By Meghan Peters, News Partnerships

In November 2016, when it became clear the future of the Affordable Care Act was in doubt, journalist Sarah Kliff, and members of Vox’s social team wanted to build a community for Americans most impacted by a possible repeal of the law. So they started the Facebook group “What’s Next? A Community for Obamacare Enrollees by Vox.”

Over the next several months, the group of nearly 3,000 members grew and evolved in ways Vox didn’t expect. It became a place where people who didn’t otherwise know each other would debate, engage, commiserate, seek advice, and organize in constructive ways. Kliff was able to use the group to develop sources, engage directly with readers, start in-depth policy book clubs, meet with members in person, and even help field questions for a Facebook Live with President Obama. After months of engaging with the group, Kliff says, “It’s what I always hoped the internet would be.”

With the success of What’s Next, Vox launched a new group for listeners of The Weeds, a policy podcast Kliff hosts with fellow Vox journalists Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias. There, the group’s 8,600 members can do deeper dives into policy covered by the show, and the three hosts can interact directly with listeners.

We talked with Kliff as well as Lauren Katz, the Senior Engagement Manager who manages What’s Next?, and Allison Rockey, the Director of Programming, about how the groups have evolved and what observations they’ve had since starting these communities.

9 Observations from Vox About Building and Growing Groups

Journalists Can Use Groups to Find Sources and Develop Content
According to Kliff, finding sources is usually the hardest part of reporting on health care. “But now, if I want to talk to a specific Obamacare enrollee, like someone whose medicaid expansion in Pennsylvania is ending, I have a whole group to ask,” she says. Kliff has used the group to get quotes for stories, identify Trump voters who rely on Obamacare, and source questions for a Facebook Live she did with President Obama.

Thirty group members were chosen to attend that conversation. Afterwards, they were interviewed and photographed for a photo essay published on Vox about people who found career freedom thanks to Obamacare

Group Members Often Moderate Each Other
Katz, who oversees operations of the group, was surprised at how the group organically moderates itself. Intervention from Vox staffers is rare, as the group generally polices itself if anyone is out of line or the tone of comments becomes unproductive. Katz attributes this to the significant work done upfront to moderate and establish clear guidelines for the group. And over time, as group members have gotten to know each other, the tone has become more civil and the need for moderation has decreased.

There is Thoughtful Debate Around Sensitive Issues
One of Katz’s favorite moments was when a Trump voter in The Weeds group posted “Hi everyone, as probably one of the few trump voters on here, I was wondering if any of you had any questions.” What followed was a long, thoughtful Q+A where Weeds listeners asked tough questions and got insightful answers. Likewise, in the Obamacare group, some members early on were eager to speak out loudly, and in all caps. Over time, however, the conversation evolved to where the most thoughtful voices, rather than the loudest, were engaged with most frequently. “It’s everything you’d want to believe about a community of strangers,” says Rockey.

Community Members Connect
Both groups have turned a shared interest into greater community building. Rockey has seen members in The Weeds post questions unrelated to the podcast just to get to know each other more. “People are not just interested in The Weeds, but about other people in the group. They’re learning from each other and seeing how policy and identity are related,” she says. “That kind of organic community building is something I didn’t expect.”

It Opens Up a Direct Line Between Readers and Journalists
Klein, Yglesias and Kliff jump into The Weeds group to ask questions and seek advice on the future of the show, while Kliff often engages in the comments of What’s Next. When Klein asked if the podcast should hold more roundtable discussions and outside guests, members had direct influence on the future of the show. “It feels so human,” Kliff says. “The people are really nice, and it feels different from the rest of the internet. Writing can be lonely and this is a great place to connect.”

Group Members Have Taken an Active Role in Posting and Sharing Content
After work upfront creating group guidelines and setting a tone, Katz says the Obamacare group is largely self-sufficient at this point. Members post stories and engage with each other without much, if any, prompting from Vox staff. Kliff says she’ll see her own stories posted in the group before she has a chance to share them herself.

It’s a More Engaged Audience
Through these groups, the audience, as well as Vox journalists, are able to go deeper into policy than they would have otherwise. Members have a like-minded community just as eager to discuss whitepapers about Universal Basic Income, while Vox journalists can tap into thousands who want to participate in a book club about the health care industry.

When Kliff first announced “Kliff’s Notes” — a book club that culminated in a Facebook Live with the author — one member commented, “This is actually a dream come true for me. I’ve been on this subject studying alone since 2008. Now I have a tribe to help me learn.” The live was exclusive for the group, and Kliff sourced her questions from its members.

The Group Serves as an Organizing Space
Within What’s Next, members are using the group to organize and meet in person. At first, it was a space for people to find comfort in a community of people in similar circumstances, but now, they are actively trying to affect change by planning events and developing strategies.

Groups Build Loyalty
Vox found a way to create more direct engagement with their audience and, in the long run, build greater loyalty amongst readers. “It’s not an easy task to get people to get really loyal to someone or a publisher. To do that we need to give them resources and connections. If we can feed people’s interest in policy and give them what they want, that’s good for our brand in the long term” says Rockey. “They’ll be clicking on more Vox headlines because they actually have a direct relationship with us.”

Learn More about Facebook Groups

If you have a Facebook Page and want to link or create a new group to engage your community — please find more detail here.

Want to know more about our latest tools to help grow and manage your group? At our first ever Facebook Communities Summit we announced features including group insights, membership request filtering, remove member clean-up, scheduled posts, and group to group linking. Find out more about our new tools for group admins.