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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 across the city, then go back a few days later to see if there’s any food.

Are you going to get any food to donate? 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 100, you could take five boxes, and put them outside grocery stories. You could write on the boxes, “Place donations here for the local food bank.” When people put tins of food inside, you could place them next to the box, with a label saying “Here’s what you’ve given so far”, so when people go into the store they’re already thinking about what you’ve got and what you want. 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 — and 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 most valuable readers. They spend longer on the site, they come back more often, they share more links to your site, and they’re more likely to pay for subscriptions and other services. They’re also potential sources for ideas and stories, and unlike via Facebook, you can control their experience, and own and protect their data. Why wouldn’t you want to grow your number of commenters and improve the onsite 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 only have to look like comments. There’s a whole spectrum of ways that you can engage with your readers. Comments are a powerful tool, with enormous potential – especially when you know how and where to use them.