Live chats are not new; Eric Hansen -- an editor, beat writer, and columnist at The South Bend Tribune -- has been conducting them since 2005. In the last year, however, Hansen has found a new appreciation for them. “Especially during the pandemic, I’ll tell you, for me and the readers it was normalcy,” he said of his weekly live Notre Dame chat on Notre Dame Insider.
When the site Hansen had been using increased its live chat prices, making them unaffordable, he looked for another option. “For about a year I did a mailbag but it wasn’t the same connection,” he said. “While some people liked it because they didn’t have to be there Wednesday at noon, it just felt disjointed and didn’t have the same connection with the readers. We were doing ok with it, but it wasn’t as popular -- maybe half as many read the transcript.”
When Hansen learned about JotCast in 2019, he discovered a platform for the Notre Dame chat that combined the convenience of a mailbag format with the personal touch of a live chat. “I love the fact that I can take questions early and live, that it’s kind of a hybrid,” he said.
The hybrid approach works, Hansen thinks, because it’s unique. “The live [Notre Dame] chat makes us different,” he said. “It has the same functionality of a mailbag with the transcript, but it makes us stand out. Everybody has a mailbag and it’s a big market so to have [a unique functionality] is a big deal.”
JotCast was very different from other options Hansen had considered. “There were always multiple elements that didn’t seem to work, as they weren’t designing it for a newspaper live chat,” he said. “For the other [platforms] this wasn’t a primary function so I was trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.”
It soon became clear that, in contrast, moderated live chats were JotCast’s primary function. After working out a custom plan that his bosses were comfortable with, Hansen talked with JotCast’s CTO. “There were a couple of things I asked for, and he was able to tailor it to us,” Hansen said, advising that even small changes can make a big impact for the Notre Dame chat. “I like the way the questions come in -- that I can pick them out, I can edit them if I post something too fast or if I see a typo, and that people who can’t be there are able to send in questions. I also love that at the end, I can hit a button, and JotCast creates a plain text version that I cut and paste onto [the Notre Dame Insider website]. They’re all things that don’t sound like a lot but it’s such an upgrade.”
In addition to the functionality of the Notre Dame chat, ease of use is making a big difference. “JotCast makes it so much easier for people to participate, especially on phones,” Hansen said. “It also makes life much easier for me. When we first started out I asked for feedback. We tried it on a trial basis to see if people liked it and they overwhelmingly loved it. It’s user-friendly for both the person conducting the chat and the people participating.”
Whether it’s on phones, tablets, or computers, Hansen knows Notre Dame chat readers can foster connections that transcend screens. “They feel like they’re sitting in a bar or living room talking to me. They talk about how much they love the chats and how much they’ll miss it when we move out of weekly mode,” Hansen said.
The statistics were also an improvement. “[The Notre Dame Insider] website will tell you what the top 10 stories are and it updates every 6 hours, so there’d be times when the transcript [of the most recent chat] was the top story and two older transcripts were also in the top 10. It gives us page views which helps with advertising,” Hansen said, noting that 10,000 page views are standard for the Notre Dame chat transcript.
He credits JotCast with parlaying the joy of chats into loyalty. “The chat is one of the things that helps us build our branding and reader loyalty,” he said. “You’re looking for loyalty in this business because people have at least a dozen other choices of where they’ll get their Notre Dame news, and they come back to us.”