To Improve Conversations, Facebook Will Launch A Reply Feature And Most Active Threads On Pages And Popular Profiles

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Facebook is preparing to roll out a new feature on Pages and popular Profiles that will help increase interactions with fans and readers: Replies. Up to now, visitors could comment on a post but others, including the Page owners themselves, would not be able to respond directly to them in cases of multiple people commenting on a post. Facebook has been running tests of the new feature since November last year; now a source tells us it will be rolling out the feature more formally as an opt-in on Monday, March 25, before turning it on for everyone in July.

Update: Facebook has now confirmed this story and rollout plans. “We think this update will allow for easier management of conversations around posts, which is a better experience for people interacting with Pages and public figure profiles,” a spokesperson said. (original story continues below)

huffpo repliesTo the right is a sample screen shot of how it looks from a page that has been testing the comments already. (Update: this is replacing the grainy picture used previously.)

Another feature that will be launched at the same time is active-thread sifting, which also had been in beta testing. Here, the most active conversations will be ordered at the top using an algorithm to appear higher in the posts.

Replies and the algorithmic sorting won’t work everywhere. They are being rolled out only to Page posts and Profiles with more than 10,000 followers, not personal accounts. Also, they will not work on mobile, although the intention is to make Replies part of the Graph API and mobile in the future.

Replies are already a part of Facebook’s commenting plug-in, which runs on third-party sites (TechCrunch used to use it; it doesn’t anymore). But this is the first time Replies will be appearing across Facebook itself.

The most important reason for introducing Replies is that it gives Page owners the ability to engage directly with individual commenters, and other Page visitors will then be able to see the most active conversations. This will not only improve the quality of the conversation but will mean more engagement for the Page posts overall. Engagement remains a key metric for Facebook as a way of quantifying how much time users spend on the site, important data for those deciding how to invest marketing budgets.

Facebook will let Page owners opt in to using the new Reply feature from March 25, and it intends to make the change universal by July 10.

In a FAQ that Facebook has been circulating, it gives a little bit of an explanation about how the conversation threads will work, and it’s a little more sophisticated than simply putting the comments with the most replies at the top, and ties in with how Facebook generally prioritizes content for you based on your own social network and likes.

They “may appear differently to each person based on their connections,” Facebook writes. So, for example, if you as a viewer happen to know some of the people in a particular thread, that thread will jump to the top for you, as Facebook assumes you’ll be more likely to want to jump into that conversation.

Apart from this, weight is also given to posts that have a lot of likes and a relatively high number of replies. Conversely, threads or comments flagged as spam will drop down the list, and Facebook says it may also “down-rank” comments made by frequent spammers.

And if you think the Reply feature brings Facebook a bit closer to Twitter, there may also be another social media outlet that Facebook has in mind to target. The Reply feature will also let Page and Profile run Q&A’s and open polls, by way of people responding to questions created as posts. This brings to mind also the format of Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” posts — the idea here being that the Page and Profile owners can control those themselves.

But for a company that has made several proclamations of putting mobile at the center of what it creates today, there will be a little inconsistency with Replies.

Because Replies initially won’t work on mobile, users of the native iOS and Android apps will see Replies as regular comments. The same goes for how the threads will appear via the Graph API. This will also mean that third-party page management apps for now will get the short end of the stick because they will also not be able to write Replies — only comments.