After working in the computer industry for decades, I’m used to the most seemingly benign topic exploding into a passionate – and sometimes even vitriolic – debate, from which editor you use to what operating system, programming language to which HTML mark-up standard you work towards.
In the blogging world, surprisingly, the big debate isn’t about what blogging tool to use, and it’s not about design or layout. It’s not really even about whether to include advertising or not, as far as I can tell. The two big hot-buttons are about RSS feeds, whether to have a “full feed” or a “partial feed”, and about your blog comment policy.
In this article, I’m going to talk about the latter topic, and I promise I’ll address RSS feeds in a different piece (and at length in my Blogging 101 workshop at Blog Business Summit).
First off, let me state categorically that I believe it’s critical that all business blogs allow comments to be added by readers. Without it, you miss out on the ability to establish a dialog and have only made the smallest step from a static Web site. It’s still The Voice of The Company, and visitors still have no ability to add their perspective or response, it’s just a different tool in play.
Some business blogs don’t allow comments, notably Clip ‘n Seal News, but they’re the rare exception because much of the most interesting content comes from the comments, not the original article. After all, even the best writer can only represent one primary point of view, so how do you learn about other perspectives if not from the addition of material from people who disagree?
The debate, however, isn’t about whether or not to allow comments. Just about every business blogger I know recommends enabling comments as a best practice, in fact.
The debate is about whether to edit, censor, screen or modify comments. Indeed, the very language of the debate informs us of the passion behind the scenes: “censor” is only loosely applicable in this situation, and while people argue “freedom of the press” and other so-called Constitutional arguments, they don’t actually apply to a private publication such as a blog, with no obligation or legal requirement to represent all perspectives and publish the views of all readers.
This question is nonetheless critical to consider before you launch your own business blog, however: are you going to leave all comments pristine, untouched, and let obscenities, fallacious arguments, racism, sexism, and other offensive writing stand or fall on its own merits, or are you going to edit and control your content?
In fact, there are more nuances to this discussion anyway, because I don’t know any serious blogger who allows every comment to stand, because their site would promptly be overrun by spammers adding nonsensical comments about Viagra and gambling sites or subverted into a discussion venue for lowlifes or criminals.
So in fact, there’s a continuum at work here, a scale where on one end people allow everything, don’t blacklist, don’t filter spam, don’t remove duplicate comments, don’t touch anything, and at the other end of the scale where they tightly edit and screen all comments, only allowing those that agree or represent specific alternative viewpoints. Probably, you’d be hard pressed to find an example on either end of this comment permissibility continuum, because we’re all somewhere in the middle.
This helps illuminate the discussion because it helps clarify that when bloggers say “I leave all comments” they really mean “I leave all relevant, on-topic comments.” They’re on that continuum. And when other bloggers say “I control the comments on my site and sometimes reject comments” they too are on that continuum.
My counsel on the subject is closer to the latter than the former view, perhaps surprisingly. I’m a strong advocate of dissenting opinions and a healthy debate, and I am okay – perhaps a bit begrudgingly – if subsequent comments pick apart an argument of my own and make me look less than omniscient (just don’t tell my kids, okay?)
I believe, however, that if a blog has a recognizable business sponsor or individual shepherd, then everything on the blog has an implied ownership, a brand identity, of that owner.
If I were to read a Nike blog, for example, and read ongoing discussion of how sweatshops were actually good for Southeast Asian economies, I’d take that as a viewpoint that Nike tacitly endorsed by retaining the entries on its site. A follow-on from someone at Nike saying “we don’t agree at all.” just wouldn’t cut it. A discussion of this nature would far more appropriately belong on a separate forum not run or paid for by Nike.
And maybe that’s where the proverbial rubber hits the road here: business blogs are an expense paid by the marketing, customer service, or public relations arm of a company. In that light, I believe it’s quite reasonable for the company to constantly ask “Is the addition of this content going to make us a more successful company? Are we going to sell more stuff? Attract more customers? Appeal to investors?” WIthout those questions, a business blog is a corporate initiative gone horribly awry, and will quickly morph into something that is not in the best interest of the company and a disservice to its employees and shareholders.
I have always counseled companies to consider their business blog an interactive magazine that they’re publishing and managing for the benefit of their customers, market segment, and shareholders. This makes it easy to decide whether someone calling your blogger, or CEO, a jerk is submitting a comment worth retaining.
If you don’t agree, ask this question: when you read the Letters to the Editor at a publication like Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal or The New Republic, do you seriously think that they’ve just pulled in the first four or five letters received, and reproduced them unedited? Of course not.
The same holds true for business blogs. Personal blogs live at almost all possible points along the comment permissibility continuum, but business blogs need to be more controlled, more limited, and more tightly edited so as to ensure that they serve the greatest possible value for the company.