Cleaning up in Communities

As published in InPublishing (formerly InCirculation), November 2008. Available as a podcast here.

Publishers have spent significant sums, and plenty of man-hours, trying to get some interaction going on their websites. With a few honourable exceptions, most have failed. However, the online soap phenomenon seems to attract a great deal of interaction, maybe we can learn from it?

I once sat in the pub with a friend, and after four pints came up with the idea of a soap-by-SMS. You’d send out a 160 character ‘episode’ with a multi-choice question at the end of it asking in which direction the story should proceed, and the subscribers would tell you. Majority wins. This way the creators of the storylines wouldn’t be in charge, the ‘viewers’ would be. It sounded great then, and even better after pints five and six.

Sadly we’d forgotten the discussion entirely the next morning, or our lives might have been very different, as this basic idea is at the heart of a generation of online soaps. They have the advantage of being able to use video – broadband and youtube-technology have meant the 160 character SMS format’s rather limited capabilities have not restricted the popularity of the genre.

Bebo got the whole thing really moving with Katemodern, a drama about Kate, an engaging character who gets killed off (or does she? You’ll have to watch to find out). It combines short show episodes – a couple of minutes each – with live interaction. It really was astonishingly popular with (mainly) teenagers. The show, which was commissioned by online social network Bebo in April 2007 received over 35 million views in its first season, and averaged 1.5 million views each week.

The incredible levels of traffic were achieved despite the frequency of visit required – sometimes there were several episodes a day – and acting as wooden as Pinochio.

Using Bebo’s social networking gizmos, fans watched the latest episodes, ‘chatted’ to the characters, cast and producers, played games and suggested future plotlines. Millions of kids interacted with this show, from all over the world, for nearly a year.

The company that produced it for Bebo, Eqal, had started their online soap career earlier with the similarly popular lonelygirl15, which follows the story of a group of LA Teenagers all connected to one central character, and targeted by “the Order”, which wants to kill them all. They go on the run, and the soap’s episodes follow their fortunes.

Bebo followed these with Sophia’s Diary, which started in March this year. The first episode was viewed by five million fans in the first two weeks. The first episode attracted 300,000 views on day one, and 1,300,000 in the first four days. Week one delivered 2,500,000 viewers, and with a further 2,500,000 in the second week Sofia drew five million in her first fortnight.

Fans have also been leaving around 1000 comments a day. Sofia’s Diary encourages people to interact with the show, letting them control the storylines. Viewers decide what’s going to happen next by voting on an important decision each week. Imagine Eastenders, but where we can decide who dies next (who said all of them?).
In a bizarre echo of my pub night out, Sofia’s Diary has also launched a mobile service, which sends updates by text for when people just can’t get to a computer.
So what’s going on here? Remember, most of the kids engaging so verbosely with these soaps are those who struggle to exchange more than the occasional grunt with their parents, or to communicate in any form other than txt.

Well, clearly the producers have hit on something which energises and engages their viewers. These programmes have spawned communities of people interacting with characters, plotlines and indeed with each other. The forums are very busy with vowel-free ‘live chat’.

These programmes demonstrate that, given the right content, interaction can be generated, and in a big way. So what are the characteristics of this activity that can be applied to our world? How can we get some of this level of interaction going on with our websites and communities?

  1. The Editor is not in charge

When publishers start with a blank sheet of paper, there’s usually one thing written on it in invisible ink – that we know best what our community want. They turn to us, week after week, to understand what’s important, don’t they?

Well, yes. But the only interaction that editor-centric model produces is ‘letters to the editor’. Usually these are letters of outrage. Anyone familiar with the stat that says only 4% of people actually annoyed about something will complain will realise that an interactivity strategy based on outrage will produce a very small response. What we need is interactivity generated by mild amusement, or perhaps even vague tedium, as these are much more common human states.

And interacting with our editorial teams isn’t enough. To generate a community, to get them interacting with each other through our site, we need to put them in charge, and let them decide what they see, or what’s posted where. The most popular part of the BBC website is the ‘most popular items’ down the bottom right. As I write the top items are ‘Faecal bacteria join commute’, and ‘Millions mark UN hand-washing day’. There’s soap (or an absence of it) everywhere I look.

If I were the BBC, I’d have this section bigger, and nearer the top. Who cares about the US election when you can read about really important stuff.

