3 reasons to love, not fear, comments from readers

Reader comments posted online are fast becoming a valuable measure of engagement. Yet some publishers and marketers shut them down. Here are three reasons to embrace, not fear, comments from readers.

The comment section has long been a source of unease for publishers — a seemingly unwieldy space where scary, opinionated readers roam free.

In recent years, several media companies have put comments in the too-hard basket and pulled the plug on publishing them altogether.

While digital metrics like page views and time on site are important to measure reader interest in an article, comments from readers demonstrate a deeper level of engagement.

They have become so invested in the content, they are taking the time to express an opinion – good or bad – or want to add to the debate.

To be sure, for the pharmaceutical industry, reader comments can add a layer of complexity given the TGA’s requirements for all suspected adverse reports to be collected, held and appropriately followed up if involving a product’s sponsor.

But that’s no reason to avoid them; it just requires regular monitoring of the content to check for any adverse events. Frequency of monitoring should allow for adverse reports to be assessed and if valid, reported within 15 days from the date the information was posted.

So, why should you embrace comments? Here are three reasons.

1. They’re one of the best measures of engagement

The question of how best to measure reader engagement is a perennial in digital journalism.

What should we be looking at? Page views? Sessions? Shares? Likes? Time on page? While each of these metrics provides an important insight into certain aspects of reader engagement, there is something about comments that takes the game to another level.

Taking the time to stop and write a response to a piece of content is a powerful statement from a reader — particularly for notoriously time-poor doctors. We regularly look at comments — both their quality and quantity — to gauge how well our content is serving reader needs.

A big boost in this regard was the prescient decision to do away with pseudonyms on Medical Observer when the site was relaunched in 2015.

Before long, the comments section came alive. We were pleasantly surprised to find articles regularly drawing 20, 30, 40 comments. We were also pleased to find an improved tenor and plenty of thoughtful debate.

Today, it’s not unusual for an article to draw in excess of 50 comments. Stories with none are a rarity.

2. They provide invaluable insight

Key to engaging audiences in the digital realm is a detailed understanding of their needs and what makes them tick. In this regard, comments can provide crucial insight — a barometer of pressure in the medical profession.

The debate can often be robust. One recent piece was dubbed “pathetic, precious nonsense” by one commenter, while being welcomed by several others as “thought-provoking”. One of the most common comments is “well said”. We welcome the feedback and are happy to engage when readers feel we’ve fallen short.

Often comments relay highly relevant personal anecdotes and stories from the front lines of clinical practice that are a joy to read.

There have also been countless occasions when comments have flagged new angles and new routes of inquiry. Several times, comments have led to fresh articles of their own.

3. They can be downright amusing

And then there are the times when comments are downright amusing.
Like this one, below a historical piece on a Soviet surgeon who notoriously removed his own appendix while stranded in Siberia: “Don’t show this to Greg Hunt. He’ll be making patients do their own to save money.”

Or this one: “Anyone who quotes Hippocrates to a group of medical practitioners might as well be speaking ancient Greek.”

Or this one, about Independent Medical Experts employed by insurance companies:

“It seems that if it walks like a duck, looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, there will always be at least one IME somewhere that will gladly report that it’s actually a rare Norwegian duck-billed, waddling, quacking chicken.”

In the editorial department, we say here’s to comments.

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