Spotlight: Don’t Even Think About Dropping Your User

Article by Ron Stitt, Executive-in-Residence at Progress Partners

Ron Stitt argues that killing user commenting on publishers? owned-and-operated sites is about the worst move they can make, as it sabotages one of their best means of engagement. That engagement has a big impact on KPIs like low bounce rates and extended time on site, he says. 

September 22, 2016 ? One of the biggest issues facing news publishers right now is increasing engagement with core audiences on their own platforms. But what drives engagement? Is it just reading articles or watching videos? 

When a consumer reads or views content, that?s a key first level of engagement, but it?s not enough. Unfortunately ? and more often than not for most news sites ? that?s where the engagement ends. Bounce rates of 80%-plus are the norm for mobile-social referrals, which have become the dominant referral source for most news websites. 

Real engagement is what users do after they?ve arrived on a page. Commenting specifically allows them to participate in the story and the dialogue around it, and that is an addictive experience. Facebook shows us that already, with users engaging multiple times per day and TOS (time on site) measured in hours. 

Social media are the masters of this, as interactivity is in their DNA. Meanwhile, publishers have seemingly ceded this function to social platforms, where the real value kicks in when the content sparks further actions including likes, comments and shares. 

How is it then that in this social/distributed content environment where on-platform engagement is so hard to come by, many publishers such as the Chicago Sun Times, CNN, Bloomberg, Mic, Reuters, Recode, Popular Science and most recently, NPR, are backing away from and even discontinuing commenting on their websites?

The reasons cited tend to refer to the difficulty of administering and maintaining quality control. There is no doubt that this is a real issue, and a troll-packed, overly-rancorous comment thread can do a lot to undermine careful journalism and otherwise well-cultivated brand environments.  However, when commenting and related engagement features have the potential to be one of the top four pageview generating sources on your site, tripling or quintupling time on site for engaged users, it would behoove us to work a little harder to perfect the commenting systems rather than throwing in the towel and leaving Facebook to reap all the engagement rewards. Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Postsaid it most succinctly: ?News organizations should fix online comments rather than ditch them.?

Not worth the effort? Can?t generate the engagement or large enough results on engagement KPIs? Consider some recent Google Analytics data from Vuukle, a next-gen commenting/engagement platform with whom I have been advising. I have seen live log-ins to the Google Analytics accounts of several major South East Asia and Middle East news outlets running it where Vuukle is typically in the top three to five and as high as the second-ranked source of referral traffic.

One site (over a recent four-week span) saw fully 10% of referrals this way, behind only Facebook, but ahead of Google News, Twitter, Taboola and Yahoo. Even more important, the bounce rate on Vuukle-generated sessions on this site is only 27% versus the site overall average of 73%, and pageviews-per-session (8.35) and TOS (00:20:19) are almost three times site averages.

The ROI here is huge ? such engagement has a significant impact on total KPIs. This is not a marginal or fringe endeavor. Low bounce rates and extended time on site associated with engaged site users are becoming the holy grail of UX design. 

Players like Vuukle, Viafoura, Hubchat and others are being engineered carefully around stimulating comments and audience interactions with robust filtering and moderation tools. They enable publishers to reassert control not only of commenting, but also of their audience data, and some also can supply advanced real-time analytics to help optimize site performance. Presumably, established players like Disqus will also respond with features to drive greater engagement and load more quickly for the new era of mobile along with other competitive upgrades.

Key tactics exemplified by modern commenting solutions should stimulate engagement, encouraging and channeling users to comments. Using emoticons for reactions is one approach. Another is to ensure that the barrier to entry is low, since comment threads with few or no comments (typical of embedded Facebook comment widgets) make it seem like it?s not worth the effort to try to make a comment. Finally, robust moderation is important, but new technology that goes beyond simple keyword screening is finally making it feasible to largely automate this function for publishers who can?t invest in heavy manual quality control.

I?m a strong advocate of distributed content strategies and the aggressive embrace of platforms like Facebook, but that approach cannot be at the expense of full-bore efforts to engage core audiences on your owned platforms. We can and must do both. 

We must prioritize user experience (UX) the way pureplay digital platforms like Facebook do and look at tradeoffs when it comes to design given limited screen real estate, especially on mobile. This means coming to terms with balancing the need to squeeze every last nickel out of every immediate pageview versus the longer-term repeat visit and brand equity benefits of making your sites and apps interesting ? and engaging ? experiences for your audience.

Ron Stitt is a strategic adviser to companies large and small in the media, digital media and ad tech sectors. He was recently the head of digital media for the Fox Television Stations division of 21st Century Fox, and previously was VP of digital media for Disney?s ABC Owned TV Stations. He can be contacted here.

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