For a long time, comments sections were put in the same category as pop-up ads, or spam inheritance emails—just more digital noise to tune out. Among those in publishing, comments took on a toxic reputation: the common wisdom was that you engaged with them at your peril.
Visit a high-quality conversation taking place, and you’ll find intelligent back-and-forths, lively debate, laugh-out-loud humor. You’ll find people coming together to fulfill the early promise of the internet: a place where people in different parts of the country (or planet), people who would otherwise never meet, can come together to build a meaningful community.
And for publishers, comments sections like these can have an incredible effect on things like retention, return visits, subscriptions, and more.
How Community Comes To Life
Anyone who still thinks comments sections are about name-calling and harassment would be wise to check out ‘The Number Ones,’ a column on music website (and OpenWeb partner) Stereogum. The premise here is straightforward: three times a week, writer Tom Breihan posts a review/essay on a song that reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. He started the column in 1958, with Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” and has moved sequentially through each #1 hit since; currently, he’s coming to the end of 1995.
It’s a wonderful feature, mixing canny cultural criticism with historical and personal asides. But almost as impressive is the community that’s gathered around it.
From the moment Breihan’s post goes up, people start adding to the discussion. These comments might be personal; say, a memory of hearing the song in question while working a summer job in high school, a job that was boring at the time but that, looking back, was actually deeply meaningful. People might chime in with other notable things happening in pop culture at the time—niche trivia only remembered by those who lived through the era. Others might offer their own take on the song, agreeing or disagreeing with Breihan’s. There is debate, joking around, and tangential conversation.
The users contributing to the conversation form a real community; they’re loyal, and they know each other. Often, you’ll see someone out themselves as a longtime lurker who’s decided to join the mix and begin commenting. The sense of community is infectious—it makes casual readers want to participate.
When lively communities form around content, the quantity of content that readers can experience expands dramatically. Maybe only a dedicated subset of users will actually participate, but when the conversation is lively, many more will take the time to peruse other readers’ contributions.
That means, of course, more page views, and more time spent on site. As readers come to look forward to the contributions not just of formal staff writers, but of their fellow readers, it also means more return visits and a higher degree of brand loyalty.
The Hidden Value Of Comments
You’ll notice that the kinds of comments described above (smart, substantive, respectful) are very different from the interactions that often take place on social media. On social media, millions of people are crammed into the same space and incentivized to engage without much concern for others.
Well-moderated comments sections are different. In a sense, they point the way forward for a friendlier, less chaotic online experience—dedicated groups of people with shared interests congregating around content that matters to them.
If this arrangement is more sustainable for users, who can stop wasting their time online engaging in petty arguments or rubbernecking at flame wars, it is even more sustainable for the publishing industry, which stands to gain much more from an internet ecosystem centered around independent, hosted communities.
As everyone with even a tangential connection to publishing or marketing knows, third-party cookies are on the brink of irrelevance: Google will be phasing them out of its Chrome browser next year. Publishers who want to maintain a grip on their readers’ preferences and interests will need to transition to gathering first-party data—and publisher-hosted conversations are among the most valuable first-party data sources that exist.
This is true in two ways. Firstly, comments are themselves incredible repositories of information. You can learn a lot about a reader, about their likes and dislikes, from what they feel comfortable sharing in the comments. Additionally, a robust comments section keeps readers on-site for longer and keeps them coming back more often—providing even more opportunities for publishers to learn about them.
All of which is to say that the idea of comments sections as a net-negative has run its course. Well-moderated comments sections are responsible for some of the most stimulating, engaging content on the internet. Publishers who turn that fact to their advantage will be richly rewarded.