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5 Easy Ways to Make your Comments Section a Conversation

By Tiffany Monhollon

In order to effectively build a relationship with a reader, you have to do more than just build great content that Google loves. It’s important build relationships with readers through conversation. Think about your friends in real life. One of the primary things that characterizes the level of relationship you have with a friend is how often and in-depth you communicate. The same goes for any relationship - especially online. It’s impossible to have a virtual relationship with someone you don’t communicate with. That’s why step one in creating powerful reader contact is to make your comments section an ongoing conversation with participants.

Why You Need Comments to Grow

As a blogger, you want comments for a lot of reasons. New readers, especially people who find your content in single-serving form through sites like del.icio.us, Digg, or StumbleUpon, will judge the success of your blog through the one post they discover your site through. And they will judge the success of that post at first glance, largely based on how others respond to it. So having an active comments section is critical to establishing credibility to new readers and converting them into new subscribers and active participants.

What You Can Do About It

So how can you convert the 90% of readers who lurk into the 10% of readers who participate? Try these five tips to get started

1. Extend the invitation. Almost every blogger I know wants comments - save the few mega-bloggers who have infamously turned off the comments function, or those who have experienced horrific stalker issues. But it may surprise you how few people ask for them. This is a tricky thing to do, because you don’t want to appear desperate, but if you don’t extend the invitation to join the conversation to your readers, many won’t. So end each post so that it engages thought. Ask for personal experiences or examples from your readers that confirm or oppose your advice. Ask an open-ended question or end with an example or scenario to leave readers thinking about how they could apply your ideas. Whether you do it directly or in an implied way, make sure you extend the invitation to the party in your comments section within each post.

2. Comment on your own post. Unless you are a top blogger and engaging comments isn’t an issue for you, it’s critical to reply to each comment that’s left. Whether or not generating comments is an issue, commenting personally in response to readers is a great way to thread a personal touch through the narrative of your entire blog. Plus, it demonstrates to readers that you’re accessible, friendly, and interested in their perspective. This builds trust which is a critical component of establishing a relationship.

3. Enable subscriptions to your comments. Many readers enjoy the comments section of your blog as much as - and sometimes more than - the content you write alone. Make sure readers can subscribe to follow the conversation and keep chiming in. If you’re using Wordpress, here is a great plugin I use that you can install right now to make sure your readers can follow the conversation at each post you write. This simple step will extend the life of a blog post for days or even weeks beyond when you first post and keep readers coming back to chime in more.

4. Dig deeper. Bring new information into the conversation as often as you can through your own comments to your post. Surprise readers with a new statistic, contradict yourself for the sake of spurring deeper thought, or ask new questions - to your readership as a whole or specific readers within your comments conversation. This encourages readers to continue engaging in the conversation and taking it up themselves. A solid post can spark a truly meaningful conversation in an entire community of readers, so make sure you’re helping add value to the conversation as it evolves. Sometimes, a great comments section will generate questions or spark ideas that can help you create highly relevant, interactive content for your entire readership to enjoy, so be intimately acquainted with the conversation that’s going on at your blog.

5. Dare to debate. Controversy and debate are the hallmarks of some of the most popular destinations online. They’re also - well - controversial in the blogosphere since many bloggers sensationalize or bait readers with quasi controversial headlines or subcontexts. But that doesn’t debate or controversy can’t be a healthy, constructive thing. Don’t shy away from criticism or debate in the comment section of your blog; instead, embrace it as an opportunity to demonstrate your cool under pressure with an open-minded, well-though-out response. Dare readers to take the debate to their blog and extend the conversation there. Don’t run from criticism simply because it’s uncomfortable to deal with. Realize that great conversation can be marked by open-minded debate.

Like any great conversation, your comments section has a lot to offer - to you, your readers, and anyone who happens upon it. How will you use the conversational elements of comments to transform your blog into a relationship-making tool?

This post is part two of my series on how to build powerful relationships with readers. Don’t miss a word of this free series. Subscribe to Personal PR today.

