Five Ways to Increase Profits Through the End of the Year

How do small business owners stay afloat during trying times?  Here are five ways to help increase profit and get your business humming again.search funnel

Look Inside

  • Assess your current costs. Make sure that every dollar spent is absolutely necessary.  You may need to streamline staff or create more efficient processes and procedures.  Don’t be too arrogant as to think that you can’t learn something new.  This becomes an issue when a business hasn’t looked inside for a long, long time.  They begin to believe there is not a better way than theirs.  It’s worked so well for all of these years, why fix what isn’t broke?  Well, because times change – and so should we.  Always be willing to consider suggestions from your team.   They have a different perspective; they see things you don’t.  Which brings us to the next point.
  • Your team is your most valuable asset. The vision and passion that you bring to your company cannot be duplicated but it must be transferred as you build enthusiasm within your culture.  Even if you are a one-man show it is essential to stay motivated by being mindful of the bigger picture.  Get excited again about what you do and why.   Regardless of the work, having a sense of doing it for a greater good, a higher purpose, meets a fundamental human need.  You would be surprised what your team is willing to do for you and your vision if you make them a part of it.  Collaborate with them on ways to cut costs other than letting them go.  They will appreciate your trusting them, and in turn, often times, they will work harder.   Today’s new grads have been raised in a culture of collaboration.  Don’t let old philosophies of management keep you from drawing the best out of the stewards of your business.
  • Maximize current business opportunities. By tapping into an existing client, you further secure your relationship with them and they of course love the efficiencies they gain.  It’s a win/win.  Building on this you’ll want to consider expanding this idea of maximizing current opportunities to include social media.  We must understand social media is about building relationships.  Honestly, haven’t relationships always been what good business has been built on?   You and members of your team have a virtual Rolodex of connections through Linked In, Twitter etc.   If you don’t know how to use these resources to their full potential, you should think about having someone on your team become your social media expert, or hire someone to train you.  Which brings us to our next point.

Look Outside

  • It is still true that it takes money to make money. Sometimes it is necessary to bring in outside help to evaluate our team and us.  Being willing to be honest that there are some things that need to be fixed can make or break your business by the years end.  Often it takes an outside observer, seeing through the lens of their expertise to expose an area of weakness, which can be remedied once it has been identified.  If your organization is in serious trouble, but you can afford to bring in a consultant before your forced to shut the doors, it may just keep you in business.
  • For some time we have been creating and requiring careers to be highly defined and specific. Now those same careers are becoming obsolete.  Adaptability is the name of this new game.   Looking outside may mean considering partnerships or a modified product line.  It may mean giving up brick and mortar and strictly selling on line.   It comes down to looking outside of our box to see who and what we might become to generate some revenue.

It’s important to know that people, relationships, are still the foundation of business. Remember we’re in this together; we need each other and that ultimately, is good for business.  ~Jennifer S.

 

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Who was Lev Vygotsky and why is His Theory Important to Marketers?

Lev Vygotsky made great strides in educational theory.  Today, with so many data-driven and social media tools available to marketers, much can be learned from Vygotsky when thinking about how to better understand customers and influence purchasing choices.

Lev Vygotsky via Wikipedia

Lev was a Russian psychologist who developed Social Learning theory in the early 20th century.  He proposed that learning is a “continuous process focused on the connections between people and the cultural context in which they act and interact in shared experiences.”  Developing the Zone of Proximal Development (which is the area in which the concepts are too difficult for the pupil to master on his own, but with guidance and encouragement from a knowledgeable person, are able to master), he developed the Social Development Theory of Learning.  This states that social influences greatly affect learning, and learning occurs when concepts are modeled.  That’s Lev Vygotsky and his theory in a nutshell.

What about its practical implications to marketers?  According to this theory, which places great importance on social influences of cognitive development, marketing can alter consumer behavior by modifying thought processes, namely through advertisements.  As marketers, we should try to understand what drives consumers to purchase products to increase revenues.

Develop Consumer Profiles

Using qualitative marketing research to create consumer profiles allows companies to more wisely spend marketing dollars.  One technique is to conduct marketing questionnaires.  Employing Vygotsky’s theory in this realm generates more genuine feedback from research, whereas direction questioning results in more superficial answers.

