It seems like every month, more and more publishers are slamming the dialogue doors on their digital properties, blaming trolls, spam, and the costs of comment moderation as reasons for the lockout.

Second only to the digital advertising debris they inflict upon their readers, I consider this to be the biggest mistake media executives have made in their attempts to transition to digital and engage with today’s constantly connected news consumer.

There was an engaging discussion on this very topic at the recent INMA Mobile Strategies Conference, where I was questioned on my assertion of the foregoing. When the moderator asked the audience about the love of the industry for the user comments, the first response was short and blunt: “We hate comments.”

Too many people in the publishing industry still hold on to the myopic myth that news should be a monologue. In fact, according to a recent study, 86% of news reporters in the United States believe citizens should not be allowed to contribute to the news.

And yet, research has shown that user-generated content (UGC) is trusted 50% more by Millennials than information from other media sources, including newspapers and magazines. Clearly there is a huge disconnect between some publishers and the public they serve.

User-generated content is trusted more than information from other sources.
User-generated content is trusted more than information from other sources.

The road to riches has two lanes

Author and futurist, Ross Dawson believes the future of news = trusted aggregation of content + community + commerce.

Facebook already has the community and commerce all but nailed down, and Mark Zuckerberg has made it pretty clear that he wants to be the world’s largest content aggregator. So when the social CEO opens his Instant Articles doors to the media masses on April 12, he may very well be on his way to realising that vision.

Publishers still tenuously hold the content card but are sadly lacking when it comes to community and commerce. For them to guarantee their future they must fill those voids; the voice of the reader must be heard and UGC must be encouraged.

Because, without dialogue there can be no community, and without community, there can be no commerce.

Community and commerce go hand-in-hand.
Community and commerce go hand-in-hand.

Take a page out of the Facebook playbook

Although Facebook was founded in 2004, it wasn’t until September 2006 that the general public could join. It made US$153 million in revenue in 2007, with a US$138 million loss.

Today, while global newspaper and magazine revenues continue to stagnate at best, Facebook revenues are rockets in flight.

Facebook's revenues have significantly increased in recent years while traditional media has stagnated.
Facebook's revenues have significantly increased in recent years while traditional media has stagnated.

It’s interesting to speculate what might have happened if just one publisher (e.g. The New York Times or The Washington Post, perhaps) had shared the vision of Mark Zuckerberg back in 2007 when their revenues were 20+ times that of Facebook. Ahhh … hindsight, right?

Not too long ago, traditional media had revenues 20 times higher than Facebook.
Not too long ago, traditional media had revenues 20 times higher than Facebook.

Sadly, most media executives are still sticking to their old-school practices, rather than helping to grow a social network for news.

Thankfully some publishers haven’t joined the ranks of those who muzzle their members. They know they must treat reader content with the same respect they bestow on their own and invest in moderating the dialogue between them.

Readers have spoken: They want the ability to comment on content.
Readers have spoken: They want the ability to comment on content.

Now, Facebook is no angel; in fact, it has a long history of horror stories on how it treats brands and members. But in spite of that, it has a growing, loyal following that can’t be ignored. Since 2012, scientists have been researching what makes Facebook so addictive. Some experts have suggested that compulsive use actually changes brain reward pathways that are similar to drug addiction.

Whatever it is, there is little argument that Facebook is the most engaging social media site on the planet today. In December 2015, the tech titan had close to 1.6 billion monthly active users, and its numbers continue to soar.

Facebook's popularity shows no signs of slowing down.
Facebook's popularity shows no signs of slowing down.

Meanwhile, publishers who once owned the eyeballs of news consumers continue to struggle to attract readers to their content and retain their interest for any length of time. People spend, on average, only 1.1 minutes a day on newspaper Web sites compared 33 minutes on social media.

In 2008, the average bounce rate for news and media sites was ~55%. Seven years later, it is trending in the wrong direction.

People are much more likely to stay on Facebook for a longer duration of time.
People are much more likely to stay on Facebook for a longer duration of time.

The reasons for news sites’ low engagement are well documented, including: not enough unique quality content, the inability to connect and engage with others, and a poor digital experience caused by intrusive advertising, poor performance, and disruptive paywalls.

But I believe the root cause of the problem is the fact that too many publishers remain content-first instead of audience-first — the exact opposite to the model proven to be successful by the likes of Facebook. And while content is important, how you approach it being audience-first produces vastly different results.

