When commenting systems go bad

Just recently, one of my favourite blogs moved a new home on Wired and, in the process, moved to the Disqus commenting system. I’ve sat in many meetings where Disqus has been named as the desired commenting system. I have often found myself on the fence, preferring, say, the built-in WordPress commenting system over any third party system, but still understanding that the issues with managing very high volumes of comments can encourage companies to outsource them. Until recently, though, I hadn’t had any real in-depth experience of using Disqus as a commenter.

I have now. And I have discovered that Disqus kills conversation and frustrates users.

The problems with Disqus surprise me, because they’ve been around a while and I would have expected them to understand how online discussions actually work, and adjust their tool to facilitate conversation. Instead, Disqus quashes conversation. Here are the issues, and possibly a few solutions:

Comment display is broken
There has long been a debate in commenting circles about whether threaded comments or flat comments are best. The truth is, neither are better than the other, both have their strengths and weaknesses. But Disqus, or at least the installations of it that I have recently seen, do not provide an option to view comments in a flat, strictly chronological or reverse-chrono order.

When you have a rich and fast-moving conversation in blog comments, threading kills it because it is nigh-on impossible to know where the new comments are in the various threads. An option to show comments in a flat view would allow users to quickly see which comments are most recent. We are smart enough to thread the conversations we’ve read already in our memories, but wading through threads in order to find the one new comment is a chore no one will bother with.

This means Disqus kills conversation in big, complexly-threaded discussions.

Being able to easily switch between views would be even better, so that you can find the newest comments, but then switch to see them in context of their threads.

Comment paging is broken
If there’s one thing that drives me nuts about Disqus it’s that there is no “view all” option. On my favourite blog, I have to page through comments in chunks of 40 at a time and, once the thread gets over 80, it becomes very tedious on page reload to have to re-page through to the newest comments if I want to actually see them in reverse-chrono order. My only option is to then view them newest-first, which means I have to then find the join, which is again a pain in the arse, especially if when I last looked there were 100 comments, and now there are 200.

I recently saw a blog post with 900 comments, which were only accessible in pages of 10. If anyone thinks that people are going to bother to page through all those comments, ten at a time, they need a reality check. It’s already hard enough to get people to read comments before they write their own, but this just encourages drive-by commenting, which is very bad for conversation and community-building.

Disqus needs to have a “view all” option. I don’t care if it takes a minute or two to load, I just want everything, on one page, so that I can scan it at speed to pick out the comments I care about.

Other issues:
Login kills comments. On the train into London this morning I wrote a comment, then realised that I wasn’t logged in. I logged in with Google, as I usually do, and Disqus threw away my comment. WTF? Really? That’s how you treat logging in?

Newest first is weird:┬áNewest first also does really weird stuff with within-thread threading which I haven’t get got my head round, but it bloody annoys me.

Page refresh breaks flow: On a lot of commenting systems, if I refresh the page in order to fetch new comments, the browser will remember where I am on the page and all I need to do to continue reading is, well, continue reading. Not with Disqus. Refreshing the page essentially resets Disqus, meaning that I have to re-page through everything and search for my place. A comment bookmarking system might help with this, or they could just offer a persistent single page view.

Just say No to Disqus
I have to say, I would now actively militate against clients using Disqus if they have any desire to create conversation and community. Disqus frustrates passionate readers, drives away interested but less committed readers, and makes genuine conversation difficult or impossible. It seems to be a great system for collecting comments to be ignored, but it’s terrible if you actually care about your comments or your commenters.

Given that Disqus has been around since 2007, the fact that it hasn’t cracked comment display yet is shocking to me. I honestly thought they of all people would have nailed it. Quite the opposite, in fact: Their design can only be described as user-surly.

Making time

Amber Naslund writes a good post about how important it is to make time to experiment with social media and to explore what it can do for you. It’s very easy, she points out, to say that we don’t have the time, but “Here’s what you have to face down. You make time for what matters.”

Spot on.

The comments are just as interesting as the post, as people come up with reasons why it’s not just a matter of making time. People are overloaded, too busy, scared to step out of their comfort zone, the skill set required is hard to acquire. It’s easy to come up with excuses why some people won’t take the time to learn social media, but they are just that: excuses.

Here’s the thing: We waste loads of time simply checking our email inboxes. What about if you reduced your time in email and gave that time to social media instead? What about if you went to one less meeting each week? What if you used your phone to check up on Twitter and blogs and such, and used some of that dead time when you’re waiting for other things to happen?

It’s actually very easy to learn about social media. A quick search on Google gives an awful lot of stuff to start reading, even before one starts dipping their toes in the tools themselves. How much can someone learn just by reading round for 10 minutes a day?

“I haven’t had time” is an excuse we all use, but it’s not a reason.

