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?

New at IdeaLab: The People Formerly Known as the Audience need a new name

Over at IdeaLab, I’m continuing a conversation I started on Twitter a couple weeks ago that spilled over here as well.

What do you call your readers now that they’re participating actively in the creation and curation of unbundled media?

Do you call them a community?

Better yet, what makes an online “community” and how can local news sites foster an environment that makes that more likely?

Here’s a bit from the IdeaLab post, related to something I read recently at GeekDad:

“Because I’m a geek/dad, if not necessarily a full-blown Geekdad yet, it makes perfect sense. These are people like me writing about experiences that are either familiar to me, or talking about ideas that I’m profoundly interested in as a member of the community of people who self-identify as geekdads.

So maybe readers have a common topic of interest (baseball, city government, gardening), but a community is the topic of interest itself (baseball players, city council members and local activists, serious gardeners).”

What do you think?  Head over to IdeaLab and add a comment to let me know.

Are your readers a community?

I asked my Twitter followers what they think of substituting the word “community” for “readers” and I’m getting lots of good responses, many of them negative.

Either I didn’t know “community” had much of a stigma, or I spent too long working with “community” newspapers to notice. Back then, it seemed like a great linguistic way to hold a grizzled editor or publisher’s hand as they made the leap from thinking of the people in town as their “readers” to collaborating with them as “the former audience” as Dan Gillmor called them.

Twitter conversation embedded below, using Twickie to try it out.

ryansholin: I&#39ve been substituting the word “community” every time I start to type “readers” lately. What do you think?

about 44 minutes ago

lacajag: I like it. That&#39s what communication&#39s all about now.

about 42 minutes ago

greglinch: I&#39ve been liking “the former audience” more and more lately, but mostly avoid using it myself for some reason. Community = good.

about 41 minutes ago

scottros: good plan when readers really are community. True for some pubs/sites, not others. If not, then calling it so just rankles.

about 37 minutes ago

briandonohue: don&#39t like it. Use of community to describe online followers, etc is a pet peeve of mine.

about 35 minutes ago

CatrionaStuart: Depends. You can have readers and not community. IMHO community denotes sharing knowledge/ideas/function. http://bit.ly/3XWBL7

about 34 minutes ago

briandonohue: My readers are not part of my community. They won&#39t babysit my kids in a pinch or coach my kid soccer…

about 34 minutes ago

CharlieBeckett: I think community is almost a dead word now. Just because a group all read something doesn&#39t make them a cohesive community

about 5 minutes ago

At IdeaLab: Paul Bradshaw on crowdsourcing investigative journalism

Over at IdeaLab, I’ve been way past deadline for a post, after (again) making all sorts of promises about helping out more over there.  Until now.

After playing the modern equivalent of phone tag (Twitter DMs and e-mail across two operating systems and one ocean) for a week or so, Paul Bradshaw and I landed on Skype at the same time for 15 minutes for a quick chat about his freshly funded project, Help Me Investigate.

Here’s the post at IdeaLab, where you’ll find the full video interview.

If you want to head directly to the background on this, read Paul’s post about the funding and the next steps for the project.

Here’s why I’m so interested in this project, and in my Knight News Challenge project ReportingOn, and David Cohn’s efforts with Spot.Us, and in the Collaborative Reporting tools we launched at Publish2 recently:

I really, REALLY, REALLY want there to be easy ways to gather structured data from readers, users, journalists, and editors, and I want that data to be attached to their identity whenever possible.  I want that data to be portable and exportable, so it can be displayed in any and all useful formats. I want profiles for everyone so I can track their participation, reliability, and levels of knowledge about different topics, beats, locations, and stories.

I’m becoming more and more passionate about this, with my level of surprise that no one has built the right tools for this job yet growing by the day.  But we’re getting closer.  Platforms are emerging.  Standards will follow.  Collaboration is key.

October Carnival of Journalism: How to move the needle in your newsroom today

Journerdist-In-Chief Will Sullivan hosts this month’s resurgent Carnival of Journalism, asking the following:

“What are small, incremental steps one can make to fuel change in their media organization?”

I’ve mentioned some incremental steps you take to grow a little revenue at a time recently, and there’s a list of free or cheap tools for online news sitting around here somewhere, but here are a few general recommendations and specific ideas for things you can do on Monday morning to get the ball rolling and needle moving into the future in your newsroom.

In General:

  • Engage your readers. Don’t be a faraway mugshot at the top of a column once a week; use blogs, comment threads on stories, microblogging tools, and every other tool at your disposal to foster a relationship with the actual human beings at the other end of your delivery routes and Intertubes.

To Be Specific:

  • Start a blog, or a story with a comment thread, or a Twitter account on Monday morning, depending on the technology you have on hand.

The purpose of this blog/thread/Twitter account is to ask readers questions, and answer the questions they ask.  One staff member (probably you if you’re reading this) takes the questions from readers and routes them to the logical reporter, editor, photographer, graphic designer, etc.  You don’t need 30 staffers to sign into the account and type into the CMS, you just need to send them an e-mail and get their answer and post it yourself.  Do encourage them to read the comments and follow up by participating in the thread.

In General:

  • Shoot more video. This isn’t as complicated as you think it is.  Get cameras in the hands of your reporters; don’t wait for your squadron of photographers to get the equipment they requested or for your editors to decide on which approach to newspaper video makes the most sense.  Skip the step where you try to produce video that looks like local TV news, and go straight to the step where you end up with a YouTube-like page with tons of video for your online readers to browse through.

To Be Specific:

Importantly, this is *primarily* a video camera, which means it’s not going to be monopolized by well-meaning reporters who “need” it to shoot stills for print.  Start a rotation, one reporter per camera per week.  Shoot three videos a week, maximum two minutes each, and edit as little as possible.  That’s how you get started shooting more video, regardless of what other long-term high-budget plans you might have in place.

In General:

  • Spend less time in conference rooms. If you feel like you’re spending too much time in meetings, you probably are.  Give yourself and your staff more time to get their jobs done and keep moving that needle in the right direction by not wasting their time.

To Be Specific:

  • Use online productivity and project management tools as an always-on meeting place that anyone can drop in and out of as their day allows.  Google Docs, Basecamp, Prologue, Yammer, Present.ly — choose a flavor and try it out.

Have more meetings, asynchronously, online, and spend less time locked in a conference room trying to figure out why you didn’t know that story or package or project was on the schedule for this weekend.  Use these tools for scheduling, budgeting, staffing, tracking long projects over time, story counts, accountability — as much or as little as you want.  Refer back to these documents instead of having meetings to talk about what sort of form you should print out to refer back to later.

Overstating the Obvious:

None of this will work if you’re not interested in making progress, passionate about taking giant leaps forward, and curious about the range of tools out there in the wild.  Try any of these, and if it doesn’t work, fail fast and move on to the next idea.  Unless you have time to waste, in which case, I wish you the best of luck.