Community Engagement: Start Small

The key bolstering community engagement with websites could be lowering the barrier to entry.

At a discussion on “Best Practices, Community Engagement” at the Block by Block Summit today, neighborhood news site reps shared the stories – and challenges – behind their quest to get users to become active participants in their sites.

Giving users the opportunity to get used to being active on sites through “entry level” participation – voting and polls are two examples – often makes riskier endeavors, such as commenting and contributing, more palatable, they said.

“It is just that breaking of the ice, because there’s a social psychological thing about posting in the space,” said Michael Wood-Lewis, founder of Front Porch Forum, the Burlington site dedicated to helping neighbors connect.

“My impression is from once they have posted it becomes easier. If we can help them do that … it seems to help,” he said.

Wood-Lewis also has found success prodding users by posting daily questions, some as simple as whether anyone knows a good plumber in town.

Kael Goodman of BlankSlate, a Brooklyn-based company that works with neighborhood publishers, agreed, reminding that, statistically, the number of users who most activity participate in community news sites by contributing is actually very small.

“The top level, which is getting people to blog, is less than 1%,” Goodman said.

Search Engine Optimization, or SEO, is also another very important means of attracting users, as once content is detected by search engines it can live, virtually, forever, he said,

There is, however, a range of strategies to reach and engage users, resulting in increased traffic, participants said.

Several publishers said they watch the “trending” reports online to know what’s piquing users interest at any given time.

Moderator Joy Mayer, a Reynolds Fellow and Missouri School of Journalism associate professor, said honing in on such trends can not only fuel immediate stories targeted at users but help set future calendars as well.

The start of flu season, for example, is lighting up the Web with searches on flu-related information, meaning now would be prime time to write a story on the issue, she said. The topic can also be put on the calendar for this time next year.

Community engagement plays a crucial role in community news sites – even more so, perhaps, for the participants in today’s forums, as they included individuals who established their sites to promote democracy and mobilizing communities in addition to covering news.

“We found that adults didn’t know their neighbors,” Wood-Lewis said, explaining that his site was created to foster a community online since it didn’t exist in full force on the ground.

“There are a lot of ingredients that go into democracy,” he said.





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