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Engagement defines community, mobile can help

by: Amy Gahran |

By making engagement opportunities ubiquitous, smartphones can extend and deepen ties between communities and news publishers. This matters because, according to new API research, engagement can define a news community.

In a new strategy study on news engagement from the American Press Institute, Nieman Fellow Mónica Guzmán examined how 25 news outlets -- including several nonprofit and hyperlocal outlets -- actively engage their communities.

According the report, engagement is what distinguishes a news community from a news audience. True community engagement goes beyond merely attracting more traffic to news stories, or crowdsourcing content. It's about how journalists can collaborate with audiences to improve their work, not just promote it. It's a way to ensure that journalism matters to your community -- which in turn can help ensure the kind of public support that local news needs to endure.

Mobile was not the focus of this report, but it perhaps deserved greater attention because smartphones are exceedingly engaging. People carry them everywhere and check them often -- usually to connect with other people, in some form.

If you want to know whether engagement is working, it helps to be able to measure it -- and to discern the unique impact of mobile. Google Analytics and other metrics platforms count mobile page views and track how people interact differently with content and conversations via mobile devices.

Thus, when Education Week blogger Benjamin Herold sought to make his blog more relevant to his readers, mobile page views was one of seven key metrics they decided to track. Herold then experimented with different measures, like including more photos in his posts, watching how each impacted traffic to his blog. Overall page views increased 67%, while mobile traffic jumped by 102%. Also, site registrations via the blog rose by 89%.

The API report did mention, in passing, a few examples of how mobile technology is being used for community engagement around news. For instance, CBS News is leveraging SnapChat, a popular image-sharing mobile app, to connect with younger people. This seems to be more of a news distribution channel, and it may support engagement around news within a community -- but not necessarily engagement between community members and news publishers.

Other examples in the report, while not specifically discussed in terms of mobile, offer huge mobile engagement potential. For instance, Facebook is perhaps the most popular and engaging mobile app. In almost any community, it's likely that most people are Facebook users. And Facebook groups are immensely popular ways to convene conversations in a community or about a topic -- especially via mobile devices.

One way for news publishers to engage with communities around issues is to participate, probably via individual rather than organizational accounts, in existing Facebook groups. For instance, when reporters at the Columbia Missourian were working on a series of features about local history, they went to a popular public Facebook group: You know you're from Columbia MO when. This is where thousands of people connect over their shared lives in this town.

Guzmán wrote: "Over the course of three weeks, Missourian reporters asked three questions of the group, about their favorite teachers growing up, their favorite hangouts and their first jobs, noting that some answers would be published in the paper and online. Hundreds of people reminisced, and the resulting stories -- collections of the richest answers -- were widely read and shared."

That approach was mainly about crowdsourcing. However, news outlets seeking deeper engagement can interact with existing Facebook groups on an ongoing basis. It helps, when joining a Facebook group with the intent to actively monitor and engage there, to set your notification preferences to "see first." This will ensure that new posts to the group will be prominent in your Facebook timeline; so you don't need to remember to visit the group in order to follow what's new. Asking open questions, and liking or commenting on other people's posts, builds a sense of presence and trust that supports fruitful community engagement. And it's easy to do in spare moments, on your smartphone.

It's also possible to create your own Facebook group, perhaps a closed one, to host an in-depth discussion with your community. This is what the Seattle Times Education Lab project did to extend the conversation beyond their live events.

"They organized two real-world events to take the conversation offline. They then created a Facebook group -- 'Discipline for all: A community conversation' -- and invited event attendees to join. There, reporters and editors engaged with the online group, keeping the conversation there fresh by adding links to relevant articles from around the Web."

Live listening events, where community members offer input to help set a news outlet's story agenda, are popular with independent and nonprofit media. While these gatherings are helpful, they are generally limited to the people who are able to make the time to attend then. Mobile-friendly engagement channels, such as Facebook groups, or mobile web tools offered by Hearken, could expand this process to allow input from a far greater portion of the community.

API's research on community engagement is thought-provoking and worth reading. But perhaps, read it on your phone -- to keep in mind how mobile technology might amplify any of the strategies they recommend.

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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