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Build a ladder of interactivity to engage your readers with your publishing business

Robert Niles
Published: January 14, 2013 at 9:42 AM (MST)
The following is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of Robert Niles' "How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online," a guidebook for people thinking about starting their own website businesses.

Interactivity

Writing, speaking, photos and video all move information in one direction — from you, the publisher, to your readers and viewers. But the Internet enables information to flow in all directions, not just from publisher to reader, but from reader back to publisher, and from reader to reader. How you solicit, manage and respond to information that flows from your readers will determine your business's success every bit as much as the quality of the information you publish. So you need to think about how you will handle interactivity in your publication.

I like to think of interactivity as a ladder. You want to make each step up the ladder seems as easy and as natural as possible for your readers. Start with a simple step — one that requires just a single mouse click and that doesn't reveal a reader's identity to anyone else on the site. For example, polls and votes provide a good first step toward engaging your readers as content creators on your website. Just one click on the poll and a reader has changed the content on your site — adding one to a tally. It might not seem like much, but that simplicity makes it a powerful introduction to more active participation in your website community.

Here are the steps on my ladder of engagement for website publishing:

  • Poll responses — I use a custom polling tool that I wrote, which prohibits multiple votes from a single user account or IP address. You can find free polling tools built into some CMSs, and available to everyone from sites such as Poll Daddy <http://polldaddy.com>.
  • Comments — Once readers have voted in a poll, the next step is to encourage them to leave a comment about their votes. We run "vote of the week" features on both ThemeParkInsider.com and Violinist.com, specifically to draw "lurkers" into more active participation on the site. The questions we ask are ones we think will provoke great "bar arguments" — questions without proven answers but on which everyone's got an opinion. We want to make it so tempting to jump in with a comment after you click to vote that you just can't resist. And once someone's started commenting on a vote of the week post, he or she becomes more likely to comment elsewhere on the site as well.
  • Discussion responses — There's not much difference between commenting on a blog post and responding to discussion thread. But in discussion forums the focus lies more on the community than it does on blogs, where the focus remains more on the writer of the original post. So this represents another step toward a more prominent role on the site.
  • Discussion questions — This is a huge step, because now a reader is initiating content on your site, instead of simply responding to content posted by others. Still, there's no long-lasting commitment to the site when you post a new discussion thread — it's just one post. And you don't even need to put yourself out there by taking a stand on something. You simply could be asking a question.
  • Blogs — Once readers start blogging on your site, they becomes your content partners. They're initiating content, and they're doing so in a form that often leads to a continuing relationship where readers keep posting content to your site. If you allow readers to blog for your publication, you'll want to think about how you manage their posts. On Violinist.com, we allow any registered member to start a blog, after a short waiting period. But those new blog posts are literally marginalized, linked to only from the right-side navigation column on our blog page. Our editor (my wife, Laurie) decides which of those posts to promote to running in full on the site's front page. On ThemeParkInsider.com, readers can submit individual posts to our front-page "Blog Flume", and I decide which ones to accept. But readers' posts aren't collected into individual blogs, as they are on Violinist.com, and if I reject a post for the Blog Flume, it is just deleted — it won't show up anywhere on the site.

You will want to offer your readers multiple opportunities to go from being a passive reader to becoming an active participant on your site. Social media buttons can help engage your readers by recruiting them as publicists for the content they like most. In addition to submitting discussion threads and blog posts, you might use plug-ins and other software tools to allow your readers to submit photos, video and audio tracks to your website, too. However you build your ladder of engagement, make sure that it has plenty of easy steps on it that will help your readers feel welcomed to step up.

I'd strongly consider leaving at least the first step on your ladder outside your registration system — so people can begin interacting with your site before having to make a commitment to register. Using a third-party system to manage comments, such as Facebook or Disqus <http://disqus.com> also can help lower the barrier to that step for the many readers who already have accounts on those systems. If you really want to move people up into blogging and active discussion participation, I wouldn't sacrifice your comments to a third-party app, but if that's going to be the top tier of interactivity on your site (at least at launch), it can be very nice to avoid having to install and manage your own registration system. Go ahead and think about Facebook or Disqus comments, then.

Whatever you choose, don't let anyone convince you that you can't manage interactivity on your website. That belief persists among some in the newspaper industry, thanks to a 1995 court ruling in a case called Stratton Oakmont v. Prodigy. In that case, the court held an online service liable for comments made by a user on the service's online forums because the service had hired community managers to monitor the forums. The United States Congress effectively nullified that ruling the next year, when it passed the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which created a "good Samaritan" exception that excused publishers from liability for comments made by users on their websites.

Stratton Oakmont profoundly influenced newspaper managers, who continued to insist to their employees for years after the CDA became law that they couldn't get involved in their websites' comments sections, lest the paper have to take responsibility for everything in those forums. And today, newspaper website comments sections rival YouTube's comment communities as the wretched refuse of the Internet — teeming shores providing homes to all strains of trolls and the perpetually angry.

You do not want your website to look like that.

Show some leadership instead. Nearly two decades of participating in online communities has taught me that a discussion board will adopt the tone and temperament of the individuals who post most often to the board. If you don't set an example for your readers, someone else will.