Modify Cognitive Behavior of Consumers

According to The Vygotskian Approach,

“He believed that just as physical tools extend our physical abilities, mental tools extend our mental abilities, enabling us to solve problems and create solutions in the modern world. When applied to children, this means that to successfully function in school and beyond, children need to learn more than a set of facts and skills. They need to master a set of mental tools—tools of the mind.

According to Vygotsky, until children learn to use mental tools, their learning is largely controlled by the environment; they attend only to the things that are brightest or loudest, and they can remember something only if has been repeated many times. AFTER children master mental tools, they become in charge of their own learning, by attending and remembering in an intentional and purposeful way. In the same way that using certain mental tools can transform children’s cognitive behaviors, using other mental tools can transform their physical, social, and emotional behaviors. From being ‘slaves to the environment,’ children become ‘masters of their own behavior.’”

Whether through advertising or direct sales, Vygotsky’s theory may be used as an effective tool for success.  By using a model to demonstrate the product being used or purchased, the advertisement can help the consumer develop a script, which is a group of small bits of information the consumer collects about a product, which are stored in memory, being called upon later.  Your marketing strategies should strive to develop the consumer’s script to the point that the consumer feels connected to the product or company, resulting in sales.

Create Consumers with Internalized Cues

Marketing aims not only to drive immediate sales, but also to create a throng of repeat sales.  You want your customers to possess brand loyalty.  This occurs when the consumer’s schemata, or packets of knowledge about your product, create cues that reinforce future sales.  There are important cognitive processes which occur between the input of information and the output of behavior.  As marketers, we should strive to instill into our consumers familiarity with our product or service.  The more experienced the consumer, the more developed the script concerning your company.  The more developed the script, the greater the sales.  This translates to successful marketing.

This sheds some light on the mental structures that stand in casual relationship to our customers’ actions.    ~Tricia

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Filed under Audience, Capturing Audience, Education Strategy, Social Media

Google Wants High Quality Content, But What Does That Mean?

Okay writers and webmasters, you’re good, but you continually challenge yourself to better.  This post is ready to be a resource to you.  We’d like to explain the following:

  1. The crux about quality from the recently leaked, March 2014 Google rater’s guideline manual.
  2. What high quality means.
  3. The attributes of low quality content.
  4. What you can do to improve your website’s content.

The Rubric- Google’s 2014 Search Quality Manual

Behind the scenes, an army of quality raters double check the accuracy of Google’s algorithms before and after updates. These raters are issued guidelines, which steer their evaluations and reflect what the juices are in the current or upcoming algorithm changes. The latest handbook, version 5.0, was recently leaked. We wrote about the 2011 version, and gave an overview of the new version at Relevance. What’s important for you to know is that E-A-T, or Expertise, Authority, and Trust are now key factors when determining Google search engine rankings.  Most insiders have known that the reputation of one’s brand is an important ranking factor, but this manual gives a detailed look at the factors that determine site popularity- well, popularity isn’t even the right word.  It’s more about the culminating signals behind your site’s reputation.

If you’re the Director of Marketing, you’ll want to download your own copy of this handbook at scribd.com because it talks about design and functionality elements, too.  Since My Web Writers focuses on content creation, we’re going to drill down into that aspect of the handbook.

Definitions of Highest and High Quality Pages

I really like how Google defines quality and provides so many specific examples.  It says,

“Highest pages are very satisfying pages which achieve their purpose very well. The distinction between High and Highest is based on the quality of MC <each site’s main content> as well as the level of E-A-T and reputation of the website. What makes a page highest quality? We require at least one of the following: <1> Very high or highest quality MC, with demonstrated expertise, talent, and/or skill.  <2> Very high level of expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness (page and website) on the topic of the page. <3> Very good reputation (website or author) on the topic of the page… We will consider the MC of the page to be very high or highest quality when it is created with a high degree of time and effort, and in particular, expertise, talent, and skill. Very high quality MC may be created by experts, hobbyists, or even people with everyday expertise. Our standards depend on the purpose of the page and the type of content. The Highest rating may be justified for pages with a satisfying or comprehensive amount of very high quality MC.”

This means that as a writer, if you are writing outside of your area expertise and don’t do your homework, your average content could sink a website. Conversely, if you’ve specialized in a certain area, interest, or hobby, you could see a surge in demand for your knowledge after people get familiar with this document.  Writers, don’t be deterred from tackling new subjects, but when you do, do your homework.  Talk to experts and include their testimonies in your articles and quotes. You also can’t slop through the writing process.  Check your spelling.  Get the subject and verb agreements right.  Go deeper than what the culmination of five articles say about the topic.  Nobody wants to read repurposed articles when they’re looking for new angles. Pick up the phone and dig up unique quotes or tidbits of information that no one knows.  Google tells raters that,

“Highest quality pages and websites have a very high level of expertise or are highly authoritative or highly trustworthy. Formal expertise is important for topics such as medical, financial, or legal advice. Expertise may be less formal for topics such as recipes or humor. An expert page on cooking may be a page on a professional chef’s website, or it may be a page on the blog of a home cooking enthusiast. Please value life experience and “everyday expertise.” For some topics, the most expert sources of information are ordinary people sharing their life experiences on personal blogs, forums, reviews, discussions, etc. Think about what expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness mean for the topic of the page. Who are the experts? What makes a source trustworthy for the topic? What makes a website highly authoritative for the topic?”

Google would also like to see secondary content on high ranking websites, if possible.  From videos to games to reviews, find ways to help users delve a little deeper and engage a little longer. Not every high ranking site has to have secondary content, but if it has good secondary content, that’s a plus.

The Attributes of Low and Lowest Quality Content

Compare what content needs to achieve top scores to what deserves low scores. First, it’s important to note, Google recognizes intent.

“We have very different standards for pages on large, professionally-produced business websites than we have for small amateur, hobbyist, or personal websites. The type of page design and level of professionalism we expect for a large online store is very different than what we might expect for a small local business website. All PQ rating should be done in the context of the purpose of the page and the type of website. The following sections discuss page characteristics which may be evidence of Low quality. Occasionally, these same characteristics may be present on smaller amateur or personal websites and are not a concern. Please use your judgment when deciding whether these characteristics are evidence of low quality on the page you are evaluating, or merely a sign of non-professional but acceptable small, amateur, or personal website design, for example, “Uncle Alex’s Family Photos” website (a hypothetical High quality example).”

Google lowers scores if main or secondary content is distracting or unhelpful.  For example, too many ads are distracting and appear to have the purpose of monetizing the site rather than helping users. If the site lacks supplementary content, this too can lower the site’s score. Poor page design or a lack of website maintenance (meaning broken links or slow load images) can hurt your site’s score.  As much contact information as possible should be added. Google tells raters that,

“We have different standards for small websites which exist to serve their communities versus large websites with a large volume of webpages and content. For some types of ‘webpages,’ such as PDFs and JPEG files, we expect no SC <secondary content> at all. Please use your judgment… Here is a checklist of types of pages or websites which should always receive the lowest rating:

• Harmful or malicious pages or websites.

• True lack of purpose pages or websites.

• Deceptive pages or websites.

• Pages or websites which are created to make money with little to no attempt to help users.

• Pages with extremely low or lowest quality MC <main content>.

• Pages on YMYL <Your Money or Your Life> websites with completely inadequate or no website information.

• Pages on abandoned, hacked, or defaced websites.

• Pages or websites created with no expertise or pages which are highly untrustworthy, unreliable, unauthoritative, inaccurate, or misleading.

• Websites which have extremely negative or malicious reputations.”

Image courtesy of Flat earth Society

Image courtesy of Flat earth Society

This list seems fairly straight-forward and yet, one could see where rater subjectivity could get the better of a site. Pages or websites that are “untrustworthy, unreliable, unauthoritative, inaccurate, or misleading” could tank a business or individual with rogue opinions or controversial views.  The overall checklist appears reasonable, however, if Christopher Columbus had a website back in his time, I wonder how he’d score? Taken in whole, the document is fairly clear that raters should look at how well you, as the content’s creator, did your homework and presented information or opinions; but, the “unreliable, unauthoritative, inaccurate, or misleading” phrase on its own should be considered a warning shot fired about appearing half-baked in the public arena.

Definitions of Lowest Quality Content

The writer who has the depth of a baby pool probably shouldn’t be assigned very heady topics.  As a manager, find each writer’s strengths and let each write about those topics. Google says that,

“The quality of the MC <main content> is one of the most important considerations in PQ <page quality> rating. In this guideline, we’ll judge the quality of the MC by thinking about the how much time, effort, expertise, and talent/skill was involved in content creation. If very little or no time, effort, expertise, or talent/skill has gone into creating the MC, use the lowest quality rating. All of the following should be considered either lowest quality MC or no MC:

• No helpful MC at all or so little MC that the page effectively has no MC.

• MC which consists almost entirely of “keyword stuffing.”

• Gibberish or meaningless MC.

• “Auto-generated” MC, created with little time, effort, expertise, manual curation, or added value for users.

• MC which consists almost entirely of content copied from another source with little time, effort, expertise, manual curation, or added value for users.

Finally, the distinction between low and lowest quality MC is often human effort and manual curation. If you are struggling between ‘low quality MC’ and ‘lowest quality MC,’ please consider how much human effort and attention the page has received.”

When writing this article, I struggled with how much content out of Google’s manual I should quote.  My reasoning to go ahead and use as much as I have is because to date, not much has been written about the manual and not everyone, who is in a position to change their website, will read the 160 page document (though they should) or if they do, they might want further insight about it.  Thus, I think the amount of quoted handbook content is justified, given the extra value added with insight around the quoted content.

However, this is different than copying and pasting half an article without attribution or even with attribution and not adding further value to what already exists on the web. Nothing is worse than paying a writer to create original content and discovering that it is backwash.

Google says,

“Important: We do not consider legitimately licensed or syndicated content to be ‘copied’ (see here for more on web syndication). Examples of syndicated content in the U.S. include news articles by AP or Reuters. The word ‘copied’ refers to the practice of ‘scraping’ content, or copying content from other non-affiliated websites without adding any original content or value to users (see here for more information on copied or scraped content). If all or most of the MC on the page is copied, think about the purpose of the page. Why does the page exist? What value does the page have for users? Why should users look at the page with copied content instead of the original source?”

What You Can Do to Improve Content

Deliver what you promise for each keyword query you target. If you want to rank for the term “Arabian Horses for Sale” your page ought to have pictures and descriptions of several Arabian horses. You’ll want other websites to have great reviews from customers about your previous transactions. You should be registered and a thriving member of Arabian horse registries. Don’t let your content get off topic, but do make it be so rich that users will want to return and will recommend it to others. Make sure you spell check your work and don’t stuff the content with too many keywords.

We recommend reading the raters’ guidelines to learn more about how to improve the content of your website. You’ll find additional insight about what it means to have high quality content. ~Jean

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Filed under Algorithms, Branding, Business Strategy, Editors, Keywords, Reputation Management, SEO (Search Engine Optimization)

How “Tour the States” Was Made and Went Viral

In June 2014, Angie Seaman, E-Commerce Manager for Marbles: The Brain Store, shared with an IRCE video workshop audience how Marbles: The Brain Store’s Tour the States video was made and successfully went viral with over 2,760,519 hits and counting.

“That was basically a very low-tech solution to making a video.  We had the cartoonist actually come into the office, get a big white piece of paper, and he’s only holding a marker. It took him about a week to get the thing done and the video.  We were crossing our fingers the whole time that he wouldn’t make a mistake. We did have a couple things that we had to fix, but it wasn’t too bad and it took our video director about two weeks to edit all of the footage together and get it synced up with music.  It turned out great and was well worth it for us.”

As a parent who had to help a fifth grader memorize the states and capitals in the fall of 2013, I can tell you that there was nothing like it on You Tube at the time.  The song is catchy and it not only highlighted the states, but also the capitals in their locations, which was surprisingly unique for You Tube videos about states and capitals.  Marbles: The Brain Store found a need and fulfilled it for kids (and parents).

