Yes, Interactivity Really Is Good for Your Site

By: Steve Outing

For years now, writers and pundits (including me) have espoused the virtues of interactivity. Give your readers a channel to interact with your news site’s writers and editors and you’ll have a happy, loyal audience, it’s been suggested.

The news industry still seems somewhat unconvinced. Look around and you’ll find plenty of news Web sites that aren’t truly interactive – they’re still at their core following the “we write, you read” philosophy of traditional media.

New research offers some rationale for making your site more interactive. Studies of the psychological aspects of new media suggest that empowering online users can make them trust and feel better about content as presented in online media.

The psychology of new media consumption

The research is that of the Media Effects Research Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. There, S. Shyam Sundar, a communications theorist and researcher (who minored in psychology at his Ph.D. program at Stanford), has with his team at the school’s College of Communications been conducting a variety of research studies that look at the psychological effects of media content, form, and technology.

The Lab has been in operation since 1997, and conducted several experimental studies involving hundreds of subjects – much of the research in the area of new media and how content is perceived.

While Sundar’s research covers several major areas, one of the more interesting involves interactivity and new media. To simplify the findings, Sundar has discovered that by tweaking the features of a test news site, the exact same content can be perceived very differently by the study groups. Content with associated multimedia features and presentation is interpreted differently than content that is presented plainly. And content is perceived differently depending on how the user arrived at the content – that is, what source referred the user to it.

In a study of Sundar’s that is due to be published this month in the Journal of Communications, this finding was demonstrated dramatically. Test subjects (volunteers, selected by random assignment) were all steered toward reading the same articles on a test news Web site, then questioned about their perceptions of the content after the fact. But different subject groups were steered toward the content in different ways.

In this study, subjects were asked to select and read news stories in major categories (local, national, international, etc.). Selected articles were highlighted as “special” or important, and the subjects were told that the highlight decision was made by either: 1) a news editor, 2) a computer (random), or 3) other users. A fourth category was when a user was allowed to make a decision about what to read him/herself, based on a list of headline choices. In each case, the subject ended up reading the same content as other test subjects.

When asked to rate the content on the basis of quality and trustworthiness/credibility, the subjects consistently rated the content highest that had been recommended by other users. (Keep in mind, again, that this was the same content as others had viewed.) That same article was rated as lower when the subjects were told that the selection had been made by a professional news editor. Likewise, content where the subject him/herself chose the article to read from a list of equal choices also was rated lower than that content “chosen” by a group of other online users.

Some Web sites – notably Yahoo! – have tried this user-selected news technique, with some success. In light of Sundar’s findings, it could be worth a try to include a feature on your news site that lists the 10 or 20 most-visited articles on a given day. Such systems must track pageviews on stories, then keep a real-time, ongoing list of the current most popular reads on a site. Web site users can see what stories are most read – and often they pile on to see what everyone else is so excited about.

There’s probably a bit of a “bandwagon effect” going on here, Sundar suggests, but he thinks that it’s more than just that. It’s the interactivity represented by allowing users of the site to be the news “gatekeepers” that is appealing to them.

In traditional news media (newspapers, broadcast TV news, radio news, etc.), the gatekeeping – that is, the selection and placement of news stories – is done by professional journalists. The feedback loop is extremely slow, in the form of letters to the editor that show up days after publication of the original article. By contrast, new digital media like Web sites support an immediate feedback loop. The “top 10 reader-selected stories” is possible on the Web, but impossible in traditional-media formats.

Sundar’s research should give pause to news Web site managers who remain skeptical of the effectiveness of “interactivity.”

Interactivity tricks

Another interesting finding in the Penn State research is that breaking up stories is viewed by many users as representative of a Web site being more “interactive.” Sundar found that breaking down content – instead of a single big block of text, break it into clickable component parts – gave the test subjects the impression of the site being more interactive. Now, most Web editors wouldn’t consider that to be an interactive trait, but what’s happening is that users are made to feel that they’re going through the content at their own, controlled pace – instead of having an entire article spoon-fed to them.

