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Comments: A primer

Maintaining compelling and engaging comments on your site can deepen relationships with your most loyal and valuable readers — but the approach you take can't exist in isolation from the rest of your mission and strategy.

Imagine you’re trying to collect food for a food bank in your city. You could take 100 empty boxes, scatter them at random on sidewalks and then go back a few days later.

Are you going to get any food donated that way? It’s unlikely. They’re just empty boxes on the street. You’ll probably get 100 boxes filled with trash.

Or … you could be more strategic. Instead of scattering 100 boxes at random, you could place five boxes outside of grocery stores. You could write on the boxes, “place donations here for the local food bank.” Once people begin donating, you could place a selection of the donated goods next to the box so that future shoppers go into the store thinking about what you already have and what you still need. And because there are only five boxes, if anyone does throw trash inside, you can take it out pretty quickly.

Right now, most news websites place empty boxes at the bottom of every single article — too many to easily moderate — without any direction at all. Should we be so shocked that they get filled with trash?

There are compelling reasons why it’s worth investing in comments on your site. While they’re usually a small percentage of your total audience, commenters are often your most loyal and valuable readers. They spend longer on the site, they come back more often, they share more links and they’re more likely to pay for subscriptions and other services. They’re potential sources for ideas and stories. And — on your own site, as opposed to social media platforms — you can control their experience and own and protect their data. Why wouldn’t you want to grow your number of commenters and improve their experience?  

But comments can’t exist in isolation from the rest of your mission and strategy. They need to connect to the rest of your work, including your journalistic mission.

It’s important to remember that they aren’t binary – your options aren’t just “comments everywhere” or “comments nowhere.” And on-site engagement doesn’t exclusively look like comments; there’s a whole spectrum of ways you can engage with your readers. But comments are a powerful tool with enormous potential – especially when you know how and where to use them.