Relevant reader comments can act as as useful content for publishers and brand alike. Marie Dollé, Head of Content and Digital Strategy at Kantar Media, looks at the pros and cons of the alternatives such as encouraging users to post on social media platforms and the rise of a new type of contributor, the ‘reactfluencer’: a combination of reactive comments from influencers.
Reader comments are the bedrock of participatory media, however they can sometimes appear to be a puzzle for editors, with some going as far as disabling user comments on news stories. This is a controversial approach, considering that publications should be actively seeking to encourage greater readership and engagement on their news stories.
Moving the discussion to social platforms
Many news sites, including Bloomberg, Reuters and The Week, have eliminated the ability to post commentary on their sites in favour of having users post on social media platforms instead. The reason? The supposed mediocrity of website comments which are often time-consuming, irrelevant, unconstructive and even aggressive, not to mention expensive to moderate. This choice is equally motivated by the changing behaviour of readers who tend to express themselves more on social networks than on dedicated media spaces online.
However, confining the possibilities of interaction to social media alone could eventually cause a series of undesirable effects. Firstly, content publishers are required to maintain lively, interactive sites so being profitable online requires not a passive audience but rather a committed and loyal audience.
Furthermore, the fragmentation of audiences across social networks makes gathering feedback and collecting information particularly difficult. Migrating users to comment on social platforms, rather on the online media space itself, makes it much harder to obtain an overview of the site’s readership, not to mention smoother and more regular interaction, which helps to build a unified community. Let’s not forget that the power of this medium lies in its ability to know its audience and develop a unique relationship with it. During an era of fleeting, distracted audiences, it is essential to maintain and enhance this relationship by creating quality conversations on the website.
The art of moderating and commenting
What proportion of readers ultimately go on to comment after reading an article? Following the 90-9-1 rule, indicates that 1% of users create content, 9% comment on media and enrich it and 90% use content without participating; a tangible explanation of this low participation rate could be found by examining the long, tedious and discouraging commenting process.
One company, Antenna, in an attempt to simplify and shorten the process, implemented a system of pre-filled “reaction buttons”. The aim is that the more intuitive the system, the more readers will be inclined to provide feedback to editors.
These days there are also certified contributor tools and social login mechanisms that effectively reduce spam, trolls and other fake profiles, which media outlets can adopt to try to ensure they receive better commentary.
In order to eliminate unnecessary or off-topic comments, Alana Newshouse, Director of online magazine, The Tablet, suggests creating a paid commentary feature, individually or as part of a subscription. Adopting a slightly less radical approach, players such as Quartz and Medium have transitioned to the model of web annotations in article margins, giving the text more depth, as well as allowing readers to respond to specific passages within an article.
The reactfluencer of the webosphere
It’s also important to examine the source of the debate, namely the commentator. The question must be posed: should readers be empowered?
The New York Times, Washington Post and Knight-Mozilla OpenNews believe the answer is ‘yes’. These three publishers are at the heart of the initiative “Coral Project” which provides a substantive reflection on the place of comments and their credibility, not only for editors, but also for contributors and readers.
The challenge is not to move the discussion to another network, but rather to converge similar media in order to offer a unique and impactful experience.
Commenting on an article on an editorial site by logging into a social network, for example, constitutes a first step towards quality feedback. By no longer posting anonymously, the commentator’s reputation is more at stake, encouraging them to add comments that are of value. Facebook are testing a new plugin with popular media sites Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, which would synchronize the comments between editorial sites and Facebook pages. This device aims to reduce spam while generating more engagement, notably from new audiences.
There is still an issue around using Facebook in this way, as it remains a relatively private space where nicknames abound. Media outlets may therefore be better targeting a partnership with a professional social network such as Linkedin, which would implicate the reader’s reputation even more than the likes of Facebook.
LinkedIn goes even further in the quest for quality commentary through their application Pulse, which allows users to personalise their news reading experience and to easily share stories that interest them. It also offers users the ability to participate in discussions through their LinkedIn profile; but that’s not all. Through its groups, Pulse, and more recently, the launch of its own integrated blogging platform, LinkedIn has all the ingredients to spark and encourage serious discussions.
This could lead to a new type of contributor, which we have named the reactfluencer: a combination of reactive comments from influencers. These contributors want to engage their own network in an effort to build their expertise and professional identity in a constructive manner on the web. These types of people make the ability to comment on articles online not just a luxury, but also a necessity.
As the comment discussion progresses, it’s likely that different publishers will adopt slightly different strategies adapted for their individual needs. But from the moderator capable of uniting and leading a community, to the reader ready to become involved in producing quality commentary, the goal remains the same: to provide value, credibility and influence.
By Marie Dollé
Head of Content and Digital Strategy