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ImageLong before Twitter and Facebook, people often used the comments in blog posts as a means to share thoughts and ideas, and in short, to build communities online. You can still see this in action on sites like The Huffington Post, where lively debates pop-up around individual posts, and where users can grow to know one another quite well. 

The Huffington Post was founded in 2005, has hosted over 100,000 bloggers, and regularly receives over five million comments each month.  Tim McDonald, Director of Community at Huffington Post, has the job of helping to keep those communities growing, active, and healthy. Since launching, the site has had over 250 million comments.

ImageCommenting is to the Huffington Post what millennials are to MTV: lifeblood. News sites typically create revenue by selling advertising in the form of page views. It isn’t enough to have an audience that consumes the news; you need one that engages with it and in the process, exponentially increases page views.

The moderation of comments is critical to the site.  Left unmoderated, the site would devolve into something more like YouTube comments. At Huffington Post, moderation has three major components:

  1. software-based automated moderation
  2. human moderation by the Huffington Post community team
  3. pundits

In 2010, Huffington Post acquired a small technology company, Adaptive Semantics, for their software system JuLiA, which does a great deal of the heavy lifting in insuring spam comments don’t make it to the light of day.  In addition to JuLiA, there is a cadre of about 50 human moderators that make up the Huffington Post community team.

Pundits are individuals that have been granted special status and assist moderators in identifying bad comments within certain categories. The pundits are given a “badge” that shows their status, and their comments are in a different color. They’re also able to leave longer comments and use text formatting. Recently, McDonald has made some substantial changes to the pundit program, reducing the size of the pundit list, and added some features like whitelisting and auto-publishing.

When asked how he and the organization measure success, McDonald mentioned those metrics that you’d expect, like quantity of registered users, how many are active, and the number of comments. When it comes to the team of comment moderators, he looks to how accurate they are at moderating. “If a comment goes through,” he said, “would the consensus of other moderators match their decision?”

ImageThere isn’t a blind adherence here, though, to just those big numbers. McDonald’s attitude is refreshing here: “It’s all about really trying to focus on the small numbers that deliver big results. Our commenters are a small subset of all our readers. Our pundits are a smaller subset of our commenters. What are the results we can get from those pundits? Are they able to start conversations, are they able to take a bad comment, and turn it into a positive conversation?” 

Since taking on his role at Huffington Post, McDonald has changed his belief that communities should be completely open and self-regulated.  “When you create some form of exclusivity in your community– still making it accessible to the masses, but not making it so that everybody can participate; there are certain ground rules you have to be a part of that community– all of a sudden you have community members that really want to contribute.”

The sheer size of the Huffington Post community, while not anywhere near as large as those on the major social media platforms, is still fairly large.  And because it’s one of the largest communities built around the discussions that take place around blogs, it’s worth watching.  We’ve got some lessons to be learned here.

As we ended our conversation, McDonald said, “We’ve had commenters that were so good they’ve become bloggers – and comments that have led to editorial content. The community is as much a part of the site as the content itself.”

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The Big Brand Theory is an exclusive column for Social Media Today written by Ric Dragon that explores the social media strategies of big brands, both B2B and B2C. Look for the next installment next week. Logos by Jesse Wells.