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Commenting is dead. Chat is the new black

Chatting retains users; commenting trains snipers.


Jeff Solomon

Internet Culture

Posted on Feb 25, 2015   Updated on May 29, 2021, 11:06 am CDT

For a decade or more, “commenting” has been the gold standard social engagement mechanism. From memes to monkeys—news, gifs, fails, celeb sightings, pets, food, fashion, and photos—the list goes on.

Commenting began as a way for users to respond to news and other text content on the web. A writer thinks, “Hey, I just wrote this really great article, I wish people would tell me what they think.” And people did. They commented their little hearts out, telling the author whether he’s right or wrong and where he can shove this or that.

But then people started talking to each other. One comment sparked another and another and suddenly social networking emerged.

When comments hit the scene, mobile as we know it today was a fever dream. The Nokia 6110 was the rage. Smartphones were a thing of the future and social was happening pretty much only on the web.

I think SMS was an early indicator that there was something big on the horizon and that it might really explode with the proliferation of mobile. You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to see that one coming down the pike.

And although Web technology evolved tremendously in the past 20 years, commenting still feels like the right solution for the Web. It fits because commenting is inherently asynchronous, which means data is transmitted “intermittently” rather than in a steady stream. People tend to use the Web in the same way—they come and go but don’t have the feeling of being tethered to it like we do on mobile.

You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to see that one coming down the pike.

Chat, on the other hand, is a synchronous form of communication. This is an extremely important distinction that I’ll get into more later. I’m not suggesting that synchronous communication (ala chatting) isn’t possible on the web, it just doesn’t feel right. Sure AOL chat rooms were huge as far back as the ’90s. But it was clunky and often required third-party plugins to even work at all.

Socket and other real-time tech has made synchronous communication on Web easier and more common, but it really hasn’t replaced commenting, nor do I believe it will.

It’s actually rather fascinating to follow the progression I’m describing. When we think of transformative startups like Facebook, Uber, Airbnb, Amazon, etc. we can’t help see how timing played an important role. Facebook wasn’t the first social network; it just came at a time when people were really ready to be social. Uber wasn’t the first on-demand car service, but it came at a time where mobile tech enabled real time geo-location for everyone. Ad infinitum. But the insight is that disruption occurs when a few key forces align: technology, education, and sentiment.

Anyone can see that mobile messaging apps like WhatsApp, KIK, Line, and dozens more have seen some of the most incredible growth of any consumer products in history.

What’s particularly interesting about these success stories is, yes, they capitalized on mobile chat, but they also tapped into a viral phenomenon caused by “friend-to-friend” chat. All of these apps primarily serve existing friendships.

Think about it, when you download Snapchat, the first thing you have to do is invite or find your friends. These apps aren’t really designed to connect strangers—and that’s one of the key reasons they’ve grown so fast.

Mobile messaging is part of it, but that’s not the only reason why the apps blew up. It’s because friend-to-friend activity is viral by nature. If I’m going to be chatting with friends, then I need to tell friends to come chat with me; thus, the users themselves “pull” new users to the app.

Facebook wasn’t the first social network; it just came at a time when people were really ready to be social.

The truth is that chatting is more a driver of engagement than acquisition. When you combine engagement with invitation, you get the perfect conditions for birthing “unicorns,” as Aileen Lee likes to call them. It’s the perfect storm.

But in our race to find the next Snapchat, something very important is being overlooked. Synchronous messaging, real-time chat, whatever you want to call it, on mobile is transformational in and of itself.

I talked previously about some key factors needing to exist for disruption to occur; well, that’s about to happen.

Mobile is the right tech for synchronous messaging. People are thoroughly educated about how to participate in chat on mobile thanks to the unicorns. And the sentiment is just right; users are just now starting to ask the right question: “Why the fuck am I leaving comments on my mobile device when there are 100 other people looking at this same exact piece of content right this second and I could just have a conversation with them?”

Why leave a message when you can talk to people right now?