By Tiffany Monhollon | March 17, 2008

Topics: Blogging, Communicating, Personal PR, Relationships, Strategy |

46 Responses to “5 Easy Ways to Make your Comments Section a Conversation”

  1. Brian Oates Says:
    March 17th, 2008 at 6:17 pm

    How about:
    6. Give and you shall receive: Comment on other blogs

    I’m linking to my podcast, which doesn’t ask the user to participate.. so I’m not attempting to drive comments back. If you want to have friends, be friendly. If you want comments, comment elsewhere.

    Your posts are always enjoyable Tiffany. Thank you!

  2. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    March 17th, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    Great point, Brian. Being proactive throughout the blogosphere is important - that’s another element of the blogger’s golden rule I love to preach about! :)

    You bring up an interesting point about podcasting. I don’t have a lot of experience there, but I’ve heard some great ideas on how to make sure viral YouTube videos, for example, can generate traffic to your site. Giovanni Gallucci has some good ideas on this.

    I’ll have to listen to your podcast before I ask you questions like why you don’t include reader participation or how you could benefit from an approach like this one, but those are things to keep in mind…

  3. Rebecca Says:
    March 17th, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    I agree with these tips, but I’m often surprised how many top blogs don’t have a lot of comments. Some show their RSS feed count instead, but some just have neither.

    I think it’s important to realize that however many comments or subscribers you have, what you should really be trying to build community, which I see as the underlying theme of the post. The rest will follow.

  4. James Chartrand - Men with Pens Says:
    March 17th, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    Yes! Yes, yes, yes, yes! If there is one way that we’ve turned our blog commenting section into a healthy, thriving community, it’s by placing value on it and doing everything we can to encourage participation.

    We’re active. We get down in there with commentators. We become one of the gang. We don’t act as big-ass blog owners - we’re hanging out and having some conversation with anyone who comes along. We acknowledge all commentators and contribute to discussion to keep it alive.

    As one of my readers says, we have a blogger’s comment section dream going on. And we’re going to keep it.

  5. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    March 17th, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    @ Rebecca - You know, it’s a funny point you bring up about many top blogs not having a lot of comments. To me, comments are more than a verbal pat on the back, they’re a measure of whether or not you can move your readers to action - and that first action is engaging in the conversation. I think the tone for this is set by the blogger themself. As James mentions, it’s something you have to work at, but it’s a wonderful thing to achieve.

    As the web continues to evolve, the community aspect of blogging and the relationship-building element will become even more critical. Valeria Maltoni just wrote a very interesting piece I linked to about how we shouldn’t be catering to Google but should be aiming to build relationships instead, because this creates a community of valuable readers, while Google traffic will dilute down to only drive 1-2 engaged readers per about 200 hits. Which I find fascinating.

    @ James - I think you guys are helping set the gold standard for what this looks like. Your Copyblogger piece was simply amazing. Just as a case study alone in what it looks like to truly engage an audience. Thanks for chiming in here! Look forward to continuing the conversation with you!

  6. Kristina Summers Says:
    March 17th, 2008 at 11:36 pm

    Tiffany,

    Great advice! I am still really new to blogging and have really struggled with getting comments. I will certainly keep your tips in mind when posting. Thanks:)

  7. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    March 18th, 2008 at 5:00 am

    @ Kristina - Thanks! As Brian mentions above, generating comments is also made easier by commenting on other people’s posts, so keep doing that.

    One way to effectively generate comments through commenting at other people’s blogs is to ask a question or make an observation that would add a new dimension to the conversation. Knowing how to use commenting as a traffic generating strategy can help you get both the blog owner and the readers of their comments want to visit your site.

    Do you mind if I ask what all you have done to try to generate comments thus far?

  8. James Chartrand - Men with Pens Says:
    March 18th, 2008 at 5:13 am

    @ Tiffany - Looks like you and I are both interested in this comment generation ;)

    This post gives you one simple way to increase commenting. That, and get down and dirty and active with commenting in your own blog.

  9. Matt @ Corporate Hack Says:
    March 18th, 2008 at 7:50 am

    Great thoughts Tiffany and thank you for the post… very helpful.

    @ Rebecca @ Tiffany - Slightly off topic, Rebecca brought up a point about subscriber feed counts. Any thoughts on when it is appropriate to start showing your feed numbers? I figure at a low subscriber number you’re doing more harm than good, but also question if there’s an element of credibility in displaying your number at any point.

