Harnessing Reader Comments for Greater Engagement

January 18, 2013

Treating your readers as participants is no longer a new concept and it’s a proven tactic for increasing audience engagement, which leads to building revenue. But some methods are more straightforward than others. Commenting and review capabilities on your website hold a lot of potential for fostering a healthy, engaged audience, but like other interactive tools, online publishers are still trying to figure out how to maximize that potential—and mitigate associated risks that can influence audience perception in negative ways.

A Couple of Statistics About Commenting and Reviews

  • Recently, Disqus, a company that provides commenting tools to “build active communities” claimed that 42% of online readers read comments after a story or write one of their own.
  • A recent poll by a market research firm called Ipsos, said that 78% of Americans (aged 18-64) feel that online reviews influence their purchases. Additionally, having a solid number of positive online reviews can also have a significant impact on your search engine rankings.

When you consider these numbers, it’s easy to infer that comments and reviews have at least some measure of influence over performance indicators, including pageviews, time on site, and purchasing. Yet, as we know, it’s never that simple and the current climate on Planet Comment is -- surprise, surprise -- changeable.

How Are Other Businesses Using Commenting?

One of the best ways to get a grasp on the evolving nature of commenting is to look at how Gawker has used it over the last few years. Due to their reported “obsession” with comments, they have tweaked and experimented with their capabilities more than most high profile social sites, thereby providing a bit of a case study.

Gawker believes that often times, the comments and discussions spurred by a story actually are the story. And many others agree that comments often illuminate the story and even generate new stories. So, they’ve worked on elevating that forum by providing skilled moderation, allowing people to own their own comment threads and still providing anonymity to those who want it.

Meanwhile, Tumblr has gone in another direction, based on common concerns and issues with online commenting and forums degenerating into a “horrible world of internet anonymousness and awfulness,” as CEO David Karp described it. Tumblr designed a “more thoughtful” approach by requiring people to respond with posts of their own—encouraging creativity and ownership, while discouraging anonymity. The idea is for people to build an interactive identity of their own within the Tumblr community. Although some might argue that commenting, by its very nature accomplishes that as well—even the goal of leading contributors to build their identity doesn’t always support the deeper dialogue moderators and community builders seek.

Both Gawker and Tumblr’s approaches bring to light some of the key challenges associated with commenting, namely:

1)    How do you control/moderate the commenting environment to generate quality content and reduce empty or negative content? And, in relation;

2)    How do you empower commenters to contribute quality content, without polluting the perception of your own?

These are valid concerns, as recent studies suggest that people’s perceptions of content are not only colored by the comments they read, but in some instances, they can confuse objective information presented in an article with subjective information presented in the comments. These concerns are particularly relevant for news publications, as they try to uphold standards of journalism, but BtoB publishers can apply the insight gleaned from approaches used by The Times, Huffington Post and The Atlantic. Each of these publications has worked to provide a stable editorial framework, while giving commenters more power.  As Dorian Rolston writes on the Columbia Journalism Review,

“The delicate balance between exacting stringent editorial standards, even empowering commenters to execute them, and keeping readers from encroaching upon the newsroom is familiar to Yoni Appelbaum, a correspondent for The Atlantic.

“[If] writers and editors are willing to engage with and police the comments,” Appelbaum said, “I think it can yield tremendous dividends.” But only “to the extent that it is treated as something external to the site, as a space the readers own, as opposed to as a forum of the publication,” he added.”

Additional Benefits?

What’s particularly interesting about the comment above is that a few years ago, Appelbaum impressed The Atlantic enough with his commentary, that they made him a job offer—and that’s not unusual. A relatively unanticipated benefit of commenting capabilities is that many publishers have gleaned new staff from their pool of regular commenters.

Additionally, some publications believe in the power of commenting so strongly, that they are investing in new offerings, like Disqus’ Promoted Discovery—where sponsored links appear next to posted comments on the site. While The ROI on this type of approach is as yet unproven, it illustrates that there could be potential in utilizing comments the same way you use other surfaced and contextually-related content. It’s particularly appealing to publishers and advertisers who are grappling with the loss of traditional ad revenue and reach.

Basic Tips for Building Comment Engagement

It’s clear that you need to monitor and moderate the commenting community on your site—but it’s not just about policing. It’s about opportunities to engage with your audience and providing another avenue for strong customer service.

  • Respond to comments. Address concerns. Be cordial.
  • Reward and encourage your influential commenters. Thank them, acknowledge them to the community and bring attention to their work or expertise. Use commenting to provide incentives and gifts.
  • Learn about your commenters and generate dialogue with them, around what you’ve learned.
  • Track who is sharing your content and find ways to share theirs—if it is appropriate.
  • Engage with your commenters outside of your site - on other relevant forums or on their own.
  • Open the door from the virtual environment to the real environment and step through it. Relationships gain more profound relevance when an actual handshake is involved.

 And of course, start with a SaaS CMS that not only provides a robust commenting infrastructure, but that has the scalability to adapt to your evolving needs. Make sure it also possesses a strong taxonomy system, so you can tag and relate your comments to your relevant content and products, as well as sponsored content.