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Community Management

I recently ran a survey of 25 Community Managers from around the web and asked them 5 short questions about how they use Volunteer Moderators in their online communities. I’ve worked with roughly 40 volunteer mods in the various communities I’ve worked in and the experiences have been all across the board in terms of success.

There’s something about giving even “lite” powers to a stranger from the web that’s a little scary to me, so I wanted to seek the insights of others in my field to get a feel for what the average Community Manager is doing to with their volunteer mods and how they approach their use. Here’s what I learned:

1. “How long should a user have been a member of the community before they’re eligible to become a moderator?”

Answers here varied pretty wildly. Out of the responses that provided a numerical timeframe, the average was 7.5 months of community involvement. Everyone who answered with a timeframe under 3 months said that they could tell whether a user had volunteer potential by quality of their contributions and more than one person said that a long time in the community wasn’t necessarily an indicator that they’d be a good candidate.

Overall, my greatest takeaway was that users can be judged on how “helpful” they already are before they’re allowed to become part of your team.

2. “How frequently do you contact your volunteer moderators to “check in” and share new goals?”

I wanted to get a feel for how often you need contact your volunteers to tell them how to prioritize their time, get them up to speed on any “fires” that might need putting out and direct their efforts within the community.

On average, Community Managers check in with their volunteers every 6.5 days, or roughly once a week. Generally, volunteers can be left to their own devices but people who checked in more often seemed more pleased with the overall quality of their volunteers and had the least amount of problems with them. It would seem that autonomy is a dangerous thing when using volunteers. More than a few of those surveyed said something to the effect of “Not as often as I should.”

3. Do you give your volunteers the power to “ban” users from the community without your approval?

34% of Community Managers surveyed allow their volunteer moderators to ban users from the community. Several reported requiring the approval of a CM, or providing only the ability to ban a user temporarily. 3 CM’s told me that they have a “suspension” or temporary ban feature for their volunteers but the power to ban a user permanently lies with the staff only.

4. Do all of your volunteer moderators have a visual callout that tells other members that they have administrator powers? If not, why not?

7.5% of Community Managers don’t require a visual callout for their volunteer moderators.

The rest of the group was in agreement that allowing unmarked moderators led to a “secret police” feeling that was bad for the health of their communities. A key concept I noted was that by marking volunteers as different from the other community members, you imbue them with a respect that helps new users benefit from their advice. New users don’t like being told what to do by other community members so using a visual callout of Moderator status provides a separation between Volunteers and the community at large.

5.  “How do you handle Volunteer Moderators who have overstepped their bounds?

There are several approaches to this situation. The majority of you said that when something like this happens, after being stripped of their powers the user often leaves the community of their own volition. One approach I thought was quite interesting was from a Community Manager who wrote that they use Volunteers on a rotating, yearly basis. If a volunteer isn’t up to snuff, they simply aren’t asked to rejoin. This won’t work for everyone but I liked that it incentivizes volunteers to do their very best work.

This quote summed up the best practice for me personally: “People make mistakes. Everyone needs to be handled with dignity.” Volunteer Moderators are real people with a stronger than average want to help and be a member of the community they take part in, so even when they go overboard, they should be treated with respect.

In conclusion, I think the biggest things to learn from this survey is that every person who wants to be a volunteer moderator has to be assessed and interacted with as an individual. Losing track of your mods or treating them as all the same might be worse than not having them at all. And check in more often – it strengthens your working relationship with your volunteers and gives you even more control of how they work and help your community.

Finally, I wanted to share this “additional comment” I received.

“Volunteers help with scaling a large community but the majority of companies/orgs in my experience grossly underestimate the time and energy (including emotional) expended on volunteers. Volunteers have a range of motivations, of which they’re not always self-aware. Many do so for status & reputation which needs to be managed carefully. Others do so for a genuine love of giving back to the community and enjoy being rewarded by members. Almost all want recognition, and often more than is easy to give. Although I think a volunteer system in many communities has a lot of strengths, the weaknesses must be assessed. If a company is to build a financially viable community it should consider carefully how it will resource the community.”

I’d like to thank all the great people who participated in this survey. I sourced most of my Community Managers from the following (excellent!) LinkedIn Groups:

Association of Online Community Moderators

Community Managers

Community Managers Group

Online Community and Social Media Managers

The Community Roundtable

If you participated, please let me know in the comments and share your opinion on the results and thank you again for your comments!

photo by Sterling College

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Ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish” – Tao Te Ching, Verse 60

This line comes up a lot when you start looking into the concepts of Taoism as they relate to leadership, for obvious reasons. In very practical terms, when cooking small fish, it’s important to know when to touch it, move it, flip it and when to leave it alone. Lao Tzu is referring to a fundamental precept of Taoism, wu-wei, or knowing when to take action and when to allow things to unfold and progress as they will.

This concept translates well to Community Management, for a few reasons. The biggest being a truism of online communities – the noisiest, most vocal users in large communities are generally, a minority. There is great value in knowing which concerns are broad reaching and which affect only that vocal minority. It’s very difficult to keep this in mind sometimes, especially since that vocal minority values their perceived klout in official decisions.

