The Evolution of Engagement

NEW YORK On a recent afternoon, at the top of the USAToday.com home page, just to the right of the site’s familiar blue-and-white logo, a user identifying himself as “groove8” demanded to know: “Where were those self-appointed watchdogs when Sen. Vitter’s phone number showed up in the D.C. Madam’s phone record?”

Another reader, woody1, commented, in reference to another big news story of the day: “I would much rather purchase goods from Iraq than China.”

Clearly, things have changed at the Web site of Gannett Co.’s 2.28 million-circ USA Today, the country’s largest-circulation daily. A dramatic redesign in March weaves such reader commentary across every page, alongside pretty much every story. But editors are going beyond just giving readers a platform for sounding off about the day’s news, and using user-generated content to drive traffic and engage readers.

The USAToday.com formula symbolizes how the content business is changing in an era of editorial democracy, when old-school publishing practices are clashing with Web 2.0 tactics including two-way communication, open sourcing and social networking. Consumers, it seems, are no longer simply engaged to Web publishers—they’ve tied the knot.

But is this stuff worthwhile? And does this sort of chatter even belong in an editorial environment? Some wonder whether Web publishers are overindulging users—or truly evolving their businesses.

Whether it’s the right direction is anything but certain. What is clear is that a number of sites from “old media” content purveyors—many of them busily instituting the latest engagement tactics—are enjoying year-over-year, double-digit growth in terms of uniques and closely followed metrics like the number of pages users view and the time they spend with a site—among them, The Boston Globe’s Boston.com and Time Inc.’s People.com.

Others aren’t so lucky. Since it took the big, social-media plunge, USAToday.com has actually lost audience, slipping to 8.6 million uniques this past June versus 10 million a year earlier, per Nielsen//NetRatings, which, like AdweekMedia, is part of The Nielsen Co. Gannett execs, who blame a lost distribution deal with Juno/NetZero for the dip, still see the relaunch as a roaring success.

“It’s been a great boon to us,” says Ken Paulson, editor of USA Today and USA- Today.com. “One of the challenges we face is [unlike a local daily], we can’t walk down the street to the barbershop and ask people what they think of our newspaper. Our neighborhood is the United States.”

Paulson reports that on a given day, a story posted in the morning can generate as many as 1,000 reader comments by noon, influencing which stories get emphasized on the site. “It’s a huge breakthrough in the way you relate to readers,” the editor says (even though journalism purists might be alarmed).

Web watchers generally praise the USA Today model, urging that newspapers, magazines and Web publishers are only realizing their full potential by taking advantage of technological enhancements and progressive thinking. “The main thing is that the mission of a publication is to tell not only what’s occurring in its community, but also what’s being said,” says Vin Crosbie, managing partner, Digital Deliverance, a new-media consultancy. “Web 2.0 facilitates the mission of publications.”

Beyond engineering stickier sites, no publisher wants to move too slowly in the age of Google and Facebook—or to even appear phobic about embracing the latest, greatest engagement techniques. “There is a lot of hype out there,” says Scott Karp, former director of digital strategy at Atlantic Media and author of the new-media blog Publishing 2.0. “Some are choosing to ignore it and some are going whole hog. The right answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Companies need to be doing something, but in a measured way.”

Adds Karp, “Everyone was swarming around USA Today.com. Six months later they’re saying, did it work? We don’t know yet.”

Paul Greenberg, senior vp/general manager of TVGuide.com, reports the site has enjoyed a major surge in stickiness since it underwent a community-heavy relaunch a year and a half ago. Now, 10 percent of the site’s traffic comes from user-generated content. It’s hard to imagine going backward, he says, adding, “I think that is where the Web is going.” TVGuide.com’s traffic swelled 83 percent to 3.8 million versus a year earlier.

Similarly, ABCNews.com has seen its audience climb in the three months since it expanded its community section. Unique users grew 13 percent to 10.9 million year over year as of June, per NetRatings. The site hosted an eye-popping 64,000 user comments in the month of July. The surge was a surprise in that the site employed social-media elements chiefly to build loyalty among viewers of ABC TV’s World News Tonight, rather than among visitors to the site. “We didn’t necessarily expect this,” says Paul Slavin, ABC News senior vp, newsgathering.

Many publishers are going beyond just offering more opportunities for users to comment and congregate. Some are linking to multiple, sometime competing sources—just like most blogs do.

Jim Spanfeller, president and CEO of Forbes.com, says smart publishers need to get over trying to control users’ Web-surfing habits. “We don’t for a second think you can stop people from going elsewhere,” he says.

So, the site is embracing consumers’ desire to see what else is out there, partnering with Clipmarks to test a product that will enable tech editors to “clip” 250-word snippets from various sites, add their own commentary, then present it on Forbes.com in a user-friendly format. “It replicates something that any editor worth their salt is doing all day long, and it allows folks to look inside the minds of the editor,” says Spanfeller.

Likewise, WashingtonPost.com has teamed with blog search firm Technorati. “When a user reads a story on Iraq, there are links to many other blogs that contain postings on that subject,” explains Caroline Little, Washingtonpost.NewsweekInteractive’s CEO and publisher.

WashingtonPost.com also has dipped a toe in the social-networking waters with the creation of MyPost, which collects user comments and hosts groups around particular topics and Washington Post columns. (MyPost is similar in concept to CNET’s MyProducts, a channel enabling users to create profiles its editors say could eventually influence the tech site’s content.)

Some theorize this whole new approach remains an uphill climb for established, old-line media companies. “Web 2.0, in some ways, is very ideological,” Karp says. “You need to be porous, but not wide open. It’s a balance everyone needs to find. It’s put a lot of media companies in an entrepreneurial position.”

That’s a position not without its challenges. To wit: ponying up for user-generated content with only the hope those costs will be offset by a flood of new revenue. Also at issue: figuring how to manage all this content emanating from users.

TVGuide.com’s Greenberg says hosting more pages and streaming more video are actually of “negligible” cost. What does add to the bill: hiring professionals to police a site’s expanding collection of community pates—a necessity these days. (While his operation has yet to figure out how to monetize all this new content, he admits, putting it out there is simply “the cost of doing business.”)

Some sites place limits on users to keep them from abusing community features. CNET requires that its reviews run at least 50 words—to avoid commentary along the lines of “TiVo rocks!” WashingtonPost.com, unlike USAToday.com, requires users to register using their full names. “It’s a great way to keep people civil,” says Little.

While sites like USAToday.com and TVGuide.com have gone to extremes to engage users, other publishers caution that boundaries are still necessary when it comes to ensuring editorial authority—something advertisers and, at the end of the day, users still value. “You have to be careful,” says Vivek Shah, president of the Time Inc. Business and Finance Network. “User-gen can add to the experience but can’t replicate the experience. It’s about finding the right balance.”

Balance, naturally, is difficult to achieve as the flames of digital hype—and of tooth-and-nail rivalries among Web publishers—are flamed. As USAToday.com’s Paulson puts it, “It’s important to be selective. But we’re at a time that it’s never been more competitive.”



Mike Shields is a senior editor at Mediaweek.