Responding to readers
Articles in your magazine, blog, or website are an entry point to developing a relationship with your readers. While print magazines receive letters or emails from readers, the volume of feedback and reader engagement is much more immediate and direct for online articles. Some readers will respond with appreciation or request more information, while others may disagree with an article or have issues with what has been shared.
So how do you respond to reader engagement and keep a positive dialogue even on difficult topics?
Show respect for your readers by responding to comments in a timely manner. Make sure that someone is checking for comments regularly. For online comments, you can set up options to notify you when a comment is posted. If comments are going to an email account, be sure someone is regularly checking for new messages.
If you regularly get feedback on particular types of issues, consider having a library of prepared responses. For example, if people often provide feedback on theological topics, be ready with reference to your organization’s statement of faith. Over time, collect the responses that you create, so you can re-use them as appropriate for similar feedback.
Keep your responses to feedback calm and positive, even if the reader is showing more emotion. To respond to someone who clearly disagrees and has numerous complaints, often a short, clear response is better than going into great detail which may only open up a debate. Here is an example of a response to someone who disagrees strongly on a theological point:
Thank you for reading [article or magazine] and sending your feedback. We appreciate hearing from readers who hold a variety of viewpoints. Our organization affirms the Apostles’ Creed as our statement of faith [as an example]. Articles in our magazine reflect these core beliefs. Regarding other stances that may vary by denomination or faith tradition, we do not take positions on these matters. We realize that many followers of Jesus have differing views on issues not essential to salvation. We hope you will continue to read and grow through the content we offer.
Notice that the response does not get into a discussion about the particular issue that has been raised. It is unlikely that you will satisfy someone by diving into details if there is a fundamental disagreement on a particular point of theology or Christian practice.
In this kind of response, it is helpful if you have your statement of faith and any other statements of organizational values on your website, so you can link to them in your response.
Sometimes a reader will want to follow up directly with an author. While dialogue and connection are important in building a relationship with your readers, it is usually best to manage this kind of conversation to protect your authors. Definitely share feedback with an author, but do not share personal contact information with readers, unless the author has specifically approved this kind of contact. It is helpful for an author to hear both the positive and negative feedback from readers, but the editor can hold the interaction with the reader to provide a buffer.
Sometimes a reader will share a trivial disagreement that is not helpful, and you may choose to not pass these along to an author. For example, in a devotional article I edited by a young author, a reader didn’t like something the author had mentioned about her dog’s care. The behavior was not unsafe or unkind, so I chose to not share that feedback with the author, as it would only discourage her in her writing. I did respond to the reader, thanking her for her input and mentioning that in different settings (urban or rural, for example) there are different norms for the appropriate care of dogs.
Most website or blog software allows you control over how and when comments are displayed. It is a good idea to turn on the feature that allows you to review a comment before it is approved for posting. You should still post negative or critical comments, but it does give you control over comments that might include vulgar language. Also, some people take advantage of a comment feature to promote something completely unrelated, and you can remove these comments before they are posted.
In the comment section of an article, have clear standards for the type of comments you allow. This does not stifle dialogue but keeps it civil and productive. If you have clear standards, it is also easier to block comments from a reader who repeatedly violates the standards.
Inviting and engaging in reader feedback is an important part of building a relationship with your readers. Of course, we all appreciate positive comments much more than negative ones! Even if a reader is not respectful in their comments, you can keep your tone respectful and consider that perhaps they have some underlying issue in their life that you may not be able to solve.
By Carla Foote, Fine Print Editorial