I’m often asked what are the metrics for success when it comes to blogging or community engagement on a website, and I always respond that it isn’t simply the number of comments. Chasing high comment counts can be a race to the bottom in terms of content as the most provocative content easily gets the most comments creating more of a bare-fisted brawl than a conversation. As time has gone on, more sophisticated community engagement systems and strategies have developed, although these have developed mostly outside of news organisations rather than by them.
One strategy that has started to develop is to view comments as a premium service. Everyone can read comments, but only those who pay can post comments. It’s not a new strategy. Metafilter has been asking people for $5 to comment since late 2004, and it’s actually quite successful. In terms of news sites, Civil Beat in Hawaii requires subscribers to pay to read most content and also to comment.
The BBC College of Journalism has a very interesting post by Tomáš Bella about different strategies in Slovakia and the Czech Republic to reduce the number of comments but improve other metrics such as quality and page views. Tomáš runs a start-up called Piano, a paid content system. Several of the most popular sites in Slovakia have started using Piano to charge €2.90 to comment and access “other premium services on the sites”. It is interesting to view comments as a premium service.
Something else caught my eye in the post though. To comment on the popular Czech site, Novinky.cz, they have instituted a process where you have to apply for a code using your real name and postal address before you can comment. Your real name and home town appear alongside your comment. The result?
This radical approach has worked. Readers’ comments have dropped from 50,000 to 4,000 a day. But the number of page views has risen by a third because the quality of the content has shot up.
Long ago (2005) when I was writing a blogging strategy for BBC News, I realised that the large audiences that major news sites can create for blogs or other participatory efforts might not scale. Open comments are fine on niche blogs such as here at Strange Attractor. People come here looking for specific content and wanting to take part in a specialist, professional conversation. The conversation is manageable because quite honestly, we rarely have that many comments, usually just a few if any and never more than 25. On major news sites, it’s easy to receive hundreds and sometimes thousands of comments. Depending on the content, they can become unmanageable for staff and commenters alike. Making people register or pay is one way to create a speed bump to commenting. That might not be a bad thing.
I know that participatory purists might cry foul saying that this is censorship by credit card, but I think that asking people for a little commitment before they participate might make participation better for everyone. Discuss.