How to… encourage people to read

The internet is awash with people offering advice and tips on how to do all manner of things. To prove this point, I have conducted a rigorous test under controlled conditions. Typing ‘how to + [letter of your choice]’ brought up some interesting results, but proves the point that you can use the internet to find out how to do just about anything:

how to qhow to r

Aside from the obvious conclusion that weed smokers are prodigious Googlers, I was also able to discover how to ‘clean mucus on a dog’ (in seven steps) and how to ‘survive a wolf attack’ (maintain eye contact, act aggressively and pray that the wolf is  vegetarian).

So, because the internet doesn’t already have enough people offering you advice, I thought I’d start a series of posts looking at ways in which our grantees have tackled certain problems or issues of concern to them. To kick things off, we’ll start in South Africa and look at how FunDza has gone about encouraging more young people to take up reading (and writing) for fun. I should preface this by saying that we have just awarded them a grant of £22,000 to support various aspects of their work, including salary costs and costs associated with further developing their reading-for-pleasure platform. But providing the funding is the easy part, FunDza are the ones who need to work on keeping their users engaged and interested in their work in an environment of fast-paced technological change. Many of the ways in which they have approached the problem could also benefit others in different countries and sectors. So what are some of the lessons?

  • Keep it low cost, preferably free: Given that 90% of South Africans are on pre-pay phone deals and face higher data costs, one of FunDza’s biggest challenges lies in offering free (or nearly free) content to their readers. The cost challenge is one that many of our grantees across Africa are familiar with and, unfortunately, there is no easy way out. While the lucky ones may have found a mobile operator to partner with, most organisations struggle to find ways to cover data, SMS or internet costs. FunDza are looking at several options, including partnering with Internet.org (Facebook’s system of providing access to certain kinds of material free of charge), e-reader technologies that allow users to download a library of books and access them offline, while also evaluating the potential of new platforms.
  • Stay on top of the tech: It would be all too easy for an organisation to develop and perfect its platform or product only to then lose users as people migrate to a new site or tool. Take Myspace as an example. Back in June 2006, it became the most visited website in the USA, outstripping even Google. By February 2015, Myspace wasn’t even in the top one thousand. The point is that tech users may not always stick around and will happily jump ship to a new tool or platform if they see an opportunity. In South Africa, the declining popularity of the Mxit platform means FunDza have had to be on the front foot when considering where their movers may read next. Use of newer and more popular platforms such as WeChat and WhatsApp is important and allows FunDza to stay in touch with their readership and reach out to new users who may be put off by the idea of accessing something on the uncool Mxit.
  • Make it interactive: Pretty early on, FunDza realised that a key component of getting young people to engage would be to make the FunDza experience a two-way one. Providing reading content is great, but many people love to discuss what they’re reading with others. When reading a really good book, many people want to tell their families and friends about it or recommend it to work colleagues or fellow students. Allowing readers to share their thoughts and reviews of what they’ve read is a key part of FunDza’s way of working and aims to simultaneously improve writing skills and provide readers with a closer connection to the platform.
  • Make it snappy: Part of the grant we’re providing will be used to help FunDza make improvements to the platform to ensure it’s quicker to use and access content. As with any product, users welcome a simple, easy experience. It’s a simple lesson, but one that many organisations need to hear – people lose patience with slow, cumbersome sites and digital products and for good reason.
  • Local flavour: From the outset, FunDza wanted to provide reading material that reflected the lives and surroundings of their readers. Sure, they could have taken the lazy option and just got hold of a load of cheap thrillers from the USA or some second-rate Scottish crime stories, but taking the time and effort to promote local writers and South African material is one of FunDza’s strong points. By promoting access to such content, FunDza hope to forge an emotional connection between their stories and their readers. This element of localisation is an important ingredient of their work and success.

These are just some of the ways in which FunDza has approached the question of engaging young readers and holding their interest. Equally, many of the lessons above could be used in a whole range of projects. The principles of low cost, tech relevance, simplicity and ease of use are lessons that many tech and development projects can adopt. And we hope they will.