Salon turns off comments and banks on email newsletters to generate identity connections for targeted ads

The header image features an open laptop with an envelope on the screen and an alert bubble signaling a new email.

It was especially notable when one post this week on Salon, the site named after the practice of gathering for intellectual discussion, had no comments.

In fact, it was by design. The site where two decades ago people convened virtually for “Table Talk” and pre-social media community chatter on “The Well” has removed article comments once and for all. 

“It’s just time to change the channels we use to talk — and listen — to each other,” wrote Mary Elizabeth Williams, a staff writer for Salon and its longtime comments moderator, in an Aug. 31 post explaining why “Salon is closing comments for good.” Rather than ending the conversation, she suggested that readers engage with others in the Salon community on social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. 

Salon’s commenting capability served a dual purpose. The site, which is heavily reliant on revenue from open programmatic advertising, had required people to log in with an email address to comment on the site. That was a means of gathering emails, which enable matches to data from identity tech providers, in turn allowing advertisers to reach specific people via targeted — and arguably, higher priced — ads. Salon has implemented identity technologies from Amazon, Neustar, ID5 and LiveRamp, which use those email connections once the data is encrypted for privacy purposes, according to Justin Wohl, Salon’s chief revenue officer. 

The thing is, the comments section wasn’t generating many of those data connections. “Less than half of a percent of all of our unique users are commenters,” Wohl told Digiday. Salon reaches an audience of approximately 10 million monthly unique visitors, according to the company.

So, not only were comment logins not generating much coveted first-party data, Wohl said removing the feature isn’t exactly a drastic shift away from Salon’s conversational DNA. 

Why Salon ditched comments

There’s another editorial product that is helping Salon collect email addresses in the hopes of generating more valuable ad impressions: email newsletters.

When people click through to the site from an email newsletter, their hashed email address is passed through to ID vendors, which attempt to match it to the identity of someone advertisers want to reach. Wohl said Salon’s newsletters “have been seeing steady growth.” Over the last six months, after weeding out email subscribers who were not opening or clicking through from its email newsletters, the publisher’s open rate has risen from 16% to 32%, he said. That improved engagement gives the company incentive to invest in additional newsletter titles, such as a new weekly food newsletter, “The Bite,” set to launch the week of Sept. 6, per Wohl.

Over the past decade, several publishers have blamed toxic verbal combat and trolling for decisions to remove comment capabilities from their sites. However, these days, it’s not just trolls whom Salon’s content moderator had to bounce out, said Wohl. “The nature of commenting in the last year-plus has changed,” he said. “There’s disinformation and misinformation and COVID lies and anti-vaxxers and a lot more chatter which is difficult to police and moderate.” Ultimately, he said, those bad actors demanded more energy than the publisher was willing to devote to clean up.

Some publishers may consider ending comments for another reason, said Scott Bender, partner and global head of client strategy at Prohaska Consulting. “It’s a revenue risk,” he said, noting that tough-to-patrol comments sections are a deterrent for more brand-safety-minded advertisers. “If there’s a questionable, inappropriate comment and you’re having a banner ad next to that, it’s an issue,” he said.

Wohl said brand safety risk wasn’t a concern for Salon, which has always been home to strongly opinionated political coverage (the News and Politics homepage on Friday last week featured ads for HBO Max show “The Other Two” and Tanqueray pre-made gin drinks in a can).

There was another reason the publisher ditched comments, though. Salon wanted Williams, who will keep her job, to lend her talents to reporting and producing more content for Salon rather than battling bad information. “We want to create more space for her to pursue that writing passion with Salon,” said Wohl. 

He also stressed that the commenting platform Salon has now turned off, operated by OpenWeb, “works really well.” He added, “The relationship with them was a positive one.”

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