Team Crunchberry — so-called because we’re thinking about Cedar Rapids, Iowa, home of a large Quaker Oats cereal factory responsible for the nickname "City of the Five Smells" — has emerged from its ideation process with a core idea and a target audience.

The six-student team has created three personas representing 20-34-year-olds in eastern Iowa, and is brainstorming what the barriers are that keep them from participating in online conversations related to news and information. The brainstorming process, in turn, has begun to yield some very interesting ideas for improving online-news conversation systems.

Like many online news sites, the sites operated by our class sponsor, Gazetteonline.com and KCRG.com, allow people to comment on news articles. But the sites aren’t being overwhelmed with comments. As I write this post on Saturday afternoon, I can check the Gazette’s "Most recent comments" page and find 10 posts in the past six hours.

So why don’t more people participate? The students are trying to find out by surveying 20 young adults from eastern Iowa who have agreed to test the product we build and give us feedback. (We will probably suggest the Gazette also survey a larger group of Web site visitors.)

While the list of barriers to participation is not complete and has not been prioritized, here is a first cut of reasons young adults don’t comment on the Gazetteonline.com and KCRG.com sites, along with some possible ways (not all actually feasible) to overcome these barriers to participation.

The five biggest barriers to participation — and some possible solutions

quote bubble  Don’t think existing comments are valuable

  • Comments could be required to take on certain formats, such as a letter to the editor (a la Salon.com), questions, or answers to questions (questions could be posed by other users or by editors)
  • Users could choose to see only questions in certain formats, such as questions and answers
  • Allow users to filter comments by characteristics of the commenter (examples: other moms, other people who have kids of similar ages, other people in my church or social group)
  • Comments could be removed automatically after a period of time depending on how other users rated them
  • Editors could highlight the comments they find most valuable, perhaps awarding "gold stars" or making them more prominent on the page
  • Commenters could be required (or offered the option) to describe their expertise relevant to the topic they post about (examples: their job descriptions, where they live, where they work, how they are involved in the story they comment on)

quote bubble  Lack of payoff or gratification from participating in online discussions

  • Comments could be rated by users
  • Editors or other users could award prizes, discounts, Facebook Gifts , cash (say, a nickel per comment rated at 4 or higher) or "karma points" (a la vita.mn in Minneapolis) for good posts
  • Highly rated posts could be highlighted
  • Users with the best and/or most comments could be highlighted (like eBay user feedback)
  • Frequent (or highly rated) commenters could receive a discounted print subscription or prizes for their child’s school
  • Excellent comments (as rated by editors, users or both) could be printed in the newspaper or on the front page of the site.

quote bubble  Lack of interest in communicating with strangers

  • Introduce participants to one another (a la USA Today pop culture blogger Whitney Matheson’s "today’s featured reader")
  • With each comment, list other articles that the commenter and you (the viewer/reader) have both read
  • Suggest comments you would be interested in based on previous viewing habits, characteristics of the commenters (examples: demographics, neighborhoods, where they work)
  • List commenters’ attributes (examples: where they went to high school, where they live, where they work, where their kids go to school, what activities they and their kids participate in)
  • Identify commenters who are friends (or friends of friends) on social network such as Facebook or LinkedIn
  • Suggest questions from other users that you would be qualified to answer (based on your characteristics such as job or neighborhood)

quote bubble  Participation is intimidating

  • Offer easy options for participation (example: thumbs up/down to rate a comment, short prompted 140-character answers such as "I disagree because …")
  • Reward participation through a points or rating system
  • One-click comments
  • List comments from people with similar attributes (examples: where they went to high school, where they live, where they work, where their kids go to school, what activities they and their kids participate in)
  • Provide definitions of terms used in conversation
  • Provide context from previous articles or comments related to this topic

quote bubble  Don’t think comments are believable

  • Allow users to verify (or challenge) comments by adding a hyperlinked footnote or citation
  • Identify commenters who are friends (or friends of friends) on social network sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn
  • Allow users to highlight commenters they want to follow
  • Have editors locate recognized experts to answer questions on the site
  • Show commenters’ ratings (like eBay user feedback)
  • Allow users to rate posts based on believability
  • Allow users to recommend removal of posts they don’t believe
  • Have comments rated for credibility by editors, other users, or just other users with high credibility ratings
  • Link to commenters’ previous comments
  • Require and verify real identities of commenters
  • List commenters’ expertise relevant to the topic they post about (examples: their job descriptions, where they work, how they are involved in the story they comment on) or other attributes (where they live, where they went to high school, where their kids go to school, what activities they participate in)
  • Display commenters’ Facebook or LinkedIn affiliations

Some other interesting ideas for improving participation

  • Integrate news and conversation on sites where the user is already participating (such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Digg, etc.).
  • Create a "share this" button that would allow comments to be posted to social networks where the user participates
  • For those new to the community (or to a particular story), offer Wikipedia-style entries on topics, places, old grudges, etc.
  • Allow users to write their comments before being required to register, but have them expire if the user never registers.
  • Require commenters to "earn" the right to post without an editor’s approval (say, by posting three editor-approved comments)
  • Allow someone whose comment is rejected to be "red-flagged" (returned to a status requiring posts to be approved by an editor)
  • Instead of free-form comments, force responses into a 140-character structure following something like "I think …"
  • Provide paths to related stories
  • Suggest people you should meet based on previous reading or commenting behavior
  • To forestall fears of later regretting a comment, allow users to delete them after posting, or set them to expire at a certain time
  • Allow users to hide their comments from search engines if desired
  • Prompt certain users to offer a comment based on their demographics, personal characteristics, previous comments or topics of interest
  • Allow users to filter out comments based on commenters’ political affiliations, gender, parental status, place of employment, ages, etc. (Many of us didn’t like this idea much, but it’s still interesting.)

Team Crunchberry and I would welcome your feedback on this list of barriers and solutions.

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