Gaining insights through the “Engaging Button” tool

By Jolanie Martinez

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Engagement buttons allow readers to interact with online content in more sophisticated ways than a simply “Like.” Photo by Jolanie Martinez

The Engaging News Project recently launched a new “Engagement Button” WordPress plugin. “Engagement Buttons” are similar to the Facebook “Like” button that allows readers to engage with content. The “Engaging Button” tool offers five different options: “Respect,” “Important,” “Thoughtful,” “Recommend,” and “Useful.”

ENP conducted research in December 2013 on earlier versions of the “Engagement Button.” ENP found “respect” to be the most appropriate term to use. Studies have shown that the “respect” button attracted users to be more interactive by exploring the perspectives of other commentators.

Ashley Muddiman, faculty research associate of ENP, said the “Engagement Button” is a valuable tool for journalists to use for covering politics because it allows commentators to share a variety of ideas.

“In our research, the ‘Like’ button encouraged partisan responses to comments,” Muddiman said. “Alternatively, the ‘Respect’ button encouraged people to engage more with comments that did not match their pre-existing political opinions.”

The Texas Tribune’s TribTalk was one of the largest publications to adopt the “Respect” button in comment sections. For instance, the article “Farewell, Austin” by Austin resident Ellen Sweets featured the “Respect” button. John Jordan, editorial administrator of The Texas Tribune who analyzes comments site-wide and on Facebook, shares his observations.

“On pieces that do get a lot of comments directly on the articles, the respect button is freely used,” Jordan said. “My intuitive sense is that over the course of a string of comments, the remarks that don’t get the respect start to stand out — the button becomes more powerful, and use increases.”

With the ongoing coverage of the presidential elections, Jordan said that although the “Respect” button” has been rarely used in political stories on TribTalk, he believes it will be a practical tool for political coverage. He said The Texas Tribune is leaning toward incorporating the “Respect” button in the organization’s next redesign.

“The atmosphere has tended to be downright toxic,” he said. “Anything that encourages civility can only help.”

Katie Steiner, communication associate at ENP who has overseen the development of the “Engaging Button,” said seeing organizations like The Texas Tribune use the “Respect” button influenced ENP to create a tool that is easier to use.

Steiner said the original research on the “Engagement Button” focused on its effects in the comment section. Now that it is available for articles, Steiner said it has ignited a new experiment and about its impact on news sites.

However, while Jordan sees value in using the buttons on comments and opinion pieces, he questions the idea of using them on articles.

“It might be effective in terms of audience engagement, but I can imagine judgments of some sort being passed on op-ed pieces on TribTalk,” Jordan said. “I’m not crazy about it there, and I’d be actively and vocally hostile to the idea on the Tribune itself.”

Whether it is for an article or the comment section, Steiner hopes organizations will attempt to use the “Engagement Button” as a way for ENP to distinguish what is useful.

“It’s still something of a work in progress,” she said. “We’re very proud of it, but we know there’s probably ways to improve and the best way for us to know what to do to fix is to actually have people use it and let us know what they think.”

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