When I got my first real job in a newsroom (meaning I got finally paid for doing journalism), one of the first things they taught me was that a good article needs an engagement feature, at least a short yes/no poll.

At the time, quizzes too were very popular, Buzzfeed was riding high on the era of ‘what type of person are you’ quizzes. The third type of basic engagement tool was Q&A.

All three of these tools are in a sense so basic for most journalists, many don’t hold them high in their regards. I think that’s a shame, especially when you look at the research that has been done in this field.

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The why and how of (news) quizzes

In 2013, the Center for Media Engagement at The University of Texas at Austin published useful research entitled How Online Quizzes Can Benefit Newsroom Websites with these main takeaways:

  • online quizzes are enjoyable, help people to learn (help people recall information) and encourage them to spend more time on a webpage
  • when using quizzes, newsrooms should add more than one question using different formats (multiple choice and slider answer options) to increase engagement, use statistical and numerical data
  • using online polls has many downsides, users may believe that the results are accurate reflections of public opinion (they often are not), when topics turn to political news, polls can leave citizens more cynical about the political process

In terms of engagement, both polls and quizzes serve as good features although based on the aforementioned research, polls present some challenges. My recommendation is to treat polls as a feedback mechanism for the writers and newsrooms.

According to Sherry Turkle, the MIT psychologist and cultural analyst who has written several books on the way technology has altered the human condition, people love quizzes because they represent a signifier of self, as indicative as a profile picture.

“It gives people something to look at, an object to think with. I think these quizzes are a kind of focus for attention for thinking about yourself,” she told Wired in 2014.

It’s not just Buzzfeed or similar younger audience-focused outlets that take advantage of the quizzes. Both BBC News and NY Times publish weekly news quizzes, the German Der Spiegel publishes a weekly football quiz. USA Today uses quizzes to register new users. But the best quiz and its integration I have found is by Slate, more on that later.

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And if you think there is no innovation left in this field, you are mistaken. Just look at The Wall Street Journal and their recent work, nicely documented in this blog.

Among other audience-focused features described in an INMA blog, WSJ’s newsroom innovation team developed an interactive, expandable Q&A format. It makes it easier for readers to skim all the questions and decide to expand the ones that they are interested in.

More from The Fix: Toolbox: What can you learn from The Guardian, BBC, FT, NYT and WSJ about news innovation

Interactivity 👍 gamification 👎

Slate’s quiz score example. Source: Slate

Speaking of innovation, as I researched for this column I looked at how some big publishers use quizzes. Most use them to drive engagement. It is likely that they want readers to spend more time online. They also offer a quiz newsletter and that’s where it ends.

A little bit more advanced approach I have come across was to get an email address in a more straightforward manner than offering a newsletter sign-up.

As I mentioned USA Today only allows registered users to take part in a quiz but that’s not all. There is also a leaderboard with all-time scores and times.

The most intriguing approach to news quizzes I have seen came from Slate. The progressive online magazine that covers current affairs, politics, and culture in the United States, as Wikipedia puts it (oh, I wish my journalism teachers could see me now, linking to Wikipedia) frames the quiz as a contest between an average contestant and a member of staff.

I like this approach, as the audience can directly compare their knowledge of the news with someone in the newsroom.

Some may oppose such an idea, showing a journalist as less knowledgeable than a reader, but I guess it’s about how much your audience trusts you and understands that being in a newsroom doesn’t make you omniscient, even when it comes to news.

Plus, you are daring your readers to match off against a pro. And Slate also offers a quiz newsletter delivered via a weekly notification. 

My newsroom has given up on quizzes a long time ago since they were considered a bit childish, the production was quite labor intensive and in the end, people thought they could do something more productive.

After years, with a small team, I have set up an experiment with a weekly news quiz. For a few weeks, we will put together a news quiz to be published at the week’s end. The first was just published and we asked people for feedback.

It was surprisingly positive, the first edition was well received by subscribers, had a better than average time spent, brought new subscribers to our daily newsletter and we got some interesting constructive criticism.

One of the contestants left this: “Interactivity 👍 gamification 👎.” Later in the conversation, he explained. Our quiz lacked a longterm draw, a reason for people to return. USA Today has the leaderboard, Slate keeps contestants in tension to see which staff members they are going to face off that week.

He was polite enough to also suggest a solution – a free article, discount on the subscription or something similar. He was right. Still, the results were good, there is room to improve and we can work on the feedback we got.

More from The Fix: 5 innovative news formats to try out in 2021 – and tools to implement them

Polls, quizzes and Q&A in TV, podcasts, live events and webinars

Amazon currently holds the rights to stream “Thursday Night Football” and announced it will test interest in interactive fan polling before games and during halftimes. At first, it will be only for viewers watching the stream using the Amazon Prime Video Android app.

Questions will relate to the teams and players, current news and social media. “Who will score first” or “Who will throw for the most yards in the first half” are some of the examples offered.

The tech giant sees the NFL as an opportunity to bring interactivity and personalization to traditional TV viewing. It’s not the first, nor the last to try. Netflix offers 17 interactive titles, in each of them the user (viewer) makes choices for the characters and shapes the story on the go.

In September, Spotify announced a global rollout for Q&A and Polls, two features for podcast creators it had first announced at its annual conference Stream On in February.

As the streaming giants wrote in the press release, historically, podcasting has been a one-way street: creators published shows and their audiences listened. That’s true although thanks to newsletters and social media creators have found other ways to engage with their listeners.

The drawback of this announcement is that it only works on Spotify-owned podcast host Anchor.fm for creators and only for listeners listening via Spotify.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Slido, the Slovak startup acquired by Cisco, that revolutionized (yes, I am biased) engagement during live events or webinars for participants with live polls, Q&A and quizzes.

Amazon, Spotify, and Slido are yet another example of how polls, Q&As and quizzes are the go to features when it comes to interactivity.

Q&A and Polls in the Spotify app. Source: Spotify


Obviously, I have to include some tools in this column. The Center for Media Engagement has built a very nice quiz creator, the only problem being you cannot translate it. So unless your audience is English-speaking, this one is not for you.

The one I have been using is by Flourish.studio. It gives you a lot of personalisation options, you can translate everything and use it in any language you want without English appearing to your audiences anywhere.

Also, Journalist’s Toolbox has some good recommendations on various tools you can try.

Of course, building your own application is also an option if you have the resources.

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