Live TV and real-time chat: X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing

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The End Of Telly-
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Watching TV is almost always a social experience.  We talk to the people in the room with us. We talk to our friends on the phone, by instant messenger or on Facebook. We talk to people with similar interests in forums and chat rooms. Some of us even just shout at the TV on our own. However we do it, TV often makes us want to talk, share opinions and express ourselves. And some TV programmes make us want to do this more than others.

This week in the UK we saw one TV programme that drove many of us to chat in online communities and social media during the show. Thursday’s Question Time on the BBC featured the leader of the British National Party, saw a record number of viewers and reportedly 12.5 Tweets every second about what people were watching on their screens. Tonight we have two shows which typically attract and a much greater volume of discussions in chat rooms, forums and social media: the X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing.

The discussions and chat that accompanied these shows have been on other sites and using other tools. Tonight, for the first time, both shows have incorporated chat and social media functions into their own sites. This is a significant step for TV broadcasting in the UK. Consumer patterns have changed. We no longer watch a programme with friends and relatives and then discuss it with others the next day or read reviews in newspapers. We discuss and share our opinions in real-time through social media. The discussions and chats that accompany the show are, for the viewers, an integral part of the experience. By integrating chat and social functions into their sites, the broadcasters are hoping to recapture the viewers’ attention and give them the full experience they want.

Strictly Social

Of the two shows, the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing offers a richer experience. Their Strictly Social site allows you to watch the show via BBC iPlayer and chat in real time with viewers alongside the screen. If you don’t want to join the discussions (as many people won’t), you can express your opinions by ‘reacting’ - clicking on ‘wow’, ‘boo’ or ‘gasp’ and seeing the word gain more prominence on screen. You can also guess what votes the judges will give the acts and vote in polls.

The Strictly Social site is clearly designed to appeal to a wide range of Strictly Come Dancing viewers. Both to provide a space for those who want to chat during the live show to do this alongside the show itself. And also to provide tools for other viewers to get engaged. It will be interesting to see how popular these other tools are and how many people use the site this week and in coming weeks. There is much talk that this is the future for the BBC’s website - providing a richer experience for the viewer by combining activities and tools they can use online during the show. The Strictly Social site could be the start of a shift in the BBC’s integration of broadcast and social medias.

X Factor Chat

The X Factor has a simpler site with ITV’s X Factor Chat. The chat site does not sit alongside an online broadcast of the show itself and instead relies on people sitting in front of a TV with their computer. Something we know many people do anyway. On the site, viewers can chat about what they are seeing and this chat is punctuated with polls, controlled by the moderator.

The site replicates more closely the experience viewers would have using tools on other sites. A real-time chat function that allows people to discuss and debate what they see on screen. The difference is that being on the ITV site gives this chat more credence. The role of the moderator should be critical here - being the official online host of the X Factor and letting the viewers and chatters feel that they are getting exclusive access and exclusive discussions.

Overall it will be interesting to see which format is most successful for the broadcasters. Which manages to engage people and, perhaps most critically, keep them viewing the show throughout the show this week, next week and for the rest of their respective runs. TV viewers have always been social creatures. For many this has involved the use of social media, online communities and other tools. Tonight the BBC and ITV caught up with them.

3. Growth of a healthy online community

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What constitutes a healthy community?

This is a big question. A really big question.

In short (although we’ll deal with the long version too), it depends on what you (or your client) wants the online community to be doing, how the community feel about that, how much churn and spam there is, how the numbers reflect the KPIs set and how ‘happy’ the membership is.

When we say ‘happy’, it’s important to say that we mean happy as members of the community (happy that they are safe, respected and encouraged) rather than happy as people, even the best community manager in the world can’t enforce that!

Perhaps it’s easier to look at what constitutes an ‘unhealthy’ community? Here’s what my vision of an ill, ailing community looks like:

  • Members’ questions and opening posts go unanswered, by both other members and the community manager
  • There is a visibly high amount thinly veiled spam (a loosely connect reply to a post that is stuffed with links) and a splattering of out-and-out ‘buy these diet pills now’ spamola
  • Feuds and fights have escalated, crowding out genuine discussion; with even mild-mannered members turning decidedly Lord of the Flies
  • People are leaving, loudly
  • The original purpose, theme or appeal is unclear, or lost, and the community is in the throes of a panic-stricken identity crisis
  • OR worst of all, it’s totally and utterly barren

Notice at no point did I mention quantities, traffic or ratios of active users.

