By Sarah Brown, News Partnerships

Following the UK’s decision to leave the EU in 2015, The Times UK newspaper decided to create a space for its readers to come together to discuss the momentous occasion and what it would mean for the country.

In April, they created the Facebook Group 52:48 as a place for readers to talk about issues arising from “Brexit” in a customized space. Since its inception, the Times has seen the group expand to more than 1,300 members over the past year.

Facebook spoke with the Times UK’s social media editor, William Park, about how they set up the group, how they have kept the conversation stimulating — and civil – and what they are planning next for their members.

Why did you decide to use a Facebook Group, rather than a Facebook Page, to launch 52:48?

One of the main reasons we decided to start 52|48 is that we wanted to hear more from our readers, particularly readers who might not normally comment on the site. There are various reasons why someone might not comment on our site; they might not be a paying subscriber, they might be a casual reader of our print paper, they might not want to get involved with other commenters. But these people’s opinions are still really important to us. If someone identifies strongly with our coverage of Brexit as a publisher enough to like us on Facebook or is prepared to join a Facebook Group, they are exactly the sort of person that we want to hear more from.

A group made the most sense for this project. We saw there were already a number of groups that exist to offer a space to talk about Brexit. Most of these groups, however, specifically cater for audiences to talk about one side of the debate; EU citizens in the UK worried about leaving, UK citizens who are pro-leave, pro-remain etc. But none offered a moderated space for people to talk to each other who might have different opinions. Facebook Groups provide supportive community for people who share common interests – even if they don’t share the same opinion.

How are you thinking about your content strategy for the group? What sort of conversations were you hoping to inspire?

When we started the group, we outlined the different sorts of content that we thought might go down well in the group; polls, Q&As, links to articles, Lives, etc. After a while, we polled users to see what sorts of content they enjoyed most and would like more of. Unanimously, they said they wanted to talk to our journalists. Over time, we saw that most users wanted to share links and discuss them underneath, and this now seems to be the most common type of post.

Who is your target audience/membership for the group and how did you decide to target them?

At the moment, we’re really interested in hearing from anyone. As I said above, we want to hear diverse opinions from anyone who is interested in our coverage of Brexit, so we’re advertising the group far and wide. To find new group members, we add links to the group under Brexit themed Facebook posts from The Times and Sunday Times page, links in the comments section of Brexit articles on our site, tweets, links in newsletter and – this is very old school – telling people about the group in person.

How do you organize the workflow internally to manage the group and encourage good interaction?

The team are logged into their accounts at work and always looking for ways to interact or situations to step in and moderate. In reality, we don’t do a huge amount and often leave the groups to run themselves now that they have grown to a reasonable size. We started out by asking new members to answer a question when they joined the group and vet new members based on this. It’s very rare, though, that we turn people away. We tend to give new members the benefit of the doubt and correct them if they do something off-topic by sending them a personal message. At the start of the day in our team meeting we often identify articles that we think might work in the group and proactively publish them, but we’re doing this less and less frequently as users often beat us to it.

What were your metrics for success with the group?

Success looks like a group with a high level of engagement (currently something like 89% of members of 52|48 interact once a month, something like two-thirds interact once a week). These are great numbers, and if we can grow the group to a few thousand members with a similar level of engagement it soon puts itself in the same ball park as a newsletter in terms of returns, with a much smaller level of investment.

What do you hope readers will get out of being part of this group? What have you done on and offline to interact with them?

In October, we invited a handful of our most active 52|48 group contributors into the offices of The Times to thank them and to better understand their thoughts on the group.

In spite of fears that nobody would turn up — or worse, that they would turn up and all hate one another — the meet went well. Our group members heard from our political reporter Henry Zeffman and our policy editor Oliver Wright and had a long chat with Philip Collins, the columnist and former political speechwriter. In their feedback, they said that they especially enjoyed meeting and debating with our journalists in real life.

Most importantly, this experiment seemed to create more trust and understanding between group members and The Times. These members could see glimpses of how the news and opinion pieces are constructed each day and why certain decisions are made within the newsroom. In return, they could provide us with unique feedback.

What are your plans for the group in the future? Has it inspired you to create more groups?

We’ve already started two more groups — on books and film — with the lessons we’ve learnt from this one, and I’m pleased to say they look like they will be a success. We have plans to start one more in the future, but it’s important that we build on the success of the three that we have before starting too many more.

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? We recently announced new tools such as welcome posts, badges, member profiles, new management controls, and expanded group insights.