BtoB Publishers' Best Practice: No Comment?

October 4, 2013

A popular news item of late is a bold action taken by Popular Science: they’ve shut off their comments. The merit of that choice has come under scrutiny in the publishing world and it may have you wondering about your own approach to comments on your website.

Ironically, that’s how comments work—even if they are simply opinion, they often color readers’ perception of the original content. That is precisely why Popular Science chose to shut them off:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensuson a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

Comments are a valuable tool for building audience engagement and yes, they can require some level of monitoring, depending on the community using them. Yet, as a BtoB publisher, you may inherently have more control over the development of your community and subsequent comment climate.

Popular Science appears to have made the right call for their publication and community, but BtoB publishers tend to focus on even smaller, more intimate niche audiences—and because of that, there are great opportunities to leverage comments in a way that benefits the community and engagement.

Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post celebrates Popular Science’s choice and points out that:

The few places where the comments sections are the home of a vibrant, riveting, polite discussion are the ones where the host site has made a vigorous effort to create community.

Petri goes on to talk about how those places are “where people are bound by other bonds than simply having “just read something”. They share an interest in certain areas and essentially have a stake in the conversation—much like many BtoB readers.

So, don’t be too quick to go the way of no comments. Instead, consider some of the insights shared by Mark Schaefer, of {GROW} and think about the nature and reality of your audience and how you can use comments as part of a suite of tools to engage them:

When you think about how blogs function on most BtoB sites, and when you look at the data, you may realize that blogs serve a great purpose for SEO, but comments aren’t an accurate measure of the level of engagement.

In reality, if you are getting people to pause on your blog, you are probably doing enough. Commenting is social psychology at play. Some folks don’t feel comfortable writing comments, others only feel comfortable doing it when someone else has, others don’t bother if there are already a lot of comments, still more don’t have permission to engage this way at work and plenty are just happy to read and ruminate.

But, you still want to give them the option, especially when you consider how comments fit into the social media sphere. They can help extend your community beyond your site when used in conjunction with other forms of interaction and sharing via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media channels that will also drive traffic to your site  (more on tracking and analyzing the value of social engagement later).  

Perhaps it’s a matter of shifting your expectations of engagement via comments while still continuously cultivating an authentic relationship, where readers get a sense of who is writing for them.

One way to do this is by making your commenting opportunities even more specialized. 

For example: Allow people to provide product reviews in your buyer’s guides and directories. Or, use your reader classifications to enable those with certain designations to comment on premium content in a forum-like setting. You can also simply enable commenting on certain articles that lend themselves to particularly pointed and engaging conversation.

If you do have a community or a content thread in which readers engage richly through comments, you have options for how to leverage that. We’ve suggested other methods for harnessing the power of comments, but publishers are continuously experimenting to find the best practice for their audience.  Some are implementing user-moderation systems, while others are playing with annotation that is applied directly to the text in question. Check out Rap Genius for a particularly developed example of the latter.

And don’t forget to keep an eye on Nick Denton of Gawker. He’s a comment champion and is constantly applying and testing new techniques—the latest include filtering, reader view and blog neighborhoods (based in part on how Tumblr functions).

The message in the latest move from Popular Science is not necessarily that comments are more trouble than they’re worth. It’s that commenting has its place—and for BtoB publishers, that place is what you make it.