Tips on Digital Engagement From NHPR's Word of Mouth: Experiment, Be Consistent and Keep Trying

Mar 13, 2014

The Word Of Mouth Team. From left to right: Maureen McMurray, Taylor Quimby, Virginia Prescott, Logan Shannon, their "awesome" intern, Sarah Thomas and Zach Nugent (on top.)
Credit Maureen McMurray/NHPR

NHPR's Word of Mouth focuses on “new ideas, emerging trends and untold stories.” The hour-long show airs Monday through Thursdays and Saturdays. Their engaging and fun online presence is consistent, and often experimental. (Terrible love song anyone?)

We spoke with the shows host, Virginia Prescott, Senior Producer Maureen McMurray, and one of the show’s producers, Taylor Quimby to find out how they do it.

Make engagement easy and low risk for your listeners:  

Instead of asking the audience just to submit ideas, or ask them broad questions, Word of Mouth asks for their suggestions around a central, low risk topic tied to an on air piece. “What’s your favorite musical downer?”  was inspired by a two-way they did on why we love sad music. A "name this children's song" contest was inspired by an interview with children's artist Chris Ballew. Not only do the contributions they get often develop into posts of their own, Virginia makes sure to thank listeners on air for their submissions, and highlight where the content the submissions have inspired can be found online. By engaging with their audience like this they’ve developed a relationship where it’s safe, and gratifying, to contribute. 

The team found unexpected success with their adaptation of NASA astronaut Don Pettit's blog about the Zucchini plant he grew while in space.
Credit Emily Alfin Johnson/NPR
There’s no magic way to find success online:

The staff has had great stories that have fallen flat online, but also many unexpected hits. “You can’t ever say you’ve got it figured out and do that on repeat," Taylor said. "You’ve got to keep experimenting, to see what people really enjoy and what makes them speak up and engage with us.” Last summer the show’s radio drama about a Zucchini in space,  inspired by the blog Letters to Earth, took off after Taylor was proactive and shared it with frequent guest, Joe Hanson, host of It's Okay To Be Smart.  But a seemingly sharable recording of his whining dog that sounds uncannily like a zipper has yet to find success.  “You just have to keep trying and having fun,” Taylor added. 

Consistently provide engaging content: 

Now that the team is actively experimenting with new, fun ways to engage with their audience online, they know they have to keep up the effort. 

The team created this bingo card before the State of the Union as a fun activity for their audience, but also to stay on top of the week's news, even though they were not covering the speech on air.
Credit Sara Plourde/NHPR
  “Once you’re asking your audience to engage, you have to keep offering them things to engage with,” Maureen said.   If you condition your audience to respond and submit things, you have to keep it up on a regular basis so the conversation will keep going.  

Audiences online are often looking for different things from those on the radio:

  “You hear it all the time, ‘we serve x amount of people on the air compared to these few people on the web,’ and it makes a lot of sense," Virginia said “But you may be enriching the experience of the small x amount of people you serve online, in a way that will have payback that you don’t understand. I think those relationships are payback that we don’t yet understand.”

Those people that are engaging with you online will be the ones that share your content, and get the word out about your show. They will be the ones providing you with input that grows into great stories. And even if they aren’t the largest percentage of your audience, they can bring great value to your show. 

Here at Digital Services, we're checking in with shows around the country about their digital best practices and strategies. Have a suggestion for a post or show to talk to? Email it to or tweet it to us @NPRDS.

You can follow Word Of Mouth on Twitter. Or check out the show's Facebook page

To read more about how some shows are putting tips like these into action, read our conversation with WNYC's The Brian Lehrer Show