IQ News: What I Learned On-line – A Web editor reflects on her interactive audience.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Imagine you’re a brand manager and that the mail you get about your product, whether glowingly positive or irrationally critical, is instantly available to your customers, competitors and the press. Sound harrowing? Such is the woolly reality of producing a magazine on the World Wide Web, where readers post comments directly to the site. While the constant stream of feedback may seem scary or annoying, it can help make sites more interesting and useful.

Running a Web magazine makes you understand why TV shows are filmed in front of a live audience. The energy and gratification you get from knowing people are really out there is palpable. But on-line, no laugh track can cover up when you fall short. You’re constantly reviewed by the very people you’re trying to reach.

At Women’s Wire (, where I’m a senior editor, we have a Guestbook section that instantly registers the reactions of visitors to the site. It’s more lively and volatile than a carefully edited Letters to the Editor page in a print magazine or a slickly produced “viewer mail” segment on a TV news magazine show. And our readers are far more communicative, too.

Print publications have traditionally struggled to find a smattering of publishable letters each month. Web publications are inundated with thousands of e-mails a week. At Women’s Wire, those comments are published with a click of the visitor’s mouse. Not only can people tell you what they think, they can see what others have said recently about the site or a particular piece. And advertisers, just like other visitors, can get to know the audience they’re reaching, with a level of intimacy no traditional reader demographic survey can provide, simply by checking out these interactive discussion areas.

Despite all the hype about angry “flame mails” on the Web, the tone of readers’ comments is typically constructive. Anyone who’s toiled in print journalism knows it’s the cranks and curmudgeons who tend to write in or call about a story. On the Web, we’ve found positive feedback is the norm, not the exception.

Sometimes such visitor conversation helps shape the site. When NBC mysteriously yanked ER off the air for five weeks midseason, fans of the hospital drama were dismayed. At Women’s Wire, we run a weekly ER update in season that dishes what happened on the show. Although not the weightiest piece we publish, it has a devoted readership. What could take its place? How could you possibly replace threaded George Clooney and Anthony Edwards discussions?

Our solution was to provide a forum for the legions of annoyed fans to muse on how much they missed the show and what they were doing every Thursday night instead. And hundreds of ER addicts did. Today, what started as a virtual gripe session has become an ongoing interactive forum.

But you can’t expect “user-generated content,” as visitor discussion is so clumsily known in the industry, to stand alone for long. On-line editors must act as moderators and hosts, framing discussions with postings and jumping into conversations. In our Backtalk feature, we take a poll each week about a hot news topic, from cloning breakthroughs to the latest political scandal; visitors vote and fire off comments in a fast-paced dialogue.

It’s tricky to avoid the clubbiness that develops on many bulletin boards, when a core group of respondents get to know each other. While they may have great conversations among themselves, the regulars can become insular, discouraging newcomers. That’s why active discussion areas are most effective when paired with editorial features that change often and make the conversations accessible to the first-time and casual visitor. To this end, we put up more than 170 pages of new content every month.

In this interactive environment, readers also expect a high degree of personal attention. They want information tailored for them. Many people who write in make it clear they want their personal situation addressed-they don’t want to extrapolate from a typical case. Sure, they’re happy to read about how someone else should invest $10,000. But then they want to tell you about the $11,000 they have and want to know what should be done. (That’s a real-life case.) Features like interactive calculators or customizable worksheets offer personalized content.

By the same token, visitors don’t so much regard our columnists as hired writers, but more as quasi-friends on the other side of the screen from whom they can expect, or even demand, answers. There’s a tremendous expectation that the experts who write our Q&A columns will respond to every e-mail. Visitors approach the whole interaction differently, with a greater sense of intimacy and entitlement, than they would if they were writing to an Ann Landers or a Dear Abby, much less a TV pundit or a New York Times columnist.

As a Web editor, you also have a much clearer idea than a print editor does about what people actually are looking at. Print editors must wait several weeks or months to get results from focus groups and reader surveys, which don’t deliver anything like the level of detail or accuracy of the “page view” reports we get every week. These reports tell us how many times a given page on the site has been clicked on. We can virtually follow individual visitors around the site to see how they navigate through it. In contrast with the Nielsen TV ratings, which estimate viewing levels of an entire country based on a household sample, we determine what’s popular by using data from the actual people we know are using our site. This detailed visitor-generated data also helps advertisers choose what section of the site they want their ads to appear in.

Yet this flood of information can be tough to interpret. Sometimes the more you know, the less you know. The on-line challenge is to reconcile what people say they want in their e-mails with what the page view reports reveal they literally go to-and then, of course, match that with the kinds of things the editors themselves would like to publish. A great site is a wily, ever shifting balance of all three.

Katharine Mieszkowski (katharine@wwire. net) is an editor at Women’s Wire, www.women. com, published by Wire Networks Inc.

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