How to use Urtak, a collaborative polling tool, to increase reader engagement

A week before Thanksgiving, conservative news site TheBlaze.com posted a story about whether retail stores should be open on the holiday. The post received more than 120,000 responses in less than two days, reaching 140,000 by the end of the month. This spike in reactions was 500 times the site’s norm, but it’s not the first time it’s happened.

A popular story on The Blaze will typically get anywhere between 200 to 800 comments, but the site’s editors have discovered a way to increase user engagement on some stories by orders of magnitude. The Blaze’s 140,000 Thanksgiving story responses weren’t comments; they were reader interactions sparked by an interactive polling tool called an Urtak. (The same story received 264 comments at last count.)

Urtak is not like other Q&A tools; it’s a social poll that grows as a community engages with it. The hook – and what makes Urtak different – is it lets readers ask each other questions.

“Significant audience engagement can be generated by empowering the reader and allowing them to do more than just take a poll,” said Mike Opelka, newsletter editor at TheBlaze, which has seen several stories crack 200,000 Urtak responses, with as many as 300 user-generated questions on one story. “They can shape the poll as well.”

Newsweek’s The Daily Beast and Colombia’s El Tiempo are among the other news sites that have also used Urtak to increase reader engagement. I talked with editors at these news sites about how to use Urtak’s free tool.

Creating and integrating an Urtak account

Creating a poll is easy. You choose a title and add one or more preliminary questions, and then the site generates a YouTube-style embed code that you can paste into your stories. There’s also a WordPress plugin, which allows users to automatically embed an Urtak after every post — or after posts of their choosing.

The tool works like a game of “20 Questions,” with a scrolling interface that shows users the community’s answers after each response. It allows only three types of answers to any question: “Yes,” “No” and “Don’t Care.”

The simple options may be convenient for people on a mobile device who don’t have time to comment, but this limitation prevents user-to-user interactions like you see in the comments sections of news stories. For that reason, many publishers opt to keep traditional commenting open below their stories’ Urtaks.

Choosing stories to Urtak

As with other Internet brand names-turned verbs, like “Facebook” and “Google,” “Urtak” is the name of the tool and the action. In Opelka’s newsroom, it has also become an adjective to describe a topic’s ability to inspire passionate responses: “Urtak-able.”

But, as Opelka pointed out via email, “Not every story [or] topic is right for polling of this kind.”

Brian Ries, social media editor of The Daily Beast, has found that small stories are likely to receive less Urtak participation than larger events or debates. Typically, he said, the types of stories that are less likely to receive comments are also less likely to receive high Urtak numbers. “We try [to] use Urtak around big events that can be assessed and debated from a variety of angles and policy points,” Ries said via email.

This is true at The Blaze, too. “We measure each opportunity for increasing engagement and try to fit the right tool to each situation,” Opelka said. “We look to Urtak for added engagement of our audience –beyond simple commenting — on issues they typically follow [like] religion, small government, government intervention/regulation, Second Amendment right, etc.”

News sites typically seed Urtaks with several questions to get the Q&A conversation rolling. The Daily Beast’s Urtak for its State Of The Union 2011 coverage, for example, resulted in 26,460 responses to about 36 questions.

Placing for impact

Online readers’ attention is often split many ways, between multi-tasking and viewing pages with content and ads fighting each other for space. As with any form of content, the more prominently an Urtak is placed, the more likely it is to receive responses.

Many news sites place Urtak polls at the bottom of posts, above the comments section (or in some cases, in place of comments) and use it to gauge user reactions. Others make the Urtak poll the focus of the story itself. Still others place Urtak off to the side as a widget in another column.

One key difference between Urtak and traditional forms of user commenting and engagement is the same Urtak can be placed across multiple stories or media.

For its State of the Union 2011 Urtak, The Daily Beast embedded the same poll across “all relevant content on the site,” Ries said. “This included our wrap page, which featured all our stories & videos related to the Address, as well as on individual stories, often embedded within the articles themselves or at the end. Additionally, we had it on both Newsweek & The Daily Beast’s Facebook pages, set as the landing tab by default, so anyone visiting facebook.com/thedailybeast, for instance, would see the poll first thing upon arriving at the Facebook page.”

Gleaning user insight

Urtak owners can choose to moderate questions before users can see them; however, they may opt to let “the community” decide if a question stays.

As polls start to take shape, and user questions and responses come in, owners can explore results, which are displayed graphically and numerically. The “Yes/No” nature of the polls make Urtak results easily quantifiable.

One of The Daily Beast’s Urtaks on the U.S. national debt revealed “an early indicator of the Occupy sentiment,” Ries said. “99 percent of respondents said they agreed more people who committed financial scams should be held accountable.”

Urtak owners can cross-tabulate responses, revealing insights about the makeup of their readership. Drilling down, one can see how many responders who chose one specific answer were likely to respond one way or another to other questions.

Reader engagement is the lifeblood of an online news site. While social polling tools like Urtak may not help news organizations grow audiences in the same way distribution tools like Twitter and Facebook do, Urtak can help keep readers stay on stories longer and in a more focused way. That kind of engagement can spur a virtuous cycle of retention.

“The average person just wants to be heard – that’s why so many people like to post comments online,” Opelka said. “Urtak takes this a step further and allows our audience to also write a question and poll the audience as well. That is empowering.”

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