6 Ways to Encourage User Contributions on Hyperlocal Sites

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Engaged readers are the hallmark of a successful hyperlocal news site, and yet many publishers and editors still struggle to encourage their readers to contribute in meaningful ways.

A 2011 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 41% of adults considered themselves to be “local news participators,” who “add to online conversations and directly contribute articles about the community.” However, as any publisher who has tried soliciting content from readers can attest, getting these so-called “participators” to actively engage and share multimedia content isn’t always as easy as it sounds.

Encouraging readers to comment on stories, share news tips, and contribute content involves more than adding a commenting widget or slapping a “Tips” button on the header of a site. Here are six tips from successful publishers and editors about how independent publications can solicit feedback from their readers online.

1. Get a dedicated phone number. In addition to posting their email addresses and social networking links on a Contact page, editors should make sure to include a working phone number that readers can call or text to report breaking news and other tips. It’s fine for publishers to start with a pay-as-you-go mobile phone, just as long as they make sure someone is available to answer it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Tracy Record, West Seattle Blog)

2. Respond personally to inquiries and tips. Readers are more likely to send in tips and photos of news events when they know their content is being taken seriously and appreciated by editors at the publication. By following up on tips and responding personally to email inquiries, editors can encourage readers to make repeat contributions over time. (Scott Brodbeck, ARLNow.com)

3. Take the conversation onto Facebook. Editors need to accept the fact that most of the discussion about their stories is going to take place on social networking sites like Facebook. By tying the stories published on their own websites to the reader reactions posted on social media—and putting prominent links on their homepages to reader reactions on Facebook—publishers can encourage online conversations about their stories and hopefully drive more readers back to their sites. (Eugene Driscoll, Valley Independent Sentinel)

4. Reach out to locals with information to share. Rather than waiting for well-connected readers to come to them, proactive editors should go out into their communities and personally invite people involved in prominent groups submit photos and stories. This is particularly important when it comes to youth sports, since parents are often eager to submit photos and results when they know this information will be appreciated and useful. (David Boraks, DavidsonNews.net)

5. Let readers know what you’re looking for. The simplest way to solicit comments and feedback from readers is to include questions at the end of stories. Readers are more likely to respond with thoughtful comments when they know what they’re being asked about. For longer form stories, writers and editors should break out different facts, quotes, and information that may spark reader interest and encourage people to comment. (Meghann Farnsworth, Center for Investigative Reporting)

6. Give reader content the respect it deserves. Editors shouldn’t treat reader submissions like the treadmills buried in their basements. Instead, they should show their appreciation for reader-submitted content by posting it alongside staff-written articles or giving it prominent positioning on the front page. Publications that go out of their way to label “reader submitted” content as if it’s poison are doing themselves a disservice when it comes to encouraging other readers to participate in the conversation. (Eugene Driscoll, Valley Independent Sentinel)

Stephanie Miles is an associate editor at Street Fight.

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.