Sure, your online community should have KPIs but one person’s page view target is another’s irrelevant number. The number of members a broad-interest lifestyle community has will - and should - differ from a special-interest, academic knowledge-sharing community.

That’s why it’s very important to work out - right at the very beginning of the planning stage, ideally before - why you want to launch a community and how you hope people will use it.

There is solid value in having numerical targets and understanding how many members need to be engaging to keep momentum, but there is no definitive ideal traffic goal any more than there is one topic area for all communities to be built around.

Tara Hunt, author of The Whuffie Factor, has a lovely bite-sized definition:

The health of a community is the gauge of where various qualitative and quantitative metrics lie in relation to the goals you set.

How to encourage engagement

It’s all very well promoting the community in all the right places and sweet-talking potential members into joining, but the real challenge (and the real trick) is making sure that they engage once they’re there.

Think open questions, talking points

If you want to get a conversation flowing, don’t ask “do you wish you were 21 again?” because the answers are all likely to be “yes!”.

Instead, ask, “if you could talk to your 21-year-old self, what advice would you give?” or “If you were 21 again, what would you do differently?”. The answers will be varied; they’ll contain talking points that will lead to more questions and more talking points.

Keep it simple

You don’t need to think up dazzling forum talking points that will show everyone how clever and well-read you are. In fact, the chances are this would frighten off all but the biggest show-offs. Keep it simple. Ask questions or start conversations that you would ask your friends over a drink, or like to know people’s thoughts on at a dinner party.

There’s more to engagement than posts

Don’t be led down the path of thinking posts are all that count. Sure, having a healthy number of bloggers and posters is fantastic, but there’s more to engagement than this. Have members rate each others’ posts, upload photos, comment on blogs or even respond to images with images.

Trust your own interests

Unless you know it’s a complete diversion from the interests of your community, start conversations and write blogs about topics that interest you. You won’t be the only one interested and because you’re speaking from your own experience, it will come across as far more authentic. Community managers are allowed to be real people too, your members will appreciate it.

Careful with current affairs

Legal matters are a whole other guide and there are many books on media law available if you want to brush up. But remember these top level rules:

  • Don’t play with fire. Reporting restrictions of current court cases or investigations includes message boards, blogs and forums. Do not encourage debate around ongoing court cases, except with extreme care, because once you have pulled the tiger’s tail, it’s very hard to get it to stop the tiger typing when it crosses a legal line.
  • Defamation laws still apply to community platforms. If a newspaper prints a story saying a named known celebrity is a love rat, and it’s untrue, they are subject to the same laws as if a blogger on your site claims that their named neighbour is cheating on his wife.
  • Naming and shaming. It is not acceptable for any community members to talk about a named person (that they know or do not know) and tell untruths, or give away that person’s private information.
  • Clamp down on risky behaviour. You are giving your members a platform to communicate, to chat and to engage. They do not need (and should not want) to give out their personal email addresses and mobile phone numbers. Perhaps they just don’t realise how open communities are, perhaps it’s a testament to how safe and friendly you have made your community feel. Either way, you need to give gentle but firm guidance on personal safety and personal information. Eventually your community champions will take on the baton themselves and report unsafe behaviour, and set examples of good behaviour, all by themselves.

A sobering example: In 2008, a record payout was made to a social housing firm in Sunderland after seriously defamatory comments were repeatedly posted and published on an ‘anonymous’ news and discussion site, called DadsPlace (sic). Eventually, the owners and administrators of the site were revealed through detailed investigation and they were found to be responsible and made to pay £100,000 to the victim of the defamation.

Online communities aren’t places to allow dubious behaviour to claim sanctuary.

More on this next week in the ‘Moderation and safety’ section of our Community Management series

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2. Champions, active users and trolls

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As an online community manager, you will have a ‘gut’ understanding of who makes up your community. Their rough interests, probably the gender split and a fairly good grasp of age. But this will largely be based on who is posting, what they’re posting and how often. The real shape of the community will be far more nuanced.

