Here are 10 tips for increasing user engagement that work for news community web sites, but can apply to all types of online user-engagement communities.
This sounds like a no-brainer. If it is not clear that people can do things on a site, they won’t. Create multiple entry points and ways to access the online community and use actionable language to turn observers into contributors.
“I’ve gotten feedback from people who didn’t quite know how to participate and if it seems to be a problem for many, we reevaluate how we’re displaying the message. Sometimes you need to put out a call for action: ‘Post your own blog,’ ‘Upload photos,’ and the like. Sometimes the registration process is just too cumbersome,” said Angela Connor, WRAL’s managing editor/user-generated content and author of 18 Rules of Community Engagement: A Guide for Building Relationships and Connecting With Customers Online, in an e-mail interview.
Each week CNN’s iReport.com posts at least one new topic to its Assignment Desk page for people to respond to by submitting photos, video or audio. iReport.com has more than 412,000 registered users who have signed up and contributed content, according to CNN.
“Our hope is that once they’re comfortable with the system and they happen to be in breaking news, they’ll think of iReport.com as a way to have their footage seen,” said Lila King, a senior producer for CNN.com, who leads the site’s user-participation efforts.
That strategy has paid off. For example, there was an Assignment Desk topic on beating the heat and a man in North Carolina submitted content for the topic and then a few months later a tropical storm came through his town and he filed an iReport.com about it that was used on the air at CNN.
Andy Carvin, senior strategist at National Public Radio’s social media desk, said in an e-mail interview he’s a firm believer in getting people to rally around an editorial project that has a specific goal with a beginning, middle and end. Those who want to get involved have a clear understanding of what’s expected.
For example, during last year’s hurricane season NPR signed up hundreds of volunteers to create tools like Google Maps () of evacuation routes, a wiki of state and local emergency resources, and galleries of user-generated content.
Connor said she feels strongly that every community is different and a manager must adapt accordingly. She described the skill set needed to be a good community leader.
“I’m talking about razor-sharp interpersonal communication skills, the ability to exhibit an enormous amount of tact, an extremely thick skin and a boatload of compassion for people you would rather not give an ounce. Did I mention grace under pressure, courage under fire, openness to criticism and tolerance beyond belief?” she said.
Matt Thompson, interim online community manager for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, said in an e-mail interview, the best communities tend to coalesce around leaders.
“The best leaders inspire leadership in others. In news site comment threads, people tend to respond to the story, not to each other, leaving behind a long stream of essentially unrelated comments,” he said, which is why strong leaders are important for building community engagement. A good leader can step in and encourage users to interact with each other.
Don’t ignore participants in the community — they’re the ones behind the content.
Thompson suggested talking to site commenters, being colloquial, and laying out guidelines for participating.
“Don’t hesitate to delete contributions that shut down rather than encourage discussion; don’t listen to anyone who tells you doing so will leave you open to liability. At the same time, contact people one-on-one before you delete their comments or ban them,” he said.
Interacting with the community lets them know someone is listening. Connor blogs and comments on content posted by others in her community. “You can never go wrong when you respond to your users. Answering e-mails in a timely manner is engagement when those e-mails are from community members,” she said.
iReport.com’s contact with contributors starts with its vetting process, which means the content has been approved by a CNN producer for use on any of CNN’s platforms and is labeled as such. King said the staff also reaches out to regular iReporters who do interesting work.
“The whole thing works because of the relationships we’ve been able to form,” she said. “I don’t think it would work if we stopped communicating.”
As an online community grows and becomes more established, newbies might feel like intruders. That’s where a community manager comes in.
Thompson said a good community manager will constantly be seeking opportunities to diversify the community in a productive, organic fashion.
“The danger is creating a community that feels insular, groupthinky, and hostile to outsiders. I’ve heard horror stories about online mom communities that slowly warped into being totalitarian enforcement regimes for particular ideas about maternity,” he said.
Connor said it can be hard to get newcomers to engage the way the older members do, so she specifically reaches out to newbies.
