Dallas Morning News changes reader comment strategy to satisfy silent audience

In my last blog post, I talked about why The Dallas Morning News participates in Matter, the only media-based accelerator. One of the reasons is to be continuously reminded that to really satisfy your audience members, you have to get out and meet them, talk with them, and listen.

When I think about a future when we are great at satisfying the audiences that will engage with us, it gets me thinking: How do we satisfy the silent audience?

You know who I’m talking about. They read content and read the comments at the bottom of the story but don’t participate. Are they satisfied? Could it be that while they prefer not to publicise their thoughts, they are actually quite dissatisfied?

Sure, we can track click behaviour and frequency of visit metrics among our millions of unique visitors, but this will only get us so far.

Recently, Curt Schilling made news when he discussed how enraged he was with comments on his daughter’s social feeds. He asked great questions about the ease in which presumably unidentified people could become bullies on the Web with very little to no consequences.

As a mother of three young boys, I care a lot about bullying in the digital world. At The Dallas Morning News, we are thinking about how we may help those who remain quiet, yet are potentially disgusted by comments in our digital channels.

Like all responsible news outlets, we have policies on keeping freedom of speech preserved while removing the truly offensive items when necessary. But we decided to experiment and, perhaps, take it a step further, when we launched our new entertainment site, GuideLive.com.

We considered the “value” of the comments in our entertainment stories. Not just value to us, but value to the reader. Not just value to the ones commenting, which may be nothing more than making statements on a public platform, but value to those not commenting.

The other thing we reviewed was how often consumers are using their real names instead of an alias to comment.

This brought forward the notion that if a person was prepared to post a potentially provocative comment, would he move forward if the only way was to post as himself, at least as he is known on social networks?

What would he say if the most important group of people to him – friends, family, and co-workers – could see his comments?

On GuideLive.com, those are the new rules. Readers are prompted by a “Discuss” button at the top of the story. There, they can e-mail the author for one-on-one communication.

But they can also be taken to a social media post about that story, where they can add their own comments. There, the comments are far more visible to friends, family, and co-workers than if they appeared on the story itself. A benefit for us is that this helps spread the content in the social space, almost as effectively as a share would.

Admittedly, in a world where you want to foster a sense of community among your readers, I was skeptical this was the right move. And, after 30 days since launch (at writing time), the jury is still out.

Could it be this didn’t prevent anyone from sharing questionable comments? Could it be the buttons are simply larger and intuitive and the great design gets the credit?

Many factors come into play, but perhaps the most difficult question remains: Is the silent audience more satisfied? That’s a question we will undoubtedly continue to revisit in a quest to reach a future where our audience may not always agree with us, but always leaves satisfied and coming back for more.

About Nicki Purcell

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