Pluck provides social media platforms for brands and publishers, including News International, The Guardian, and Trinity Mirror.

I’ve been talking to Stephanie Himoff, who directs Pluck’s European sales, about the company’s social media tools, and how publishers can use UGC to drive traffic and increase engagement…

Can you tell us about Pluck and what it does?

We provide social media solutions for 415 websites, and ours is a leading platform that integrates into sites to facilitate user generated content. Our clients include The Guardian, The Times, and Trinity Mirror, and we provide modules that allow users to interact more with these websites.

We power UGC in the form of blogs, tools for uploading photos, forums and communities, and provide integration with Facebook and Twitter. We’ve been in the UK since 2007, though we were acquired by Demand Media last year.

In what ways can publishers use social media tools to drive traffic and increase loyalty?

It’s a way for a publisher to increase key site metrics. Social media functions like comments can increase traffic and dwell time by getting customers more engaged with a website.

For retailers, customer engagement around reviews can be very valuable. Not only does it help other customers, but people will share reviews with friends, and this can drive more traffic onto the site.

Also, if you build and provide tools for the audience to produce content through blogs, photos etc, this provides another opportunity to come back to the site.

All of these different activities will be captured through their profiles, and this can also help other users to discover content. For example, on Comment is Free, people can see a comment that interests them, look at the user’s profile, and see what other stories they have commented on, and discover older, archived content.

In this and other ways, these activities mean more page views and boost engagement metrics, something that is important for any site owner, especially in the light of the recent Proctor and Gamble announcement that this is its preferred metric.

What do you think are the barriers to adoption that deter some publishers from venturing into social media?

Historically, editorial teams have been cautious about embracing social media, thanks to legal and other concerns, while commercial departments have been sceptical about the commercial potential of social media.

These have been producing barriers to adoption, but I think they are rapidly eroding. By 2010, sites will have to be social. If you don’t provide your users with these tools, they will simply go elsewhere.

How do you approach the issue of comment moderation?

Some of our clients let comments flow and then take action, while others moderate comments before they go live. It’s about managing expectations and making customers aware of site policies.

The technology and best practices around managing online communities has come a long way, and any abusive content can be flagged and reported in real time.

On USA Today, it has 500m page views per month, but they have been able to manage abusive behaviour with a relatively small team. Each comment has the option to comment, rate and report abuse.

Ultimately, once you have a well established community, it will police itself. Around 5% of the total user base will be passionate and will let you know about abuse.It’s a great situation, when you have evangelists for the site and community that do this.

Most of our clients choose a reactive policy, they use Pluck’s technology to allow users to report an flag abuse when they see it. Publishers can determine the t hresholds they want to apply.

News International does it differently though. Foe example,e. Times Online moderates everything before it goes on the site, but it provides 24/7 moderation so that comments are published quickly.

If you are pro-active on comments, then you have to be quick. If comments take 48 hours to appear, readers lose interest, and this is no good.

The number of comments on Times Online has increased by 30% sine July, what is the secret behind this?

The Times had a legacy platform, so what we did with Pluck was to improve the scalability and be able to deal with thousands of comments, as well as adding a single sign-in.

Other features, such as the widget showing most popular and most commented stories is a useful discovery tool which shows people what debates are happening on the site, and encourages them to get involved. This widget alone has been responsible for an uplift in page views and comments.

What are the common pitfalls to avoid when integrating social media into web properties? Can you think of any examples?

There are a couple of mistakes for site websites to avoid. Firstly, people sometimes build,d powerful engagement tools and assume that this interaction will happen just because the tools are there. It isn’t just about tools though, a community needs to be fostered, and the site owner needs to engage and spark debate.

For example, on Comment is Free, the stories are written with plenty of questions and invitations for readers to join the conversation. Then the writer of the story or the editor will get involved,leave their own comments and nurture and feed into the debate. Just having the right tools alone will not attract comments.

The second problem we sometimes see is over planning before launch, sites spend a lot of time planning ambitious engagement tools and communities, where often they would be better advised to start with something small, get some user feedback, and take it from there.

Are these social media tools generating revenue? What revenue models do you think work best with this type of format?

In 2009, advertisers have been very comfortable about placing ads around user generated content. If publishers can provide an active and engaged community ad plenty of page views, then this can be more appealing to advertisers than the newspaper’s own content, and can justify higher CPMs.

UGC provides additional inventory, based on an uplift in traffic, and this can be divided by category for advertisers . There are sponsorship opportunities too; the Washington Post had Cisco sponsoring its commenting tools, and this kind of sponsorship opportunity provides useful extra revenue for publishers.

What about the ‘dark sides’ of social media (e.g. comment spam and brand sabotage). Is this holding back social campaigns and what can be done about it?

Conversations are happening all over the web. If there is an unhappy customer, wouldn’t you want to be the first one to know about it?

The more forward-thinking brand are building destinations where users can come and voice these opinions, so they can respond to any bad experiences.

It is more of a problem if a customer is unhappy and cannot get a response from the retailer, so creating a place to vent these concerns and deal with dissatisfaction makes a lot of sense, and some companies are managing to reduce calls to customer call centres as a result.