As both online and brick & mortar retailers look for more avenues to increase average order value, repeat visits, and margin per transaction, they are looking further and further out from traditional marketing. This is hardly a new trend, but now that social media has matured (or at least plateaued) and companies have established footholds and built teams, communications strategies have become much more nuanced and focused. This is a good thing for both the companies investing in these strategies and for the consumers that are tired of ham-handed attempts at “reaching out”.
The big buzz now is two-way interaction. Sears and Kmart have several properties on Facebook and Twitter, and we also have more customized channels such as the one I am most closely associated with, SearsStyle.
When working on features and components for blog-style, syndicated content, there is always the allure and curse of featuritis. Luckily, for the most part, executives have caught up to the rest of the world and know what to expect when commissioning a blog, forum, or news site. Because features like sharing, searching, and filtering are ubiquitous, the business requirements for a ground-up build are rather boilerplate. Consequently, even when I serve as a lead UXA on a project, I rarely have any objections to whatever vision a client may have about a content-centric site…unless they want to add commenting.
In the context of commerce-related properties, allowing readers to have the ability to freely comment on an article or blog post exposes the corporate entity to a degree of liability that is, at best, unnecessary. I would even posit that comments have no discernable positive value in terms of conversion or consideration.
So, let’s comment about commenting. Actually, let’s start with the positives of commenting.
- If the site is self-curated, commenting provides the most direct link between customer and retailer.
- Commenting empowers customers with a voice in an officially sanctioned venue.
- Commenting, especially threaded commenting, encourages interaction among constituents, and can lead to beneficial outcomes such as crowd-sourced solutions to queries and issues.
- Commenting can also serve as a status report of the companies most active and vocal customers.
Despite these advantages, I uniformly discourage adding the ability to comment on our self-generated content on our curated commerce and content sites. Even if there are viable justifications for adding commenting, I will discourage it.
And yes, there is the ability to comment on this site, but I will talk about that later.
Phishing and Self Promotion
Obviously, comment sections are a petri dish for scams, and they are getting more and more sophisticated. Spambots are rampant in commenting areas, especially on blogs and news sites that allow anonymous commenting. While this is just an unavoidable side effect of the Internet for most site owners and can be remedied by some annoying but simple curating, it can be a legal tar pit for high profile sites, retail and otherwise. Consider the unassuming reader who sees the old “Great article! It reminds me of this classic post: http://phishingscam.ripoff” comment and clicks on the link only to have it install malware or ask for your credentials. Yes, most people and browsers are smarter than that, but do you really want your fashion blog to be the source of malware, even if it’s in the comments section? And are you ready to dedicate someone to monitor comments full time?
Almost worse are the self-promotion and cross-promotion trolls. This is a special breed of malcontent who visits online retailers and links to other retailers. Not only does this dilute or degrade your SEO power, it also wreaks havoc with any policy you are trying to implement universally.
Although my analysis is hardly comprehensive, it seems as if the most innocuous content can spark vitriol and personal attacks. But even if your commenters are not trying to game the system for their own gain, there are still major risks. Content may be libelous or threatening, and the courts are still determining the culpability of third party sites on a case by case basis
Sometimes, comments devolve into something that you don’t want associated with your brand. Obviously, overtly political, religious, or other controversy-themed posts will beget comments in kind. But even the most innocuous content can generate negativity on your site. In a tongue-in-cheek Huffington Post photo essay about foods that should that should be avoided on a first date (a subject that could and should wind up as the basis of a SearsStyle article), we have this gem of human discourse, which includes cherrypicking statements out of context and downright trolling:
So if you were a site admin and this bothered you or if this conversation violated the spirit (if not letter) of the terms of service, what would you do? Delete it? Edit it? People really don’t like their statements being modified. What about if it gets more heated? Do you edit? Ban? Reach out? Are you prepared to allocate resources, including those of your legal department?
Now, the Science
Scientific American posted a relevant article last year about a study that showed that comments, even ones that are obviously off topic or vitriolic, can actually alter a reader’s perception of the original text. This finding was significant enough to compel the Popular Science website to remove commenting from their articles.
The Scientific American article also notes that commenting directly on articles has been replaced in popularity by sharing onto social media and then commenting. This is certainly a viable solution to mitigate liability for your brand or organization, and this is what we do on SearsStyle.
So should you introduce commenting into your eCommerce site? Do you need more interaction than Facebook, ratings, and Twitter?
If so, I would strongly suggest a content strategy that includes HEAVY moderation and interaction. This is not a job for the new guy/girl; you need someone very familiar with the brand, your company’s intended voice, and a seasoned communication style.
Are you up for the challenge? If so, comment below. </irony>