The Blogger/Evangelist Lifecycle

For years I’ve been talking about the Blogger Lifecycle – the way in which business bloggers react to the act of business blogging. Last week this topic featured in a workshop I was running so I finally drew the graph that has been in my head for the last several years.

Blogger/Evangelist lifecycle

Based loosely on the Gartner Hype Cycle, it tracks the emotional response of business bloggers and social media evangelists as they develop their online presence. In reality, people’s response to the act of blogging (or other social media activity) varies depending on a number of factors, including:

  • The evangelist’s personality
  • Amount and quality of reader feedback they get, e.g. comments
  • Quality of feedback from peers/managers
  • Time pressure
  • Success of venture as they perceive it

In my experience, evangelists tend to start at either:

1. Scepticism/Uncertainty: They are unsure of themselves and/or of the value of social media.


2. Enthusiasm: They are keen to engage with social media.

As the social media project progresses, the novelty wears off and the evangelist is faced with the reality that:

  • Social media takes time and effort
  • It can be hard to get comments and feedback
  • It can be hard to become a part of the wider community
  • Enthusiasm doesn’t always result in action

That last point is a broad one: It’s not just the enthusiasm of the blogger we’re talking about, but of their readers, colleagues and managers too. Although the blogger might be getting enthusiastic responses from readers, if those responses don’t result in an action, e.g. discussion in the comments or even sales calls, it can still be demoralising. And if enthusiasm by colleagues and managers isn’t matched by relevant actions on their part, e.g. helping promote the blog, that can also damage the blogger’s sense of how things are going.

Lack of comments/feedback can make the evangelist feel isolated and unappreciated, undermining their enthusiasm. Even as an experienced blogger, I still suffer from this. Starting a new blog these days is really very hard and if you get no feedback or, worse, negative comments it’s easy to feel disillusioned. And at the bottom of the Trough of Disillusionment is when a blogger or social media evangelist is most likely to quit.

This is the point at which the good social media manager steps in and supports the blogger/evangelist, encouraging them to carry on, helping them refine their blogging style and giving them tips on how to promote it. Evangelists whose work is appreciated internally, who are supported by peers and management, and who feel that they are producing something of value are more likely to persist with their social media work during these difficult periods.

Evangelists are subject to the same time pressures as anyone else and if they are are not completely committed to their social media work they will find it too easy to sideline it. Successful evangelists find ways to embed their social media activities into their work day and create new habits that support those activities.

If I were running an evangelist programme, I’d create internal communities of practice and encourage evangelists to support one another, share best practice, and sense-check each other’s reactions to difficult situations. This kind of peer support has proved very helpful in some of the projects I’ve worked on, and often it’s so useful that it springs up all by itself as the evangelists naturally start to help each other. Giving them a place to talk right from the beginning jumpstarts that process.

Now, you might wonder why all this matters. So what if someone starts a blog or a LinkedIn Group and doesn’t carry it on? Blogs die all the time… Well, frankly, I think that abandoned blogs, Twitter streams, LinkedIn or Facebook Groups do not reflect well on the company. If I turn up at a Twittter page or a blog and see that it’s hasn’t been updated in months, it tells me that the company just doesn’t care about communicating with its customers, which I interpret to mean that it’s not going to care about me either.

Even in a professional context, using social media is an experience that involves human emotions. It’s easy to lapse into the ‘we’re all professionals here, emotions are irrelevant’ attitude, but that’s clearly nonsense. Business is made of people and people are emotional. Pretending we aren’t doesn’t get us anywhere useful. Acknowledging that we all have ups and downs, that social media is a long term investment requiring long term emotional investment, and supporting that investment are essential to the ultimate success of any social media project. Company ignore the emotional at their peril.

U-shaped development in social media

I had a conversation on Twitter a few days ago with Roland Harwood in which I think I inadvertently hit on something:

@rolandharwood: Innovation is u-shaped. great fun at the start and great value at the end but you need to cross the valley of frustration and uncertainty

@Suw: @rolandharwood i like that analogy. reminds me of children’s linguistic dev: do well at first because they mimic, then they….

@Suw: @rolandharwood …crash & burn because they are trying to work out underlying rules, often failing, then rules are learnt & it’s all easy.

