The challenge of engaging online audiences

We are in an environment where individuals are increasingly active on various online platforms including social media. Online engagement is a complex process. It requires grabbing people’s attention and ideally making them participate online. In many instances, engagement through symbolic participation translates into simple acts such as “liking” content. In other cases, people comment and share content on social media platforms.

A major question that arises is: Why are online audiences are seemingly more interested in cat content than in hard news/activism that could have a positive impact on the ‘real’ world? How can we engage people online surrounding issues that have real societal impacts?

Organizations and brands are increasingly interested in fostering engagement that would ultimately translate into real action. For example, advocacy organizations envision real action on ground from their audiences. Businesses may look forward to greater sales through engagement with their brands online. Governments may want citizens to engage on their online presence so that there is lesser gap between them and the wider public.

Short attention spans

Since there are a myriad of options available for users to consume content, it may not be easy to engage people online. The general trend is constant connection, instant communication, and multitasking. Various online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Whatsapp, all encourage concise messages. Short attention spans mean that organizations have to vie for engagement.

The biggest problem in trying to engage people online is inherent in the nature of social media today. People are time starved in terms of consuming a “news feed” (such as on Facebook). A myriad of online content is seemingly consumed within a short span of time. A number of factors dictate online engagement, such as quality of the content, the way it is presented, and the interest of the user.

Why cat videos?

Our actions on the Internet are pretty much dictated by our psychological dispositions. Humans have always adored feline species. The presence of cats in our environment has grabbed people’s interest and probably led to the domestication of cats as pets. So cats may have always triggered the same kind of emotions as evident on the Internet, which has just provided a new and click-based way to adore and share content. Content such as cat videos may also provide a distraction from hectic lives. It only requires the click of a button to share content. So ease of use of the Internet may also explain why content that is already liked is also shared.

My own research, as well as the research in the wider communication field points to the fact that, entertainment provides the greatest motivation for online engagement. When people are asked as to why they like, comment and share content online, they point to entertainment value of the content that motivates them to act in a certain way.

In-depth background stories of international importance may require more reading, greater attention and demand more time. For most people, stories involving conflict may also inhibit engagement as they may involve politics and religion. There are always however, a dedicated set of individuals who will engage with such in-depth content.

On the other hand, organizations may be able to engage a greater number of people with issues of global importance simply through better engagement strategies. Keeping in view the nature of social media has having characteristics of short and concise, there is a need to make in-depth content also available in more concise formats. Concise and short messages may serve as hooks for more in-depth content.  If the objective is to create more awareness than the strategy should also change to embrace the zeitgeist and adapt media messages to be powerful yet concise.

We are already witnessing news content on various social media platforms that is more concentrated yet powerful and concise. Some news media organizations on Facebook, such as AJ+ have short, between one to three minute videos that may prove to be quite engaging. We are also witnessing short videos from news organizations such as CNN on Snapchat.

People would care if content were provided to them in the right way. In other words content can be more engaging (and entertaining when possible), presented in a concise yet professional format.

Humanity at crossroads?

I believe that as human beings we are still the same. As humans we do feel the pain of others when we witness it. In case of media, it often boils down to what becomes news. In light of the agenda-setting framework, media gatekeepers have a big responsibility in bringing to light, pressing issues such as those concerning marginalized groups. What makes the headlines often determines how the masses feel about the issue at hand.

Positive action on ground requires more than media engagement. Tangible action may be based on (1) engaging media content that creates awareness (2) the formation of some form of grassroots organizations that channel the positive human energy into real action that is meaningful in terms of changing things for the better.

Getting out of the slacktivism spiral

Engagement is the key! Engagement in my opinion forms the first building block for future action that can positively change things and address pressing issues facing societies. I would emphasize that various organizations still have a long way to go in terms of understanding online engagement and then implementing strategies that foster engagement.

Research suggests that most users are actually consumers of information as compared to producers. As is seen on Wikipedia, a majority of site visitors actually read articles and a small percentage actually writes or edits Wikipedia articles. Such patterns are repeated on other sites.

Effective online engagement requires an understanding of user motivations that encourage participation. Content must be engaging or interesting, have emotional appeal, and timely. If these broad factors are kept in consideration, there is likely to be greater engagement and a greater possibility for real positive action. After all, every change initiative in history had started from an idea, a seed that was implanted in the minds of the people. That idea grew and galvanized people into action. Today we may have better online tools (and distractions as well). What is needed is powerful engaging content and the right strategies to engage audiences.

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