by Riley Stevenson
In November 2016, Vox started a Facebook group called What’s Next? A Community for Obamacare Enrollees by Vox. Vox focused on inviting people who rely on the Affordable Care Act for health insurance coverage and who weren’t sure what the 2016 election — and Republicans’ promises of repeal — meant for them. Nearly a year later, What’s Next? has grown to over 3,000 members and has served as a space for readers and journalists to exchange information and build community. It was later renamed to “VoxCare.”
Project Goals: Lauren Katz, Vox’s Senior Engagement Manager, says the main goal of the project was to foster impact and loyalty. Specifically, Vox wanted to create a mutually-beneficial community where readers could share their experiences and journalists could find interview subjects and crowdsource information. “I don’t care about group size or attention,” Katz says. “I care that community members feel like they have a constructive and respectful environment for discussion.” Through the Facebook group, Katz and the Vox engagement team wanted to find new audience members while strengthening resources for those they already had.
Tools and Technology: Vox decided to use Facebook as its primary platform because, according to Katz, there was no sizeable or active Facebook group dedicated to the Affordable Care Act at the time. To track how readers are finding the Facebook group, Katz embeds Bitly links at the bottom of Vox’s stories about health care, and then uses Bitly’s analytics software (available with the Enterprise package) to track outbound traffic.
Impact: The What’s Next? Facebook group provided what Katz calls “deep engagement” — instances of community building between group members that are difficult to quantify, but are valuable nonetheless. For example, she says some members have met up in person and post photos to the page. Others have expressed how valuable the online community is during difficult times. Katz notes changes in subscribers and activity on a spreadsheet (Facebook hasn’t granted the group access to insights yet) and says membership increases following big announcements in health care. “It really feels like it is a helpful space for people in many different ways: to get support, to get their news, to feel closer to reporters, and to have their voices heard.” Katz says. “And people are more likely to be loyal to us because we mean something to them.”
Organization Background: Vox.com is a general-interest digital news site founded by Ezra Klein, Melissa Bell, and Matthew Yglesias in 2014. The site’s mission is to “explain the news.” Vox.com is part of a larger company, Vox Media, which owns other sites, including SB Nation, Eater, and the Verge. In 2015, Vox Media was valued at $1 billion and had a combined readership of 54.1 million.
Project Resources: The project required only the time and energy of Vox staff. Katz says in order to be successful, the team knew they needed support from both the social media side and reporting side of the newsroom. Katz, as the Senior Engagement Editor, handles most of the page management, while journalists like Sarah Kliff interview users and generate content. Because they used Facebook, the project had no financial costs.
Here’s how it happened
Initially, Vox editors and reporters envisioned launching a Facebook group around a feature story they’d written on chronic pain. But the team soon pivoted to a topic that was more “on-brand” for Vox: healthcare. “We were very good at covering health care,” Katz says. “We knew it was going to be easy to have content.” At first, the group took more time than Katz anticipated. She spent a lot of time researching health care, identifying what was important to community members, creating a spreadsheet with scheduled content, and creating community guidelines for the group. Soon, the group began to run itself and Katz and the Vox team could step back and watch the community grow on it’s own. “If you think of engagement projects as turning a wheel, you have to crank the handle hard at the beginning to get the wheel turning and eventually it becomes easier.”
Here’s what worked
1. Ask the tough questions first
“It’s easy to look and say ‘great, I want to replicate this,’ but it doesn’t always work,” Katz says. “You have to really think about your mission, your goal, and why you want to launch a project and where you want to launch it.”
2. Bring in the experts
Members appreciate hearing from health care experts. Sarah Kliff did a Facebook Live Q&A with Obamacare advocate Andy Slavitt, and Elisabeth Rosenthal hosted a Q&A discussion within the group. Vox also launched a health policy book club (Kliff’s Notes) that featured weekly discussions with the chosen book’s author, John E. McDonough. Last but not least, Vox hosted a Facebook Live event with former President Barack Obama, which 30 of the group’s members attended in person.
3. Moderate, moderate, moderate
“I make sure to check in every day to approve new members, respond to any questions, flag interesting posts for our reporters, and just generally be present,” Katz says. She estimates spending 30 minutes a day responding to people, monitoring requests, and posting stories.
4. Develop a process for screening new members
Before accepting new members to the closed Facebook group, Katz recommends enabling the “question” function. This allows admins to source information (e.g. users’ specific health care plans, number of people insured on his or her plan, user satisfaction, etc.) and screen members to make sure they fit within the group’s mission/requirements. Katz also suggests setting concrete times and dates to do “check-ins” with the group. Be sure to request feedback from members and verify that the page is meeting their needs. Katz also schedules team meetings every 60 days to make sure editors and reporters are on the same page.
)** (e.g. users’ specific health care plans, number of people insured on his or her plan, user satisfaction, etc.) and screen members to make sure they fit within the group’s mission/requirements. Katz also suggests setting concrete times and dates to do “check-ins” with the group. Be sure to request feedback from members and verify that the page is meeting their needs. Katz also schedules team meetings every 60 days to make sure editors and reporters are on the same page.
Here’s what could have worked better
1. Encourage other reporters covering health care to join even earlier
Vox now has a handful of reporters who share their stories, answer questions, and are generally active in the group. This has helped elevate their profiles as well as add extra value to the community.
Here’s what else you should know
- Hosting live events is work: Although facilitating the actual interview with President Obama required less work from Vox than the White House, Katz and her team spent a lot of time planning. They created a form for users to fill out, selected attendees who might offer interesting stories and promoted the event heavily in the weeks leading up to the interview.
- Group guidelines are critical: Katz says the group self-polices well and rarely sees any trolls/fake accounts. She credits this to the question function embedded into the member request form and the community guidelines posted in the group. This includes a ban on offensive language or imagery and personal attacks or threats to community members. Other considerations include the frequency and nature of posted content. “The group is incredibly respectful and really value the space,” Katz says. “They own it and they get a say in it…It’s in everybody’s interest to behave.”
- Creating a feedback loop can inform journalism: To gain audience insights, Katz and reporters use polls and pose questions. For example, when working on a story, Kliff will ask a question of the group. Once the story is complete, Kliff will post it to the page for readers to see. An example of a story sourced from the page can be found here.
Get in touch with Lauren Katz to learn more about this project.
Riley Stevenson is a multimedia journalism master’s student at the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication.