Customer service, community management, and comment threads

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been on one side (or quite possibly the other) of an exchange that goes something like this:

PERSON AT NEWSPAPER WITH WEB-RELATED JOB: Sentinel, this is Ryan, how can I help you?
USER: Your website’s all wrong.
PANWWRJ: Really? What’s wrong?
USER: You don’t use XMLT 4.1. It’s still on 4.05. And your feeds are all gunked up with UTF-7. And your reporters talk too much about the city council. They should be writing stories about what the county commission is doing to the street in front of my house! And why can’t I read your forums on my jailbroken Palm Pilot? I can read the [LARGE NEWSPAPER LOCATED ON A DIFFERENT CONTINENT]’s blogs on it just fine.
PANWWRJ: Interesting.

Fun, right? Right? Guys?

OK, so maybe it isn’t that much fun to take that call.

But why do we get them? Do print readers give us as much input? What’s the ratio of letters-to-the-editor sent by mail to the number of website comments expressing an opinion on an issue?

Paul Ford, who you might vaguely remember as the guy responsible for scanning and cataloging the archives of Harper’s a few years back, has given the phenomenon illustrated in the above call transcript a name:

Why Wasn’t I Consulted?

Read his piece on the Web as a customer service medium. Now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

To loosely paraphrase, summarize, and otherwise interpret his thesis, for those of you that insisted on continuing to scan this post without pause:

The Web, and related communication methods, provide the instant gratification of a little “swoosh” sound as we send our opinions off into the ether, and a “ding” as they arrive in inboxes, as text messages, or even a handsome little bit of javascript that refreshes a “thumbs up” count next to a comment on a news article as we mash the little thumb in earnest, albeit truncated, appreciation of what’s been said.

Instant gratification.

Funny thing about instant gratification, however, is that it’s the perfect way to set the expectation that my swooshing e-mail, my dinging text message, and my refreshing little thumbs-up have an effect, a value, an importance. When my vote is added to the poll results, I feel I have been consulted on the issue.

Here’s Paul Ford on “Why Wasn’t I Consulted”:

It is the rule from which other rules are derived. Humans have a fundamental need to be consulted, engaged, to exercise their knowledge (and thus power), and no other medium that came before has been able to tap into that as effectively.

Let’s go back to our call transcript, and see what our news website user is trying to express, exactly.

USER: I am important, and my opinion matters.
PERSON AT NEWSPAPER WITH WEB-RELATED JOB: Of course you are, and it does. Honest.
USER: So next time you decide to upgrade your webserver to Venus 5.89 instead of Mars 4.12, you should ask me about it first. Why Wasn’t I Consulted? I probably know more than you about it, anyway.

A-ha.

Sound familiar?

“My readers know more than I do.” — Dan Gillmor

So if we’ve established that the Web is the best medium ever to feed the “Why Wasn’t I Consulted?” need, and we’ve established that in the broad, overarching sense of the relationship of a single reporter to the public at large connected by the Web, that our readers know more than we do, what are we doing to tap into that need and that knowledge?

Well, there’s an obvious spot on news sites where we can tap in, but we don’t always.

Comment threads.

A few ideas:

  • At the bare minimum, it’s easy to recommend that reporters pay some amount of attention to comment threads on the stories they report.
  • Giving users an up and down voting mechanism on individual comments is probably also a prerequisite to doing this efficiently.
  • From there, your reporters should now have a way to sort comments based on the thumbing-up users have taken care of for you. (Wasn’t that nice of them?)
  • Now, rather than jumping in to rehash, argue, or troll-feed the problem users (whose comments have now been voted down, and in an ideal world of commenting systems, you’ve collapsed and made all but invisible in the thread), your reporters can evaluate the best comments in the thread and participate, clarify, answer questions, or even just say “Hey, thanks, that’s a great idea and we’ll look into it.”
  • That’s that kind of feedback that meets a user’s WWIC need at a much higher level. Even if you’re just engaging users to say “thank you,” they’re now participating in a conversation instead of a one-way rant/complaint/critique, and are likely to behave accordingly.

If you’re a social media manager, or a community manager, or an online editor, or a web producer, or bear the weight of some other title that involves this sort of work, you’re probably already doing this, right?

More to think about

Metafilter founder Matt Haughey — and if you know anything about Metafilter, you know they do WWIC right — tells a story about spending a few hours in an airport with Craig Newmark:

“He was literally chasing down forum spammers one by one, sometimes taking five minutes per problem, sometimes it seemed to take half an hour to get spammers dealt with. He was totally engrossed in his work, looking up IP addresses, answering questions best he could, and doing the kind of thankless work I’d never seen anyone else do with so much enthusiasm.”

Is that how you handle customer service?

If not, what sort of software and systems would make the job easier?

Catch up or get left behind

I’ve been a nomad for a few days in the middle of a short-by-my-standards 300+ mile move from the suburbs of Rochester, NY to the suburbs of Washington D.C. and boy are my legs tired.

But I’m catching up on my reading, and found a few things to share with you on the theme of catching up…

VIDEO: Investing in Your Staff

CoPress on Vimeo | September 2, 2009
The latest excellent video presentation from CoPress, making a case for innovation in your news organization.

2010 Knight News Challenge is now open for business
“Got a great idea for transforming the future of news? The 2010 Knight News Challenge is now accepting applications, through October 15th!”

The future of news in 4 dimensions: Charting new kinds of news orgs
Nieman Journalism Lab | September 1, 2009
C.W. Anderson builds the sort of continuum/quadrant chart that makes the mass communications scholar in me go all smiley.

brianboyer: If you’re a Tribune reader, this’ll make it nicer. RT @ryanmark: Update to ChicagoTribune.com userstyle http://userstyles.org/styles/20347
Twitter | September 2, 2009
If you understand what these two Chicago Tribune developers are up to here (providing savvy online readers with an incrementally improved stylesheet for the recent redesign long before the changes get built into the live site’s code), then you’ll understand why I think it’s pretty cool of them.

Five concrete steps to improving the news
Newsless.org | September 1, 2009
Matt Thompson follows up his post about what goes missing from most news stories with a few suggestions for how to roll out a contextual approach to a news story. I like #4, which includes this idea: “Keep a public list of the most important things you don’t know about your topic.”

New report: How to build a user community online
Mark Briggs of Journalism 2.0 and his team at Serra Media put together this great report on community management.

Young Families are the Real Early Adopters
Mash this market research up with the right Pew report, and you’ll have a good idea of how to deliver the news to an audience that is the most likely to want it.

mattwaite: Today, we launched Home Team, a local high school sports site: http://hometeam.tampabay.com/ And I now I need to sleep for a month.
Twitter | September 2, 2009
Matt and company at the St. Petersburg Times demonstrating what a solid Web framework and some experience can help you get done in a short span of time. More details in the tweets that followed this one.

Lifestreaming: Newspaper Uses Posterous to Solicit and Publish Reader Photos
The Steve Rubel Lifestream | August 30, 2009
Did you spot the Austin American-Statesman using Posterous to collect reader photos last week?

So, are you caught up?

If Posterous, Django, market research, community management, contextual news, CSS, the Knight News Challenge, and CoPress are all alien objects to you, pick any one and get up to speed.

Catch up or get left behind.