How to engage your readers? The 10 steps into social media on your website

Unless you’re appearing on a reality TV show, you’re not going to get married to someone you just met. (“Premiering tonight on FOX, Subway Wedding!” – I want a taste of the action when this show happens, BTW.) Yet website publishers offer a wide range of social media tools – from commenting to blogging – without first building a relationship with their readers. Then those publishers wonder why either no one’s using those tools, or if a few folks are, why they’re almost all trolls.

Think of social media like dating. You’ve got to start with an introduction and deliberately work your way up toward building a sound relationship. Trying to convince folks you’ve just met to join you at the altar with Elvis in a Vegas wedding chapel rarely ends well. Either you get ignored, or worse, you end up with the type of person who’s happy to get hitched to desperate strangers.


If you want to build a website that incorporates rich, engaging user-contributed content, you’ve got to ease those readers into your community. Good contributors listen before they post, so you’ll need to offer them something to hear. Start, then, by writing engaging, original reporting on the site – that’s the warm introduction to your potential website companions. Your words and tone model the type of communication you want others to offer on your site.

How then will you convert some of these readers into contributors? Here are the steps I’ve found most effective, in the order that most readers follow. At each step along this path, fewer and fewer readers will choose to proceed – in fact, on most sites, a majority a readers won’t take even the first step. But if you offer all of these steps, each one will be easier to take than if you asked people to make the big jump to one of these later steps. That, ultimately, will help encourage more of your readers to become full participants in your publishing community.


The easiest way for a reader to begin adding to the content on a website is by voting in a poll or other interactive feature. With one click, the reader has altered the content on your website, in a way that all other readers can see.

Voting in a poll (or its sibling, submitting a venue rating) is typically anonymous, with results reported in aggregate, allowing a reader to participate but not in a way that puts him or her “out there” publicly. As a result, it’s the perfect first step toward active participating in online publishing.


Facebook made the “Like” ubiquitous online. Whether the like happens on or via a link on your website, a “like” also allows the reader to make a statement with a single click. Unlike voting though, a like isn’t anonymous, and allows that reader’s friends to see that approval. Being semi-public, a like demonstrates a stronger step of commitment to the content of your website.


Think of tweeting (or even just retweeting) a link as a “mega-like.” It shows that someone thinks enough of your content to spread the word to their followers, under their own feed. A tweet or retweet can happen with one click now, but often readers write their own message about the link, making this the first step where readers actually create the own content in response to yours.


Cross-posting is tweeting’s older sister. Here, a reader is posting a short note and link about your content, but they’re doing it in someone else’s community, not yours. That’s great for driving new traffic to the website, but doesn’t yet mean you’ve fully brought that reader into your community as a participant. You’re in junior high here – that potential new BFF is talking with his or her friends about you, but hasn’t yet taken the step to ask you out face-to-face.


Now, you’re dating. Here, a reader’s reacting, in words to content from your site, on your site. Whether you require registration to post a comment or not, a reader’s speaking as an individual within your community by commenting.

Discussion responses

I’m making a distinction between blog or article comments and discussion responses because a discussion thread is a more equitable environment than a article or blog post. In a discussion, the respondents and original poster sit on the same social level. That brings the respondent one step closer to originating, rather than reacting to, content in your community.

Submitting photos/video

This step’s functionally the same as the previous, with the only difference that taking a photo or video and submitting to a website has required more technical effort than responding in text. But with new technology and a new generation embracing video storytelling, this step might soon be indistinguishable from the above, if it isn’t already.

Discussion submissions

At this step, the reader is now the creator, initiating content within your community. In the discussion forum, the participant here becomes a leader, starting new threads and keeping the community’s momentum going forward.

Blog posts

By posting an article or entry in a group or community blog, a community member steps out of the larger discussion community to establish his or her own voice in a higher profile forum – as a guest blogger or writer on the site. You’re not just dating around now – this is getting serious.


When a community member decides to make your website his or her “home” on the Internet – the home of his or her blog, then the commitment is complete. This is online publishing marriage, where the community member’s online brand becomes intertwined with your own. For some, the relationship proceeds to employment, but even if these bloggers remains unpaid, at this step, they’ve distinguished themselves as committed members of your community.

And you’ve distinguished yourself as a publisher who has shown readers a viable and rewarding pathway to full social media participation.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Great post. I love the dating analogy, and used it last week in a post on needing to care what makes readers tick.

    This reminds me of the nonprofit world’s ladder of engagement (

    I love the practical journalism tips as applied to levels of interaction. Most journalists probably feel comfortable in the first half of the list but don’t delve much into the more advanced half.

  2. I find it hard, especially on smaller website to engage people socially. I mean if you are a dentist or a car dealer in a small city, how can you possibly get any followers on twitter. Who really cares right?

    But everyone does love a good poll, and they also love to vote of stuff.

    What say you about the little guy and his website. Is there anything socal media can do for them. I say no.