Why news polls need to be reimagined

A recent report by the Engaging News Project shows that only 1% of news websites use polls. In contrast 66% have a comments section, despite the fact that most of them are unwieldy free-for-alls, forcing many news organisations to close them down.

So why are polls so rare?

First of all, when we think of polls we immediately imagine the election news polls, predicting a winner of a two-horse race.

These polls present a simple red vs blue option, and extend to the old-fashioned, and no longer effective, phone polling.

And because the stakes are so high, they are more likely to be rigged, either by clearing cookies, or more sinister click-farming tactics. This has led to a lot of cynicism around the legitimacy of news polls.

I believe the second reason for the low number of polls is the majority of the news industry still see themselves as “broadcasters”, delivering one way content through mass channels.

This approach fails to capitalize on the huge value of interactive platforms, where most media has had to migrate.

Every news story contains an opportunity to invite reader feedback on the issue. Doing so would galvanise the role of the media as a watchdog and important part of democratic governance.

In a low-attention span economy, browsing through comments to draw out community opinion is time consuming and often disheartening, considering the frequently uncivil comments that can dominate these channels.

The advantage of a poll is to distill meaning in a fast way.

We’ve designed Townhall to not only capture the top tier selection (Yes/No/Maybe or Option A, B, C) but to also invite the reader to give their reasons why they voted, or select previously added reasons. This means we can discover the top 3 reasons behind popular choices.

Capturing the demographic information means we can also tell an even richer story about what people think. For example, seeing trends in preferences amongst certain age groups, gender or locations.

Answering a poll isn’t like voting in a referendum, but it exercises the muscle of participatory democracy to increase the likelihood of wider action. Inviting each of us to consider what we really want, and then compare ourselves to others, provokes a high level of self-reflection and civic responsibility.

The outcomes of these polls can be used as quick stats shared through social media, or the production of infographics and reports. It’s a way of compressing all those thoughts and sentiments into something easily understood.

This can potentially lead to more vigorous debate in other, more complex forums, that take a greater time investment, and surrender of personal identity, than a simple poll on a news website.

What’s needed to run news polls?

Firstly, journalists need to see the upside of adding a question to ask the audience. Increasingly, the pressure in the news room is to get higher engagement, shares, traffic and time on site.

Bringing the audience into the story by including their opinions, and provoking social sharing and wider discussion is a way to help all those metrics.

Additionally, there’s potential to source ideas for future articles and measure audience interest in a subject.

If journalists can be trained and supported in the use of news polls, they have the chance to get greater impact from their stories and form a tie with the audience that hasn’t existed before.

Secondly, some thought needs to be put into the placement of the embeddable poll. In our experience, inserting it within the story itself is most effective. The poll should be close to mid-way through the story, so there’s been enough content to inform the response, but not so far down you lose potential participants.

Some publications might consider hosting a dedicated poll page, where readers can go to see all current polls. Or just place the polls where they are most relevant, inside the story itself.

Thirdly, publishers need to consider the social sharing strategy. Leading the story promotion by inviting readers to have their say on the issue can be a great way to trigger a click through to the article from a social feed.

Conclusion

Despite comments sections being unwieldy and lacking useful data, they are a commonplace feature of a large number of media publishers website.

Online polls, like Townhall, offer a much safer and insightful way to engage audiences and produce great content.

We hope to move the needle on the current install base of news polls, and consequently, help to increase the relevance of media in the public discourse on the issues of the day.


Keren Flavell is the Founder and CEO of Townhall App Pty Ltd.

Follow her on Twitter @KerenFlavell.

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