How 'Snow Photos' Hook Readers for Lasting Engagement

29/03/2012 17:34 BST | Updated 27/05/2012 10:12 BST

While on a ski holiday enjoying a bit of snow last weekend, I caught some coverage of the Guardian Open Weekend event.

One quote in particular snapped me out of my vacation mindset. It was from a article by Sarah Marshall (@sarahmarshall3) called How the Guardian's community of commentators contributes to the story.

"The Guardian wants to build a returning community, Oliver said, beyond asking readers to 'send in pictures of snow'."

I recently wrote a blog post about how Archant, a major regional publisher in the UK, has been Crowdsourcing for Snow in 3 Steps to engage its local audiences and make them feel part of the reporting process.*

I completely agree with Laura Oliver (@LauraOliver), a community manager at The Guardian, about the importance of building a returning community. But I see the "send in pictures of snow" as an important early step in building that community.

Looking at engagement through the lens of game design

If we look at engagement through the lens of game design, something we're firm believers in here at Citizenside, the "send in pictures of snow" prompt is like level 1 in a video game. You don't just get thrown straight into level 10 without getting the hang of things. Good games walk you through how you can interact as you play. (You see this approach with many mobile apps these days too, like in Pulse) In order to build that active and loyal community, it's essential to attract new members with an easy way to begin. Missions like sending in pictures of snow are a way to motivate members to engage, and creating missions regularly helps reduce churn. can be rather daunting to engage

There's another thing to consider, and it's something publishers often overlook, but it can be rather daunting to engage with a respected newspaper. I remember Ed Walker (@ed_walker86) of Trinity Mirror mentioning this at the International Journalism Festival last year. He said that the vote button on a comment is an easy way for readers to engage. If they can't think of something sufficiently witty or informative enough to leave their own comment, at least they can vote for one they like. Sending in photos of something simple like snow can be understood in the same way.

A vital step along the way

So, it's not that photos of snow, sunsets or pets are of particularly high editorial value, but they don't indicate a low quality of audience engagement. Sending in snow photos is a specific and achievable challenge that familiarizes new users with the process of participating in newsgathering. It's a vital step along the way to building a returning community. Because if you only focus on those who are already highly engaged, you're severely limiting your reach with these sorts of open journalism efforts.

For example...

Last winter when France was experiencing hellish weather conditions, TV news station BFM TV asked its viewers to send in their videos of how snow was affecting their towns. Within one week, 10,000 new members had registered on its community site. At the height of it all, the station was receiving an average of 64 videos an hour for an entire 24 hour period.*

What's important though from an editorial standpoint is what came next.

In the two weeks that followed, BFM TV received two exclusive eyewitness videos (one of a bank robbery and one of a shoot-out) from members who had just signed up the week earlier to share their videos of snow.

So BFM TV used something simple like "send your videos of snow" to introduce the idea of contributing to its audience, and those new contributors then returned to the community with highly valuable editorial content.

* Full disclosure: Archant and BFM TV are part of a group of innovative news media outlets across Europe using Citizenside's Reporter Kit, and setting the stage for the participatory future of the news. I am International Coordinator at Citizenside.