Approach leadership with a sense of humility, above all. This isn't about you or even your business. This online get-together exists to serve the needs of its community. It's about your readers. If you attract and retain them, the money can follow and your business will grow. Without readers, you have nothing.

And, as we've mentioned before (remember Dan Gillmor's quote from the previous chapter?), your readers — collectively — know more than you do, about pretty much anything. Get a conversation flowing by asking them about their experiences. Use those interviewing skills. You'll start the best conversations by asking readers about their experiences rather than their opinions. Asking people about what they've done keeps the conversation grounded in reality, instead of spinning off into rumor and hearsay. Ask people about their opinions, and they're most likely to repeat stuff they've heard or read elsewhere. Whether that's true or not doesn't matter. People will repeat it if they think it sounds good. If you want truly original content on your site, ask readers about their personal, individual experiences, instead.

Participate in your conversations. Too many online writers throw open a discussion, then disappear. Simply showing up in your discussions or comment sections, with a follow-up question, or a even just a "thank you" now and then, sends your readers a powerful reminder than you're watching what they say. Readers love that. They want affirmation from "the people in charge," even if that's nothing more than a moment of time and attention. And readers want to know that someone is looking out for the community, too. Be that person, and you'll win the respect and loyalty of many readers.

Author Malcolm Gladwell had a best seller with his book The Tipping Point. You want your community to reach a "tipping point" where readers see others contributing smart, thoughtful comments, discussion threads and blog posts. Seeing that positive activity encourages the same. You want to avoid a tipping point where insults and misinformation rule on your site, attracting more insults as well as thoughtless comments copied from elsewhere on the Web.

Encourage your friends to join in your online conversations when your site debuts, so other readers see people talking on the site. No one wants to be the first one at a party. Your friends and action team can help push the conversation toward that positive tipping point, too. I also encourage new publishers to make posting on their sites as easy as possible for those first, new readers. On ThemeParkInsider.com, we continue to accept anonymous comments from our readers. Those comments don't appear immediately — I have to check and approve them first. But readers with something to say don't have to endure a registration process in order to submit a comment.

Your content management system might give you several options for handling registrations, comments and other forms of user input to your site. Since it is part of Google, Blogger users Google Accounts, which means that any of the millions of people who are logged into Google can be "logged in" to your site to leave a comment without going through another registration or log-in process. No matter which CMS you choose, you can opt to manage your website's comments through another service, such as Disqus or Facebook instead of through the CMS itself. Visit <https://developers.facebook.com/docs/reference/plugins/comments> to learn more about Facebook's commenting tool for websites. These comments also show up in the readers' Facebook timelines, helping spread word about your site to those readers' Facebook friends.

Ultimately, though, controlling your own registration process allows you to collect valuable information about your readers, as well as to create multiple levels of access (and control) that can give trusted readers more authority in your website community. While I encourage new publishers to make it as easy as possible for early readers to submit comments — to build to that tipping point of activity on the website — readers will be willing to register for your website specifically once they see enough benefit from becoming an "official" member of the community. On Violinist.com, we run contests to give away autographed CDs, classical music downloads, tickets to orchestra contests, website T-shirts and music bags, among other prizes. But we only allow people who have registered with the website to enter — so that's one way we create a benefit for registration.

On both of our websites, we ask our readers to register using their real names, as we believe that policy encourages people to behave online. But we have created an exception for theme park employees posting to ThemeParkInsider.com. We ask them to register under an assumed name, since no parks allow their employees to post online about the park with authorization from the park's publicity department (which, let's face it, our snitches readers aren't getting). As I mentioned, we also allow anonymous comments on ThemeParkInsider.com, but those have to be approved by an editor before they appear. If a comment's abusive or spammy, we simply delete it before anyone else has the opportunity to read it.

Of course, I've seen "real name only" communities online that felt like verbal cesspools compared with other communities that allowed anonymous and pseudonymous posts. Ultimately, a site's leadership determines the tone of the community. No matter which policies you choose about registration, back them up with strong leadership — from you and your action team.

At some point, you'll have to step back and let your community police itself. As any parent knows, eventually, your children have to find their own way in the world. You can't keep doing everything for them, forever. Nor should you. Be aggressive in the early days after you launch in confronting bullies, spammers and others who would compromise your board. But at some point — and only you will know when — you should pause and wait a while before taking on a rogue poster. Wait to see how your community of readers responds. If the response doubles down on the nastiness, jump in. You'll know that your community's still in kindergarten and needs to be watched.

But if the next post confronts the bully, and the bully backs down or goes away, go out and celebrate that night. You'll know that you've reached an important milestone in the history of your publication — the point when your community has grown up enough that it can begin to police itself.

Your community's not fully grown at that point, of course. You and your action team will need to continue to use your influence to keep the community moving forward. But it sure is nice when your readers begin to see enough value in what you and your team have started that they want to work to protect it, too.

To learn more about start-up online news publishing, please read the rest of "How to Make Money Publishing Community News Online," available for $6.99 [eBook] or $11.99 [paperback] from Amazon.com.

Robert Niles also can be found at http://www.themeparkinsider.com

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