The 90-9-1 rule

The 90-9-1 rule, or 90-9-1 principle, is a really handy way of remembering who does what on your community.

It’s also a helpful way of gauging how traffic visiting your site will translate to people posting on your site and engaging with the community.

In brief:

  • 90% of community users are passive members. They ‘lurk’ and read, without contributing.
  • 9% of community users are ‘editors’ that will modify content or add to an existing thread (by posting a comment or replying) but rarely create any content from scratch.
  • 1% of users are ‘creators’ that will participate a lot, including adding photos, starting new discussions and taking part in activity across the community.

With more low-effort forms of activity becoming commonplace, such as clicking to rate a piece of content, the ratio of editors to lurkers is likely to rise. However, the likelihood is the number of creators adding lots of fresh stuff to your community will always be a tiny percentage.

Community champions

As your online community grows, you will see a handful of members that not only create a lot of the content, they also seem to take a real pride in the community and take extra tasks upon themselves.

They are likely to:

  • Welcome new members, replying to introductory posts and helping to signpost useful content to them
  • Report any activity that breaks the rules or disrupts the community
  • Try and calm down disputes and appear to have the community’s interests at heart
  • Be very active in creating new content
  • Have ideas on the future of the community and promote the community externally
  • Encourage ‘good behaviour’ and show others how to behave through their own actions

These are your community champions. They will save you a lot of groundwork and help you to keep the community growing and safe.

Nurture them and appreciate them, but make sure you keep clear the boundaries between you and them. You don’t want them to get too big for their boots and become problems, splitting the community into them and us, nor do you want to feel beholden to them and uncomfortable making decisions that will affect them - such as removing iffy content they have posted.

The methods by which you reward and involve them is largely dependant on your specific needs, resources and the limits and possibilities of your community platform. But whether it’s a fruit basket or a cheerful personalised email every once in a while, you must show you appreciate them.

Active users

There will always be a large number of lurkers. Even if yours is a closed, private community where everybody knows everybody in real life, there will still be some who choose to eyeball without ever tapping the keys.

Everybody in between lurker and champion is an active user, in other words, users that do something on a fairly regular basis are active.

A good community manager will strive to entice lurkers out of their passivity - perhaps through polls and minimum effort functions - and convert active users into champions. What is vital to the health of the community, however, is keeping active users active, and keeping their activity levels high.

The Toxic Team

You will, of course, find that there is a small core of moaners and gripers. They’re not trolls or troublemakers for the sake of it, but they’re sceptical, easily affronted and standoffish. They’re also your best friend.

While it may not seem like it, and sometimes you’ll wish you could just ban them and be done with it, the members that are moaning but keep coming back time and again can help make a community.

Think about it:

  • they keep coming back so they feel that they are stakeholders
  • they care about the community and the experience
  • they want to engage
  • they’re telling you what is wrong and what can be improved
  • they’re probably saying what politer and more forgiving members are thinking
  • if you can turn them around and prove you respect them, all that sounding off will now be in your favour - they will be community champions.

Take them seriously. Don’t indulge their ideas if they’re ridiculous, but consider why they are saying what they are saying - do they have a point? Is there mileage in trying something new? Have you done something you should apologise for or explain? Perhaps they have misunderstood your actions, and if they have, then others will have to. Be transparent, honest.

Your toxic team will force you to be a better community manager, and the whole community will benefit. They also show you just how involved you need to be, because they will keep you on your toes!

Trolls and troublemakers

And then there are those that really are trolls and troublemakers.

PC Mag‘s encyclopaedia has a good definition of trolling:

  1. Surfing, or browsing, the Web.
  2. Posting derogatory messages about sensitive subjects on newsgroups and chat rooms to bait users into responding.
  3. Hanging around in a chat room without saying anything, like a “peeping tom.”

Trolls are pains, plain and simple. They try and wind up other members, create negative, dramatic situations and are deliberately provocative. They will do their level best to crank your tail too, but obviously you’ll never show them they’ve hit a nerve!

There are several possible types of troll (it may be a cry for help, they may be being picked on in their own lives, they may be desperately lonely), and while the effects are still the same and there are no excuses for rule-breaking, understanding the motivations can help you deal with them. But do not underestimate their determination, or potential power, just ask The Scotsman.

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