Commenting has been a featured element on content-focused websites for several years now. Yet, many publishers are burying the comment feed at the bottom of a page, hoping it won’t distract readers away from the headlined stories.
The problem? Trolls and commenters who fail to add value to a conversation.
Gawker Media founder and CEO, Nick Denton calls this “the tragedy of the comments.” That is, for every quality comment there are multiple disruptive, distracting and sometimes-offensive remarks that can discourage engagement, kill conversations or bounce readers away from a site. Still, that hasn’t stopped Denton’s Gawker Media and other publishers like Business Insider and Forbes from finding innovative ways to develop communities of commenters.
Quality Versus Quantity
For Forbes.com, commenting is about extending the conversation while keeping it civil. To do that, it elevates comments that add insight to a story and encourage richer dialogues to continue.
Moderation is the name of the game, meaning the author of a story is responsible for “calling out” the most relevant comments. “All of our staff is committed and encouraged to respond to their community. For contributors, it’s part of the contract,” says Lewis D’Vorkin, chief product officer at Forbes. It goes beyond writers, however. D’Vorkin suggests that sometimes the conversations warrant inputs from marketers or other Forbes staffers.
“Called-Out” comments are hand-selected by the authors and prominently displayed following a story. Comments that aren’t called out are still viewable if the reader chooses to dig into them by clicking on “Expand All Comments.” But, D’Vorkin tells FOLIO:, “If you don’t bring your A-game your comment won’t be approved.”
Accordingly, it’s not about quantity, it’s about quality engagement. D’Vorkin asserts, “One of the things I am most proud of is that people will say to me: ‘Why is your commenting so civilized?’ Ten thousand posts are meaningless to me, but 230 comments with 220 called out—that’s engagement.”
Forbes will continue to seek new ways to encourage commenting. “We are exploring ways to surface productive comments in much more high-profile ways. Building a reputation system is something I have always wanted to do,” D’Vorkin says and adds, “We have some commenters that are prolific, so we are looking at ways of bringing the community more into the product and highlight them on our homepage or the top of an article page.”
Communities Need Leaders
Business Insider’s commenting system has a somewhat similar interface to Forbes’, but it recently integrated a reputation approach. Chief operating officer Julie Hansen admits that while the website’s commenting system is “changing soon,” its most important innovation has already launched—“Insiders.”
Insiders comments are given primacy over general comments, and are essentially considered BI’s conversation leaders and “power users.”
“Folks can apply and we generally pick people who have a track record of making smart comments and contribute to the conversation,” Hansen says.
Non-Insiders comments are placed in the “All Comments” thread, but quality comments made in this section can still be elevated. Hansen says that editors can “simply promote a comment into the Insiders tab and it can be promoted or featured, so if someone says something that is really smart, that goes to the top.”
BI utilizes a mix of human and computerized moderation methods to keep the conversations on point.
“We have users helping us by marking comments that are offensive. If we have a certain number of marks then our editors are alerted. Certain forms of speech are not tolerated and will be deleted, or if other speech is found off-topic or offensive, but not intolerable, we will hide it further by putting it in our Bleachers section,” Hansen says.
A democratized community makes a lot of sense for a website that receives around 100,000 comments each month. However, a community of that scale requires several trustworthy users.
Hansen agrees and says, “This medium [the Web] is perfect for conversation. We value the feedback loop and we think if the users are helping us build the site or create a community then it’s good for them and it’s good for us.”
There’s No Place Like Home
When Gawker Media redesigned its Kinja commenting system in April, it shifted the dialog from publishers building communities to publishers building homes.
Kinja offers users a space to develop a profile, post blogs and store comments. Registered users can follow other users and writers, tag their favorite comments or stories and share content outside the network. In other words, Kinja satisfies all of media scholar Nancy K. Baym’s necessary attributes for being a social network. Thus, making it a totally unique commenting platform.
In terms of the stickiness factor, there is arguably no better strategy than offering users their own space on a website. And Kinja provides that while also wrapping itself around Gawker Media’s robust core of content. While the platform may be a social network, Lauren Bertolini, community development manager, tells FOLIO: that it was developed as an antidote to the “toxic and poisonous section of a news site or blog.”
“We are giving people control of the conversation, and we consider that equally important to the original post. If you give people the tools to engage with a discussion and promote it, then hopefully that’s what they focus on. It becomes less about feeding the trolls,” Bertonlini says.
Trolls remain an endemic problem on the Web. But for publishers looking to create quality conversations, Bertolini affirms there are ways to move the conversation forward. “Kinja allows people to create their own content and their own page, but the editorial control on the main pages is still very much ours.”
Similar to both Forbes and BI, Kinja showcases quality comments with each story. But it also offers innovative ways to arrange comments at the top of the page, and keep the commenting thread chronological and organized cohesively. Also, like Forbes and BI, story authors are a big part of the conversation, which can keep writers in check, and provide incentive for readers to participate.
One of the most innovative features Kinja offers is image annotation. Every Gawker Media story is headed by a large high-resolution image, and now commenters can annotate anywhere on the image, which layers an entirely new perspective into a conversation.
While all three publishers have different models, their objective is fundamentally the same—two-way engagement. Commenting is not a feature that should be left on autopilot, not when it can be leveraged to expand content and encourage readers to keep coming back. Although there is not a one-size-fits-all strategy for building an active community, one tactic seems universal—editors need to be actively involved in the conversations they start and must avoid checking-out immediately after their stories are posted.