One of the simplest ways to make web pages more interactive is to let users comment on the content. However, this isn’t as simple as it might at first seem. There’s an art to writing content which elicits the desired conversation. It’s also not straightforward engaging effectively in an on-line conversation resulting from a piece of web content. So how do you do this effectively and what are the implications of turning on commenting?
First of all, the underlying process of commissioning, writing and publishing changes. The diagram below shows how this process might work BEFORE you turn on commenting.
Broadly speaking, you identify your audience; work out what you want to achieve; draft the key messages to achieve that outcome; decide which channel(s) you are going to publish in to; draft text to suit the chosen channel(s); sign it off; publish and walk away and get on with the next thing on your To Do List. All this tends to happen in splendid isolation.
Turning on commenting fundamentally changes the process. Without commenting the end product is your content. With commenting, the end product is the conversation NOT your content. In fact, your content really just becomes something to talk about – the value is not bound up in the content alone, but mostly in the conversation it triggers.
This changes the publication process to something more like the below.
There are clearly more steps in the process and there are more considerations within each step:
- Audience: With commenting turned on, you have less control over who might read your content. Commenting makes content leak across traditional audience boundaries as comments surface in readers’ networks and attract attention – this is unpredictable. You therefore need to be mindful that your content will have greater reach so don’t be too parochial and don’t make statements which could be misinterpreted by employees in other parts of the business.
- Outcome: You need to be ABSOLUTELY crystal clear about what you want to achieve to avoid your content being hijacked by commenters with ulterior motives or hidden agendas. The outcome needs to be clear so that you can steer conversations back on track to achieve it if necessary.
- Message: Similar to Outcome above, your message needs to be clear or the comments will quickly highlight any lack of clarity through questioning. If the commenting thread descends into a series of confused questions, the message will be considerably diluted … it’ll also make you look unprofessional!
- Channels: This is pretty much the same – you’ll chose a suitable channel to suit your audience and outcomes.
- Draft text: When you don’t have commenting switched on, if your text is unclear or lends itself to unintended interpretations, the worst that can happen is that readers will walk away confused or getting the wrong end of the stick. With commenting turned on, they will express their confusion under the content. This is good, as it means as a content provider you are accountable for what you write and you are quickly made aware of any inadequacies in your text. However, you are likely to look a bit incompetent if there are gaping holes in what you write or if you are unclear or ambiguous. You need to tighten up your prose and always get someone unrelated to the content to read it before you publish to get their feedback.
- Get sign-off: With commenting, this isn’t just a case of getting the content owner to sign-off what you’ve written. You’ll need to alert other managers from other teams who might also have an interest in the content that you are publishing so they can also monitor what is said and respond if need be. You’ll also need to read surrounding content in the channel into which you are about to publish to ensure you are not about to unintentionally inflame an already tempestuous discussion happening on the site. If emotions are running high, the smallest incitement can kick things off! It’s best if your content doesn’t become that incitement!
- Conversation: A conversation may or may not result from the publication of your content. If it doesn’t, you don’t necessarily need to feel like you’ve failed … some content just doesn’t trigger comments. If a conversation does ensue, you need to respond in the right way. The points below should help you do that.
- Harvest: In my experience, this is the most overlooked and often the most valuable part of the process. Seldom do content owners ask themselves: What have I learned from this conversation? For example, conversations can help you plan your next comms, can help you build Q&As or update content on pages to fill the gaps which have been highlighted by commenters. You might want to contact people who have taken part in the conversation when setting up focus groups and content/site review panels or, if they are particularly passionate, you might be able to harness that passion to spread your messages further. Finally, conversations often contain great ideas and show you new ways of thinking about things – take advantage of these making sure you ALWAYS attribute them to the originator. If nothing else, the conversation will clearly show you if the readers have got it or not!
Top tips for engaging successfully in an on-line conversation triggered by your web content:
So, you’ve published your stuff and commenting is kicking off – here’s how to join the conversation:
- allocate sufficient time to monitor and respond to comments – if you don’t respond there is a danger of a self-feeding, whinge-fest emerging
- stick around and follow-up on comments you make – making a comment and then leaving is not engaging in a conversation
- alert other people who may have an interest so they are aware of the conversation and can join in too
- respond first and fast to de-rails (by de-rail I mean where a commenter tries to manipulate the conversation to air a grievance on another topic)
- deal with negative sentiment head on – ignoring negative sentiment results in it spiralling out of control
- always bring the conversation back to the facts which will take the heat out if it – don’t get involved in arguments or get emotional
- keep your responses in the thread – don’t say: “I’ll contact you off-line” as this kills the conversation
- tone of voice is critical – be honest, open and authentic.
- preach at people or talk down to them
- hide behind quotes from company literature or use management speak as a surrogate for authentic engagement
- use jargon, abbreviations or marketing/business language
- throw your weight around and act in a heavy handed manner because of your position in the company.
So, there you have it … at least my view of it … if yours differs, please feel free to comment and I’ll try to follow my own advice in the ensuing conversation! :-)