How might media organizations better engage their audiences online?
Over the past year, I teamed up with several public broadcasters to try and answer this question. We collected lessons while rolling out online participation software at NPR’s Car Talk, KQED, Oregon Public Broadcasting, PRI’s The World and a dozen others. We are learning that the future of media engagement goes beyond invitations for listener comments. The leading examples involve much higher expectations from the "audience"; specifically, their partnership in delivering on more collaborative projects.
Take WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show, who in late 2007 asked their listeners to share price inequities they found at local grocery stores. The results made national news, and not just for the novel use of crowdsourced journalism (turns out that the state regulates milk prices, and not everyone was playing by the rules). As the demand for richer and more compelling media experiences increase, you’ll likely see less "Come join the discussion" and more "Let’s solve a problem together".
Most important here is the word "together". What participants want is a team-oriented experience that is open, inclusive, and aims to produce valuable outcomes where they can benefit. While these co-directed endeavors can be challenging to conceive and manage, they can drive significantly more participation and yield real, lasting online value (they now have a nice map of beer prices across Manhattan). Successful initiatives give the opportunity for all to be involved, and for many to play the role of expert – whether as an authoritative voice, a creative problem-solver, a data gatherer, or even a tackler of basic tasks. The very best solutions have participants as co-creators, co-directors, and even co-owners of the produced results. In this more collaborative environment, the notion of "the audience" begins to dissolve.
These collaborative projects can involve varying levels of commitment from participants. The following list identifies a spectrum of media-driven initiatives, from those with the least individual involvement to the most.
Basic Task Completion – Why not crowdsource a simple electronic task? Well, for starters, coming up with a compelling outcome and building a system to do it efficiently are two likely reasons not to. There are a few good examples of ones that seem to be working, although tying it effectively to media might be a different story.
Shared Experience – Collect narratives around unique themes. Inviting in stories effectively involves finding unexpected, yet invariably human common ground.
Unique Expertise – If you have a big enough audience, track down the needle in the haystack by seeking unique expertise. Proven ideas include troubleshooting car problems, soliciting peace corps volunteers, or getting hot tips on possible stories.
Research Data & Analysis – You don’t need rare skills to roll your sleeves and do some primary research or apply a critical eye. Audience members have proven their ability at spotting celebrities, measuring a city’s SUV density, and helping slog through the JFK files for conspiracy clues.
Creative Content – Accumulating creative submissions around a common theme is a time-tested method for getting media junkies engaged. Consider offering incentives and showcasing the best. Examples are endless: photos, top-10 lists, t-shirt ideas, show names, fan fiction, and full-on radio stations to name but a handful.
Ideas & Solutions – "Given enough eyeballs, all [problems] are shallow." Arguably the oldest crowdsourcing endeavor was the British government trying to solve the longitude problem. And since then, pumping your community for insights to address specific issues has inspired everything from the online suggestion box to trying to find a cure for Lou Gehrig’s disease.
True Collaboration – Bringing a community together, deploying varied skills over time in a dynamic and massively productive process is the holy grail for online participation. It's like applying the complexities of open source software development to the media industry. Three noble efforts in this regard include spurring organized community action, collaborative story coverage, and, of course, cataloging the World's knowledge.