“It <the video> introduced The Brain Store as an authority on the product, which is important because these are people who don’t know our brand.  It makes customers more comfortable to transact with us and we’ve seen our conversion rate increase over time. Part of it has to do with video.”

To make a low-budget video, Seaman suggests budgeting time to experiment, picking a room with good acoustics, and finding talent who can do it all.  She says that you can get going with video for less than $1000.

“It took us a year and a half or so to really get everything.  We saw results right away, but our conversion rate has increased and actually doubled every year. Part of it has to do with other things we’re doing, but I think a lot of it has to do with video.”

From lighting and sound to editing and effects, how is your company using video this year?

~Jean at My Web Writers

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Filed under Capturing Audience, Conferences, Television Script Writing, Video Production, YouTube

Managing Brand-Consumer Relationships via Social Media, A Conversation with Miami University’s Dr. Glenn Platt

Image courtesy of @GlennPlatt

Social media relationships between brands and customers are connected to an important shift in marketing, putting word of mouth in the digital sphere and bringing brands into the conversation. According to Dr. Glenn Platt, professor of marketing and co-director of the Interactive Media Studies Program at Miami University, this change puts the focus on value and utility. He notes, “marketers are no longer in the job of selling the sizzle, but rather are about showing how there is value in that product. If you use this product it solves this problem. It makes your life better.” Social media helps facilitate that message by allowing customers and brands to connect with each other about that utility or value.

Developing the Relationship

Platt asserts that there are three important parts of a successful social media campaign—creating personal connections with the customer, showing them the utility of the product, and addressing customer service concerns. According to Platt, social media marketing is all about communicating what is best and most valuable about your brand in a way that connects with the customer’s life. “Your job is not to convince people that coffee cures cancer…Your job is to say ‘This is a really delicious cup of coffee.’ This is what it is and this is why it’s great” Platt says. “Marketers get kind of a bad rap for trying to convince people of things that are untrue, but for the social media marketer–that isn’t their job at all. Their job is to find the things that are most true about the brand and elevate them.”

A key facet of building the personal connection is addressing customer concerns. While there are plenty of stories about people who didn’t realize they were on their personal account and sent out inappropriate tweets, according to Platt, “Classic mistakes for social media marketers are not responding to your customers, responding poorly or defensively, not being authentic, or trying to mislead people.”

He says that social media has “almost become a 1-800 line for the brand” and in order to develop a strong relationship between customers and your brand, as well as a trustworthy presence in social media, it’s important to respond to your customers in a timely, helpful, and sincere manner.

Using the Right Platform

In addressing those customer concerns, not all platforms are equally useful. A visit to the Facebook page for the lifestyle subscription service Birchbox historically showed a litany of customer complaints and referral codes to a competing brand. While Birchbox didn’t delete any comments and quickly addressed them, their brand-related posts often have been overshadowed by complaints.

Platt suggests that Facebook is not a great platform for consumer-brand relationships because of the chronological nature of the site. In order to keep relevant posts fresher on the page, brands have to be selective about what gets posted: “Once you know that a company deletes Facebook posts you don’t trust them. It’s just game over. You can’t delete stuff, but you want to delete stuff.” He suggests that brands like Birchbox move customer concerns to a specific tab and publicly post that policy, as well as in a response to any posts not filtered under the tab function. A better move, however, would be to address customer service issues on Twitter. Platt notes that successful brands such as Best Buy and Comcast already have multiple Twitter accounts, some designated just for customer issues. “It’s not in their face, but it’s public, which is the important part,” he says. “You want people to say, ‘Look, I’m owning all my problems. I’m dealing with them. Here you can see I’ve solved problems and I’m not trying to push things under the rug.”

Connecting with Influencers

Aside from helpfully addressing customer concerns, to make the most of your efforts on social media, it is important to get the attention of influencers, the people who will help get your posts and your brand seen by more people. As explained by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point, there are different types of influencers, too. The first type of influencer is an expert, someone who contacts and friends turn to for their expertise on a particular topic. The second type is a curator or maven, a person who finds and shares interesting products, articles, etc. and tends to accumulate a lot of information. The third kind of influencer is the connector, a people’s person who is good at connecting people to each other. For example, if you have a question, a connector might not know the answer, but probably knows someone who does and would send you his or her way.

