The headline of this post is misleading, unfortunately, but I needed to capture your attention on whatever social media saloon you frequent. And if you’re reading this, it worked; you clicked-through. Congratulations; another victim of false headline advertising. Instead of arguing, counterintuitively, that building an audience for a digital publication requires a minimization of “conversation” between content creators and readers, I advocate for a maximization of interaction between producers and consumers. Digital publications do need a little less conversation and a little more action. But I mean that editorial teams need to think about conversation as a valuable “action,” not a diversionary side project or an annoying obligation.
Thanking readers for retweets and rewarding frequent engagement on social media are fine for a start but unlikely to forge enduring relationships. Before the rise of social media, there was an asymmetry between writers and readers. The former made content, the latter consumed it and occasionally commented on it via letters, or later, emails. Social media empowers the reading public to directly and publicly comment on content and comment to content creators. The divide between journalists and their audiences is rapidly shrinking; the power imbalance is approaching a kind of equilibrium; the fundamental binary of media is becoming more symmetrical.
As readers feel more confident in their own voices, and as social media platforms commoditize user-generated content, the condescending position of professional journalists towards readers will become a less effective strategy for building an audience. Rather, readers are expecting a more equitable relationship and a continuous exchange of commentary. The incorporation of forums and aggregation platforms like Reddit into the journalist’s toolkit has increased the visibility of readers as content creators. In effect, the convergence of journalists and readers has given formerly silent audiences a new entitlement. Readers feel deserving of special attention.
How can journalists make conversation more active?
1. Search social media for your content. Find out who’s talking about your content on social media platforms. Talk back—which means more than just thanking readers, for, well, reading. Ask readers their opinions about your article. From Twitter bios, identify the individual interests of individual readers and target your inquiries. For example, if you write an article about gymnastics, and a Twitter user who identifies as a former gymnastics coach retweets the article, an obvious opportunity emerges for a personalized conversation.
2. Search social media for related content. Brainstorm a list of related and peripheral topics to your recent content. Insert yourself into on-going conversations. Redistribute your relevant content to those parties. Talk back, rinse, repeat.
3. Let your readers provide you with value. Take advantage of your readers’s expertise. Ask questions, ask for quotes, query the crowd. USA Today has a well-developed campaign for extracting the aggregate value of their readers. USA Today’s official social media accounts regularly ask their thousands of followers for help with articles. Acknowledging the power of readers—their intrinsic value as information sources—makes them feel like valued members of a community.
4. Share outside your product. Once you engage in orbital-level conversations about related topics, don’t be afraid to share content from other media outlets. Behaving in non-self-promotional ways demonstrates your sincere interest in the reader and your altruistic commitment to the conversation.
5. Don’t be anonymous. Employees of large, corporate media outlets should engage their readers from personal Twitter accounts. But official, anonymous social media channels should exhibit more personalized, non-anonymous behavior, too. Don’t just use the official channel for distributing your own content; share cool stuff with your readers and contribute to related conversations. Become a many tentacled beast with a face. (Slate does a great job with an officially faceless channel.)
Active conversations are the best way to build a resilient and loyal audience base. Quantity of interaction is meaningless minus quality. Don’t be afraid of treating readers like…real people.