Taking a leaf out of the FT’s book: How to handle online comments and audience participation

When the Financial Times published their series ‘Management’s Missing Women’ in April, it was bound to cause controversy. The interview itself included a collection of interviews, data analysis and live reader contributions with the focus of how women still occupy a fraction of managerial positions in big companies, despite how much of a hot topic corporate diversity initiatives are.

Naturally, the first story of the series induced some opinionated responses about gender pay gap that started off “a bit condescending”, says Lilah Raptopoulos. (Lilah is FT’s community manager and is responsible for managing the on-site reader engagement.)

Her approach was interesting. Instead of just deleting the inappropriate or offensive comments or ignoring them, Lilah’s team moderators merely reminded people about the commenting guidelines of the organisation. On the rare occasion, a comment was deleted, it was calmly explained as to why and that users should contribute in a way that is respectful towards their peers.

When you have people actively posting, you need to bear in mind that you are not just responding to them, but the countless others who are reading that comment thread. Lisa added “It reminds people that there is an active presence [in the comments] and that we care about civility and the conversation staying productive,”

This stance helped the tone shift quickly and in turn led to many contributions from female readers working in finance.

Lilah’s role is to focus on the comments strategy as well as concentrating on other forms of reader participation. Working with others across the Newsroom, her approach is to develop stories and projects that take into account readers’ input as early as the commissioning stages. Determining which questions yielded valuable responses from the readership is vital as it provokes conversation.

Once that established, readers are invited to fill out a questionnaire that allows them to share their own experiences and become a valuable part of the reporting process, sharing their own story ideas and insights. Some of the readers that respond to message threads, then later become sources or eventually have their own story shared.

From this process, we can take away two key ways to approach reader participation. One factor is that some topics are already heavily talked about and so you are inviting people to contribute as you aim to improve the tone of the conversation or to diversify perspectives.

The other approach is for when a newsroom wants to build a community where one doesn’t currently exist. This could be around a particular issue which is important to you. If this circumstance, it is vital that you are crystal clear about what you are trying to do and how readers’ stories will be used.

The Financial Times highlight reader comments and an invaluable tool both editorially and commercially. From an editorial perspective, they help build trust with readers and the media source, the commenter can become a story or become a fantastic source, and the commented section give direct feedback to FT’s reporting.

Some interesting figures show that people writing comments are, on average, seven times more engaged than those who don’t, so they spend more time on the website, read more stories and return more often.

How do you reach beyond your own readership and bring in voices from outside of it?

Written by Mădălina Ciobanu, 20 July 2017, published on Journalism.co.uk. Read the full article here.