  10. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    March 18th, 2008 at 8:42 am

    @ Matt - I have seen a lot of different stuff on this. I know Maki at Dosh Dosh just recently started displaying his subscriber count - when it hit around 12,000 - and his blog (obviously!) grew quite well without a subscriber count. But I know other bloggers who say once you hit more than 200, it can help you establish credibility within your niche, especially with new readers.

    I’ve seen many bloggers approach this in different ways, and I think it really probably does boil down to your niche and community. And probably to you and your goals.

    This is a really interesting issue, because there are some instances where you may perceive a blog to have more subscribers and then when you find out their subscriber count, it diminishes your view of their standing within the community.

    I think in the end, it is up to you. My favorite advice on this comes from Skellie, who says you should display your subscriber count when you are proud of it.

    Sitting here replying to your comment and thinking more deeply about this issue though, I have dared myself to ask the following question though, so here goes:

    What would you (and readers chiming in) guess my subscriber count to be? Let’s do a mini-case study and see how reader perception matches reality! This should be interesting.

  11. James Chartrand - Men with Pens Says:
    March 18th, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    @ Tiffany - Since I’m new, I haven’t got a clue. My first guess? Over 500, less than 1,000.

    @ Matt - I often hear that 500 is the minimal mark. If you have 1,000, put it up. Definitely. Tiffany is right in that numbers affect perception and can encourage the groupthink phenomena.

    “834 subscribers? Oh, this *has* to be good if that many people are subscribed!”

    Likewise, she’s right about the low subscriber rate. Keep in mind that I’m a seasoned problogger, but if I see a score less than 500, my first thought is, “Wow. Small blog.” And my brain files that under “not so important.”

    My brain also files Seth Godin under “not so important,” though, so I wouldn’t pay much attention to it.

  12. Matt @ Corporate Hack Says:
    March 18th, 2008 at 7:49 pm

    Ok, good thoughts Tiffany and James, and thanks for the insight.

    @ Tiffany Based simply on the average activity of your comments section following a post, I’m going to guess in the 800 subscribers range

  13. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    March 18th, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    @ James - Thanks for the insight and the guess! I’ll keep everyone in suspense while the game ensues. . .

    @ Matt - Let us know where you land on publishing your subscriber rate! We all learn so much by studying each other’s practices and sharing the results…

  14. Mark Dykeman Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 12:04 am

    One quick observation from my own experience: increases in comments on my blog posts seem to correlate to increases in subscriber count.

  15. J.T. Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 12:17 am

    Tiffany,

    Any thoughts on what to do when your readership isn’t used to blogging? For example, I’ve spoken to lots of readers of my column via e-mail, but many of them are intimidated/adverse to posting on a blog. We’ve created a site/blog for the column which gets solid traffic, but again, my guess the fear to blog seems to hold many older readers from participating.

    I’d love some ideas on how to get them comfortable with blogging.

  16. James Chartrand - Men with Pens Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 12:26 am

    People learn by example. Show them. Also, stop enabling :) By slowing down with the email conversations while showing that your comment section is alive and healthy - and that other people aren’t afraid of using it - you’ll achieve your goals.

    Remember that if you give people the easiest, most personal path, they’ll always chose that one first. And that people are resistant to change, but you control when that change starts to happen and how.

  17. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 12:55 am

    @ Mark - I’ve noticed the same trend as well. I know that a lot of stock is put into subscriber count as a metric for blogging success, as we’ve hit on in these comments, but for me, juxtaposing the experience with this blog versus my old one, it seems that cultivating a strong conversation in the comments is actually more effective.

    To me, they are both important, but the difference between people seeing a number (oh, that’s neat! people like her) versus people seeing a blogger interacting personally with readers in the comments at their blog, is immense. Because numbers are one thing, but relationships are entirely another. Consider this point:

    I don’t read everything in my feed reader every day. Most people probably don’t. I’m subscribed to a lot of blogs - to those of people I know personally and those whose content I just enjoy. But I always prioritize to see, every day, whether or not the bloggers I have an active relationship have posted. Because I want to be in the conversation with them.

    @ JT - I think James has hit on some really good things here. It’s important to balance the one-to-one communicaiton that e-mail brings against the community-building that commenting brings. So one thing to do to help with that might be to be direct about it. For example, when people e-mail you with comments and insight about your posts, let them know you appreciated their e-mail by simply replying with this: “Thanks for the e-mail! You bring up some interesting points. I responded to them on the blog.”

