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Roland Legrand

Most forums and websites are “asynchronous media” — meaning that the people you see participating in an online conversation aren’t all necessarily online at the same time. One person posts a comment in a forum on Monday, a second poster might reply on Tuesday, the original poster returns again on Thursday, and so on. People move at their own pace.

Journalists, especially, are used to this slow pace, accustomed to seeing comments slowly trickle in after they post their articles online. But recently, more reporters have become interested in synchronous communication, where the various participants in an online dialogue are online at the same time, talking in real time. Why are reporters looking to live blogs, chat sessions and meetings in virtual environments? Not because it increases pageviews or unique visitors, but because it helps build a community.

In my media practice at Belgian publisher Mediafin, I found that synchronous communication can be very valuable for engaging readers and encouraging discussion. Our early experiments with live chats online have produced some surprising results.

CoverItLive

Mediafin uses a free software for live blogging and chat sessions called CoverItLive, which can be easily integrated into our TypePad blogs. This software allows us to designate producers, co-producers and panel members as the main chat participants. The audience can then react in real time adding their comments to the discussion, while the producers monitor the session. Producers can approve comments, privately contact audience members, or ban unruly participants.

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Producer console for CoverItLive

You can also launch polls during the sessions, insert media files and edit the text. We use CoverItLive both for live-blogging coverage of financial conference calls, shareholder gatherings, and for a weekly chat about the financial markets.

We recently used CoverItLive to cover a series of shareholder meetings organized by the financial services group Fortis in Amsterdam and in Brussels. One colleague attended each event, reporting on the latest developments via live blogging, while I co-produced from the Brussels newsroom. About 800 people attended our live chat sessions, while some thousands read the logs afterward.

The weekly chat about financial markets consists of a dialogue between two reporters about the latest developments in the marketplace, while the audience comments or asks questions. We also invite experts or special correspondents, such as our correspondent in New York to participate. Fifty people synchronously attended our first show, but the audience is growing fast. At our last show, 220 people watched it live online.

Lessons Learned

We learned seven practical lessons from our experiments in synchronous chat:

1. A live chat is a just that: a chat.
Journalists used to working in asynchronous media sometimes forget that the audience is live and responsive, and will start trying to write out full-length articles in the chat window. That takes too much time. Reporters need to stick to a few lines in each post, using elipses to show that more will come. This avoids overwhelming the live audience with huge blocks of text and also gives them natural breaks to respond to a reporter’s words.

2. Two heads are better than one.
It pays to work with a second person, either by engaging in a dialogue or conducting an interview. This makes the chat more lively, and helps to avoid “dead air” when the audience is not very active.

3. It’s always good to have a separate communication channel.
I recommend using a back channel such as instant messaging or Skype — where you can communicate privately with your co-speaker, but it’s especially useful when working remotely. This allows the producer to give instructions or advice, inform the colleague on location about related events, decide which questions to answer first, or solve technical issues — all while the live chat is going on and without the audience knowing.

4. Prepare for the event ahead of time.
Make sure that novice panel members know how to use the interface. Always give clear instructions about the chat format.

5. Engage the audience.
Audience members react to more than just what the journalists or experts on the panel are saying; they also react to each other. If they stay on topic, encourage them to bounce ideas off each other. People could easily watch the Fortis conference on the Fortis website, but many chose to attend our live chat because they wanted to hear “man on the street” commentary from other regular people in the Internet community.

6. Be on time.
Punctuality shows respect for your audience; if your session cannot start on time, explain why clearly. Try to announce the event well in advance. If you organize a weekly show, stick to that schedule.

7. Use live chats as a springboard to more participation online.
These events can lead to more participation in the forums and comment sections of your website. Often journalists avoid participating in these sections except to delete comments. Announcing the start of a chat session and explaining the topics to be discussed are positive ways to present yourself to the public.

Reactions and Effects

Internet users are notorious for leaving brutally harsh comments, and the comments we get on Mediafin forums are no exception. Given how aggressive posters can be, I was surprised to find that the audience for our live chats was friendly and polite. There seems to be a sense of presence in synchronous chat, of sharing the same space and place, that makes people more courteous. While people may feel free to “flame” other posters in asynchronous forums, they are reluctant to be rude when “face to face” in synchronous chat.

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Audience view of a live chat

As a result, some of my Mediafin colleagues who bristled at the aggressive reactions they encountered on the asynchronous forums and comment sections now show much more interest in participating in live events.

While live chats don’t increase visitors or page views, they foster a real sense of community. Audience members are more civil, and communication between journalists and readers is friendlier but also more intense. Synchronous talks also help journalists to become more aware of what the audience wants: During our conference call live coverage, readers made it very clear which questions they wanted to hear answered.

Live chats are not the end of synchronous technology, however. Virtual environments are another interesting tool that can increase the immersiveness of synchronous communication. I will examine the potential of virtual environments, such as Second Life, more in depth in a future post. For now, though, live chats have proven to be a useful way to engage an audience and encourage discussion between reporters and readers.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.

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