You might be thinking: Well, what’s the difference? I mentioned earlier the distinction between asynchronous and synchronous communication being very important; well, it is important, but it’s also quite subtle.

There are some tech elements at play that make commenting differ from chat, but in truth, it’s not that technically difficult, and there are a handful of great companies like @layer commoditizing the pieces as we speak. The distinction is in the user experience.

Comments are “intermittent” by nature. People don’t expect to get a response right away. So they tend to casually comment rather than deeply participate, often asking rhetorical questions or making pointless statements. Such users aren’t really engaged; they’re just crop dusting.

And it’s a pretty safe environment for such behavior. There are few repercussions when you’re gone before anyone responds. This type of commenting does not cultivate meaningful and lasting conversations.

Chat, on the other hand, requires some effort. Users are aware that someone might instantly respond and, thus, tend to say things that add to the discussion and lead to longer dialogues (e.g., more engagement).

Moreover, people chat in bursts, meaning the conversation ebbs and flows over time but is less likely to completely die as the context for the discussion ages. Chat is evergreen.

Commenters aren’t really engaged; they’re just crop dusting.

Do I need to go into more detail about the benefits of user-to-user engagement? I think the very fact that commenting has become a “par-for-the-course” feature unequivocally proves that engagement is good.

But I’ll hammer it home just the same: When users are engaged, they spend more time in your app. They open it more frequently. They yearn to see what’s going to happen next. They tell friends about it. They share it on social networks. In a nutshell, they’re just better and happier users. Who doesn’t want that?

But wait, there’s more. Chat is backwards compatible. In other words, if there isn’t enough liquidity (e.g. concurrent people talking) to facilitate a real-time discussion, chat reverts to act as comments do. Comments, on the other hand, don’t work when things heat up and users want a group chat.

With chat also comes a unique usage behavior that requires special UX attention. It’s one thing to notify your users when a comment is liked or something new is added to the thread. It may, in fact, draw you back to the app, but it’s a half measure at best.

When users are chatting, they tend to participate in multiple discussions at once. Users will expect a dedicated section of your app to see all of this activity and a quick way to participate in them nearly all at the same time. That can be a tricky user experience. But when it’s right, it’s nothing short of Christmas gold.

Now, for the nail in the coffin: Commenting doesn’t make money, chat does. 

Nobody has really figured out how to make money from comments. Indirectly comments create revenue because people spend more time on a site. But it’s just not that significant.

Attempts to embed relevant articles or other monetization tactics haven’t worked either. Platforms like Disqus and Livefyre are still trying to crack it.

Chat, however, creates exponential usage behaviors that lead to completely incremental advertising inventory. Did you get that? I said incremental inventory. That’s found money, people. And when it comes to mobile, at least for now, the bulk of revenue is coming from advertising.

Of course, advertising yield is driven by many factors—eCPM, CTR, fill rate, and so on. But ultimately there is one factor that trumps everything: That’s time-in-app. The more time you spend in an app, the more advertising you see and the more money the app makes. Simple.

Chat just works better on mobile than comments ever will. 

Chat just works better on mobile than comments ever will. So whether you’re desperately trying to make money from your app, or if you just want to keep you users coming back and come back longer, chat is the means to that end.

If you aren’t convinced, here are the top 5 reasons why chat will dethrone commenting on mobile in 2015.

  1. Chat makes money; commenting is a poor mans game.
  2. Chat is instant gratification; comments are a belated thumbs up at best.
  3. Chatting leads to friendships; commenting is a lonely business.
  4. Chat creates real-world conversations; comments are virtual reality.
  5. Chatting retains users; commenting trains snipers.

Now, even if you’re in the “chat roulette” camp and you’re thinking it’s a dirty word, get over it. Your users are already doing it; they’re chatting with millions of people every day—just not while they’re in your app. Why not capture that behavior and monetize it?

Let’s have a chat.

This article was originally featured on Medium and reposted with permission.

Photo via @Tuncay/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Feb 25, 2015, 12:30 pm CST