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Recently ESPN announced plans for a spin-off website for writer Bill Simmons. Simmons has a massive following for his online content of columns, podcasts, and tweets. The site will not have ESPN branding, which makes sense as Simmons often delves away from sports and into popular culture commentary, and doesn’t shy away from critiquing ESPN broadcasts and personalities. This site will host all of his content, as well as from a team of contributors, and will almost undoubtedly garner huge traffic.

What stood out to me from the press release was this:

Bill sees the site functioning with limited fan interaction, including a selection of about 300 fans with exclusive access to comment on the site and interact with contributors.

At first I was a little upset at the thought of such confined comment limitations; after all, that goes directly against the openness and engagement that the internet provides. Even though it isn’t a done deal, the fact they are considering declaring a “free speech zone” for comments was a bit of a shock.

However, after thinking about this proposal for a while I changed my mind and began to open up to the idea.

Currently Simmons is one of only a couple ESPN writers whose posts are blocked from commenting. Much of this constraint has to do with the divisive nature of Simmons’ articles which are blunt, full of home team bias, and often make jokes at the expense of teams and players. While such posts would have extraordinary numbers of comments, the discussion would most likely lose value instantly.

Comments have the ability to add incredible quality to online content. TED is a great example of a website where educated and well-reasoned comments create a community around the content, providing a deeper attachment and involvement. Quora operates entirely on the principal of crowd controlled comments/knowledge being enriching if properly managed.

So here Simmons has the idea to allow for a vetted group of personalities who will provide beneficial comments, will not be anonymous, and can be held accountable. The decision, if they do decide to go this direction, will exclude some quality comments and valuable insights from those outside of the 300, but it also will ensure the comments will add value and not be drowned out by the screams of a million FIRST!’s, trolls, and spam bots.

The strategy of curating comments can create a deeper breadth of content as it grows beyond the post and readers will come to expect the comments to be of value. In some ways this angle takes a step back from the Internet as a new two-way dialogue model and towards the old one-way broadcast model.

As content marketing evolves, one way to make content more valuable is to highlight the opinions of experts and value-driven commenters. For the most part, comment sections have been seen simply as allowing the reader to engage. With this move ESPN may find that comment sections are a way for reader to go deeper. This shift takes comments away from user involvement and more into user experience. I think it could be a successful strategy.

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