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Is it ever OK to block audience comments in social media?

I have to admit that my knee jerk reaction to this question used to be “no.” Social media is above all, social, and I never understood why anyone would block comments. I know Seth Godin blocks comments on his blog because he explains that he would feel compelled to answer everyone who posts a comment. To me, that’s the point.

Now, we don’t get that many comments on this blog, and I must admit that I don’t honestly feel compelled to answer most of them, although I do answer a few. But I do appreciate everyone who does take the time to comment and I have never cut off the conversation, even on those few occasions where I thought there was more heat than light.

But I recently heard a story that caused me to reconsider. What about a situation where merely allowing the conversation of a volatile few could be deeply insulting to your mainstream audience? Apparently General Mills had to grapple with just such as situation last year.

The company came out with a Cheerios commercial that depicted a multicultural family, which I wouldn’t have expected to be terribly controversial nowadays (and I honestly didn’t understand why it was so controversial 50 years ago when I was a kid). But a vocal minority of viewers on YouTube apparently felt the need to leave a few choice comments that were offensive (understandably so) to the vast majority of viewers.

What to do? Did those commenters have a free speech right to voice their opinions, no matter how much it insulted others? Yes. But what does that do to serve the Cheerios brand? Nothing. Why should Cheerios be turned into the instigator of an insulting conversation when they are just trying to do a commercial?

So they turned off comments.

As I said, usually I would not recommend turning off comments, but this situation really seems like a poster child for doing so, because you are sparing the majority from being upset by a vocal minority who would never say such things in public. I wonder if that is a test of whether comments should be turned off–if the people making the comments would be OK with making the comment publicly, then it is a form of free speech and maybe we should think about leaving the comments on and engaging with the issue. But when people are hiding behind anonymity, then it is a problem to upset other people with that kind of conversation.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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