May 11, 2012
The Social Web was born from the ability to transform Internet users from passive "browsers" of content to an audience that is engaged and interacts with content by liking it, sharing it, and commenting on it. But Comments are not always appropriate, and some strategists may argue that Comments are fundamentally inappropriate. Yet, this cynical view of user generated content needs to be challenged because an open and social web remains the fundamental future of online interactivity.
The skepticism about comments is well-founded and stems from concerns over the decreasing value of user generated content. Episodes like investors saying that AOL's user-generated publishing "websites have no value" reflect the difficulty with structuring a content strategy around constantly changing perspectives. Even Media leaders, like Gawker founder Nick Denton, have argued that online comments sections are a joke, because it's impossible to capture intelligent discourse on the web. But the problem is not anonymity (which, as Dalton notes, is at the heart of the Internet's freedom economy), nor even a question of intimacy (which is noticeably absent in more highly-trafficked websites). Instead, the difficulty with recognizing the value of comments stems from a misunderstanding of their purpose.
A recurring problem we hear from organizations is that they seek a tool, feature, or functionality on their website. For example, we sometimes hear phrases like "we need a blog," or "we need a podcasting system." But requests like these are often made from a position of weakness that can quickly lead to strategic failure. Instead of creating a void that needs to be filled -- by requesting a feature that may not serve a clear purpose -- ask instead what strategy is being pursued, as reflected by the content that is being produced. If you want a podcasting system, is your organization capable of (and currently) producing high quality audio content regularly? If you want a blog, do you have writers on your staff that are publishing routinely?
If you want to have commenting on your content, do you have a community management team?
Unmoderated commenting on a website is both unpredictable and has the potential for significant risk. At best, it will serve only to repurpose, highlight, or share content on your website. For example, using integrated third-party commenting tools - and there the three major ones, Disqus, Livefyre, and IntenseDebate both have their pros and cons -- can ensure that any commenting on your content gets echoed across every commenter's digital footprint, especially their social networks like Twitter and Facebook. But at its worst, unmoderated commenting can lead to a disjointed and disruptive reading experience for your users, potentially leading to attrition. So, how do you make the most out of your comments?
You need to manage them.
By harnessing the crowd-sourcing power the Internet, our clients have a unique opportunity to transform the way the public thinks about the issues that matter to organizations, and by extension, collaborates in learning and sharing this knowledge online. Society as a whole is transitioning from one that is primarily consuming to one that is driven and energized by sharing and producing. This is a point well described by leading Internet thinker Clay Shirky. If businesses, organizations, campaigns, and movements can leverage the vast untapped potential of collaborative productivity on the web and across social media, then they can benefit from the actions of its community in ways that far exceed the aggregate contributions of individual actors.
The very act of harnessing this distributed audience necessitates resources, a content plan, and a willingness and opportunity to engage with audiences and converse with them. So in sum, Comments can change the entire nature of a website by creating the very foundation of a community of people who are connected with the organization and with one another in novel ways. But, as I have often said, you need a plan -- you need purpose and a Strategy -- and this need must truly exist before one simply creates the void to be filled.