Engagement is a mindset, not a series of activities

I’ve been saying all year that journalists have a lot to learn from other industries and disciplines. Never have I felt more fired up about that than when talking to Jake McKee last week.

Jake’s background is in online communities and customer collaboration. He was suggested to me by The Guardian’s Meg Pickard (an anthropologist by training) as someone who could help me learn about community organizing and community management. From his bio: “Jake helps organizations understand how to act like groups of people, rather than soulless money making machines.”

Sign me up.

Jake is the co-founder of Ant’s Eye View, a company that helps organizations transform customer experiences and embed customer voice and collaboration in what they do. Ant’s Eye View has recently proposed a five-stage Social Engagement Journey. I’m taking a close look at what journalists can learn from it and will share those thoughts soon. For now, here’s what I learned during my interview with Jake.

— Full customer and social engagement can’t be really achieved until it’s baked into the DNA of a company. It’s not about choices and activities; it’s about being immersed in the minds of our customers. And it’s about making it clear to those customers that we are invested in them in a way that excites them and creates deeper loyalty. This isn’t just about improved CRM.

— Companies should divide the social engagement steps into measurable, manageable chunks. Figure out where you are in the Social Engagement Journey — the climate of the organization, training needs, concerns from individual people or departments, relationships with customers, etc. Then map out what you need to do, and in what order. Set goals that get you from one step to the next. Strategize.

— The aim, Jake likes to say, is for everybody to go home happy. The company has needs. The customer has needs. How do you openly address both even when they’re not directly related? Create a platform of emotional connection or loyalty. Deliver things for them, and they’ll what to help you, from evangelizing on your behalf to making your product better. The point is to break down the wall between the inside and outside, and create a relationship where both sides benefit. After all, the business (or news organization) exists to serve the customers, right. RIGHT? Are they getting everything they could be out of the relationship? And are you (and your organization)? When you have a true platform of ongoing, long-term loyalty, you can ask your customers for things you need, too.

— Focusing on mass audience is not necessarily the right approach. A small network of dedicated, connected participants, for example, can help change a community conversation. Build something worthwhile, then grow it. Start with a goal or problem. If your goal is to enrich the public conversation around a community issue, judge your efforts by whether you accomplished that, not by how many people conversed.

At this point in the conversation, Jake and I moved on to the topic of measuring engagement — something I’m planning to host a workshop on here at RJI in a few months (more on that soon) and am dedicated to getting smarter about. Jake’s business revolves around bringing engagement to organizations, so he knows how to measure whether change is occurring. He also made the point that you can’t value what you don’t measure.

Emotional and anecdotal evidence of social engagement absolutely plays a part in assessing our efforts, but there are more definitive ways to approach the task. For example, if we’re trying to measure a conversation in the comments section of a news story, there are a number of ways to do that, but the proper method depends on the overall business objective you’re addressing. For example:

If you’re going for traffic and eyeballs, measure the total number of comments.

If, however, you’re going for engagement, pay attention to the ratio of comments and replies. A reply may imply dialogue rather than isolated commenting activity.

Or you might look at the speed of replies. If people are paying close attention to your site and talking back directly and quickly, they might be passionate about the debate. (If you know of a news or information site measuring comment activity this way, will you let me know?)

Again, know your objective, and look at user behavior that will let you know how well you’re delivering on the objective. And “more engagement” doesn’t count as an objective.

Disciplines outside of journalism have long been accustomed to measuring the effectiveness of their efforts. Another example comes from Chrys Wu, who I interviewed last month. I was telling her about the Chicago Tribune’s aggressive move to hold more in-person events. James Janega told me about the panel discussions the Trib hosts that draw hundreds of people, whose contact info goes into a database. Chrys riffed about what they could be doing with that data. Do they cross-reference it with their on-site registrations? Do they track how many folks signed up after the event? Those are great questions. One of the goals of the Trib’s events is to connect readers with individual journalists, to make the paper more personal. Couldn’t you even track whether those readers gravitated toward those specific journalists’ work after the event?

I get the sense folks in other disciplines would be surprised at just how unaccustomed journalists are to assessing what works and what doesn’t, beyond anecdotal evidence. (I’ve written some about what we should be measuring and how one chain of TV stations is approaching analytics.) We have much to learn about measurement. Let’s get to it.

This was originally posted on the blog of the Reynolds Journalism Institute, where I am a 2010-2011 fellow.


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