#newsrw: Online conversation and the value of comments

“What do you think? Please leave your comment below”. A phrase like that can now be found on a huge range of online news media – from national and regional newspapers, to niche business-to-business titles titles, consumer mag websites and standalone web publishers, all of them want you to add your opinion.

For many sites, a lot of commenters is a benchmark of online publishing success. But why do publishers encourage comments and what value can they get from it? An afternoon breakout session at news:rewired sought to find out…

Samantha Shepherd, digital projects editor at the Bournemouth Daily Echo, highlighted just how useful and valuable commenters can be – but she cautioned that managing a community is hard work and not everyone is going to be your biggest fan.

Overall, according to Shepherd, less than three percent of readers leave comments – and of those, about 70 percent are what she terms “shouters”, the kind of angry people that traditionally wrote letters to the paper to complain about things. Others are “lurkers” who read but don’t contribute at all.

But the most engaged group – what Shepherd calls “readers+” – contribute with news tips, advice, and play an important role in promoting content on the site and elsewhere. “It’s worth doing because readers+ are worth ten lurkers. They are the ones that are interested in apps and tailored services.”

Shepherd’s site only gets 0.4 percent of its traffic from Twitter – but with 70,000 connected profiles, Facebook is an increasingly important traffic source. “That’s a lot of traffic – it’s definitely worth doing.” When there are negative comments, “it’s very easy to want to shut a debate down when you get criticism,” she said. “A much more sensible response is to admit mistakes in the comments and declare any errors that have been changed.”

Blog editors and social media chiefs often have to deal with sensitive issues and comments – but imagine running a forum just for social workers, people who deal with the most vulnerable people in society?

That’s what Simeon Brody, community editor of Community Care does – CareSpace is a well-used forum for social work professionals. The forum attracts about 140,000 page views a month as of March (compared to 36,000 in March 2010) and has attracted commercial support in the shape of Brighton & Hove Council.

His advice: “We spent a lot of time making sure the structure was right and we put a lot of effort into testing – so that when it launched there was already a lot of stuff on there.”

Community Care staff were also heavily involved from the start, which increased engagement, so quotes from CareSpace are often used in stories and the forum gets frequent mentions across the business. “If it’s going to succeed, something like this needs the backing of the whole team.”

Like Shepherd, Brody highlighted the importance of forum commenters in generating story ideas and leads: CareSpace topics and threads often find their way into Community Care features – but Brody cautioned against mining your forums for articles too readily.

On a slightly smaller, local scale, comments still play a vital role. Simon Perry from the Isle of Wight-based hyperlocal site Ventorblog provides news coverage for the 5,000 inhabitants of the village of Ventnor on the island’s south coast. Its forum has clocked up more than one million page views in the five years since it was set up and has become a focal point for debate across the island.

Ventnorblog has 1,300 Twitter followers, 2,500 Facebook fans and manages 200,000 page views a month. But with an entire island population of 130,000 to target, that’s not bad at all. Anything regarding weather, for example, gets the Ventnorblog readers into a froth – to the extent to which Perry has made readers’ comments into a feature: “The people’s weather forecast”.

If you have a faceless organisation, they may identify with the quality of the story but you lose the human touch… You want to have the people you are writing for trust you, because surely that is the point, and people are looking for someone to trust. Trust is the most central part of this.

BBC assistant interactivity editor Matthew Eltringham, who works on the BBC’s Have Your Say messageboard, stressed the importance of “clear transparent house rules” when it comes to causing offence and staying on the right side of the law.

But just as pressing for Eltringham is keeping posters on-topic, not allowing them to drift off on to their pet subjects such as the evergreen online forum theme of immigration.

If you look at the Twitter conversation around the BNP’s appearence on Question Time and what people were saying on Have Your Say, you could be forgiven for thinking people were watching two different programmes.

When it came for the BBC to respond to this editorially, we were as much influenced by what our own audience were telling us as anything else.

Here’s Eltringham expanding in this theme in an interview with me after the event:

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