Putting more focus on people than on the content around which they communicate, Facebook has become the go-to digital repository for everything that matters to its members. Why? Because it gives them what they want — an immersive and engaging experience where they can connect with friends and like-minded people and express themselves in text, video, images, and audio, on any platform.

Expression can come in many forms, from sharing information about themselves to writing original content, posting third-party content, and sharing comments/opinions on issues that matter to them.

Invest in community to generate commerce

Are there trolls and trash talkers out there ready to crash your publishing party? Sure there are. But why punish the loyal for the crimes of the few? Audience-first brands don’t. They support the innocent by investing in their security through comment moderation.

  • Almost one-third of Facebook’s staff is made up of content moderators.

  • A number of digital pure plays are vetting readers through manual and automated means.

  • The New York Times has a dedicated staff managing the integrity of its community.
  • BBC Top Gear facilitates engaging conversations using trained hosts (who can comment on articles) and moderators.
BBC Top Gear thrives on reader interaction and communication.
BBC Top Gear thrives on reader interaction and communication.

Produced by Immediate Media, BBC Top Gear is the United Kingdom’s leading motoring, car culture, and lifestyle brand that takes its audience on an entertaining journey that keeps them engaged.

This reader-centric magazine creates unique opportunities for people to explore their passions and connect with like-minded people.

With an average reading time of 44 minutes, it should be a benchmark for other publications to replicate.

Now I know what you’re going to say: “Those are wealthy companies that can afford to hire people to moderate content; we’re not rich enough for that.” Perhaps not, but there are lots of technologies out there helping smaller publishers moderate comments, some even through crowdsourcing.

Connections matter

Fuelled by humanity and technological innovations, we are now living in of what marketing guru Seth Godin calls the connection economy, where value is created by the connections we make and not by conformity fostered by industrialism.

The connection economy empowers people to do what they do best — connect — and it lets them do it at a massive scale. According to Godin, through connections, people can create the extraordinary, do something important, and make a difference.

The businesses that offer people more opportunities to connect are the ones equipped to create more value for themselves and their customers. It wouldn’t be stretch to suggest that social media is winning over publishing in the connection economy.

Social media has done a better job than traditional media in connecting with readers.
Social media has done a better job than traditional media in connecting with readers.

Today, digital connections between individuals and media are typically made through commenting, either on publishers’ Web sites or on social networks. It was a great first start, but it is limited compared to the kinds of connections people really want. Social networks, for example:

  • Do not create unity around people’s opinions.

  • Restrict discussions to within a circle of friends/followers.

  • Are not optimised for discovering like-minded people.

  • Force users to follow everything their friends/followers say and do.

In addition, comments are:

  • Quickly lost in the stream of other people’s dialogue, making it difficult for individuals to stand out from the noise.

  • Perishable and short-tailed because they are attached to stories that become obsolete when tomorrow’s news hits the wires.

Wait … do you hear that noise? It’s opportunity knocking!

Imagine a social network specifically designed to host full-content newspapers and magazines and facilitate meaningful discussions that support:

  • Non-perishable opinions that take on a life of their own.

  • The ability to easily discover like-minded people and connect with them around topics of interest.

  • Team-building of individuals around their opinions.

  • The opportunity for people to become powerful influencers in and outside the network.

I’ve often heard publishers say readers aren’t really interested in commenting. And they would be wrong. There is almost a zettabyte (725,776,772 terabytes to be exact; in other, more scientific words, a huge number) of user-generated data on the Internet today. So if these publishers aren’t seeing much interest in commenting on their sites, then that begs the question, “What’s wrong with their sites?”

I think we all know …

There is a massive amount of user-generated content available on the Internet.
There is a massive amount of user-generated content available on the Internet.

Data proves that, given the opportunity to generate content in a welcoming, safe, and frictionless environment, people will connect and share opinions and content in multiple media forms.
UGC not only adds value to the existing content for other members to enjoy, it can also elevate the contributors’ reputation within the community, giving them more reasons to return to engage with new fans/followers.

It’s dialogue or die time

Metcalfe’s law states that the power of any network is the square of the number of “trusted” nodes on that network. In other words, the most valuable destinations on the Internet are the places that connect us.

Facebook is all about connecting people around content, and it is making billions. So I ask you: If you are pushing content down a one-way street to your readers and then telling them to head over to social media to chat about it, how’s that strategy working for you?

Remember, if your readers’ opinions don’t matter to you, then you won’t matter to them. It’s not too late to open up a dialogue with your readers, invite them to participate in the content creation process, and help them connect with other like-minded people through your news.

Let’s talk!