One of the ways to get reader engagement online is to ask questions. It seems simple, but it’s an incredible balancing act, especially for college media organizations. I want to look at one organization that is doing reader questions right, and suggest some takeaways that might improve your reader response to online questions.
A little bit of backstory: This summer, while I was laid up with an illness, I became obsessed with the niche automotive site Jalopnik. Jalopnik is part of the Gawker Media stable of properties which includes sites like Gawker, Deadspin (sports), Jezebel (women’s issues), and Lifehacker. As I read through the archives, I stumbled across one of the more fascinating examples of reader engagement I’ve come across: QOTD and AOTD (They also publish a series called Nice Price or Crack Pipe, which is another example).
Over its existence, Jalopnik has built a sizable core of dedicated commenters who are passionate about automotive culture. One of the ways they engage with that commentariat is through the Question of the Day (QOTD). Every day, they ask for commenters to submit suggestions, and the next day, they publish Answer of the Day (AOTD).
The questions range from the serious (What’s the best car for a dog owner?) to the silly (What’s the most hipster car ever made?). Readers dutifully make their arguments in the comments on that article, and the next day, the editors decide on a top-10 list of those items. (The most hipster car is a Saab 900 Cabrio, by the way).
As mentioned earlier, Jalopnik has a huge core of readers who not only browse the site, but engage in discussion. There is almost no way a college media outlet could generate that kind of response from their online sites and social media presences. But there are some things in the QOTD/AOTD equation that you could put to use in your college media outlet to spur similar reader engagement.
- Ask a relevant, limited question – I see two common weaknesses in the way reader response questions are phrased. First, the questions are binary. Questions like “Do you like X?” are yes/no questions. To get genuine responses, you’d have to ask a follow-up: why? Each of the Jalopnick questions asks for suggestions – best, worst, top, most, etc. – that people might disagree upon, but there’s no right or wrong answer. The second is that the question is too broad: “What do you think about X?”
- Explain why the question is being posed – When Jalopnik asks “What’s the worst thing you can put on your car?” Jason Torchinsky explains some of the reasoning that spurred him to ask the question.
- Retain control over the answers – While the Jalopnik editors keep tabs of the accumulated answers, they retain ultimate decision over the rankings of the final answers. Sometimes, this means disputes in the AOTD posts, which leads to further engagement.
- Make the answers an actual article, with graphics – Each AOTD is a listicle (yes, I hate listicles, but in this instance, it kind of works). There’s a graphic/photo accompanying each number. If you’re going to ask questions on the Internet and promise to put them in print, don’t just put them in a little graphic on the editorial page. Blow it up on a page! Think of it this way: free content! If you don’t have space in print for all the responses and graphics, you do have space online. Feature the answers!
- Highlight the commenters in the answer post/article – Related to the previous point, the Jalopnik editor highlights and links to the first commenter who gives an answer that is chosen, and quotes from the comment. This makes the AOTD something of a contest among the commentariat as to who can come up with the best answer quicker.
- Don’t use polls – Polls are easy. They’re also lazy, for both the producer and the reader. Online polls are notoriously unscientific, and they don’t allow depth in answering the question.
- Be personal – You will note the authors of QOTD/AOTD are not ashamed to use the first-person singular pronoun “I.” They even state opinions (!) such as this: “There’s been trends for various car dress-up and personalization items for years, and there’s many awful ones. I always hated those chrome strips that outline doors and panel gaps, and of course there’s the fake chrome scrotums popular in the truck world.” And they enter the comments!
Now some caveats and further suggestions:
- Commit to the idea – You’re not going to get Jalopnik-level participation right off the bat (if ever). If you do, great! But for the rest of us, realize it’s going to take time to build up an engagement with readers.
- Start small – The Daily Eastern News staff started a question of the day feature on their Facebook page last year. It didn’t generate as much participation as they’d hoped, for a variety of reasons. A major reason was they went from zero to 60 in a second. Try weekly questions, and arrange so that they are available online at a particular time every week.
- Frame your questions correctly – “What do you think of Syria?” is too broad of a question, and won’t generate a lot of responses. “What are the best things about being a college student?” is a better question. Or, “What is the best representation of college life in a movie?”
- Vary your questions – One thing I like about Jalopnik’s QOTD/AOTD is that there is such variety. Some of them are genuinely useful. Some of them are just plain goofy and fun. Sort of like life.
- Assign a staffer as the “Answer editor” – Jalopnik staffers dive into the comments on their AOTD posts, defending selections, or thanking readers for selections that didn’t make the final tally. See here for an example from Máté Petrány. This can be a challenging, but rewarding, slot for a reporter who thrives in engaging the community, online or off.
Is your college media outlet handling questions for readers in a successful way? Shoot me an e-mail at scmurley -at- gmail.com and I’d love to talk to you about how they are handled.