had a chat with Justine after she spoke and asked her about the control question. I often advise clients: “You cannot control what people say about you. You can control how you react and respond.”

I wanted to know why she thinks the site has become successful and people engage in conversations, but more than that, why they behave responsibly in terms of language use.

It was interesting to hear how the community policies itself and weeds out people who are trying to be something they’re not and start inauthentic conversations.

For example brands trying to market themselves by pouncing on conversations in the forums are quickly revealed by users. There was a thread on a vitamin brand in 2009 in which readers claimed they “killed otters” – see the thread for context!

My thanks again to John and Engage for Change for inviting me to attend today.

Further reading: I’ve created a Storify of all the content so you can read through everything that was shared online #GrouchoBreakfast.

Want to know what events are on for comms pros to attend? See my comms calendar for a round-up.


Post author: Rachel Miller

First published on All Things IC 3 March 2015.

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