Opinion as a driver for engagement

A cacophony of content is surrounding us from media and social networks. To get attention you really need to make a difference. Trine Eilertsen from Aftenposten knows how. Opinions have proven to be a great opportunity to achieve user engagement.

Engagement leads to sharing and spreading. Engagement is created when the reader is feeling obliged to take a stand, to reject or embrace, to discuss, to complicate and argue. As readers we are sharing and commenting on texts that mirror our own opinion. And we share texts that do the opposite. Both show the readers’ views, standpoints and attitudes and we see that readers have a need for this.

Engagement is also created by empathy and identification. As readers we share and comment texts that tell something about life, our own or that of others. We see that the more personal the pieces are, the more engagement they induce.

Building relations

This engagement is a great opportunity for the media houses, not least the traditional subscription houses. As the tabloids have spent decades and generations on developing engaging front pages and content that convinces people to buy, subscribed newspapers, like Aftenposten, have followed other routes. We have built relations with readers and subscribers through quality, relevance and importance presented in an objective way.

For a long time now we have seen that our traditional ways of presenting news do not work as well on digital platforms. That is why we learn from Vox, Slate and other websites that connect important matters with new ways of telling them. And it works. Quality never goes out of style – but it comes in a different wrapping.

Exclusive content

However, where we see the greatest opportunities are in the area of opinion. At Aftenposten Mobile the Opinion section is competing with the Front Page as to which is the larger one. 11 out of the 14 most shared items in 2015 are opinion pieces. Good, clear comments by internal voices are important, of course, but the major traffic comes from the outside. It can be contracted guest columnists, but often enough they are voices we have not heard before. They contribute texts with a high degree of impartiality that attract other competent contributors. External voices bring stories about ordinary people who tell something about our society.

Opinion pieces also have an exclusive content, which is an advantage in the struggle for attention. So the opinion section is a driving force in a traffic that is vital to us. This traffic does not emerge on its own and the competition is growing stronger here too.

While our task before was to organize the queue of contributions from readers and make sure that they did not have too many typos when published, our role is quite different today. A modern opinion section is initiating, directing and pruning the debate and it takes care of the contributors. The importance of the latter cannot be sufficiently underlined. It is actually here that the democratization of the debate is happening. Digital editing is a skill and it takes time to correct and distribute a digital piece. When it is well done, the piece will be shared, creating traffic and recirculation into our universe of content as well as new comments.

This competence sets us apart from all other opinion platforms and that is something that we should communicate more clearly to our contributors and readers. It matters to whom you send your piece, it affects the spread, the reading and the impact.

Building self-confidence

A well-run opinion section is editing texts from the elite and from more popular groups in such a way that everybody appears competent. That way we are building self-confidence and we lower
the threshold for participation. We know that many people stay away because they feel they cannot write well enough.

More and more often opinion pieces create openings for news stories because they contain leads or because they reveal an aspect that has not been sufficiently covered. In the fight for the best contributors we notice that it is an advantage if we can develop a news story from the pieces they write.

Opening for new stories

We must admit that there is a big difference between the discussions that are funneled through our opinion editors and those that appear in the comment boxes under our articles. Many contributors
feel ill at ease in the jungle that the self-moderated comments boxes can be and never go there. In a world where debates are going on everywhere, where you can always find a thread or a comments box, it is easy to find others who share your views. But it is the opinion sections that open up debates and show them to a wide audience and who keep the debates going forward.

We can contribute something unique by competent editing, editorial judgments, connections with the news picture and the soliciting of answers from others who bring in new dimensions and new knowledge. This makes it possible for us to own debates and to highlight contributors, which is important for traffic, loyalty and the brand. And, on top of all that, it is at the heart of our role in society.

Talk about win-win!