These city-wide emotional check-ins are plucked from NBC’s recently launched local web network. The network’s 10 sites, all associated with NBC owned-and-operated broadcast stations, feature “mood” applications that capture audience sentiment at the story level. Think of it as a hybrid approach: combining the structure and ease of web polls with the strong emotions typically found in user comments.
Tapping and featuring audience emotions is part of NBC’s effort to redraw the boundaries of participation on its local sites. “The city web sites are designed to capture the real-time pulse of the city,” says Greg Gittrich, vice president of content and editor in chief of NBC Local Integrated Media. “The stories we cover are a big part of that, but how our audience reacts to the stories is also significant. So we started looking at ways to elevate the voice of the users and give them meaningful ways to impact and influence the sites.”
Here’s how the mood application works: Visit a story on an NBC local site and look for the adjacent mood bar that notes current voting in six categories: furious, sad, bored, thrilled, intrigued, and laughing. Cast your own vote through the accompanying drop-down menu and watch as percentages update accordingly. That’s all there is to it on the user’s end.
At the site level, though, those emotions get turned into data. An automated system showcases the five stories with the highest number of ratings in a “mood status line” embedded in the site’s header that changes with each refresh. “It’s not a static mood line that’s sitting up there,” says Gittrich. “It chooses the most emotional stories, the most mood-rated stories. It shows the different perspectives of each city.” Toward that end, mood ratings and user comments do not travel between sites in the network, even on stories with a national focus — the intent is to capture city-specific emotions.
Beta versions of NBC’s local sites launched in October 2008, and in the ensuing nine months combined traffic across all 10 sites increased from 5 million to 20 million unique visitors per month. Gittrich attributes much of the growth to a focus on actionable, local content. The mood application itself registers an average of 10,000 votes per day across the 10 sites, according to Brian Buchwald, senior vice president for NBC Local Integrated Media. (It’s hard to tell if it’s having any impact on traffic, since the mood tool debuted with the local sites’ July 29th “commercial” launch.)
A statistician would be quick to note that the tool’s results aren’t exactly scientifically valid. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t fun. For example, the status line on NBC New York recently uncovered pockets of partisan conflict in the city. “On Saturday [Aug. 8] the reaction to [Sonia] Sotomayor being sworn in on the New York site was alternating throughout the day between ‘furious’ and ‘thrilled,’ which I found surprising given the city’s politics,” says Gittrich. “I kept going on the site throughout the day to see how the rating was toggling back and forth.”
Some commenters reference and expand upon a story’s mood with deeper discussion, “writing things like ‘I agree, this story is truly sad,’ and then saying why they think so,” says Gittrich. “I like the fact that people are using the different tools together. Obviously some people are going to be more inclined to use mood. Some are going to be more inclined to make a comment. Other people are going to submit photos or write their own post on So My City [another social component on the NBC local sites]. But it’s interesting when you see them interplaying with one another.”
Aggregated mood data could have a life beyond the websites as well. Gittrich says staff at the NBC stations have expressed interest in mood information, although he hasn’t yet seen it included in broadcasts. And this sort of regimented, push-button feedback seems tailor-made for mobile — 10 city-specific NBC Local iPhone apps are slated to launch in September — and alternative platforms such as trains, taxis, stadiums, etc.
On a broader scale, NBC’s master database of mood results makes cross-city tabulations and other internal data mining possible. There’s also potential for future developer access via APIs, according to Robyn Peterson, vice president of product at NBC Local Integrated Media.
The ability to mine and display collective opinion gives websites one more pathway to serendipitous discovery — the absence of which has been lamented since the Daily Me was first conceived. Features like “most commented posts” or “most emailed stories” can make it easier for users to find interesting content on a site, but NBC’s mood effort goes a step further by overtly integrating audience activity into highly visible spots on the sites. It’s a way to boost the audience’s feeling of community. We’ll see whether moods — or something similar — eventually become as commonplace as comments and slideshows as tools to make website visitors stick around a little longer.