Ideas and discussion from BxB2010 Summit

Breakout session: Community engagement

with 4 comments

David Cohn, Spot.Us
Ben Berkowitz, SeeClickFix

David got us kicked off by suggesting that journalism can be a loaded word. Let’s instead frame our conversation in terms of news and information needs. Ben’s background, for example, isn’t in journalism but in electronic media. But he’s playing in the news and information space with SeeClickFix.

David asked what brought people to this session. Here are some of the things mentioned:
— How can we best seek out face-to-face engagement in addition to online engagement?
— How can we meet people where they are, rather than just bringing them to where we are?
— How can we mimic the relationships people have in small-town journalism, where it comes naturally?
— How can we foster engagement across a wide geographic space?
— How can we encourage conversations around what we find in our reporting?
— How can we collaborate with other media and without poaching their audiences?
— How can we equip people to be involved and invested, in stories and in the community?
— How can we educate our readers about how we’re different from traditional newspapers?
— How do you help people change their mindset from audience member to content provider?
— How do people engage specifically around video content?
— How do you tap into an already engaged citizenry, and also grab the people not so inclined?
— What tools are appropriate for a more engaged style of reporting?
— How can we help ethnic media get involved in their communities?
— And how can we reach less tech-savvy audiences, the folks who aren’t liberal white dudes?

Okay, so we want to know a lot more than we’ll answer in the next hour.

Engagement means everything and nothing. To some people, it means:
— technology tools
— marketing
— social media
— partnership with other organizations
— conversation with online audiences
— in-person meetups
— user contributions.

What part of that is relevant to all of us? How do we start our conversation?

Let’s start with the definition we heard this morning from Susan Mernit of Oakland Local: Engagement brings site and audience together. What tips do folks have for that?

Emily Henry of The South Los Angeles Report has had success with seminars, in which participants actually create journalism have been successful for them. Half the people in the room have tried in-person events of some kind.

A theme among several sites was hitting people close to home. Topics and issues that affect people where they live will engage people very quickly. Jay Rosen said that if you ask people to define the place they live, you get instant engagement.

Jay also talked about the 1 percent rule. If you have 100 users of your site, 10 of them will contribute something. Ninety will just consume the content. About 1 percent will become dramatically engaged. It’s one of the few findings we have about engagement, and it’s true across a wide range of contexts. What is realism in engagement? What is realistic? That statistic helps us know what we can reasonably expect in terms of participation.

Problem: Too often we still tend to think of participating as writing a story. Actually writing a story is for that 1 percent crowd. How can we move past that as a standard unit of participation. How do we move from writing a post to, say, filling out a form. You might at least get the 10 percent with that, and it’s still meaningful engagement.

Ben said meaningful engagement can start with frustration. Some of the m engaged users on SeeClickFix are the ones who originally came because their neighborhood wasn”t represented. They have pride in their geography, and it’s tied to their identity.

Frustration is a starting point for that 90 percent of less active folks. Catch people where they’re frustrated, and give them a way to speak up. Then the next really important step is providing a positive feedback loop. At SeeClickFix, about 40 percent of problems actually get fixed. That’s positive feedback. But if other users agree with you, or the issue gets voiced more loudly, that’s another kind of positive feedback. Don’t back away from the project too quickly, or it makes people feel unheard.

David said Spot.Us saw participation jump significantly (from 1 percent to 10-15 percent) when he allowed people to contribute their time instead of money by filling out a survey rather than reaching for their wallet. In fact, when people had that more simple option for involvement, direct donations increased as well. They were generally more engaged. That’s the principle of the engagement ladder. (I’m looking for an original source on this concept. Here’s one explanation.)

What about colossal failures in engagement? David’s is related to the Spot.Us launch. He gathered email addresses for six months beforehand, from folks who expressed interest in the idea, but he didn’t really keep in touch with those folks. By the time he launched, people had totally forgotten about the site. He should have fostered that group of people as a possible community.

