When you have been working with comments dialogues as a moderator for a while and you have become familiar with your task, there are several ways of taking your contact with the audience to the next level. Here are a few tips on how you might proceed.
Only ask questions if you want to hear the answers
Ending a post (for example on Facebook) with a question to the audience may be an excellent start, making it clear to readers what you want the comments field to be about and initiating the discussion. But first of all, ask yourself these questions: Am I interested in getting answers to my question? Would I want to answer this question? If the answer to these is NO, reword the question or don’t ask it. Questions you think you should ask or questions that labour the point cause irritation.
Traditional interview technique also works well online for getting people to talk, to clarify what they mean and lower their guard. If you have a comments field in which you want the audience to share their experiences and stories, you often need a “what do you mean?”, “and what happened next?” or “what did you do then?” to proceed. Just as you would if you were holding an interviewer’s microphone. Anyone who has conducted a survey on the street, an ‘ask five people’ type of thing, knows that the better the question you start with is and the more interesting you make it, the greater the chance that you will get interesting answers. And you don’t just say “thanks for the answer” and move on. You stay and ask more questions. Open-ended, simple questions often work best so that the interviewee doesn’t feel interrogated, or like he/she is being tested or nagged. When you have built up a relationship with the audience and have a few ‘regulars’ in the comments field, you can try out some more challenging questions.
Find your own voice
When you have worked as a moderator for a while, have familiarised yourself with the task and the technical side has become second nature, you can start to think about your language and your voice. You will often find your own voice somewhere between your personal and professional modes of expression. “Be personal but not private” is a good rule of thumb.
Nuances are more difficult in writing than in speech, but exploit the fact that you have longer to think than, for example, a moderator on radio. Use additional means of expression that you feel comfortable with, for example emojis, your own thoughts and experiences, slang expressions, or references to popular culture.
If anyone gets irritated or infers something you didn’t intend, all you have to do is apologise for any misunderstanding and move on. Most people will accept that.
Set the boundaries and speak your mind
You are the moderator and you are in charge. Be clear about where the boundaries lie. There will always be people who do not directly break your comments rules but test the boundaries and behave in a way that creates a bad atmosphere in the comments field, for example by being sarcastic or malicious. Don’t be afraid to speak out and don’t ignore borderline cases. Often, but not always, this will have the immediate effect that the person who is out of line says sorry and starts behaving themselves.
Read up on the subject
To be able to conduct a good interview, you need to have read up on the subject, and the same is true for a comments field moderator. Set aside time for reading up on the subject you will be moderating. This is particularly important for high-risk subjects. Otherwise they can be difficult to moderate if you encounter a well-read audience or people who deliberately try to lie or troll.
If you need FAQs on a specific subject, ask your manager or a colleague to help you prepare them. But don't use statistics or facts to beat someone over the head with. This can be seen as patronising or nervous behaviour. It is in the interests of the entire newsroom/department for the comments moderator to be able to do as good a job as possible.
Don’t moderate too much
Being a hands-on, active moderator always improves the relationship between the newsroom/department and the audience. However, there are occasions when the comments take on a life of their own, and people start to talk to each other of their own accord, resulting in interesting, exciting exchanges of views. It may then be a good idea to take a step back as the moderator. The risk otherwise is that you are seen as a disruptive interloper. In the example below, under a post on P4 Väst (one of SR's local radio stations, based in Uddevalla) about the large online habits survey called Swedes and the Internet, 2017, an interesting discussion ensues between Harriet, 53, and Susanne, who play World of Warcraft with great enthusiasm.
Moderating on home ground/on away grounds
Every time someone shares a link or a post from your newsroom/department, a new, parallel interface is created in the comments field of the person who shares it. If they have an open account, you will be able to see what is written. This presents both a risk and an opportunity: the opportunity for you to talk to a new audience and learn things of journalistic value in other comments; and the risk that the person who shared the link is angry or critical about the content of your post or your journalism.
The most important difference between moderating your newsroom’s/department’s own comments and doing so on ‘away grounds’ is that, as a guest elsewhere, you must follow their rules. If your post is shared in a group where you want to respond in a comments field, it is a good idea to contact the group’s administrators to find out whether they have their own rules or perhaps an implied agreement between the members.