10 things to remember about your readers, when they start to tick you off

Great reader comments, tips and blogs can help elevate a news website into a true community, one where people come together to learn from each other, enjoy each others’ company and maybe even help address some of the “real-world” problems that any community faces.

Of course, on the flip side, trolls and know-it-alls can make reading the comments on a website a visit to virtual hell. So when some of your readers begin to tick you off – either for what they do, or what they don’t – here are 10 things to remember… after you’ve taken a deep breath.

You can’t force readers to care

No matter how much work you put into a piece, no matter how much news you thought you broke in it, no matter well you think told the story, you simply cannot force readers to care. The best you can do is to think about your readers’ needs and interests and then craft an engaging narrative or presentation that rewards whomever pays attention. But even then, some readers are just going to say “meh” and click over to the dancing cat videos. Even if you produce a dancing cat video, somebody’s still going to say “meh” and click to someone else’s dancing cat video. Don’t let it upset you.

See what’s keeping people from participating

While you shouldn’t get upset by a lack of engagement, don’t dismiss it, either. Always be curious about your site, and how people are – or are not – interacting with it. Create a new dummy account every few weeks, just to make sure your registration process is working the way you want. Ask friends to create accounts and jump in now and then, to get fresh perspectives on how newcomers react to your online community. Is there a tech problem that’s keeping people from registering, commenting, blogging, or submitting or embedding photos or video? Are new users getting private message spam from lurkers on the site? Are new users having a hard time tracking the conversations they want to follow? Find the barriers that your site’s putting up, and work to take them down.

Engage on social media – don’t promote

Twitter and Facebook are great media for pushing new stories to your followers. But if that’s all you are using those services for, you’re likely leaving your readers cold. So don’t get upset when your story links fail to elicit a slew of RTs and Shares. Try some new ways to engage your followers, instead. Post “wild art” photos. Ask questions about favorite places to eat, visit, etc. RT and Share the competition, too. Show your readers that you’re not some uptight, Fortune 500 media conglomerate, but an accessible neighbor they can talk with.

Remember that readers – together – know more than you do, even if you know a lot

So even if one or two readers really make you mad, remember than you need the rest of them. Therefore…

Don’t blow up at your readers

Stand up and move away from your desk, go offline for a few moments – always have a plan for what you will do when someone really enrages you, a distraction that gives you the time you need to calm down before you reply in way you’ll almost certainly come to regret.

Always be kind

No matter what tone a reader takes with you personally, if someone emails or messages you directly, try to always respond, and with kindness. Sometimes a person’s heat in a message just shows that they have passion for what you’re covering, and they can’t yet direct it. So it spews out at you. A calm, thoughtful response sometimes can redirect a hostile critic into a passionate advocate for your work, and for your community.

Keep your readers interested in the topic, not in you

Sorry to make this sound so rough, but, ultimately, nobody cares about you. Or your “brand.” They care about what you cover, and maybe even about what you experience in covering it. But any time or words you spend trying to get people to care about you is better spent keeping people interested and even excited about the topic (or community) you’re covering. Remember, a professional writes and reports to address your readers’ needs, not your own.

And I’m not trying to be snobbish about “professionalism” here. I mean this literally. The people who make money doing this stuff (by definition, the professionals) are the one who write for their readers’ needs, not for their own.

If they do get interested in you, don’t let go to your head

That said, if you do your job well, it’s likely that some readers will conflate you with what you’re covering and become fans. Just as you shouldn’t get too upset by trolls, don’t allow your head to get too big when people compliment you, either. Thank them graciously, then move on.

Know when to stay out, versus when to jump in

Sometimes you have to act like a parent, which means that there comes a point when you need to let your kids tie their own shoes. In this case, there will come a point when you ought to let the community take up its own causes and extinguish its own flame wars. You don’t always have to have the last word. Sure, there’ll be times when you will need to answer direct questions, and model the type of behavior you want from readers. But don’t forget to back off when your community is ready to walk on its own. Don’t get upset if they fall down a time or two before they get the hang of it. Every parent’s been there.

Ask yourself if the audience you get is really the audience you want

If your bad feelings about the audience you’ve cultivated ever become too much, even after taking time outs and trying to lead responsibly, you might need to face the tough question: Is the audience you’ve attracted really the one you want? If it isn’t, it’s okay to shut things down and start over. On the flip side, maybe you anticipated attracting a certain type of reader, but found instead that your work resonated with others. If you’re okay with that, embrace the change. Go where your work is needed, and appreciated.

Whichever path you choose, an effective online community leader needs to feel some peace with his or her audience. You can’t do this job if you’re always angry, frustrated or disconnected with the people you’re supposed to serve.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.