OJR reader Anna Haynes wrote in with a complaint, noting a mistake that too many online writers make:
“I see the same mistake made over and over again, by online-newbie media types who think that publishing their missives onto a blog is enough, that ‘2-way communication’ just means letting their readers talk (to each other, or to the wall) in the comments section; they don’t see dialogue between [non-troll] reader and blogger as part of the deal….
“[S]o I read the post, I ask a question in the comments, I get no answer. I *feel* like it’s rude, by my blogging etiquette; perhaps theirs is different?”
She’s right. Opening your stories and blog entries to comments represents just the first step in a long process of building an interactive relationship with your readers. I’ve written about the lost opportunities when news publishers do not solicit comments from their readers. Today, I’d like to write about the next steps – and identify three top mistakes that news publishers make to undercut their efforts at attracting smart reader comments.
Don’t read or respond to your readers’ comments
If you learn one thing from this column, let it be that “reader interactivity” is not a technical feature. Flipping a switch to turn commenting on does not make your site any more interactive than one that does not accept online comments.
Interactivity is a relationship, built not with computer code but with words exchanged by real, living people on both sides of the Web server. Yes, you need good computer code to help enable and manage these relationships. But the code alone won’t make them happen.
Nor can you expect readers to “talk amongst themselves.” They can do that anywhere else. If you want readers to talk on your website, you need to offer them the one unique feature that no other blog or discussion board can – the opportunity to talk to you (or your writers).
So schedule time to read the comments on your stories, and to respond to questions or allegations made by your readers. Again, smart software can make this job easier, by identifying URLs with new comments or even sending your e-mails when readers post to your articles.
Robin Miller’s advice on discussion boards applies here, too. Shutting down comments after a reasonable time can help ensure that you are not debating the same articles forever. Freeing yourself from the fear of having to respond to every article you’ve ever written should help your resolve to stay on top of the discussion over your recent pieces.
Looking for some positive examples? Haynes provided a few, along with some smart analysis, when I asked her who is doing this right:
“Of the more well read blogs, Jay Rosen at PressThink is excellent about responding to my and others’ comments – likewise Lex Alexander and John Robinson of the Greensboro News & Record, and of course, Dan Gillmor. With them, it *is* a dialog.
“In general, it seems like the smaller the blog’s readership, the greater should be the obligation to respond to the readers, but typically the initially-small-readership blogs from offline-culture organizations are the least responsive (which is behavior that will tend to *keep* their readership small).”
Respond too quickly, and too often, to readers’ comments
Yep, I’m throwing you a curve here. But as an apathetic writer can kill a conversation, so can an over-eager one.
Yes, if a reader asks a question directed at you, you should respond. But don’t rush to post the next comment after every question or observation. Allow your readers some time to respond to each other.
When you do respond to a question, do so in a way that invites other readers to provide answers as well. Don’t think of yourself as one party in a two-person conversation. Instead, think of yourself as a talk show host (or dinner party host, if you are allergic to talk radio), charged with the responsibility to keep the converation moving, and to get as many people involved in that conversation as possible. In my experience, the most thoughtful readers are not always the ones most eager to comment. You must coax those readers into your conversation. Then let them have the floor once they engage.
You can’t do that, of course, if you always demand the latest word.
Don’t give readers a place of their own place to talk
Smart, conversational comments sections will help attract more loyal readers to your website. But if you want to build your readership to an even larger level, you will need to give those readers a place to initiate their own conversations.
People don’t like to react all the time, sometimes, they need to initiate. (Sports analogy: No one wants to spend the whole game on defense. Now and then, you need to get your hands on the ball.) Even if an individual reader never starts a conversation on your website, trust me, they will feel more empowered by seeing other readers doing it.
So let them. Once you’ve established a tradition of responding to comments on your site, take the next step and open a space for readers to start their own conversations. Launch a discussion board, or enable readers to publish their own blogs on your site. [Like we just did here on OJR.] But do not forget that your, or your staff’s, participation is still needed.
Your writers’ participation in these discussions, or your writers’ comments on or links to readers’ blogs, helps cement the relationship between your website and your readers. Reader blogs and discussions can become a rich source for news leads, too. Just be sure to credit the original discussion or conversation.
The good news is that our readers do care about us, or at least about what we write. Let’s return that wonderful favor, and resolve to make better use of our websites to show that we care about our readers’ thoughts as well.