Untapped content: how user comments expand articles

Here’s a metaphorical statement that tends to stick in your mind: “The targeting canvas is larger than people think.”  Steve Roy, head of marketing at Disqus, said this while telling me that there is good material in the comment section of webpages that is under-appreciated by marketers.  Despite that some news outlets look disparagingly on user comments, I now have numbers to back up Steve’s statement.

After analyzing 30 days worth of Disqus comments across their entire network, we have found that user comments overall constitute a relevant and significant outgrowth of topic coverage relative to the author’s original content.  It is rather like the following picture:

Expansion of the canvas
Photo Credit: Sarita Star Designs

Here it is by the numbers:

  • While many comments may be skimpy or shallow, there is a sizable subset that are “substantive” (i.e., provide some context to a topic).  We found that 24% of the comment sections we examined satisfied our threshold for being substantive (defined as tying at least two related topics together in the text).
  • Notwithstanding the widespread notion that comment sections are largely irrelevant, we found that when looking at substantive comment sections, relevance is nearly fifty-fifty. In 48% of such cases, we found comments with a topical connection to the article.
  • Perhaps most interesting of all: within those comment sections having topical relevance, we saw that new relevant topics were introduced 60% of the time. Commenters were finding ways to stay relevant even while bringing in a new topic.

For example, a comment talking about the TV show, “Game of Thrones,” can be relevant to an article on the X-Men movie, “Days of Future Past,” because the main villain in the X-men movie is played by Peter Dinklage, who happens to be one of the main actors in Game of Thrones.  Now, if the original article did not mention that fact, but we discover it in a comment, then the commenter is doing us a service in expanding the topic in a relevant way.  This is more likely than not to happen in substantive comment sections of an article.

In these cases, you could say that commenters are finishing up the job of writing the article, in that the author probably left many relevant topics untapped.  In fact, authors on average cover only 21% of the topics that are relevant to their main subject matter.  (This number should not be surprising — on almost any subject, you probably would have to write a whole book to approach 100% coverage of related topics.)  In cases where commenters expand the relevant topic coverage, the initial coverage is lower than usual — only 16.5% — but rises to 22% after commenters enter the discussion.  Essentially, commenters step in when authors write a “lighter” article, and bring the topic coverage up to par.

Comments effectively supplement the topic space of an article (green arrow).

If you want to visualize all these trends at the same time, consider the diagram, above, illustrating the relationships at work.  The green arrow indicates where commenters are introducing new topics that are genuinely relevant to the article.

And this finally gets us back to Steve’s comment, “the targeting canvas is larger than people think.”  We can think of it this way: marketers most of the time have been exclusively targeting the red part of the diagram.  What about the yellow?  And what about the green?  Just because commenters paint the canvas a different color than the author did, doesn’t mean it all can’t blend — especially when the author has initially left the portrait unfinished.  And that’s much of the time.

-Tim Musgrove

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