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.

You'll get what you expect from your online community

What do you think about your audience?

I’m not asking to recite any market research or website usage metrics you’ve collected about your readers. Give me your gut, emotional reaction to that question, instead.

Let’s tweak the phrasing of my question. How do you feel about your readers?

Are you proud of them? Do they make you angry? Do they surprise and amuse you? Do they get on your nerves and annoy you? Do wonder if they’re even paying attention to anything you do?

I’m going to take an educated guess here and assume that many of you would respond, “a little of all the above.” I’ve certainly felt each of those reactions in dealing with the readers on my sites, not to mention on the newspaper websites where I’ve been entrusted to deal with reader-submitted comments and other content.

But I’d ask you to stick with the question and settle on just one reaction. What’s the primary thought, emotion, or reaction that you feel about your readers and their participation with your website?

Why am I asking you for this? Because, as a leader of your news publication’s online community, the attitude you bring to that community goes a long way in determining both the tone and the essential functionality of that community.

If you reflexively respect your audience, truly believe that they collectively know more than you do, and that they want the best for your community, too, then it’s going to be relatively easy for you to engage with those readers and inspire them to provide great information for your site.

But if the idea of reading comments and posts from your audience makes you react with disgust, and just avoid your comment sections and forums, well, I hope that facing this reaction helps you realize the Catch-22 that feeling can create for your publication. If you don’t want to engage with your readers, for whatever reason, that makes it real tough for you to elicit the change that you want from that community.

Trust me, I understand how reprehensible commenters on newspaper websites can be. But if you’re waiting for the readers submitting comments to your website to change their behavior on their own, well, you’re likely to be waiting for a very long time. And what kind of leader does that make you?

Try this approach instead. When you think about your audience, don’t think about just the people who are submitting comments to your site right now. Think instead about everyone out there who might be interested in the content and focus of your publication. Including the huge supermajority of readers and potential readers who’ve never submitted a comment, photo, blog, or tip to your website. Don’t forget that they’re out there, too.

If you can feel respect for and curiosity about that larger audience, you can build a civil community of those readers online. But you’ve got to retain that faith in your audience. The moment you lose that, you’ve burned out. Then it’s time to turn off the comments, disable the submission forms and disconnect for a while, until you can find a way to get that faith back. (I’d recommend setting aside extra time to reconnect with people offline. Volunteer in the community. Get engaged in community organizations, local schools, or service groups. Strengthen your offline community building to sharpen those skills before you try community building again online. You’ll also have a lot of fresh new friends and acquaintances you can invite to contribute online, to get your Online Community 2.0 off to a positive start.)

So if you’re not getting the quality of comments and reader participation on your site that you want, don’t blame your audience. Ask yourself, instead, what you can change to get more participation from those civil, informed, literate, and considerate readers who’ve been holding back. What could you change to inspire them to come forward? What could you do to reward them to come back? What could you change to discourage the blowhards and bigots from getting in their way?

The first step toward making that happen is to believe that it’s possible – that your audience has things to say that are informative, engaging, and constructive. Because if you don’t believe that they do, they will live down to your expectations.

With lower costs, independent eBook publishers hold the advantage

Have you been following the Amazon eBook “price fixing” case?

Yes or no, don’t let this story discourage you from eBook publishing. If anything, this case should be encouraging independent news publishers to jump into the eBook market.

Why? As Talking Points Memo explained, this case boils down to an alleged attempt by big book publishers to collude to get an “agency” deal where they would get to set the price of the books they published and were sold on Amazon.

The TPM summary didn’t mention it, but that agency pricing model is the pricing deal that you get with Amazon as an independent eBook publisher. Why is that a price fixing offense for them and not for you? In short, because they allegedly colluded to get particular prices under that deal, according to the TPM summary.

Econ 101 lesson here: If you can enter a market where existing players are colluding to hold up prices, you have a huge business opportunity if you can undercut them on price. Typically, when big businesses try to collude on price, it’s because they have high barriers to entry in that business that keep potential competitors (i.e. disruptors) on the sidelines.

And that certainly was the case in the book publishing industry just 10 years ago. Today, however, the barriers to entry to book publishing are about the same as the barriers to entry to website publishing were 15 years ago – pretty much zilch. You need some tech know-how, but it’s nothing more than a sharp learner can teach herself or himself within a few weeks.

Remember, the big book publishers – like the big newspaper chains before them – have highly specialized, multi-level workforces that can drive their operating costs higher than Voyager 2. The traditional book publishing operation model includes

  • authors
  • agents
  • book editors
  • copy editors and proofreaders
  • interior designers
  • cover designers
  • manufacturing
  • publicists
  • distribution
  • retailers

Each book sold must pay a portion of the salary or wages of each person that chain. And don’t forget that each company involved needs to pay for all the managers overseeing these people, as well as a cut for profit as well. No wonder book publishers are trying to inflate the prices they charge.

Publishing an eBook independently through a retailer such as Amazon takes the manufacturing, distribution and retailing roles off your table. Independent publishing also removes the need for acquiring an agent and a book editor (though I recommend showing your work to a trusted colleague for feedback before moving into copy-editing).

As an online journalist, I have the ability to write my own book, to edit it, and to code up the HTML for the eBook design. As a website publisher, I have built an online community of tens of thousands of frequent readers to whom I can market my books, and the social media skills to help empower them to spread the word virally on my book’s behalf.

All this means that I can handle pretty much all the work of publishing and marketing an eBook. Which also means that I can keep all the money my books earn for myself. Sure, retailers such as Amazon will take a cut, but in Amazon’s case they do bring something very valuable to the table – a recommendation engine and category best-seller lists that help drive sales of your books. That’s worth the cut they take, in my opinion. (Barnes and Noble? Not so much.)

All the rest is yours. You don’t have to set aside anything for managers or for shareholders. That should give you the ability to produce and market your work for a fraction of the cost of producing and marketing that same work through a traditional publisher, even if they were producing only the same eBooks. And you can do that while making more money than you would as an author if you had published through a traditional publishing house. So let the federal government, the New York publishing houses and Amazon fight it out. Ultimately, the future of book publishing belongs to the independents.

I’m nowhere near unique among journalists. If you’ve worked in online journalism, you probably have a similar skill set to me, and can handle the work of self-publishing your best reporting work into eBooks. With lower expenses, you can undercut “the big kids” on price. That leaves it up to you, and your skills as a storyteller, to compete to attract the attention – and purchases – of readers.

You want to stay in the news business? Here is your purest, most direct shot to do that. If you can tell stories that people want to read, eBooks are a marketplace in which people are paying authors – nearly directly – to read them. No employer or publisher can tell you ‘no’, or silence you. No big business can beat you on price.

So why not jump in?