The U-shaped development pattern is one that’s well known and it applies not just to linguistics. This is how I’ve seen it play out in the social media realm:

  1. At first, people observe and mimic successful social media users. Because they limit their behaviour to just those actions that they see others doing, they initially look like they ‘get it’.
  2. Once the individual (or company) becomes comfortable with their mimicry, they start to branch out on their own. Because the rules of social media are not readily apparent – they can’t be easily intuited by people outside of the social media in-group – these new users push at what they perceive to be the boundaries, but instead of breaking new ground they just get it horribly wrong. They haven’t yet truly understood the underlying structure of social media, i.e. the culture, so they accidentally transgress social media behavioural norms. Businesses tend then to duck out of social media all together, concluding that it’s a fad, a waste of time or unsuitable for their sector, when really it was their implementation that was flawed.
  3. Those that persist and who learn their lessons, alter their behaviour to be more appropriate, and who pay attention to the culture slowly grasp how social media really works. They come to implicitly understand the underlying, unspoken rule-sets and absorb the cultural norms without necessarily being aware of what they are doing. They then, hopefully, inspire others to mimic their success and the cycle starts again.

I’ve certainly observed this journey that business users in particular seem to go on. Does it sound familiar to you?

Balancing blogging

Joel Spolsky writes one of the best blogs for programmers that I, as a non-programmer, have ever read. Joel on Software is soon to be ten years old and has provided me with some real insight into how software companies work. One of my favourite essays of Joel’s is Hitting the High Notes, which he wrote in 2005. I still refer back to it even now because it contains truths that apply not just to programming but to many other areas as well.

In his Inc.com column, Joel takes a look at what makes a good business blogger. He says:

These days, it seems like just about every start-up founder has a blog, and 99 percent of these bloggers are doing it wrong. The problem? They make the blog about themselves, filling it with posts announcing new hires, touting new products, and sharing pictures from the company picnic. That’s lovely, darling — I’m sure your mom cares. Too bad nobody else does. Most company blogs have almost no readers, no traffic, and no impact on sales. Over time, the updates become few and far between (especially if responsibility for the blog is shared among several staff members), and the whole thing ceases to become an important source of leads or traffic.

I’ve never counted to know if ‘most’ company blogs are like this, but certainly too many are. It’s something I come across over and again: The business whose social media presence is all about them.

Reading these blogs or Twitter streams or Facebook walls or LinkedIn Groups is like being trapped in a noisy restaurant with the worst date of your life who just cannot stop talking about how great he or she is, how well travelled they are, how fascinating their life. By dessert you’re eyeing your spoon, trying to figure out just how blunt it is and just how hard self-disembowelment would be.

Joel goes on to paraphrase Kathy Sierra:

To really work, Sierra observed, an entrepreneur’s blog has to be about something bigger than his or her company and his or her product. This sounds simple, but it isn’t. It takes real discipline to not talk about yourself and your company. Blogging as a medium seems so personal, and often it is. But when you’re using a blog to promote a business, that blog can’t be about you, Sierra said. It has to be about your readers, who will, it’s hoped, become your customers. It has to be about making them awesome.

Kathy is, of course, spot on. Blogging, along with other forms of social media, is not about blowing your own trumpet or bragging about you or your company’s achievements, its about giving people something interesting, entertaining, useful or valuable. It’s about having a conversation and listening as much as talking.

But where Joel surprises is in his announcement that he’s quitting blogging, writing columns and public speaking:

So, having become an Internet celebrity in the narrow, niche world of programming, I’ve decided that it’s time to retire from blogging. March 17, the 10th anniversary of Joel on Software, will mark my last major post. This also will be my last column for Inc. For the most part, I will also quit podcasting and public speaking. Twitter? “Awful, evil, must die, CB radio, sorry with only 140 chars I can’t tell you why.”

The truth is, as much as I’ve enjoyed it, blogging has become increasingly impossible to do the way I want to as Fog Creek has become a larger company. We now have 32 employees and at least six substantial product lines. We have so many customers that I can’t always write freely without inadvertently insulting one of them. And my daily duties now take so much time that it has become a major effort to post something thoughtful even once or twice a month.

The best evidence also suggests that there are many other effective ways to market Fog Creek’s products — and that our historical overreliance on blogging as a marketing channel has meant that we’ve ignored them.

I think that’s an understandable move, but for my money it’s also an overreaction. Blogging alone is not a marketing plan. Social media doesn’t stand isolated from other marketing techniques, but should instead be part of a wider strategy.

My advice to Joel would be:

  • Don’t abandon your blogging and public speaking, just scale it back.
  • Look at your new markets, the ones you want to move into, and figure out what those people want to hear about.
  • Start a new blog aimed at your new market. Better yet, get someone else in your company who is already interested in these new markets to start it.
  • Do whatever other marketing you were planning on doing as well. Remember, this is an ‘and’ world, not an ‘or’ world.

One doesn’t have to sacrifice a blog for traditional marketing – the two can coexist quite happily.

Quick guide to open innovation

David Simoes-Brown takes a look at open innovation over on the NESTA blog, and outlines five “traits of open innovation which often pass people by”: Reading his post, I just kept thinking, “Yes. Yes. Of course.” It’s very easy when the open mindset is embedded in the way you prefer to work to forget that for many people, these tips are really quite counter-intuitive.

