Nine Publishing’s new comment strategy increases subscriber base, engages community

By Matthew Burgess

Nine Publishing

Melbourne, Australia


Blame it on social media: Comment threads have developed a poor reputation right across the Web. When they’re at their worst, it’s easy to understand why.

But as news publishers double down on subscriber growth and retention — where the real aim is to engage your audience — it’s worth rethinking their value.

A well-managed comments section can encourage people to spend more time engaging with other readers.
A well-managed comments section can encourage people to spend more time engaging with other readers.

At Nine Publishing’s metropolitan mastheads, our subscribers and registered readers submitted more than 1.8 million comments last year. That’s around 35,000 comments every week. In 12 months, they commented on more than 21,000 articles.

Recognising this as an opportunity, we set out in mid-2023 to enhance the value and quality of our threads, build community, and bolster engagement with our in-article comments. Most importantly, we wanted to deliver on our broader subscriber goals at every turn.

So, how did we do that?

Listen to the audience

Firstly, we wanted to hear from our readers. How often did they post or read the comments? What drove readers to comment on specific topics over others? How could we improve the experience and what would encourage them to comment more — or possibly for the first time?

We launched a site intercept survey across The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and Brisbane Times, with more than 6,500 readers responding. Almost half had engaged with comments in the past month. But it wasn’t only commenters; a far greater percentage of people said they gained value from reading the comments without posting.

What’s more, the survey showed reading comments was more popular than our various live blogs: 42% of Age respondents said they had read comments in the past month, compared with a live blog at 35%. The preference was starker for the Herald: 52% had read the comments, far outweighing blogs at 32%.

But while readers enjoyed gaining new perspectives — or even challenging their own opinions — some were discouraged by incessant commenters who hogged the conversation to champion their beliefs and bait others with a contrasting view. They asked us to lead the way with insightful conversation from a broader mix of voices.

Overhaul our commenting guidelines

Guided by this feedback — plus extensive conversations with our team of moderators and additional research — the focus turned to revamping our commenting guidelines.

The aim? Promote quality over quantity and elevate the threads as a shared space for healthy, well-informed discussion sparked by our journalism.

Key to the new guidelines were:

  • A 1,500-character cap on every comment.
  • Commenters would be limited to 10 posts per story to showcase a wider range of viewpoints and voices.
  • No repeating of earlier posts, either in whole or in part.
  • Suspensions and bans for commenters who spread misinformation, incite conflict, or appear to be conducting an organised campaign.
  • Encouraging commenters to use their real name or a variation of their real name.
  • Zero tolerance for abuse of other commenters or the moderation team.

In early December, we published an article on The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, Brisbane Times, and WAtoday explaining how our commenting guidelines were changing in response to reader feedback.

Hundreds of subscribers posted comments on the article embracing the move: “Bravo. In support of these changes. Well done SMH for continuing to find balance in an otherwise polarised world,” one wrote.

Others said it was a “great start to a more civil society” and greatly appreciated how we were tackling misinformation.

Boost the value of a subscription

The article detailed another major change: posting comments was now exclusively for subscribers.

Registered readers — a much smaller cohort that accounted for around 8% of total posts in 2023 — could continue to read comments but would no longer be able to join the conversation.

As we said at the time, prioritising our paying readers will help us ensure the people who help fund our journalism are able to participate in the community they support.

Our moderators, who review every comment before it’s published or rejected, had long prioritised subscriber comments. Formalising this gave our registered readers greater clarity, defusing any tension over unpublished comments or moderation delays.

It also sent a clear signal to anyone who visited our sites about the value of subscribing to one of our mastheads.

The results

The rollout of a “subscribe to comment” prompt on stories has added dozens of subscribers in three months.

Our subscriber onboarding journey will encourage these subscribers to build additional habits across our brands. We’ll also monitor their retention levels to see how “sticky” this cohort is.

There have been other benefits. We received around 367,000 subscriber comments in the three months after the change. The number of unmoderated comments fell by 99% — they now make up just 0.05% of all subscriber comments — while the average time taken to moderate each post has reduced dramatically (around 30%). There’s also been a slight rise in the percentage of published comments.

The new guidelines have also delivered a better experience for our paying subscribers and other readers. Posts are more concise and, as a result, more engaging. Casual commenters now have more visibility in the threads; their contributions are just as valuable as more frequent commenters.

We’re encouraged by the results, but we’re not done yet. An upgrade of our comments platform is next. And we will be exploring the possibilities of AI and rapid moderation so subscribers can have more meaningful conversations in real time.

It’s all part of a broader strategy to reinvigorate our reader comments, spurred on by posts like this: “The comments section has kept me as a subscriber as it adds a dimension to news stories not found elsewhere.”

About Matthew Burgess

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