I probably would have spit coffee on my microphone if you told me in 2008 that I’d soon go from a TV news reporter to a new media journalist running a 3,000-member social networking site.
It all began in summer 2009, after a Dallas, Texas, Fox affiliate and I parted ways amid the industry turmoil. I’d been a TV reporter for 27 years, but I decided to transform myself into a freelance digital media reporter by taking computer classes at a local community college.
Then, while watching the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor unfold on my kitchen TV, I hatched my second life-changing idea. Over and over, the senators focused on Sotomayor’s 2001 speech remark “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male.”
How, I wondered, could having a “wise Latina” background be a bad thing for the American judicial system? Samuel Alito, for that matter, had told senators in his confirmation hearings that his Italian immigrant heritage shapes his court opinions.
After the Sotomayor hearings, I was inspired to form the online networking group “Wise Latinas Linked” on Facebook to give Hispanic women their due as role models and to help them help each other. I also created a related blog for my members, which I use to keep my journalism skills sharp by writing, editing and aggregating content.
Today, “Wise Latinas Linked” has nearly 3,000 members from the U.S. and several foreign countries, including Mexico, Spain and Peru. My online presence has benefited me and my members in so many ways. The attention I’ve received landed me a USA Today profile, speaking gigs and other work. And, as a freelance reporter, my members are potential sources for stories and topics.
And I’m thrilled to give my members a forum to communicate, commiserate and swap ideas to enrich themselves personally and professionally. But you don’t have to go back to college to succeed in the new-media world. Here are some keys to forming your own successful social network online:
1. PICK YOUR PASSION
Think of something that has nothing to do with journalism but would have its own followers. Let’s say you like fishing, hunting, bicycling or golfing. Find something unique about your chosen topic and make it your blog’s niche.
2. THINK OF A CATCHY NAME FOR YOUR GROUP
Use your headline-writing skills. Keep it short and simple — ideally no longer than three words. It should roll off your tongue and have a blog name like “The Friendly Fisherman” or “Sassy Sewers” to attract members. To avoid confusion, make sure the name you’ve chosen is not being used for another online group or domain.
3. START THE GROUP ON A SOCIAL NETWORK
It’s a free and simple way to get started, and these websites have built-in audiences. Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn and are just a few of the many services and templates you can use.
4. BUY THE DOMAIN NAME IF YOU EXPECT TO EXPAND IN THE FUTURE
Once you have a catchy name and a concept with appeal, make sure the domain name you want is available. You never know when you might want that social network to form your own website instead of just using an established networking site.
5. DECIDE IF IT WILL BE AN OPEN OR CLOSED GROUP
Anticipate and have the flexibility to adjust your privacy settings, who you accept for members and whether you moderate comments. For example, you will have a choice to make your group closed (private) or open (anyone can join). Wise Latinas Linked became a closed group because suddenly men were trying to join to find dates.
6. FIND FRIENDS WITH SIMILAR INTERESTS WHO CAN HELP
A successful launch of an online group can only happen if your friends and contacts help spread the word about the site. And friends can make great website contributors.
7. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE
A catchy name might get people in the door, but great content will keep them coming back. The way to come up with it is to know your audience and target messages to their interests. Scan your favorite websites, create RSS feeds, and set Google Alerts to find and quickly post items of interest for your group. You can even practice your journalism skills by writing your own news updates on issues and by profiling and photographing your members.
Done the right way, having a social networking group is fun, not work. Every day, you’ll meet new people and share what you have in common. You’ll add to your sources, expand your network and edge closer to finding that next great story.
Rebecca Aguilar is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who is a freelancer out of Dallas. She is member of SPJ’s Digital Media Committee and an at-large officer on the board of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.