The phases of engagement and the best answer ever

Since 2009, my research partner and I have been studying the changes at the Christian Science Monitor in its efforts to morph into a Web-first newsroom.

Its success in increasing page views has been well documented. Using search-engine optimization and frequent news updates, its site regularly tops 30 million page views a month, and the organization has earned a spot among the 250 most visited U.S. sites on the Web.

But during our research visits, we’ve often heard reporters and editors struggle with how to transform the drive-by SEO audience to one that is more engaged, more invested in the Monitor itself.

Many other news organizations, marketers, and Web producers have become obsessed with this idea as well. As someone working with the next generation of content creators, I have dedicated much time developing my own model to understand how engagement happens.

A simple model

For years, I’ve been attracted to the uses-and-gratifications model of media behavior, which simply states that people use media to satisfy certain communication needs. But how does this process evolve? And how do we build regular usage and make our sites a media habit?

Integrating several threads of innovation and media research, I came up with four primary phases:

Engagement

  1. ATTENTION: It begins with an appreciation for SEO and messaging. Do we have something that will grab people’s attention from the mass of information already available to them?
  2. USAGE: Ease of use is vital for luring new users. Usability experts like Jakob Nielsen regularly remind us of the importance of clean, responsive design, and if a site/app/program is too difficult to use, users often will abandon it, especially if they are not emotionally attached or invested in the content.
  3. HABIT: Once users have overcome the trepidation of trying something new, we need to use consistent content to keep people coming back. And that consistency should come in quantity (frequency of updating) and quality (meaningful, well-produced content). It is finding the right balance between quantity and quality that so many organizations struggle with. This part of the process is more transactional and informational: Are we providing the type of content users need to satisfy what they’re looking for?
  4. COMMUNITY: After securing the intellectual commitment, we must establish that emotional investment in our site by building community. It is this phase where so many news organizations and businesses fail, and the social media succeed so dramatically. To develop this human connection, we must be willing to share our site with the audience. Allow them to contribute photos, comments, and other user-generated content. Make them feel a part of the site.

I find this simplified model — which incorporates ideas from diffusion of innovations, the theory of media attendance, the Media Choice Model, and engagement research — resonates more effectively with my students than more complex formulations (such as Philip Napoli’s definitive  conception of engagement in his book Audience Evolution: New Technologies and the Transformation of Media Audiences).

The best answer ever

I teach this model to my students in my Web Communication class, a junior/senior level class in our Multimedia Production and Journalism program, and a question about the idea inevitably appears on my exams. As I tell my students, I am most concerned with concepts rather than terminology; I want them to articulate clearly what’s happening at each stage, rather than just regurgitating my lecture blather.

And so, this past semester, one student took me at my word.

I share this answer with her permission. (The spelling-error comment refers to an error on her own site that we discovered during her final presentation.) Enjoy.

  • First: Discovery of a site. “Well, hello there,” its viewer purrs. “What have we here? Is this worth my time? Is it going to play games with me and break my heart with a lack of updates, shoddy information, or spelling errors (that may very well be tragic mistakes and not actually errors because son is actually a word, just not the right word)? Hmm. Let’s take a look…”
  • Second: Getting to know a site. “That’s a snazzy nav bar,” its viewer giggles. “And I can’t get over how nicely this content is organized! Holy cow, those tags group things well! It seems like I can find exactly what I’m looking for before I even start looking for it.”
  • Third: Regular use of a site. “We’re in it for the long haul,” its viewer promises. “You and I are an item now. You’ve proven your worth, and I want to commit my valuable Web time to you.”
  • Fourth: Interacting with a site. “I’ve gotten up enough courage to make my presence known to you,” its viewer proclaims. “I am going to post in your comment section and like you on Facebook and re-tweet your tweets to show the world how much I’m devoted to you. I’ll shout your existence to the world.”
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