Comments Section

How to Build Engagement with a Comments Section

Engagement matters, whether your publishing model centers around display advertising, subscription revenue, or some combination of the two. One of the most sure-fire ways to build engagement is by adding a comments section to your website.

News publishers, online magazine publishers, and niche blog publishers can all benefit from having an active comments section. That’s because having a comments section builds a community around the content on a website. Not only will readers stay on a website for longer when they are posting comments and reading the comments left by others, but they will also return to the website more frequently to see if any other readers have replied to the comments they posted.

It wasn’t very long ago that online publishers were disabling comments, frustrated by the lack of helpful contributions and the uptick in trolls insulting loyal readers on their sites. Anonymous commenters were launching attacks and creating a toxic environment for everyone. Independent publishers weren’t alone in the struggles to maintain control over their comments sections. Large news publishers, like NPR, Reuters, The Atlantic, and CNN, all got rid of commenting on their websites around the same period of time.

Instead of supporting comments on their own websites, publishers started encouraging readers to post their opinions on third-party platforms, like Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter. We now know that was a mistake. Disabling comments weakened many publishers’ position in the marketplace. Publishers should think twice before handing their own audience over to any third-party network.

Ideally, the comments section on a digital publisher’s website should be a place where readers are encouraged to participate in a positive way. Not only do comments boost engagement, but they also create genuine enthusiasm for the publication. Readers who post comments feel like they’re a part of the team, making them more likely to subscribe, join paid membership programs, or sign-up for email newsletters.

How to Manage a Comments Section

These days, the best comments sections are moderated using a combination of editorial controls and technical tools. The combination approach is helping news publishers maintain better control over their comments sections and build engagement with readers on their websites.

Readers who take the time to register for accounts and leave comments on a news website are more likely to visit on a regular basis, and they are more likely to pay for monthly subscriptions.

Human moderators at The New York Times sift through thousands of reader comments each day. It’s a big job, to be sure, however most independent news publications won’t have the same volume of comments as a national news publisher, like The Times.

If you do find that the volume of comments is becoming too great for a single editor or moderator to handle, then you can choose to open or close certain articles to reader comments. To avoid any backlash, it’s best to publish very specific criteria explaining when articles will be closed to comments. For example, some publishers will close comments when the number of comments surpasses a certain threshold or when the subject of the article is sensitive in nature.

Another option when managing an active comments section is to invest in machine learning technology. Machine learning technology can pull out potentially problematic comments, like those with certain keywords or themes. This gives human moderators a chance to review those comments before they go live.

Publishers with subscription and membership programs can setup commenting privileges as a benefit available exclusively to paying readers. In this scenario, readers would only be able to comment on the website if they sign up for a paid subscription. The quality of discussion generally goes up when publications make commenting a subscribers-only feature. The drawback, however, is that the number of comments appearing underneath each article will likely go down. Depending on the size of the subscriber base, that could hinder discussion and engagement across the site.

The most successful publishers utilize combined approaches, adding human moderators, machine learning technology, and restricting who can comment to a certain degree. While it’s still somewhat rare for local news publications to make commenting available exclusively to paying subscribers, it’s not uncommon for publishers to require readers to register for free accounts before they can comment. Requiring readers to register for a free account before commenting opens up the door to additional opportunities to engage those readers, through push notifications, email digests, and personalized topic pages.

If you’re considering adding a comments section to your website, contact our team of publishing specialists here at Web Publisher PRO for help getting started.