The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

May 13, 2011

No dead ends: How news sites can keep readers engaged

Posted by Elise Hu

This post is the third in a series about a Knight Foundation roundtable that brought together news start-ups and tech entrepreneurs. A report is forthcoming.

A few simple guidelines when it comes to user engagement online from Hong Qu, former user interface designer for YouTube:

  1. Follow-up
  2. Follow-up
  3. Follow-up

In other words, make sure there are no dead ends when it comes to opportunities for user engagement with your site.  Always have another level of engagement that people can find.

By constantly giving the user more actions and functionality to engage more deeply with the platform, you can move users from passive outsiders to active participants in your communities.

“When a visitor finishes reading an article about health care reform, she should be asked to sign up to follow future developments,” Qu offered as an example. “The next time she goes back to the site, health care articles should be prominently displayed to her.  The goal is to convert this visitor to become a regular reader.”

If you’re a nonprofit news organization, getting members to donate is just a starting point in a relationship. Follow up with new members to learn how to contact them, and survey them to see what they want from your organization. They might also be willing to help you in the future.

Research today indicates that the social web is rapidly becoming a major driver of users to sites and news articles. For news organizations, this trend presents an opportunity to use existing community members to nudge outsiders to start reading. With smart follow-up, you can win them into your community, too.

For many local news nonprofits, these conversions are already happening. Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent holds competitions for its users to find typos. Winners get a coffee mug. Such an approach offers an initial entry point for users, some of whom enjoy seeking and finding errors in stories. The news organization gets another layer of editing — for free.

Once a community starts forming, news organizations are finding ways to grow it. Bass’ organization leverages community members by inviting their participation in live events or projects. At one event, for example, the community was asked to participate in a book club that would result in the author of the book showing up to take questions before a live audience. This presentation was then covered by the NPR member station and local TV, and both were live streamed and live blogged. Initially, engaging the community by encouraging it to find typos led to more engagement, and them more, and so on. Bass said that he always asks “Where do you bring them next?”

These opportunities for follow-up don’t have to be technological features. By breaking up stories or themes into discrete parts or packaging them differently, users benefit from new paths of engagement established by the content. Sites can re-package larger narrative content with archival pieces to make better sense of breaking stories, for example, or re-introduce previous content in a numbered list or a timeline structure when appropriate. Such practices can help the community gain more understanding about news topic and allow the journalism to get more mileage. In my previous job at The Texas Tribune, we re-packaged the best of our previous reporting on the so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ topic to help provide context and another entry point to coverage for audiences to explore. Create new paths, and leave no dead ends.

So remember Qu’s number one rule: Follow-up. Use every opportunity to activate your user to move up the participation spectrum.

Elise Hu is the digital editorial coordinator of NPR’s Impact of Government project. She covered the Knight Foundation’s ‘Getting Local’ roundtable as a freelancer.

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