    That helps you take the conversation to a place where it can help other people as well AND it leads your readers to where you want them to be communicating. Now, of course, since you’re in the career niche, sometimes people may ask questions of a personal nature, so you don’t want to offend people with this move, or reveal information they want kept private. But consider posting a comment that says: “A reader e-mailed with an interesting question I’d like to share with you and respond to, because I think all my readers could benefit from my answer.”

    That said, I think e-mailing is an important relationship-building strategy that shouldn’t be ignored. But I always try to strike a balance between e-mail and comments, keeping the specific person in mind. I can afford to do that right now because I’m not inundated by e-mail or comments, so my taking the time now to “train” my readership in how I want them to communicate with me, I am setting the stage for what will work best for my blog long-term.

    @ James - I love the point you bring up about the easiest and most personal path. It’s so liberating as a blogger to realize that your behaviors can direct your readership in how to respond.

    Which reminds me - JT, have you blogged openly about this on your site? That may be another tack to take that you could consider. Even if it’s simply a reader challenge/question type of post, asking your readership to share (in the comments!) how they feel about commenting on blogs! A crazy idea perhaps, but your options really are open in how you can tackle this.

  18. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 12:58 am

    My, that ended up being quite a long comment. And I even left something out -

    JT: Do you mind sharing with us what you’ve tried thus far regarding comment generation on your blog? Or any ideas you’ve considered?

  19. J.T. Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 1:35 am

    Thanks for the ideas!

    Yes, we have encouraged our column readers to visit the blog and make comments - we also include the site at the bottom of the weekly column which runs in print newspapers.

    I always ask (okay beg!) readers who e-mail comments to post them on-line, but it doesn’t always work.

    Tiffany - you are right about sensitivity. I receive a lot of very personal career questions each week that I couldn’t possible post about. However, we did just make a conscious decision in the last week to start posting more then just our standard Q&As. That way, there will be more content and it will reach subscribers more than once/week, which we hope will lead to more commenting activity.

    I’ve considered adding an actual page to our site that talks about blogging and how to do it. But, I need a page name that will get them to click and read - any ideas?

  20. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 2:10 am

    JT - one thing I noticed when I went to your main site is that it doesn’t appear to link to your blog. And if it is, then it’s hidden, because I couldn’t find it! The blog does link back to the main site, but not the other way around. So that right there could be a big reason people aren’t commenting - unless your column links to the blog itself. Either way, I would make sure that your business site has a visible, direct link to your blog to make sure you’re not missing traffic. Because the blog is where you will build a relationship with a potential client.

    James and I have been chatting about how important it is to realize that blogging isn’t a great business in and of itself, but it’s great to promote a business. So it may be that you need to strategically position your blog so that it’s helping you achieve certain business goals, like in your instance, building relationships with potential clients.

    As far as your question on a page name, I will have to think about that. . .

    Another question I have is, is the blog merely a replication of the columns you publish, or does it have some unique content? Because if your main objective is to get people to read your columns and then go to your blog so you can build the relationship - and all that’s there is your columns, that may be a big reason readers aren’t participating. That would be interesting to know.

  21. J.T. Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 3:40 am

    Ahh - I should clarify that I actually have two separate blogs I manage.

    One is for the nationally syndicated career advice column I write with Dale Dauten. It has its own web address (www.jtanddale.com) and that is the one we mention in the newspaper. (That’s also the one I am referring to in my initial post here.)

    I do have several links to it on my company’s site, but as you point out, not on my homepage of http://www.jtodonnell.com. On my company site, I house the second blog within the various pages - but I don’t use that in the same way. It’s just a place where I write/post content to a large newsletter subscriber base I’ve created, separate from the column subscribers. I’ve never bothered to promote the blog on my site to date, but the plan is to start doing so in the near future…so all the techniques I learn in the process of improving the blogging action on http://www.jtanddale.com will go to use on my company blog down the line.

  22. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 4:48 am

    That helps! I thought there might be something lost in translation there. I’ll have to check out JT and Dale and get back with you on that, then! I know from personal experience it can be difficult to manage more than one blog!

