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The types of stories and comments that promote comment-section engagement

Want more comments? Look at how you write articles on your site. Articles that describe why they matter to specific groups of people generate more comments than articles that don’t describe how they affect people or that focus on just one person.

Want to boost interaction among commenters? Try encouraging commenters to respond to each other by name.

These are some of the insights from two recently-published scholarly articles on engagement and interaction in comment sections.

Comment sections are a controversial subject. Some news organizations have begun to eschew comments altogether, including Reuters’ and the technology site Re/code, arguing that much of that discussion now occurs on social media.

But community conversation has become an important part of news, and organizations interested in increasing the volume of comments and generating more interaction between commenters can draw inspiration from the new findings.

More comments appear on articles with several key attributes, according to research by University of Zurich doctoral student Patrick Weber. News about events that have a clear beginning and end, for example, yields more comments than news about ongoing situations. This result suggests that an article describing a jobs bill being passed would receive more comments than an article about ongoing debate about the same bill.

Weber’s analysis of 1,000 articles from three German newspapers also identifies articles that attract fewer comments: Among those he found are international stories and stories that focus more on facts than analysis.

News organizations also can encourage discussion among commenters. Research by University of Mainz students Marc Ziegele and Timo Breiner and their professor Oliver Quiring examines which comments are most likely to inspire a reaction from other commenters. They analyze 1,580 comments left in response to political stories from two different German news organizations.

Personalized comments that directly address another commenter are more likely to get a response, Ziegele and his colleagues find. So are comments that pose a question.

One finding that may be less surprising is that controversial comments increase the chances that others will respond. But one finding may not be so expected: Short comments — those with 10 or fewer words — are far less likely to prompt a response.

Likelihood of stimulating feedback
Comments at the beginning of a thread 2.52
Comments asking a question 2.18
Controversial comments 1.74
Personalized comments 1.6
Very short comments 0.14

Data Source: Marc Ziegele, Timo Breiner & Oliver Quiring. (2014). What creates interactivity in online news discussions? An exploratory analysis of discussion factors in user comments on news items. Journal of Communication. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12123

American Press Institute

Website design, the researchers find, affects commenting and interaction, too. Weber concludes that prominently featured articles garner more comments. The University of Mainz team discovers that comments at the top of a commenting thread receive more responses than other comments.

It is important to note that these studies demonstrate correlation, not causation. By identifying factors that correlate with more engagement and interaction, however, they provide a solid starting point for news organizations interested in testing factors that could produce a robust conversation.

News organizations can use these findings to examine whether the following factors affect comments on their sites:

  • When it comes to comment section design, publishers can think critically about which comments appear first because these garner the most interaction.
  • When it comes to discussion norms, journalists interacting in the comment section could make use of commenters’ first names or usernames.
  • When it comes to writing news, articles that describe consequences for social groups could be featured prominently on a site to attract more comments.

By identifying features that produce more vibrant discussion, news organizations can work toward stronger engagement with site visitors. These two recent studies offer an important first step.

Next steps

Scholars and news organizations interested in continuing this line of research could collaborate to evaluate how to generate more comments and more interaction among commenters, using the following as starting points. The research also could move beyond comment sections to look at sharing articles and the discussion of articles in social media. Among the possibilities:

  • Test whether changing the factors identified affects how many people comment and how often commenters interact with one another.
  • Confirm that the results found for German online news sites apply more broadly.
  • Identify the quality of comments most desired and evaluate what predicts the best commenting discussion.
  • Broaden the research to test whether these same characteristics correlate to more sharing of stories and more discussion on Twitter and Facebook.

Citations

Patrick Weber. (2014). Discussions in the comments section: Factors influencing participation and interactivity in online newspapers’ reader comments. New Media & Society, 1696), 941-957. doi: 10.1177/1461444813495165

Marc Ziegele, Timo Breiner & Oliver Quiring. (2014). What creates interactivity in online news discussions? An exploratory analysis of discussion factors in user comments on news items. Journal of Communication. doi: 10.1111/jcom.12123

  • Enjoyed your article. Given a picture, I’d have saved under journalism on Pinterest. Ah, well.. see you on Twitter.

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