The point here is that what Editors think is important, and what communities think is interesting does not necessarily coincide. We will have to get away from the idea that publishers have some god-given right to decide what people see, and let our communities influence that themselves.

  1. Focussed Content really matters

Another lesson from Sophia and the rest is that you need to be very focussed about what you do. There’s a tremendous temptation to comment on issues outside the genuine purview of your community. There’s not an editor in the world who doesn’t like to run a political comment piece now and again. But ask yourself – what are you adding? The BBC does a pretty reasonable job, and then there’s The Economist, The Spectator and others. Does your opinion add your own community’s slant or angle on a current story? If not, then it’s not a story, it’s a blog.

Lonelygirl15 is entertainment, it doesn’t seek to comment on the US election, or the eradication of global poverty. It delivers short, entertaining (to its target group) snippets of stories about organised persecution of good-looking teenagers. So it plays both to teenage paranoia and hormones. Your community may not be as easy to hook as that, but you should by now have a sense of what matters to them.

The acid test in online terms is whether your pieces generate interest (clicks) or response (messaging). If they don’t, then the subject isn’t necessarily one to cover again in the future. Do you measure story popularity? Do you have a ‘comment on this’ button on every page? Maybe you should.

  1. Allow short contributions.

Most of the interaction on the online soap sites is brief in nature, and authored in txtspk. Is that because teens are naturally lazy? No, it’s because it’s quick and easy and they’ve got lounging in front of the telly to be getting on with. If you dispense with the artificial need to begin ‘Dear Sir’ and finish ‘yours humbly’, and other tedious and time consuming things like proper sentence construction and spelling then you’ll get more comment.

Some of it may not be all that articulate – Metro has a ‘txt us yr thoughts’ column where readers text in some random comment on the days events. Most of them are of the ‘ha ha gooners can’t even bt hull! How ya gonna win the league lk tht!!’ variety, but that’s simply a reflection of the general mass of Metro readers.

There are a host of services that people use to comment on things generally, those that generate the most activity are those, like Twitter or Facebook that allow for people to make very short random comments in the ‘what are you doing now?’ (Twitter) and ‘what are you doing right now?’ (Facebook).

You need to allow your community to make short, unstructured comments easily and quickly – don’t make them mess around with lengthy registrations or qualification screens – just let them crack on and say something.

  1. Interaction goes both ways

One of the deeply unsatisfying aspects of communication is when it’s one way. When your kids deliberately answer questions with one word, uninformative answers to get you to go away so they can concentrate on trashy American TV, it’s annoying. That’s how it feels writing to an editor on a magazine. You never get an answer, and the best that can happen is your letter might get printed on page 38.

Communication is a two-way exchange of information, and the ‘inter’ bit of interaction rather implies there’s at least two parties involved in that too. The users on the soap sites ‘talk’ to each other, so while the ‘characters’ on the soap put in responses, most of the interaction is between the members of the community, which is how they want it.

Moderation is really light – so it appears – comments are checked for abuse, but most of that which is posted is harmless and in the ‘that episode was sooooo, like, coool’ mould. Nevertheless, this is crucial, must have information for this community.

The learning point here is that your editorial staff, if they are to be effective in the community, will need to respond, and encourage response from others. One of the things InPublishing does well on its online community is to prod people it knows who have an opinion and a big mouth to express themselves in response to posts from the wider community.

You journos reckon you know who knows what’s what – get them posting on your community then.

Some of you may be asking ‘why bother?’ I’m still making money, and people come to me to know what’s going on. Well, that may be true, but with the web, and with the growing community generated phenomenon of barcamps (gatherings organised by the community which attends them) actively engaging with your communities, then you might not be for much longer.

Don’t be a soap-dodger, it’s bad for your health.

Further reading:

KateModern (http://katemodern.bebo.com)

Eqal (http://www.eqal.com/)

Lonelygirl15 (http://www.lg15.com)

Sofia’s Diary (http://www.bebo.com/sofiasdiary)

The Secret World of Sam King (http://www.bebo.com/samking)

Twitter (http://twitter.com/home)

Facebook (come on, you know that one)

Barcamps (http://barcamp.org/)

This entry was posted in Media Articles by Ross Sturley. Bookmark the permalink.

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