Many of these tips also fit social media too, with just a little tweaking:

1. Start at the end

Know what you want/need to achieve with your social media project, don’t just chuck it up and hope for the best.

2. Listen to your customers

David had “Buy from your customers”, on the basis that your customers know your brand better than you do. In a social media context, this morphs into listening rather than buying, but the main point still stands. You may think you know what your brand experience is, but it’s your customers who actually have to live through it!

3. Show not tell

This tip from the writing fraternity is as important in social media project as it is in innovation. Pilots are a great way not just of testing the water but also of creating an experience for a small group that others will look at and (hopefully) want!

4. You will never spot a winner

Social media is changing all the time and whilst the basic tenets stay the same, tools come and go and tactics that work brilliantly for one company at one point in time may not work so well for another. Focus on your business needs, your employees’ needs and your customers’ needs, and don’t try to predict the next big social media craze.

5. It’s not who you know, it’s who knows you

This is ‘word of mouth’ in a nutshell. You can spend a lot of time going broad with your social media strategy, trying to reach as many people as possible, but you can be much, much more effective if you let your fans carry your message for you. Quality over quantity every time.

ATA: What makes a good case study?

Every now and again I find myself searching for social media case studies, and whenever this happens it’s always a monumental pain in the proverbials. People aren’t great at interpreting a case study from outside of their own context, so I like to find something that they can immediately relate to. But it can be really hard to find something relevant on short notice so I often wind up going back to my old favourites and then having to tell the client “Well, this may not sound exactly like you, but trust me, it’s more relevant than it looks.”

Although there are loads of social case studies on the web, they aren’t particularly well organised. There are various lists kicking about, but many of them are poorly organised and it takes ages to plough through them. So I’m considering a quick and dirty solution in the form of a Google spreadsheet and form so that we can gather more detailed information together. What kind of information would be useful to you? Here are some possible ideas:

  • Name of the company
  • Whether the project was internal or external
  • Date of case study
  • Tools used
  • Is this good practice or bad practice
  • Overview
  • Link to full write-up
  • Name of person writing is up
  • Style of case study (blog post, formal case study etc)

What else would you like to see? I’ll use your comments to create the spreadsheet and will post the form here when it’s ready.

What does “content strategy” mean for social media?

I stumbled across a blog post yesterday by Kristina Halvorsen about content strategy. The post looked at the difference between strategy and planning and was very interesting. But there was one small section that worried me:

But for a mid-sized or large organization, if social media content is conceived and created in a silo (or siloes) apart from the organization’s other content channels, it opens the door for inconsistent messaging, irrelevant content for current target audiences, and so on. So it’s important to understand that a blog, like all social media, is (among other things) a channel through which to distribute branded content.

This is an issue that needs untangling because, misinterpreted, it could result in a poor social media strategy.

The silo’d nature of many businesses is a significant problem and I entirely agree that a fragmented social media strategy, or content strategy, will result in a mess. A wise strategist will look at the business’ aims, understand its market, and will create a strategy that will help the business meet its goals within the context of its market.

But blogs and social media are not “a channel through which to distribute branded content”, they are a way for people within the company to form relationships with both other people outside the company and their own colleagues. These relationships create greater trust in the business, as potential customers feel that they have an ‘in’: access to a real person to whom they can take their troubles if they experience any. As trust increases, so does the likelihood that a transaction will occur between those trusted parties.

Branded content is inappropriate for social media because it’s impersonal, it’s not from the heart of the blogger (or Twitterer etc.) and so does not build trust because the recipient can see right through it. Indeed, one of the most common problems I am asked to fix is underperforming Twitter accounts, and they uniformly underperform because they are streams of branded content without a hint of humanity in sight. In fact, this comes up so often I may start offering Twitter Rehabilitation as a specific service to clients.

This doesn’t mean, however, that social media should not have a content strategy, but it needs a very different approach to the sort of strategy one would apply to traditional communications. Rather than focusing specifically on the content, one has to focus on the people who are active in social media and the communities that they are active in. My process would be this:

  1. Examine your markets and understand what topics your customers are interested in
  2. Find people in your business who are passionate about those same topics
  3. Pick people from that group who are happy using social tools
  4. Agree with the bloggers/Twitterers/etc. which topics they are going to cover
  5. Let them get on with it
  6. Review regularly to make sure that the bloggers/Twitterer/etc. feel happy with what they are doing and that everything’s going in the right direction

When we look at successful business bloggers, we don’t see branded content, we see personality, transparency, authenticity, honesty. Those keywords haven’t changed in over a decade and they aren’t going to change now because these are the attributes that people respond most positively to.

Social media comes from the heart and needs very light touch management. More than that, it needs passion, freedom and trust in order to truly work.