“Once that culture develops it isn’t easy for others to go against it, even in a good way. I am working hard to be supportive of newcomers. I even have a group called the Welcome Wagon that reaches out to newbies. They’ve even created tutorial for newcomers that I had nothing to do with, and they are awesome,” said Connor.
Don’t forget about frequent content contributors in the community. They can offer great insight and feedback from a point of view potentially better than the site’s own manager.
“One of my constant findings is that you have to identify, befriend and nurture your super users. Especially when you’re small and starting out, interact with your users to a degree one step shy of creepy,” Thompson said. “The culture you create amongst your most hardcore users early on will be the biggest influence on your site’s culture when it’s, God willing, flooded with loving users.”
Getting to know the community doesn’t have to be exclusively online. The Public Broadcasting Service held a national unconference called PublicMediaCamp that bought together more than 250 people who represent the general public, developer community and public broadcasting, according to Carvin.
“By getting together with them as equals and co-conspirators, it helps bring more volunteers into the fold, because we give them a vested interest in our success. Remember, ‘Public’ is National Public Radio’s middle name. The community is perhaps our biggest asset, so we’re creating new platforms and strategies to strengthen that relationship, and hopefully strengthen our journalism in the process,” he said.
Curating and then showcasing community content energizes and motivates users and can help get new content contributors. User-generated content can also add depth to stories reported by news organizations.
Connor said she’s been successful with featuring a member each month with GOLO (short for Go Local) Profiles. “I ask probing, introspective questions that allow members to see another side of the person and people love it.”
She also compiles and posts lots of lists such as top 10 blog posts, top 20 commenters and most visited profile pages.
iReport’s King said their site gives CNN a new way to tell anniversary stories. For example, an iReporter submitted a photo of her grandmother walking down the street with Calvin Coolidge for an Assignment Desk topic on Presidents Day.
iReport labels its top members “superstars.” The designation is determined by an algorithm that tallies members’ contributions, ratings, popularity and site activity, and scores in the top 20 percent every week make Superstar status, according to iReport.com.
Thompson described a reputation management system called karma that is used at Vita.mn, a site he managed, which rewards people with points for contributing particularly engaging content.
“We gave a prize monthly to the users who accumulated the most karma over the previous month, and that worked like a charm. Eventually, the super users stopped aiming for prizes, but settled into a regular, engaging rhythm,” he said.
Disclosure: Vita.mn is owned by the Star Tribune, where Leah was previous employed.
Time lags on user-submitted content getting posted to the site interrupts the conversation. Connor warned that moderated comments that do not post in real-time are a killer. Why would a user, who is interested in starting a conversation, submit a comment knowing it may or may not post within 24 hours, she asks.
“If I continue to come to your house, and you’re not there or if I’m dying of thirst and you know it but refuse to offer me a glass of water, I’m not coming back,” she said.
Fleshing out a community site with user profiles, preferences and even UGC stats for each member helps contributors to get to know each other and fosters community building.
iReport profile pages list details such as bio information, stats for comments posted, iReports posted, page views, iReports on CNN, how many iReporters the user is following and how many are following that person.
“Good online communities tend to allow users to have profiles, where records of their contributions are stored. A profile is the foundation of reputation management,” Thompson said.
Starting a new online community might seem like reinventing the wheel compared to behemoths such as Facebook. Hooking a community site up to these social media sites gives users the best of both worlds.
Carvin said NPR believes strongly that it’s important to engage people in their own online communities rather than assume they will engage with theirs. He said that means having a strong presence on communities such as Twitter () and Facebook (). He pointed out that NPR was one of the first news organizations to partner with YouTube () as part of its YouTube Direct service, which allows them to embed YouTube upload widget onto the NPR site and create curated content galleries. They recently launched their first experiment with it called the WonderScope.
“It never surprises me that an NPR story that got 25 comments on our site gets 250 comments on Facebook, or gets retweeted 100 times on Twitter. It’s the nature of those communities to contribute and share,” according to Carvin. “That’s why tools like Facebook Connect, Open Social, etc., are so interesting — they lower the barrier of participation for people in more active communities, making it easier for them to participate in sites that may not have as much of a history with social media.”
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Source: Leah Betancourt
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