by Kevin Anderson, on July 10, 2012
Long before the rise of social media, news organisations worked to engage their audiences more deeply. Digital media, whether the internet or multi-channel satellite television, delivers much more choice to audiences, and the new battle in media isn’t just for large audiences but loyal ones too. Loyal audiences give you a foundation on which to build your news business, and technology like the internet and mobile phones give these loyal readers, viewers and listeners a way to directly contribute to your journalism.
In a lot of ways, digital audience engagement strategies are just reincarnations of the kind of things you’ve done in the past, whether it was a radio call-in show or a call for community pictures for your newspaper. For those of you who work in radio, you’ll know you get the best response to a phone-in when you get the question right, and it is much the same in digital. If you want people to contribute digitally, make sure you have a clear call to action – be clear about what you want and how you want people to participate.
The Guardian, where I worked as blogs editor, has long been experimenting with getting its readers involved in its journalism. One key thing to remember when you’re doing experiments of any kind is to learn from them. Routinely ask yourself what works and what doesn’t. Digital media is much more adaptable, and it gives you the opportunity to continually measure and make adjustments to your strategy. The Guardian did this with one of its recent experiments in open journalism.
In October of last year, The Guardian began publishing its daily newslist online and asked people to contribute and get more deeply involved in the newspapers’ coverage. Within a week, it began to review the lessons that came from publishing the newslist and a related blog. They realised that when covering complex issues, it often took more than a few hours to gather comments they could act on from the public. In January, they launched a liveblog called Newsdesk Live to gather comments on the newslist.
Now, less than a year after its launch, The Guardian is fine tuning its approach to opening up its newslist. They are going to end Newsdesk Live and instead experiment with more focused requests, according to a report on journalism.co.uk. The Guardian’s national editor, Dan Roberts, said:
When we ask people to just suggest a news story, it’s such a huge subject people don’t really know where to start or what we might mean.
He contrasted that with a much more focused request when they asked readers to test their broadband speeds. They got 5,000 responses in three days.
As much as I applaud their experiments and their efforts to learn from them, it does worry me that we’re having to learn these lessons over and over again, and that news organisations are failing to learn lessons from user engagement projects in the past. I remember some of the early experiments we were asked to do by senior editors when I was at The Guardian, and I have to say, some editors put questions to the public that sounded too much like tasks for staff reporters. It is an unrealistic expectation for a member of the public to interrogate their Member of Parliament or for them to go and dispassionately cover a local government meeting. They seemed to have forgotten some of the lessons that made previous projects more successful.
In 2008 after Barack Obama was elected president of the United States, The Guardian asked readers to post messages in the form of pictures to the popular photo-sharing site, Flickr. The “Message for Obama” project was a great success. The Guardian not only posted the pictures online, but the newspaper even produced a book that readers could purchase, using a service called Blurb which makes it easy to produce small batches of books.
The projects that worked best were when we asked very specific things from our audience. Back in 2009, The Guardian technology editor Charles Editor asked readers on Twitter to help him gather all of the companies that technology company Oracle had bought. He used a Google Spreadsheet on the Guardian website that anyone could edit to collect the information. This was a great success.
Before I was at The Guardian, I was at the BBC, and the BBC has done a lot of smart thinking about audience engagement online and on air. In 2009, the BBC worked with the University of Cardiff to produce a comprehensive study of its use of user-generated content – comments, videos and images. The study found:
Specific calls to action are most useful for news gathering and when eliciting high-quality relevant comment.
Some key lessons about audience engagement and experimental projects:
1. Ask your audience clear, focused questions, and if you want something from them, be clear about what you want.
2. Don’t expect your audience to act like journalists or carry out tasks you’d assign to staff. Crowdsourcing shouldn’t be confused with outsourcing.
3. Measure, learn and adapt continually.
4 . Remember the lessons you have learned. A lesson learned but forgotten is effort wasted.