[This is the third part of a short series, based on a talk I gave at MIPTV in March 2009, sharing some insights from our commissioning social media projects at Channel 4 Education]
We’ve had a couple of projects this year – like Yeardot and Battlefront - that run live for 9 months to a year. It’s incredibly hard to keep hold of people’s attention over such a long period of time, and to be honest, we didn’t expect to. The web is a smorgasbord of distraction, so you have to be realistic about how often people will come back to your project. This poses real problems for an ongoing narrative project – do you start a project with a big bang to capture attention? How do you deal with people coming late to the project? What if people drift away for weeks and then come back to the project again?
Designing a narrative structure that can cope with such diverse patterns of attention is really tough. Its probably easier for factual projects than fiction, partly because we’re used to drifting in and out of our friends’ online streams, so its simple to replicate this in factual/documentary projects. Its no accident that the first popular fiction projects – like Lonelygirl15 and its early precursor Online Caroline – used self-authored video and text to tell the story from the protagonists’ point of view.
Most users now carry with them a strong conceptual expectation about how stories are ‘read’ online, developed from their experience of following their friends’ lifestreams on Facebook et al. So it makes sense to follow a few simple principles to take advantage of these assumptions, rather than working against them and confusing your users:
Keep it simple, and signpost clearly
We massively overdesigned some of our projects when we first launched them. We tried to create too much atmosphere through strong designs, and the general response from user groups was “this looks great, but what *is* it?”. Through many iterations, we ended up simplifying all our sites a lot, with clear explanations of what the project was, who was speaking there, what you could do, and what was new. You probably have only a few seconds to engage someone before they move on – don’t risk being enigmatic, unless you’re dealing with a brand or project that the audience already knows and loves. If its a completely new thing, explain the project clearly and keep the navigation simple and consistent – most users will probably not come through the main site/home page, so the project’s purpose needs to ring clear from every possible interaction.
Have a clear voice for the project
Erika Hall’s Copy As Interface rightly points out that most navigation of the web relies on text, not images or video. For social media sites, this text is not the neutral voice of a machine or nameless authority, but vernacular, oral speech, written as if it were a conversation with a friend. As Erika puts it – “we’re not writing, we’re speaking with text”. Again, this is inherited from the fact that most of our interactions on the web now are with friends, not ‘sites’, meaning that we respond better to projects that use vernacular language. We find such language more engaging, approachable and interesting – as Erika Hall quotes Walter J Ong – “Orality knits persons together into community”. The single most effective thing you can do to engage your users and keep their attention is to have a clearly identified, oral, vernacular voice for the project. Ideally, this would be a named person, real or fictitious. On Battlefront, we have the excellent Orsi, who blogs for us on Bebo and generally gives the site a sense of idenitity. Incidentally, I think Battlefront’s tag line - ‘You’re Already Involved’ – is one of the best bits of copywriting on any of our projects.
Make it easy for people to leave footprints in the project
There are two good reasons for this – if users contribute to a project, no matter how small, then they’re more likely to remember it and come back. Secondly, a site with lots of user activity looks busy and active for other users – just like restaurants, people are more likely to stick around on a busy site than one that feels like you’re the only visitor. There is a third aim – to get some personal data that means you can regularly communicate with the user, but this can be a real barrier until people have spent a fair bit of time with the project and feel like they’re getting value. You can use promotional competitions as a shortcut to get user data, but I don’t think this is that valuable, as it drives a wave of attention that mostly just drifts out again like a tide once the competition is over. Ideally, you want your users to gradually increase the size of the footprint in the project as they get more immersed. This could mean initially clicking a simple vote or poll, then friending on a social network, subscribing to a newsletter, commenting and finally creating or embedding content in their own social spaces. On the home page of Battlefront, we’ve got a really simple interactive word-cloud with issues that users have uploaded for others to vote on, creating an immediate call for participation to new visitors. In fact, most new visitors seem to come through Facebook, meaning that they’re responding to specific call to action from the individual campaigners. On Yeardot, we deliberately tried to move users through to the individual contributors pages on Myspace, thinking that this is where the real conversation would happen. But we underestimated the complexity of this journey, and also the social barriers many feel in leaving a comment on a total stranger’s Myspace page, so after a few months we redesigned the main hub site to encourage commenting there as well. I don’t think we’ve really explored this yet, though, and we’ll be looking at the entry and exit routes through these projects to understand more about how to gradually encourage and feedback on activity from users – the user journey needs to start from their streams, not our site, and end up back in their streams again.
Or, you could just make games…
If you really want to engage people, get them to participate, and get them to return again and again, you might as well make games. As Aleks Krotoski pointed out in her talk at Dconstruct last year, there has been a baffling lack of communication between web design and game design, although this is now happening, and quickly. My fellow commissioning editor, Alice Taylor, knows far more than me about games, and is commissioning some excellent projects, such as Bow Street Runner, Routesgame, and a project with SixToStart that i’m incredibly excited about that will launch later this year. I hope Alice will write about her experiences commissioning these projects more on her blog in the next few months. But we should all learn from how the best games drag you in without having to read a manual; encourage early, simple interaction which is rewarded out of proportion to your effort; and then sets you iterative challenges that get the balance between effort and reward just right. Amy Jo Kim and Jane McGonigal have both written inspiring accounts of how gaming metaphors can be applied elsewhere on the web, and in real life. Sometimes I think its only a matter of time until gaming becomes the main metaphor for most of our social interactions. And then sometimes, I think its already happened…
In the next essay, I’ll talk about the holy grail – turning users’ attention into valuable interactions. For many, this will mean getting money out of them, but as I work for a public service broadcaster, I’m going to talk about more intangible things – how you know if people are learning about themselves, their lives, the world around them; and whether they’ve been inspired to act upon and change things as a result. Not too much to aim for, then…