One comment is almost as disappointing as none, and sometimes it’s worse. That’s like Mom calling to say you were terrific in the play that no one else noticed, when what you really wanted was a write-up in the Sunday paper.
Content is important, but it can fall flat without audience interaction. Comments are one of the beauties of the Internet. Where once there were letters to the editor, now there’s room for many people to react to any story, column, editorial, or even an image.
A thriving community of commenters doesn’t happen by magic, and you can encourage it to grow. It takes a balance of control and freedom, but the balance varies depending on the audience. Here are some things to do, and not do, to plant the seed and build a thriving commenter community. Only you can decide how much of which is best.
Do: Make Commenting Easy
The first step toward a thriving commenter community is making it easy. When users have to look for the comment box or jump through unreasonable hoops to use it, there will be less participation.
Econsultancy.com makes a strong point against overburdening the audience with authentication requirements. Site logins can and should cover authentication for comments. Once a user is logged in, asking for CAPTCHA and other verifications before every comment that a user makes is unnecessarily frustrating, and could deter, not encourage, communication.
Don’t: Make it Too Easy
With no rules or structure in place on the front side, anyone can comment. A thriving community isn’t just made of as many commenters as possible, but commenters who interact with each other and respond to what they’ve seen and read.
Some sort of a gatekeeper is necessary to keep out the riffraff, which on a blog, takes the form of spam and automated comments. Riffraff is like junk mail that only clogs up the comment feed and slows down the conversation. A subscription-based website is the perfect format for authenticating users, and reducing the possibility of riffraff, while keeping the comment section easy to use so that users aren’t alienated.
Do: Employ Some Form of Moderation
Regardless of whether absolute freedom of speech is encouraged, moderators help keep the ball in play and ensure the game is played fairly. Comments without a moderator can quickly be overtaken by bullies, which is the opposite of a thriving commenter community.
Moderation rules should be clear to everyone, and posted in a prominent place. ”Be nice, and be polite” might be sufficient for some communities, but others may need a bit more detail. If it’s a religious publication and no swearing is allowed, the rules should say so clearly. If active and even feisty debate is welcomed, a simple reminder to debate with respect might be in order. Whatever the rules, make them simple. More important, make them stick.
Don’t: Interfere with Reasonable, Free Expression
A thriving community needs freedom of expression. Not everyone is sweet, and not everyone uses perfect grammar. Moderation needs a light touch, or else the community will feel as if it’s governed instead of guided.
Allow for differing opinions and even arguments, as long as no one takes it too far. If everyone agreed on everything, what a boring community it would be!
Do: Consider Verifying Identities
Cyber bullying is a real threat, as is stalking. In response to the risks that total online anonymity pose, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington recently announced the end of anonymous comments at her publication. This was a controversial move that had almost as many people applauding as booing.
The benefits of verifying the identity of all commenters is evident. Users are less likely to bully and stalk when they can’t hide behind that protective shroud. However, those who are opposed to full disclosure, such as Matthew Ingram of Bloomberg Businessweek, say verification offers marginal benefits. This was evidenced in South Korea in 2007 when a verification program was halted due to only a 0.09 % reduction in abusive comments. Ingram believes verification risks the openness that lets commenters share details that they otherwise wouldn’t.
For now, no one is regulating anonymity, so that decision can be made by publications.
A commenter community is built on rich, engaging content, openness to share responses and opinions, and reasonable measure of freedom to share it. It’s a balance that can only be struck publication by publication, and audience by audience.
The best way to encourage a thriving community at any publication is by getting to know the audience. When in doubt, ask. The opinions of the people you want to reach can help create a community that grows. With reasonable parameters and safeguards, you’ll have the right foundation.