Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Audience Engagement vs scalable on-demand conversations.

I just read an article on the e-content blog about audience engagement. Here is my response (I've edited it from the version I posted in the comments).

Back in the early days of the internet boom, I recall that a lot of talk show hosts, writers, and producers would schedule online chat sessions with hosts of users (I watched a lot of TV in those days, so I was more likely to notice what was going on in the TV world than other places). The trend seemed to drop off, though--online chat rooms don't seem to be the big thing for engaging with an audience, or maybe I am just out of touch. Personally, I only want to have *live* chats with friends who I see in person.  If I want to connect with a company or star in some field (like testing), I rely on less immediate communication.  (aside: This reminds me of Jakob Nelson's "Powers of 10: Time Scales In User Experience" where I'm on the one-week or larger scale).

These days, I see authors and publishers reaching out to users in a lot of ways--trying to be wherever their fans/users might be. This means they engage their audiences in multiple conversations over twitter, facebook, blogs, news columns, and their own sites. Because users have a variety of interaction styles, they seem to target a variety of consumers and interaction styles.

In video publishing, you can already see some cases where entire sites are modeled not on live broadcasting and communication, but instead focus on on-demand delivery. Youtube has features for video replies and written responses to videos. J.K. Rowling (author of Harry Potter) said she would read some of the fan-created forums in years past, and occasionally answered questions to open letters and questions submitted (by polls and popular vote) via the authors of the biggest fan sites. I wonder if today's stars hire media consultants, to watch all the various online streams and keep them up to date (this includes wikipedia) with current conversations and information.  I suppose that the answer would be "it depends on scale, popularity, etc".

We aren't seeing just single conversations. Publishers and producers have to cater to a wide variety of information consumers: wikipedians, twitterers, facebook users, bloggers, and people who search casually on google and other search engines.

Sites like Netflix and Youtube are trying to capture statistical trends and social communication/recommendation, and use them to their advantage. I don’t see them worrying as much about keeping people engaged in live video streams as they care about helping people find content and conversations they’re interested in (and encouraging them to share content within their networks). They rely less on live content, instead catering to what I would call “on-demand conversation”.  Historical content and niche interests are easier to cater to--so we see more diverse conversations that last far, far longer (I've replied to blog posts and conversations that are weeks, months, even years old, and had useful feedback in doing so; sometimes I reply more to learn than to be heard, but always hope to do both).

Another interesting trend is that big publishers provide ways for large and small audiences to converse. On large scale, amazon makes it possible for people to mark reviews as helpful or unhelpful so that the best (or just most popular) conversations (or reviews) rise to the top. Other publishers do similar things (digg stories rise to the top, facebook posts with many responses are more likely to show on the feed). It seems that flexibility, aggregation, popularity filtering, and links for expanding conversations, are the big features in what we might call scalable conversations.

So what is the future of publishing? We can predict the future only by the past, but the past is a bad way to predict the future. I'm sure we will see some innovative new ways to attract consumers and deliver content, and thus interesting developments in conversation scalability--and we might be as surprised at what doesn't work in the future as what does.

It seems that the trend is toward scalable, on-demand conversations, with an emphasis on the plural "conversations".  Allowing conversations to grow, and adding features as they do, seems important.  (Side note: I wish google reader would let me read comments to blog posts inline).

What does this mean for software developers? Probably, it just means that you need to look for venues, sites and services that already provide a platform for these conversations. Know what you're looking for, and use the services available to you.   And make sure to know the purposes of your conversation.