A Guide to Encouraging Online Discussion

Nov 30, 2012

Article ImageFor every brave soul that posts a comment on a website or blog there are likely hundreds of others simply lurking in the background. Content providers crave interaction and want to encourage discussion, yet many find themselves faced with a dearth of comments, save for perhaps those spammy postings that pop up every once in a while. What can they do?

LinkedIn groups are a good place to find engaged users notes Wayne Breitbarth, a social media trainer, consultant, and the author of The Power Formula for LinkedIn Success (Greenleaf Book Group, 2011). He conducts an annual survey about LinkedIn and, he says, LinkedIn groups consistently rank at the top of the list of users' favorite features.

So it's not that the audience doesn't exist. The people are out there. The challenge for content providers is to find ways to engage them. Growing audience through online forums takes a combination of emotional and technical efforts say those who have nurtured popular groups.

Encouraging users to comment is tough, acknowledges Carin Galletta Oliver, chief innovation officer with Angelsmith, Inc., a digital marketing agency in Sausalito, Calif. Still, she notes, there are a few of ways that group leaders can provide an environment that promotes engagement:

  • Define your audience, in advance-and be specific. Address the specific issues that might be plaguing them and effectively draw them into the conversation.
  • Embrace controversy. "Take a stand if you want to generate comments," says Oliver. "Speak up for, or against, a key industry issue. This will generally get the passionate people on both sides of the issue commenting like crazy."
  • Use celebrity references. "For some reason many people have lots to say about celebrities," says Oliver.
  • Have someone comment first. Oliver says, "No one wants to stick their neck out first, just like no one wants to dine in an empty restaurant."
  • Watch your tone. A blog, post or article that is written in a tone that is too authoritative may discourage comments.

Having a clear purpose at the outset is critical agree Breitbarth. "You have to show why there's value," he says and, importantly, he notes, you have to be involved.

"Make sure somebody from your organization is monitoring the conversations that are taking place." If you monitor other groups where members are active you'll see that this is exactly what the group leaders do. They're engaged. They're active. They're an integral part of the conversation.

Beyond the social elements of social engagement, there are some technical tips that can help your posts gain momentum as well. Stephanie Ciccarelli is CMO of Voices.com, an online marketplace connecting businesses with professional voice talent. Ciccarelli takes a proactive approach to help generate and nurture conversation. "Something I do to help generate more discussion on articles posted to the Voices.com blog is to share the link to the article via social media and garner conversation in a social setting with the goal of drawing people to the blog or source article," she says. It is additionally helpful, she says, if the blogging template includes ways for people to like, tweet, or share your posts.

Crowdsourcing, she says, can be another good way to encourage conversation. "If you include others in your articles and credit them with links to their websites, they will be more likely to share the article via their social networks and help accumulate Facebook likes, tweets on Twitter, shares on LinkedIn and 1+ on Google+." And, she adds: "If you are connected to one of your sources already on social networks, tagging them in a status update accompanying the shared link is a great way to get your content in front of people in the source's circle of influence because tagged items typically appear on someone's Facebook timeline."

Ultimately, success in generating productive online conversation is hard to distinguish from traditional relationship-building. It's about understanding what's important to your audience, being engaged and engaging and providing them with positive feedback and support along the way.

("Discussion" image courtesy of Shutterstock.)