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?

The Carnival of Journalism Revival Traveling Medicine Show

A couple years back, a sprawling cadre of journalism bloggers (myself included) participated — at least, for a few months — in a blog carnival.

Now without getting into the sordid details of what makes a blog carnival, and [INSERT CRACK ABOUT HOW NOBODY BLOGS ANYMORE BECAUSE YOU ALL HAVE THE TWITTERS AND WHATNOTS], it was a relatively pleasurable experience. A topic, a deadline, and the shared experience of a bunch of people writing about the same thing at the same time.

Superfluous Creative Commons stock photo of the 2009 Alameda County Fair, by WHardcastle.

And it’s back, thanks to Digidave’s revival:

One of the Knight Commission‘s recommendations is to “Increase the role of higher education…..as hubs of journalistic activity.” Another is to “integrate digital and media literacy as critical elements for education at all levels through collaboration among federal, state, and local education officials.”

Okay – great recommendations. But how do we actually make it happen? What does this look like? What University programs are doing it right? What can be improved and what would be your ideal scenario? Or is this recommendation wrong to begin with?

Big question!

I’m planning to attack it from a completely hypothetical angle, outlining what a proposal for a San Jose State University School of Journalism & Mass Communications partnership with the Mercury News might look like, although my knowledge of both institutions tails off violently after 2007 or so.

We’ll see. The deadline is in 10 days, so I have a few minutes to gather some thoughts, or even (shocking as it may be) new information.

The Inbox Zero Thing

I really, really, really, dislike “productivity” books. And gurus. And methods. And things that can generally be characterized as dogmatic.

But I like this.

My empty inbox.

I know I’m late to this party, but for years, I thought Inbox Zero was some sort of Getting Things Done-related madness involving a lot of folders and filters and whatnot.

But no, it’s not that complicated. And Merlin Mann does a great job of making it palatable, even digestible, to extend the metaphor a little deeper into the gut.

Start here, and read everything under the “Posts in the Inbox Zero series” heading before you start mashing your mouse. It won’t take you more than an hour or two to get started.

Not that every salesman in a flea market is sleazy, but…

This is why we use Twitter and Facebook and even Hunch and Quora to ask questions, search for products, and figure out how to replace dimmer switches.

Searching Google is now like asking a question in a crowded flea market of hungry, desperate, sleazy salesmen who all claim to have the answer to every question you ask.

via Marco.org – Google’s decreasingly useful, spam-filled web search.

Basic Maths for Invisible Inkling

Believe it or not, I’ve redesigned this blog, yet again.

Well, sort of.

Ahem, more accurate:

Believe it or not, I purchased the Basic Maths WordPress theme by Khoi Vinh and Allan Cole.

So here’s the deal. I’m tired of redesigning this blog. For more than five years, yes, it’s been my primary — albeit periodic — sandbox to learn and practice my thin layer of front-end skills. But that process also became an excuse not to write.

“Oh, yes, I’ll definitely get back to blogging lots as soon as I finish the redesign! It’s going to be awesome!”

No. It might have been “awesome” in some theoretical corner of my mind, but what it would never be was “finished.”

So rather than fool myself yet again, as I had started to do with a modified Twenty-Ten theme that I was not nimble enough to set up as a child theme, leading to the tearing of garments and gnashing of the teeth when a recent WordPress update included updates to Twenty-Ten’s stylesheet… I have opted to drop a really small number of dollars for a wildly valuable and handsome theme.

Which I have already begun to customize, but not much. And as a child theme. Lesson learned.

For those of you too lazy to click through from Google Reader, a glance:

There are still plenty of tweaks I want to make, one at a time, over my morning coffee, for the most part, but I like where this is going.

I have a rough notion of how to use WordPress/PressThis/Asides/widgets to produce an interesting stream of the sort of short link-and-comment posts that I’ve used Delicious/Publish2/Instapaper for over the last several years, so stay tuned for a barrage of little things along those lines.

And honest, more actual writing.

With any luck, this blog post is the first in a series on some stuff I’m doing as 2011 starts, to reduce the amount of guilt I let orbit around my skull and the Internets. Actually, it’s the second post in the series, which includes the bit about shutting down ReportingOn.