The perception of a news site’s interactivity quotient also is affected by “bells and whistles,” Sundar says. Adding things like audio or video clips, interactive databases, chat rooms, discussion forums, and “add your comment” features attached to articles adds to a site’s perceived interactivity. That seems obvious, but what’s not is that just the presence of such interactive bells and whistles changes the user’s perception of the content for the better – even when these features aren’t used much. Sundar compares this to USA Today’s graphics, which may not get read as much as other content such as article text, but contribute to reader perception of the paper’s content as high quality and trustworthy.

Overall, for a news site to be more interactive is a positive in the minds and reactions of Web users. What seems to happen, Sundar says, is that interactivity “serves to boost the volume” of a Web site – to make it have more of an impact in the minds of users.

This can go two ways. In one study, politicians who had Web sites that were highly interactive were viewed as being more trustworthy and seen in a more positive light. Those with non-interactive Web sites were viewed less positively and more prone to be described as bland.

On the other hand, when the Penn State researchers studied reactions to pornographic Web sites, those that featured high interactivity brought out stronger emotions in the test subjects. If a subject was prone toward attitudes of feeling that pornography objectifies women or trivializes rape, for example, the interactive sites amplified that feeling in the test subjects.

This is all interesting stuff, and for me it points to the importance of Web news sites taking interactivity seriously – for it seems to have a positive psychological impact on a site’s users.

Sundar says that Web site designers should give users opportunities to experience interactivity because the more interactive a site, the more involved its users feel about it. “That’s the message I’m getting” from this research, he says.

Letters: When You E-mail Everything

In my column last week, “E-mail Your Audience Anything They Want,” I should have noted the service provided by the webzine Slate, which allows subscribers to have personalized regular content e-mailed to them. That service is similar to the concept I was promoting for news Web sites. Thanks to Andrew Lewin of the UK for pointing this out. Lewin further writes:

“Speaking for myself, I agree with you that this is the kind of service that sites should be able to charge for. I still regard e-mail as the Web’s ‘killer app’ which is still only just now been properly exploited. I was actually a subscriber to Slate for the time that it had a subscription service, purely for the convenience of its regular e-mail delivery of articles which at the time was subscriber-only. As a magazine, I actually prefer Slate’s arch-nemesis Salon, but they have no e-mail delivery system and as a result I find that I read maybe three or four Salon articles a week versus almost all of Slate via its e-mail and MySlate systems. That rather says it all, doesn’t it?

“But the sad truth of the matter is that even Microsoft/Slate found that they couldn’t make this approach work and had to drop the subscription fee. According to a current editorial, they got just 30,000 subscribers – whereas now they get 2.1 million unique visitors to the site. How will news sites really have any better luck?”

Another follow-up comment to that column came from Rich Gordon, new media program chair at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism:

“Your column covers the St. Petersburg Times’ plans to create very granular, ultra-personalized e-mail alerts. I suspect there are many publishers, in new media and traditional media, who would read it and say, ‘That sounds like a great idea.’

“But the problem for most traditional publishers is that their content simply isn’t ready for this kind of initiative. Most traditional publishers – or broadcasters, for that matter – simply haven’t built editorial systems that store content in a structured form (database, XML, etc.) that makes it possible to ‘slice and dice’ in the way the Times proposes. I haven’t seen this topic discussed much in the online news or e-media community, but about a year ago, I gave a presentation (“Is Your Content Web-Ready?”) to the Inland Press Association on this and related topics. Feedback is welcome at”

(Note: Gordon’s comment also appeared in E-Media Tidbits, a daily weblog that I edit.)

Other recent columns

In case you missed recent Stop The Presses!, here are links to the last few columns:
o E-mail Your Audience Anything They Want, Wednesday, February 7
o Mixing Old and New Media, Wednesday, January 31
o Must-See TV: Your Newspaper’s Classifieds?, Wednesday, January 24
o Archive of columns

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This column is written by Steve
Outing for Editor & Publisher Online. Tips, letters and feedback
can be sent to Steve at

Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.

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