What other failures can we learn from? Hmm. Quiet in the room. We’ll return to the idea of failures down below.

OpenFile is an example of encouraging involvement in stories. Kathy Vey said their stories never really die, and they offer easy options for users to contribute to the content by correcting something, contributing words, video, photos, etc.

Another form of engagement is letting users feel like they’re represented by you. Doing something on their behalf. Like Christopher Allbritton’s Back to Iraq project. He went to report as an independent journalist funded by his readers. He has a special connection, and those who contributed didn’t just want a report at the end. They wanted updates. They anted to know he was safe and how he was doing. They had an investment and relationship in the individual, and the situation. That’s engagement. He had a community, and he used it to leverage his project. Some folks in the room have a community, and they’re trying to increase engagement. Others are trying to start a community from scratch.

What about imposing parameters to get people moving fast? Like the Longshot Magazine experiment, which imposed a 48-hour time limit for users to make a magazine. Interesting idea.

An astute observation (update: the astuteness was on the part of Andrew Whitacre from MIT): Small organizations have a real opportunity to develop relationships. The bigger you get, the more the brand stands in between the writer and the reader. When you work for a big brand, it’s like the brand is between you and your audience. Smaller operations have the challenge of building that personal relationship into the brand from the beginning.

Back to failures! Denise Cheng of The Rapidian shares a failure. They tried to take the town hall format and generate interest around a non-political issue — in this case, public schools. They partnered with other media and planned an in-person event at the end. They ended up not being able to do it because they realized that even though it was a good idea and interesting to the community, it wasn’t coverage that was bubbling up from people on their citizen journalism site. It was on peoples’ minds, but it wasn’t on their site, so they had to pull the plug on it.

You have to provide people space on issues they want to engage with. And connect the dots … tell people why it matters and what they can do with it. Give them action items.

Another failure, or at least room for improvement: On SeeClickFix, the issues are like a flash mob that comes together around one thing, then dissipates. Ben thinks there should be more social networking, so there’s a way to connect easily with like minds. There’d be an awful lot of power in easily allowing that group to organize, online or offline.

Another lesson from Chuck Welch that springs from a failure at Lakeland Local: When you have something that’s working, and that’s important to your community, don’t let it die. Don’t let them be disappointed by you.

We ended the session by talking about our dreams. Here are the tools we’d like to have:
— A way to prime the comment pump: Offer something like a poll or question, so users aren’t starting out cold. Or a devious touch: What if in order to comment, you had to answer a question related to the content itself?
— More tools to do with forms. We need to get better at dealing with structured data.
— Jay’s dream: A total engagement index that would help site owners measure how successful they’re being in overall engagement. It would have to combine lots of methods, taking what we know about successful engagement and translating it into the right combination of quantitative measures.(Someone mentioned that WordPress has a plugin called Popularity Contest.)
— An easy tool for suggesting related content NOT based on keyword.
— A tool that lets people contribute to conversation on multiple websites, without having to register on them. Sadly, that might require major news sites to collaborate. Can they be tricked into doing that?

We ended on that sigh and chuckle.

Blogged by Joy Mayer. I’m a fellow at the Reynolds Journalism Institute doing a project on news as a conversation rather than a lecture, trying to figure out what people mean by engagement. You can read what I’m up to, and some weird margarita analogies, on this RJI blog. If I missed the right identifier for you or your site, please email me or add a comment.


Written by Joy Mayer

September 24, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses

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  1. […] session on community engagement (remembering that I/we don’t really know what that means!). Here’s my summary of the […]

  2. I believe the Astute Observation was from Andrew at MIT.


    September 25, 2010 at 12:35 am

  3. […] BlockByBlock: Breakout session: Community engagement and For-proft, non-profit and ??? and My summary of the Block By Block conference. […]

  4. Thanks, Dave!

    Joy Mayer

    September 27, 2010 at 9:24 pm

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