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How to boost reader engagement – part 1

March 23, 2011

The other kind of reader engagement - harf!Now that disasters and vacations are over, let’s get back into reader engagement. We’ve covered why it’s important and how to measure it, so let’s turn now to how you can make readers stay on your site longer. That’s a goal we’ll measure – for the purpose of this post – with higher session times and more pages viewed per visit.

Let’s skip the obvious way to increase engagement- comments on articles. It’s taken a while but every media org nowadays wants to let people comment on articles. In New Zealand, it’s still of a legal grey area and comments have to be moderated (so we don’t get sued or run foul of contempt of court rules). Basically if something naughty appears on your news site, you’re responsible as the publisher, and you can be sued.

Expect that to change within the next few years, so publishers are only held accountable if they don’t remove a comment that’s been flagged, or they use some clever trick of technology that pushes the unmoderated conversation elsewhere but still visible on the site. These kinds of techie tricks are great ways to boost engagement, like…

1. Outside content – If you’ve been following the earthquake and tsunami coverage over the last month on Stuff and the NZ Herald, you’ve probably seen Twitter widgets pop up, showing all tweets with certain words or from specific accounts. They’re dead easy to make and very handy. Readers may not be able to talk about every article on your site, but you can show on your site what they’re saying elsewhere.

It’s not the best way to get readers involved in a story of course, because Twitter is still not that popular among normal, non-webbie folk. But it does provide another piece of (free!) external content to keep the reader on your pages longer.

It’s not just Twitter either. Facebook has a few widgets to embed as well – both to promote your social media presence, and to give people something else to look at that will change regularly. These can be based off your activity stream, reader comments, or just show photos of other people who have liked your page.

Stuff is now using Twitter widgets on its daily quizzes, to show tweets about its daily quizzes. Which brings us to…

2. Other content – People don’t spend that long reading a news story. Many people will just read the first few paragraphs to get the gist, then click on.

So if you want people to spend longer on a page, the solution is not to publish longer articles. It’s to publish content that sucks people in for longer. For example:

  • Photo galleries – Promote these and update them frequently. Readers will often relook at photos they’ve seen before, especially during disasters.
  • Quizzes – Easy to make (lots of free makers out there – but stump up for a paid version) and well worth the effort. Judging by the metrics on Stuff’s quizzes, lots of people also spend time looking up the right answers before they select their choices. I don’t get it either, but it adds to their time on site.
  • Videos – If you don’t have access to a Reuters or AP feed (or TVNZ/TV3), check out YouTube. The site has lots of topical video for international stories, usually embeddable. That’s especially true for entertainment news (running a story on Charlie Sheen? Why not put up a “”best of”” * from Two and Half Men) but also technology (gadget reviews), sport (best ofs), and travel. Hell, why not a daily “Best of YouTube” for the niche you cover?
  • Live chats – These are a bit of a pain to organise, but anything that can keep thousands of readers on one story for an hour is worth it. Try CoverItLive or Facebook.

3. Extra content – Your top stories on any given day will gather a huge proportion of your daily eyeballs. If you load up these stories with extra bits of interesting stuff to click on, your time spent on site will rocket. Most readers won’t read that many stories on a visit – so fill the ones that most readers read with stuff to keep them there longer.

For example,

  • Polls – Even if you don’t have them built in, there are lots of free poll makers (and better paid ones) on the internet that will let you whip up a poll for a specific story in seconds.
  • Maps – I lurrrrrve maps. They help give context to a story and something else for people to click on. Play around with Google Maps and you’ll be tossing out basic maps for stories in no time.
  • Graphs – A good chart can spice up a boring stats-based story. Try ManyEyes to build your own. Also try ManyEyes to find pre-made, embeddable charts for topical stories, like this one showing radiation levels in Tokyo after the tsunami.

4. Related content – The holy grail of news websites at the moment is suggesting a story to each reader that they’re sure to click on.

Related content boxes, either pegged to the story’s section or keywords, are a great, relatively cheap way to do this. The more the merrier really, just watch out for information overload.

If you have the budget, look at finer methods. If people have to log in, you can use their reading history to suggest their kind of article.

I haven’t seen Facebook’s recommendation widget used much (which uses a reader’s profile combined with articles shared recently from your URL), but it seems like a cheap way to get that sort of recommendation engine.

5. Unrelated content – Your best content tends to be on your homepage. Why not show this content prominently inside your stories? Readers (in NZ) tend to start on the homepage, then click on a story, then keep clicking. Sometimes they go back to the homepage, but if they do they usually won’t go back again after that.

Going backwards feels like defeat. Readers should always go forward to new content, and you should push your best content to them as much as possible.

Some of the above may seem like puny wee potatoes, but a few seconds per reader adds up quickly.

That’s all for now. Some more tricks next time.

* Plus another bajillion quote marks.

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