If you’re posting content online, there’s a good chance you want people to share and talk about it. Discussion lets people feel more engaged and connected – and it also gives people an incentive to talk about it with their friends.
Managing a good space for conversation can be a lot of work, though. Online communities can be intimidating, as you’ve probably seen if you’ve read comment sections on popular sites. If left unsupervised, troublemaker visitors can post irrelevant, hurtful, or polarizing comments, and a discussion area that’s run amok may actually discourage people from visiting your site. As you’re choosing how to build your comments area, keep the following tips in mind.
Have a clear set of rules
It’s important from the start to write a set of rules stating what you will allow and what you won’t. How do you want people to behave? What would you consider to be over the line for obscene words or other content? It’s important to make a version of these rules public so that visitors know what to expect, but you may keep a set of examples or specific offenses private to guide you. Don’t be afraid to say that a comment may be deleted (or even that a user may be blocked) if they don’t follow your rules.
Here’s a quick note on anonymous comments. There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about whether sites should allow users to comment anonymously or pseudonymously (with a username they choose). Some sites use Facebook to ensure that there is some level of verification for the people who comment. Personally, I think it doesn’t make much of a difference as long as you have guidelines for your discussion. Keep in mind that removing the ability to post without your real name may exclude people from your discussion. Some people can’t or won’t comment with their real name because of a number of reasons: they may not want people to see their Facebook posts or friends, they might have a company policy not to publicly comment on topics, or they might not want to share a personal story.
Use consistent, objective moderation
With a set of rules for the discussion area in hand, it’s important to enforce them if a visitor violates them. Hide or remove a comment for first-time offenders, and try to reach out to them if possible to make sure they understand the guidelines for the discussion. Use your comment system’s blocking mechanism for repeat offenders; a few bad eggs can spoil an area completely if left unchecked.
If there is more than one person moderating the area, make sure that every moderator understands the guidelines and acts consistently. Visitors may be frustrated if some comments are allowed while other similar ones are removed by moderators.
Encourage and reward good contributions
Comments are supposed to enhance a discussion, not stop or derail it. Many modern commenting systems have some way for users to vote a comment up or down; these ratings let everyone feel like they’re part of building the community, and they reward people who write thoughtful, valuable comments.
Systems like IntenseDebate take it one step further by calculating a person’s reputation – that is, the overall value of their posts over time. People with a history of quality comments rise to the top of the discussion. It’s a great way to encourage people to contribute often and write comments that people will find valuable.
Comment areas can be a great opportunity for your site to become more engaging with the people who visit. But make sure you’re staying on top of what people post, or it may drive people away!
Justin is one of the developers at Sephone. He's interested in user-driven design, social media, and web services. He also enjoys learning and exploring new ways for businesses and people to use the web.