Online user comments have gained a lot of attention recently. And although it may seem like simple publisher experimentation across the web, it hints at a larger trend toward redefining consumers’ role in the innovation process of companies.
First, Quartz launched annotations. Being a huge fan of the publication, I’m pleased to see they have such a critical understanding of their audience. News media readers treat different facets of stories as springboards. Annotations allow them to comment on specific bits of the news, rather than wading into a universal stream of comments (I pray for the day a YouTube equivalent can eliminate the need to say “1:46 made me LOL.”).
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the iconic PopSci.com has removed user commenting altogether. In its announcement, the publication cites research suggesting comments change a reader’s perception of a story. This is actually the same insight Quartz is reacting to but each has drawn the opposite conclusion. One platform– less than a year old– embraces a change brought about by its users, while the other– 141 years old– avoids it in an effort to preserve the original intent of the content. This has become a core debate of journalism in the digital age.
Meanwhile, Google has quietly altered its YouTube commenting by tying it to a user’s Google+ network. Now, top comments won’t be driven by popularity or recency, but rather viewer connections. Users can also create private comment threads around videos, which will likely help encourage social media flings. In effect, YouTube aims to increase engagement by making conversations personally and socially relevant. Though it seems minor, this change from the internet’s video hub has the potential to significantly shift its product offering even more than the comment voting feature did.
Finally, and potentially most interesting, is Gawker’s Kinja announcement. Kinja is a completely personalized commenting system that moves news conversations into separate, personalized settings. In fact, the system lets users write their own headlines and introductions to the news, which is about as much product control a publisher can hand over to its audience. With Kinja, comments go from augmenting an experience to leading it. What I find most mind-blowing– and appealing– about Kinja’s ambition is its plans to extend this to non-Gawker properties. The company is planting seeds for industry-wide innovation. Only time will tell if they grow.
All of this comment innovation is especially interesting because of the role consumers are playing in it– both in relation to other consumers and the companies hosting them. Companies in all industries have only recently begun embracing the idea of open innovation and, even more recently, the role of collaboration in those efforts. Technology companies tend to be ahead of this trend because of their cultural bias toward earning value from customers, while journalism has been historically slow to innovate. Online commenting sits at the center of the tension between these two seemingly polar opposite industries. It’s for this reason I’m closely watching comments as a potential innovation model.
Is how people consume a company’s product part of the product experience? Most definitely (albeit, to the dismay of some misguided fashion labels). Is it something consumers hold the company accountable for? Well, there’s no clear answer… yet. Historically, commercial innovation has strived for outputs that improve how people use products. So it’s a fairly new wrinkle for the consumption process to be an active input of that innovation process. In the 1920s, Kleenex changed its intended use in response to how consumers were actually using the product. The shift from disposable face towel to disposable handkerchief resulted in a doubling of sales. This was revolutionary; yet the product didn’t change, just the positioning. Today, even traditional industries like journalism are changing product experiences based on how consumers are using them. I can’t wait to see what we learn by watching this experiment unfold across seemingly every web page.
Online commenting is the perfect petri dish for exploring usage-driven innovation. The environment is ideal: comments are inherent to the web experience, they live on the company’s “property” vs. the user’s, and they directly impact how people feel about the product experience.
Keeping an eye on how these experiments play out should provide insight into how consumers can drive product innovation. This is a big deal. After all– with apologies to Steve Jobs and Henry Ford– the people who know the most about what they want are consumers themselves.