Comments Affect Your Readers’ Perception

shutterstock_94785103Here’s a study finding that should concern online writers of all sorts: Comments made by early readers of your piece may significantly affect the way later readers perceive what you’ve written.

The Guardian, Scientific American, and others have come to this disturbing conclusion.

Scientific American, for example, recently studied the response of readers of an article on nanotechnology. The article was sent to two groups of readers. For the first group, it was accompanied by “polite, civil and constructive comments”; for the second, by “uncivil comments.”

In writing about the study in a January 28 post, Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at the magazine, said:

The result is that readers of the second version quickly developed affinity for one side of the argument and strongly took that side, which affected the way they understood and trusted the original article (text of which was unaltered). The nasty comment thread polarized the opinion of readers, leading them to misunderstand the original article.

The finding is concern enough—at least for me, and I would assume for other writers and their readers. But added to this conclusion is this belief by many people who study the practice of commenting on blog posts and other online content: The quality of comments has deteriorated over the past few years.

Many of those who once took advantage of the comment section to share their thoughts about a post now put their comments on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, or have stopped commenting all together—leaving only trolls to comment on the actual site of the content. (A troll, according to Wikipedia “is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, misconstrued, or off-topic messages in an online community.”)

So, it seems that even if you write about a topic that readers approach with no preconceived opinion, there’s a good chance that they will misinterpret what you write and will decide not to trust your content because they have been influenced by commentsScreen Shot 2013-02-07 at 3.17.29 PM made by trolls.

This potential for misinterpretation and distrust worries me, as I think it should anyone concerned about open dialogue and discourse. It’s not easy to write clear, concise content that gets across to the reader the exact message you hope to convey. It becomes almost impossible to deliver the desired message when someone is undermining your attempt to do so.

If, for example, you’re writing about the role PR can play in establishing your company’s brand within your community of stakeholders, you want your readers to know that both PR and a company’s brand are good things and can help the company grow its customer base, industry leadership, and profits. You don’t want someone who hates PR to comment incorrectly that PR is lies, untruths, and a snake-oil saleman’s fast-talk and that it develops a made-up “brand” as a gimmick to sell customers what they don’t need or want.

A thoughtful comment about the pros and cons of public relations by someone who knows what he or she is talking about might encourage your readers to think more thoroughly about what you’ve written. That result, in turn, could add to the conversation within your community of readers. It may also help you better think through your message the next time you write about PR and branding.

But “inflammatory, extraneous, misconstrued, or off-topic messages” help no one. And they may, in fact, make conscientious bloggers and other writers of online content think twice about whether they really should write their posts in the first place. If they decide not to write them, we all lose.

02/02/13: Communications Stories from Here & There

Below are five noteworthy communications stories published during the week ending February 2, 2013.

The New Republic Reimagines Its Future” by Christine Haughney, in The New York Times, Monday, January 28.

Chris Hughes, a co-founder of Facebook, bought The New Republic last March and has set out to reimagine this 98-year-old magazine for the future. He’s already hired a new editor, doubled the publication’s staff, and opened a new office.  On Monday, the publication introduced its redesigned print magazine, website, and app.

The magazine has new features and articles but also keeps much that has made it editorially strong over the decades. “We’re holding onto the heritage of the magazine while trying to make it more responsive to what people are interested in and how they read in 2013,” Mr. Hughes said.

Three Steps to Create a Compelling Business Story by Gini Dietrich, on her blog Spin Sucks, Tuesday, January 29.

Dietrich, whose blog is filled with useful information about PR and marketing, quotes Larry Brooks, a writer of fiction, on the difference between a story’s idea, theme, and concept— with concept being the most important aspect of good storytelling. She then gives her own example of how she uses this approach in determining the concept for her Spin Sucks Pro website.

Most of What You Think You Know About Grammar is Wrong by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, in the February issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

Is there anything wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a preposition, or splitting an infinitive? O’Conner and Kellerman, bloggers at Grammarphobia.com, believe not. In this article, they discuss the myths about the “rules” governing these grammatical choices.

Why You Need to Treat Your Social Media Strategy Like Your Content Strategy,” a blog post by Jordan Kasteler on Search Engine Land, January 29.

In this informative post, Kasteler, the author of A to Z: Social Media Marketing,  writes, “Making your content more social and making your social posts more like content are a win for your entire business—both your content and your social strategies.” He lays out a number of suggestions for achieving these goals.

5 types of blog comments you should never write,” a blog post by Mickie Kennedy on Ragan’s PR Daily, January 29.

In this important post, Kennedy lays out a good guide for the kinds of comments readers should avoid. His second suggestion—not to make comments that are controversial for the sake of being controversial—is timely and should be noted by everyone who considers posting thoughts on a blog, especially in light of the negative news coverage some types of comments are generating.