  23. Kristina Summers Says:
    March 19th, 2008 at 11:07 pm

    Tiffany,

    as far as generating a conversation, I am still pretty new, I have asked questions hoping for a response but mostly I post informative things since my blog is for educational purposes, specifically for those new to PR. I do try to comment regularly on other people’s blogs in order to drive traffic back to my own site. Thanks again for the informative post.

  24. David Says:
    March 31st, 2008 at 6:16 am

    I like and appreciate Brian’s comment on regarding commenting on other people’s blogs. I am relatively new to the blogosphere but have found that taking this tact certainly does raise awareness of my own blog and has driven some interesting conversations.

    The value of commenting on other’s blogs comes in the content. Not just in commenting for comments sake, but providing a valuable insight that creates enough interest whereby others are enticed to see what else you have to say in your blog-world.

    Tiffany, I have been a casual reader of your posts for the past few months and want you to know that I have appreciated your insights during that time. Thanks for your passion and dedication to this endeavour.

  25. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    March 31st, 2008 at 10:45 am

    @ Kristina - I think it’s a delicate balance in the blogging world, especially when you’re writing about a professional topic, to keep things professional yet demonstrate your voice as an individual as well. Being an expert and a human at the same time is an awesome capability few things other than blogging allow, but it’s also a hard line to walk to not venture too far into one or the other. For me, developing that skill has been one of the most valuable professional pursuits I’ve undertaken.

    @ David - Thanks so much! It’s always so rewarding to know your time and effort in putting content out there is appreciated, so I appreciate you appreciating my work! Hope you’ll chime in here often!

  26. Dr. J. Semo Says:
    May 1st, 2008 at 12:10 pm

    Great article. Thank you

    JS

  27. Kristal L Rosebrook Says:
    September 4th, 2008 at 2:38 pm

    I agree with the above poster

    K Rosebrook

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  29. Kate Torrens Says:
    October 1st, 2008 at 9:30 pm

    dare to debate is the very thing that lacks in me

  30. steven wilson Says:
    January 2nd, 2009 at 3:14 am

    Commenting on other blogs,and being active in social sites seems to work for getting comments.It just takes time to build readers,and relationships.

  31. aleksanderhouse Says:
    January 2nd, 2009 at 6:36 am

    This is a great page, Tiffany,…….. It’s so well organized and contains so many good suggestions. I’m a writer and an Innkeeper. I started my blogs just a little over a week ago. And, already, I can see improvement in my writing. I actually have two blogs, one (InnNotes)with personal & eventful “stuff” about my bed and breakfast and another (Innbusiness) which focusses on small businesses, partcularly small Inns and B&Bs. So far, the lack of comments hasn’t comments hasn’t discouraged me, because I enjoy the writing process so much.

  32. Andrea Hill Says:
    January 2nd, 2009 at 10:22 am

    I think another big barrier to people adding comments is the “me too” factor. It’s subtle, but changing if your comment field is before or after the other comments probably has an effect. I wanted to comment on your blog (I came here via Chris Brogan’s post on commenting), so I scrolled past all the previous comments. Sometimes doing that can cause me NOT to leave a comment, because I don’t feel like I’m leaving anything of value.

    On the other side, however, I may see something in the comments I want to respond to! It’s hard to know which is a better strategy, but I bet it’s something to consider (maybe a “skip to enter” option?)

  33. Tiffany Monhollon Says:
    January 2nd, 2009 at 8:47 pm

    @ Aleksanderhouse - Glad you found this helpful! Hope you enjoy the blogging process. There is a lot to learn, but I’ve found that simply doing is a great way to learn - especially since in blogging, doing means participating with others who are also doing. Bloggers are a fantastic community of peer-to-peer mentors, so take adantage of that!

    @ Andrea - Interesting point. The location of the comments option is something that has been more standard (at the bottom of the post) but more and more bloggers are taking the liberty of putting it at the top, along with the headline. This is pretty popular for blogs that only post a portion of their post and make you click to enter and finish reading. I’ve toyed with adding some of these elements, so thanks for your feedback. Always great to have suggestions to work with! I must investigate ways to have multiple options.

  34. Andrea Hill Says:
    January 2nd, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    @Tiffany - it’s actually something I’d never thought about until I posted it. I wonder if this is something you could “test” somehow..

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