Live web chat – a controlled interactive explosion

They’re hardly new, but the power of live web chats for connecting with audiences, driving interaction and pulling in traffic should make them a staple for any digital newsroom. Best of all, with CoverItLive they are incredibly easy to set up – just log on to their site, register for a free account and place the embed code they provide on a blank custom page… You even get a chance to practice with the tool before going live.

At the Sunderland Echo we’ve used live text chats before to cover the Budget, for instance – with limited success in terms of participation. Near the climax of the 2008/09 football season we took the plunge with a footy chat, despite uncorroborated tales of dead air during similar offerings from rival titles in the north ea

Sunderland Echo live chat

Sunderland Echo live chat

st. The results suprised everyone in the office…

>> Sunderland Echo live chat with Ian Laws

Our biggest problem was keeping up with the number of comments being made. We pre-moderated (better safe than sorry first time around) and published 150 comments out of 250 in just an hour. That level of interaction is unprecedented for us. Plus, over 75% of users stayed with the chat for over one minute (ie the bounce rate was just one quarter).

The editorial win was that our sports writer Ian Laws brought genuine insight to the table. His informed comments on behind-the-scenes activity at SAFC and the personalities at the club – tidbits too small to be formed into content for our print product – were fascinating. And they were lapped up by an audience hungry for information about the club they love.

There are obvious other benefits in terms of targeted eyes on content, advertising and for reverse publishing too.

 What really seemed to work

  • We plugged the live chat on messageboards, through social media/ bookmarking tools such as Twitter and in-paper
  • We linked from a prominent homepage slot – taking out prime real estate during the live chat
  • We chose a peak traffic slot (lunchtime).
  • We opened the web chat half an hour before Ian went live to give users a chance to queue questions and play with the tool
  • We prepped a few video files (youtube embeds) which auto play for users when you click them to go live (good for adding a dynamic element, giving you a breather and engaging those who aren’t actively participating).
  • At the end of the chat we linked to our forum in an attempt to keep users we’d attracted with the chat

The downsides

  • The chat took two members of staff out of action in the newsroom for over one hour (small price to pay). And we could have done with at least one more panelist.
  • The subject has to be right to guarantee interaction
  • There’s no way of capturing data from visitors as they don’t sign in to your site (though that’s probably why so many contributed).
  • Trailing the event takes time and effort, plus co-operation from other members of staff.

On a final note, here’s a genuine email from an actual human user who took part in the live blog:

Hi Lee, 
Just wanted to drop you an email re the Live Chat with Ian Laws. I found it very interesting, what a great idea to do it! I was very surprised to find out that The Press are yet to meet Ellis Short!
 
Tell Ian thanks very much for doing it, and that I hope he is right about us avoiding relegation on Sunday!!
 
Stewart Hellens
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