Crowd
Credit: By James Cridland on Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Journalists understand the importance of engaging with their audience, whether that is in person, via social media or on their news website. Taking that a step further at news:rewired - full stream ahead last month, community co-ordinator Hannah Waldram put the business benefits of successful audience engagement in black and white.

She said research into crowdsourcing projects at the Guardian had shown that users who had interacted with crowdsourcing projects visit "30 times more pages than the average user".

The research also showed that users that had gone to crowdsourcing news projects on the Guardian were "also more highly engaged, come back to more than one page a day and also register with our site which gives us more data."

All in all that means good engagement results to help drive growth in advertising revenue, she added.

So how do you get those users to engage with crowdsourcing projects, or other features which involve the audience more directly in the editorial process? This feature offers 14 tips, based on the advice shared by some of the speakers who appeared on the panel discussing this topic at news:rewired last month, on how best to harness the power of the community.

To start with, here's a quote from Mark Johnson, community editor of the Economist, delivered at the end of his presentation at news:rewired which helps set the scene:

"There is a lot of value not just in being an organisation that produces content, even if that content is nicely informed by your community, but also in being an organisation that gives a lot of value to its readers by collecting together certain kinds of people and allowing them have the conversations they want on the platforms that you build for them."

Here are just some snippets of advice shared by the panel on how to engage with community discussions and trigger quality contribution from the audience.
  • Turn trends into meaningful discussion
Malika Bilal, co-presenter of Al Jazeera's the Stream, spoke about how the programme, which run four days a week, will look at trending topics and "turn it into meaningful discussion that is not found in the mainstream".

Their community often helps flag up wider issues around trending topics that may not be picked up by others following the general narrative, she added.
  • 'Be a game player'
You can't just sit back and watch or set up the game and walk away, you have to participate and get involvedHannah Waldram, the Guardian
The Guardian's Hannah Waldram highlighted the importance of journalists remaining involved and engaged with their community, and not asking a question and then disappearing from the conversation.

"You can't just sit back and watch or set up the game and walk away, you have to participate and get involved," she said, adding that being a team player includes "sharing tips and ideas to overcome obstacles and the point is that you're trying to reach a mutual goal."
  • Frame requests
A point made by a number of speakers is the higher rate of success when request for audience contributions are specific and focused.

Waldram spoke about the Guardian's Reality Check blog, run by Polly Curtis, which is where the community help fact check "one of the big statements of the day in Westminster".

"She'd set up question and she'd be really specific about how she was asking readers to get involved. So this was a different kind of project, it was a cross between long-form journalism and liveblogging.

"... I think part of the reason this was successful was she really framed it from the beginning and constantly was explaining to readers in the first few weeks exactly how she was looking for them to get involved. Being specific can give you a lot back..."

Ros Atkins, presenter of the BBC World Service programme World Have Your Say, also said the "open invitation" approach did not seem to work as well. Instead it had seen more success from "inviting people for a particular reason".

"My experience is people don't care what's number one in the running order ... they don't engage with the actual process of making the programme they're just interested to talk about the issues."
  • Reward responses
And when the audience do respond and contribute, where appropriate make sure their input is acknowledged, unless they want to remain anonymous.

Waldram said this "rewarding" of users who contribute is something Curtis does on the Reality Check blog, for example.
  • Build relationships and trust

There's nothing that can replace the human act of responding to people, in comments or on Twitter, getting to know them by name and actually following them up on the stories that they're telling youHannah Waldram, the Guardian
A key ingredient to ensuring a recipe for success when it comes to engaging the audience and gaining their contributions is trust.

Waldram spoke about the importance of this in relation to journalist Shiv Malik's investigation into government internship schemes.

"Shiv spent a lot of time building personal relationships with readers and users and that's just really important when we're thinking about engagement... There's nothing that can replace the human act of responding to people, in comments or on Twitter, getting to know them by name and actually following them up on the stories that they're telling you."

She added: "The key was that Shiv would go to those individual readers, would phone them up, have a conversation on the phone, get to know who they are ... he constantly goes back to the same people, builds stories out of it, acknowledges the different people who've given him information.

"... It's that building the trust with readers. That actually yes you are going to see it through and you're going to constantly do the stories they're telling you about."

  • Respond and give stuff back

Atkins spoke about the importance of replying to the community: "If someone emails me I reply". He said the audience can see the way users are treated and this helps build trust, which can pave the way to opening up contacts for future stories.

Beyond that Waldram added that journalists also need to "think about what you're giving back" when readers made contributions.

"If you're going to ask for stuff from your readers then you really need to give something back."

She used the example of a Guardian crowdsourced project which collected UK broadband speeds from more than 5,000 people. In a bid to give something back to those who helped provide the data, the Guardian "compared what our readers were telling us with what the networks were actually saying and showed that on the data blog."

"I think that's what a lot of people forget actually when they get stuff back from their readers ... [to] not acknowledge the readers and not actually show what their amazing information has led to."

  • Be adaptive and respond to data in real-time

Tony Haile of real-time data firm Chartbeat spoke about the evolution of the setting of the news agenda, with the definition of what is news now being made "in part with our community."

He therefore highlighted the importance for news outlets to ensure they are able to respond to data about how audiences are interacting with content in real-time, and for that data it to be available to those able to make the necessary changes as a result.

"Real time data isn't worth a damn unless you can respond in real time," he said.

He added: "If you start to do all those things you can start to build a much more adaptive and flexible organisation, and have a sense we're progamming the news with our community at the same time."

  • Look at evidence from community
The BBC's Atkins spoke about how World Have Your Say takes note of what the audience is telling you about what is important to them. He highlighted a number of topics which while important for certain regions, do not appeal to audiences on a global scale.

There is a balance to be found between using your judgement as a journalist, but also ensuring you listen to what the community is saying about their interest or demand to know more.
  • Look for explicit messages and pick up on clues
The vast majority of our audience is leaving no online footprint at all, but their interests are just as relevant as someone in America who's on our website 20 times a day. So don't forget about them.Ros Atkins, BBC World Service
Atkins explained that some messages from an audience about stories which should be reported on are given loud and clear, but journalists also need to look out for "clues" which may be dropped by a community in general conversations about less-well known stories out there.

He also highlighted the need for news outlets with offline communities also, to not just focus on the community leaving an "online footprint".

"Don't forget that still the vast majority of people are leaving no data behind."

He added: "Our biggest audience by miles is in East and West Africa and the vast majority of our audience is leaving no online footprint at all, but their interests are just as relevant as someone in America who's on our website 20 times a day. So don't forget about them.

"Use your judgement. You know your audience ... Don't dismiss your role in the process."
  • Hand some control over
He also recommended journalists take opportunities to step back and facilitate conversations and discussions between the community, rather than always being central to it. World Have Your Say will regularly let its interviewees hold discussions among themselves with the presenter taking more of a back seat, which can lead to questions being asked that presenters may not think of, he said.

"You get different things if you don't tell people what to do."
  • Go to outside communities

As Atkins said in closing to his presentation, "people don't stick to one community" and there is a wide world outside your community of users who should not be forgotten.

"There will always be more people talking outside your world than in it. Go to them."

  • 'Plug into' social networks
The Economist's Johnson spoke about the "amplification effect" which is created by "plugging into a social network", such as with its Ask The Economist feature, hour-long discussions on Twitter moderated by a member of the Economist team.

"We also anchor it on our site which makes it easy for our traditional audience to consume it and also makes it easier for our sales guys to feature advertising alongside it".

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