Platt says that influencers can be identified through social media by looking at the ripple effects of posts and retweets, tracking how information spreads throughout a social network: “Some people look to social media influencers to see how large their networks are…People with more followers are probably going to have more influence than people with fewer followers.” An influencer can be a big name celebrity or expert or someone with a smaller, more local network, as long as their activity makes ripples in social media activity. Platt argues that while people with big social networks may have more reach, because there are anthropological studies that suggest that a community can only really have 150 members, it is important not to neglect influential people in smaller more local communities. For example, he points out that in his local community there is a Facebook group for mothers and certain members of that group have a lot of influence. When they post events or activities, their posts tend to have a big, tangible impact in the community.

There are a number of ways to get the attention of influencers on social media, from direct messages to sending samples or products. Because bloggers are required to disclose if they have been given a free product for review, however, Platt suggests that more subtle methods may be more effective. “People immediately are not going to trust it as much when they see that [free products were supplied],” he says, “even if it is an honest post.”

Instead, Platt thinks an effective method of getting influencers’ attention is communicating to them how your product or brand is valuable to them or their community: “The trick with influencers is to find those things that are true about your brand and find a way to get them in front of them. Like someone who’s an influencer in the mommy group here in Oxford, they genuinely would be grateful to know if there’s a kids eat free day at Bob Evans.[...]And so simply reach out and let them know that, finding ways to just make them aware, not pushing it, not making it look like you’re bribing them.”

The bottom line in creating a solid social media relationship is cultivating a trustworthy presence through honest answers to customer concerns and product marketing that meets customers where they are, showing how your product or page adds value to their experiences.  ~Kasey

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Filed under Facebook, Social Media, Twitter

How to Apply for Media Entry at Conferences and Events

Writers, did you know that you can scoop great industry stories at conferences just by asking conference coordinators for media passes?photo (20)

Visit Your Favorite Conference for the Price of a Story

In most cases, you’ll need to be a staff writer, videographer, or photographer for a credible news organization, blog, or online journal.  Even freelance writers selling stories to publications, magazines, or newspapers can qualify.

About IRCE Media Badges

Maura Bruton, Internet Retailer Press Assistant, says that you need to be a writer

“for a publication, as far as whether that’s a blog or whatever, we are looking for people who are coming to cover the show or the exhibitors.  Sometimes people are looking for a press badge in more of a sales capacity and those people do not get press badges.”

IRCE is a great show to cover topics in e-commerce, selling b-to-b, or technology. Bruton adds,

“There are a lot of stories here.  There are a lot of spokespeople, whether for companies, keynotes, speakers, or presenters.”

If the journalist asks for assistance, IRCE will provide images and arrange interviews with speakers.  Quite often speakers and companies hunt down the press at the show for free coverage.

photo (19)Credit, of course, must be given to the show and speakers for images, videos, and quotes.  IRCE offers a full-service press room during the show, coordination with speakers prior to the show, press releases, and a complimentary conference badge. The press can take pictures and videos, if speakers approve, but press tags must accompany cameras.  Online credit should be linked back to the IRCE website.

To apply for a press badge for an IRCE event, go to IRCE.com and contact the press coordinators.  They’ll review your application and get in contact with you. Bruton suggests looking at IR Events Group to find shows that fit your upcoming conference calendar.

The Perks of Writing

Even if technology isn’t your beat, many other conferences and events provide free entry to members of the press in exchange for your content creation and distribution.

Hey, you could even go to Disney World for two days on a Hopper Pass if you can prove that you write for a travel blog or are affiliated with an established news organization.  Live in New York?  Start planning your Macy’s Day parade coverage by applying for a New York press pass.

If you write for a living (or just for the fun of it), go find budding stories in your interest areas by attending conferences and special events.

