The Comment Section Could Be the Next Big Source of Audience Data

Anyone who has published content on the internet, especially women and people of color, knows how unpleasant an online comments section can be. Comment sections have a rep as the place where trolls congregate and nuance goes to die. Hence the internet wisdom: “Never read the comments.”

That’s why The Philadelphia Inquirer announced earlier this month that it would kill comments. “The comments on far too many Inquirer.com stories are toxic, and have gotten worse as mounting extremism and election denialism pollute our national discourse,” the paper’s editors wrote. “Our staff and readers deserve better.”

But comments sections, as those who peruse Reddit can attest, can also be a great source of feedback, wisdom, and community. Of utmost interest to digital marketers, comments sections can also be a prime source of rich, first-party audience data.

That is the bet the folks at OpenWeb are making. The company provides software that facilitates elaborate and positive conversations on websites and helps advertisers capitalize on conversational first-party data.

CEO Nadav Shoval checked in with Street Fight to make his case for comments.

Comments sections’ value

Comments deepen the relationship between publisher and reader, boosting loyalty, Shoval said.

The comments section “keeps readers engaged and helps create a connection between them and the information source.”

This has always been true. But what’s changing is that the data from comments sections is becoming more valuable as other data sources, such as the cookie and Apple’s IDFA, deprecate. It’s also data that publishers own, as opposed to social media fodder.

“As the web faces a cookieless future, comments have become a vital piece of retention,” Shoval said. “Instead of encouraging readers to engage with material on social media platforms, where publishers can’t benefit from the interaction, comments keep them at the source, where it matters most. We are increasingly seeing publishers wall comments as a way to incentivize registrations, further deepening their relationships with readers.”

An active data source

Publishers and advertisers stand to learn more from comments than from surveilling random readers. This is because commenters are sharing why they came to a site in the first place. They may even forge connections with other readers that will encourage them to come back or recommend the website or product to others.

“The data is richer than a passive viewer interaction can provide, and data proves the loyalty and value of users is much more significant when they feel part of a community,” Shoval said. “Readers are more likely to stay and come back if they can interact with the content, and the ability to attract them to relevant advertising content increases. I like to compare this to the value of word-of-mouth versus a print ad — there’s simply no comparison.”

Fighting off hate speech and misinformation

You might be sold on the potential value of comments as a consensual and rich data source. But no doubt, the lingering fear that comments will turn into a dumpster fire of brand safety woes persists.

Naturally, this is where OpenWeb claims its software makes the difference.

“At OpenWeb, we don’t allow hate speech on the platform. We have quite sophisticated moderation technology that can spot and prohibit hate speech, violent threats, and racism,” Shoval said. “In the event that someone is able to trick the system and get through the layers of moderation, we have features that allow the community to quickly flag material for human review, remove or block the comment, and then deprioritize future commentary from the offender.”

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Joe Zappa is the Managing Editor of Street Fight. He joined Street Fight as a contributing writer in 2015, has compiled the daily newsletter since 2016, and has spearheaded the newsroom's editorial operations since 2018. Shoot him an email at jzappa@streetfightmag.com.