Recently, the case against comments has grown stronger. Alexandra Petri made a particularly strong case in the Washington Post in September, making the point that ‘you do not have to give people who are objectively incorrect equal time’ as the journalist, whilst Huffington Post revealed they spammed three quarters of their comments because of vitriol and abuse, enforcing the idea that there’s little value in them.

Part of the problem seems to be that commenting is the preserve of a select few usersMartin Belam did the maths a while back and found that was the case at Guardian and at The Times, only a small percentage of active users a month comment. Despite that, news sites aren’t trying to turn lurkers into active participants.

It’s something we’ve been giving some thought to at The Times and The Sunday Times and, working closely with marketing, we’ve tried a few things to help normalise comments and change the perception that they’re for a small portion of users. I thought it would be useful to mention these briefly.

eat-books-reader-commentsA few weeks ago, we sent a targeted email about our Eat Books series (which kicked off with Helen Fielding’s new Bridget Jones book in the Sunday Times) which directed users to the Times Book Club, a monthly online web chat where readers get to suggest, read and discuss a novel with likeminded readers. It was a success in that 30% of the unique visitors to the September Book Club, Gone Girl by Gilian Flynn, came from the email with the length of visit almost twice the time than other articles on the site. But it was the number of comments was particularly interesting. There were five times as many comments from subscribers (57 comments, three of which were from Times journalist comments compared to 19, ten of which were Times journalists in August). Fifty readers were involved in the comments under the article with 34 of them commenting for the first time. Only three had left more than 40 comments. Almost 40 comments were from women, who we often struggle to attract on the site due to the male-heavy demographic of our digital subscribers and the somewhat confrontational nature of commenting. Knowing how hard it is to solicit contributions, we felt that it worked.

 

A similar trick was employed later that week when we asked readers to pick their favourite book. Again over 50% of contributors were commenting for the first time, with a further 20% having commented less than five times. Only nine users, around 10%, had commented more than 100 times leading us to conclude that we were engaging a new type of subscribers through comments. Although the number of participants is small in the grand scheme of our subscriber base, 10% of those who visited the page via the email left a comment, which is a decent conversion rate by any standards.

 

the-times-community-engagement

How The Times and Sunday Times uses social media and community engagement

Used more tactically, we feel getting users to comment (as well as having their comments recommended by other users and reused elsewhere on The Times) is something that could have real business benefits in terms of reducing churn and saving the business money. We’ve not yet been able to put a figure on how less likely a subscriber is to churn when they regularly make a comment in the same way we’ve been able to with Times+ but when we do, the case for commenting becomes a great deal stronger.