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Filed under Audience, Conferences, Editors, Marketing, Reviews, Writing Careers, Writing Resources

Reader Comments: How to Get to Real Insights (An Interview with Miami University’s, David Wells)

Image courtesy of Lane Memorial Library in Hampton, NH

In 1690, Benjamin Harris edited a paper that only lasted for one issue before it was shut down by the colonial authorities. Publick Occurrences Both Forreign and Domestick filled only three of its four pages so that readers could write their comments and share the paper with another reader, creating a written discussion of the paper’s stories. Miami University journalism instructor, David Wells, uses this anecdote to explain how social networking is not a new phenomenon. He asserts that each technological advance in journalism from moving type to the iPhone serves to “get the news out faster and it’s made it possible to reach a wider audience. The wider the audience and the faster you get it out there the more interaction occurs with it.”

If you write in or manage an online space these days, chances are reader comments are either the bane of your existences or a boost to your traffic. Or maybe a bit of both. While readers discussing your writing can help the story grow or the piece go viral, managing online traffic and comments can prove difficult.

Managing Online Comments

Wells was the Editorial Page editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer from 1999-2009, a period when many newspapers started to make the transition to the online platforms. In the transition, the paper focused on creating a “community conversation” and decided that historically the Editorial pages were where that had happened via letters to the editor. The team decided to publish letters to the editor online. As with the traditional print-based letters to the editor, the online letter to the editor page required people to include their real names and which neighborhood of the city they were from. Some people at the paper thought the requirement would deter submissions, but the paper received up to 100 letters a day, showing that people were as willing to include their names in the online forum as they were in the printed paper. Wells argues, “If people were going to put their names on it they’re going to be more responsible about it than they would be otherwise. And people do want to have their voice and speak up and they’re glad to have the forum.”

Monitoring the online comments to other stories proved more complicated. Not only were there far more comments to comb through, but with the ability to post anonymously, people would write such hateful things that some local public figures started to decline being interviewed by the paper. To Wells, the anonymity of online comments is linked to the likelihood that people will post inflammatory or untrue statements. “I think the anonymity of the comment is a bad thing,” he says. “The excuse is always that people will get in trouble because the boss will find out they differ in political views. You know what, people need to be responsible for what they say. There is such a thing as free speech and the boss isn’t supposed to be able to fire you.”

Many publications share Wells’s views and many, such as the HuffingtonPost, are starting to require the use of Facebook accounts to post online comments. Further, a recent study published in Journalism Practice found that there was a direct correlation between anonymity and “uncivil” comments. Specifically, when online newspapers allowed readers to make anonymous comments, 53% of the comments made were uncivil or inflammatory. That rate dropped to 29% when the user interface required the reader’s real name or a link to their Facebook account.

Crowd-Sourcing and Engaging Reader Response

Wells notes, however, that when flagging and removing offensive comments, it is still important to listen to the questions and the input of the readers. He recounts going into meetings and asking, “This story that the police reporter wrote got 150 comments. Did you read any of those comments? There are a couple of comments in here that are pretty interesting that suggest this is similar to some other crime. Have we checked that out? That’s a tip.” Reporters would tell him they didn’t have time to read all the comments and Wells would reply, “You don’t have time not to.” He asserts that reader comments provide a space for crowd sourcing to help a story develop: “You will find out new information which you should turn around and use to enrich your own reporting, just like if you heard it as a tip over at the police station.”

Drawing In Readers

Wells points out another way that reader interaction and digital readership is affecting writing: the pay wall. In an effort to counter financial losses after content moved from print to online, many publications have instituted a pay wall, allowing the reader to only read a portion of the story, or a limited number of stories before requiring a paid subscription. According to Wells, the pay wall can put the writer in a tricky situation. “What’s your role as a journalist?” he asks. “Is it just to provide teasers to get someone to buy a subscription so they can read your whole story?” Wells, like many instructors, teaches his students to get the news up top so that “if you just read the lead you should get the gist of what the story’s about.”

Tips for Web Writers

What does this dynamic mean for web writers? Careful management of online comments, flagging inappropriate or libelous comments is important, but listening to readers’ points also matters. Further, as more online publications move to draw readers into stories through sensationalist headlines or building a pay-walls, there are important decisions to be made about the integrity of your writing and how you are addressing your audience.

Know what your approach to reader interaction and user comments will be and communicate this vision to stakeholders. How will you set the tone without censoring your audience? How will you draw readers in without sacrificing the quality of your writing?

~Kasey

 

 

 

 

 

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