Saturday, March 05, 2005

Public Listening; Public Reading

The blogosphere is growing daily. More people, more companies, more causes are coming to the blogosphere to express themselves. Who is reading all this? How is my posting going to be found in all this?

In the couple of hours a day I have for this, I can barely make it through the blogs already queued up in Bloglines or in my RSS Reader. Hearing of others who scroll through hundreds a day raises a question as to how much time they can spend doing the reading. If it takes as long as it does to read what I have, how will I expand my horizons to find other voices that I should read? To find those that should really be part of my community and I of theirs?

Speed reading will only get you so far. Filtering takes you further but also will leave you at risk for missing something. Key words or tags only get you an opportunity to go further, but do you really? Am I missing something? If I am, please help me out here.

So the question that comes to me: How do we know our audience? Does the current web stats process really tell us what we need to know?

Along comes the Public Listening Project. Simple. A couple of guys show up regularly in public places, like a train station. They wear t-shirts with brief but open questions.

People "select themselves" to talk to us. Once approached, we generally encourage them to discuss their viewpoint as much as they would like to, always listening respectfully, and asking other questions whenever it is appropriate.

How calm, cool, and simple! They are walking the talk or more explicitly, standing to respectfully listen. Recall that a conversation is between two parties. If one always is talking, where is the exchange?

A number of people who initially "vent" their feelings towards us, usually calm down, acknowledge that they appreciate being listened to, and then will want to know our opinion. The fact that people genuinely want to know what we think after they have had the opportunity to "let off some steam" is to us a sign that they are much less suspicious and more open to a mutual dialogue then when they first approached us.

The exchange is made by being listened to. There comes the realization that these two guys are serious about what they are doing.

New people approach us for the first time after having seen us at the train station for quite some time. This tells us that people feel increasingly safe to express their views openly due to our consistent, non-threatening presence.

Consistent, non-threatening presence! We need more of this. I think this would take the rhetoric volume down a notch or two. Settle folks back on their heels, off their toes, relaxed, less tense.

Then after doing more of this in public places for the spoken word, we should start something for the written word. Some sort of simple mark to say, “Steve has been here and read this”. Today, unless we leave a comment, or write about it, or do a trackback, there is no deliberate trail left behind for what we have read.

The more I think about it; the readers in the blogosphere could be categorized according to their level of engagement with a particular blog:
  1. Those who have not visited our site (either not aware of it or deliberately avoid it for now) (These are the “unengaged”)
  2. Those who read the post (These are the “partially engaged”)
  3. Those who comment on the post (These are the “fully engaged”)

Now someone who reads but instead of commenting sends an email directly could get counted by the blogger as engaged for they were fully engaged, just not in the public view on the proposed revised blog stats counter.

This level of engagement proposes to ignore the anonymous or IP address level of detail. Instead it gives the reader an identity. Gives the writer some feedback on the reader’s presence where they are partially engaged but for whatever reason fall short of commenting.

I also considered a weighing method for comments over reads over no-reads, but in the end wanted to follow the KISS principle (Keep it simple simple). The reader would be counted equally amongst their peers. Those who want to be engaged would be counted equally with those who did not want to. This levels the playing field by deemphasizing the web stats in favor of the level of engagement. So the reader would leave their mark to acknowledge their presence on the site.

Of course, there would need to be some safety check to prevent spamming or taking advantage of the system. Someone always wants to find a way to game it. But there are enough smart folks in this technology world that we can put our heads together to figure it out.

How would you leave your mark?
I think it should be simple but something that would require a deliberate action on our part. Something like the color change within our RSS readers that would leave a little mark on the posting that said "Steve read this".

What would the blog writer see?
For the blogger, to see the results on their page, I would recommend rolling them up into a plus sign with a total, the plus sign could be expanded to see specifically who did the reading.

My proposal would show (and these are hypothetical numbers)
Partially engaged -> 151
Engaged -> 25

Where is the unengaged number?
Well, that would be open for discussion. Do we use the population of the world? Or the population of those enabled for internet access? Or do we just leave it open? Your thoughts are sought on this aspect.

How would this help the reader?
I think it would provide the Reader with some incentives. As a reader, I do read many blogs, more than are listed on the Blogroll on my page. Some I read more seriously than others, some take more time than others, some take no time at all. Some actually generate a comment, or even an email conversation. For those for which I would have a negative comment, I leave alone. I prefer to deal on the positive side and if I can't say something good, I don't I say anything at all. The problem with this is that I currently have helped the blogger’s stats by visiting and spending time on their site. In the proposed scheme, this would be discounted.

Yes, web stats would still be available but I think the better method of measuring your customer base is with this level of engagement.

What do you think?
Are you ready to listen?
Are you ready to read?
Are you ready to make your mark in this world?

PS - Thanks to Frank Paynter for this link.
Thanks also to Troy Worman for his thoughts and feedback in the development of this proposal.

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