However, they use the same products and services that the rest of the community does. There are many users who would love to tell you their concerns and give feedback, if they knew where to go or were given the chance. It’s important to reach out to those members, find them and tell them “Your opinion matters!”

What’s good for them may not be what the vocal minority wants. And if you start allowing radical changes based on the will of the loudest voices, you may alienate and lose that large part of your user base that you aren’t talking to.

The Taoist philosopher’s world was much slower and decidedly less connected than ours, but the truth remains the same. It’s likely that a large community has members who don’t follow you on Twitter, read the official blog or get the newsletter. I believe Community Managers need to imagine how far-reaching changes will affect those members and advocate for the community as a whole, including those users who they may never speak to directly.

photo by soilse on Flickr

Some thoughts on “Moderation”:

There are many varied and valid reasons to moderate. Moderation can polish a community’s image, give it purpose or create a nurturing environment that fosters discussion, constructive criticism and relationships between users.

Moderating a community gives it focus. What you remove from your community places emphasis on what you leave behind. Moderation is a tool in the community manager’s arsenal that works both behind the scenes and center stage.

For example, your policy on profanity and vulgar speech alters the suitable age range of your product or forum. A community build around a more “adult” topic or product won’t necessarily benefit from the removal of swear words. You could alienate and frustrate your users by censoring them, similarly, if your product or service attracts a broader age range or if the community is likely to include children, a stricter policy will benefit you, both by protecting children and instilling confidence in the adult members.

You can de-politicize a community, create an online “safe space” or foster an all-inclusive, “anything goes” space. The focus will be provided by your style and amount of moderation. When you moderate, you are helping to define that vision and emphasize what kind of content is allowed.

A properly moderated community reflects the desires and needs of the community, but stays within the guidelines set by the company. A good, focused community can absolutely develop with no moderation but isn’t sustainable without it

Photo by Celeste Hutchins

One of the first things I do when I start working with a new CRM or ticketing system (Parature, ZenDesk, FogBugz, etc) is create a short list of  “scripts” that I can use to address common issues, or a template response for a task I might do many times.

I’ve recently started to use the Chrome extension PopChrom. It’s fully customizable and free.  It allows me to easily paste in my pre-defined replies with minimal keystrokes. I’d be willing to bet that everyone who does this type of work has a similar system in place. It’s great and it works. However, there is a dark side to this: I believe automation builds mistrust and even the most personal of notes reads insincere when you’ve already received it in the past.

I’m currently using a CRM tool that shows earlier tickets from the current sender. When I see that I’ve contacted a sender in the past, I will often alter the note, even if just slightly. Of course, this is dependent on the content of the ticket and the issue that’s being addressed. Quite often, a “Thanks, we’ve received this” or a similarly brief greeting is right, but when it isn’t, I’ve found there’s great value in deviating from the “script”.

It adds a personal touch and humanizes you a bit. So often, online interactions get stripped down to little more than a cartoon avatar, your first name and an initial. From reading the grateful, positive replies I receive, I believe there’s great value in taking that extra second to “switch the script up”.

Photo bScottSimpson on Flickr

One of the greatest (and simplest) ways for community managers to connect with their users is with their “Profile” page. Most communities offer users and staff a profile page where they can upload a picture, write a brief biography or list a few interests.

I can’t stress enough how important it is to have a bio that’s been filled out carefully and with a specific focus on humanizing and de-mystifying you. Your profile page will receive a lot of curious visitors, especially in the early weeks with a new community.

Here are my top tips for building your profile pages:

1. Use your real picture!

Cartoon avatars are fun, especially if you have a custom caricature of yourself, but you’d do well to save that picture for later. You should use a recent picture, attired appropriately – if your community is relaxed and informal, a staid, professional headshot isn’t really appropriate. By the same turn, if your community is a little more buttoned-down, go ahead and use your professional headshot. Just make sure you smile!

2. Talk about your interests but keep it light

You should post a few things about yourself, if space allows. It could be as simple as a single sentence about what you like to do on the weekends, or a detailed overview of your hobbies, complete with pictures and even video. It depends greatly on the community that you’re working with but think of this sort of like online dating – you need to come across with sincerity and honesty. Put your best, most interesting face forward here.

3. Keep it up to date

Nothing looks worse than a “link to your blog” that doesn’t point anywhere or a biography that doesn’t have your correct title or has an outdated mission. If you change your biography seasonally, be sure to stay on top of that as well. An untended, out of date biography can make users think that you aren’t taking your role seriously or that you’re only a minor part of the company. Community members will notice even the smallest changes to your profile and quite often greatly enjoy the chance to learn something new about you.

Photo by bjornmeansbear on Flickr

Lao Tzu and Kong Fuzi

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu

The more I study Taoism the more parallels I see between Lao Tzu’s thoughts on leadership and my thoughts on community management. My ideas about the value of a “behind the scenes” approach to community building are obviously not new.

Photo by Yenna on Flickr

Community Management is communication – a lot of it. The message is most important and you should be accurate, polite and often apologetic in your dealings with the community. But by no means should you be the most active poster in the forums or wherever your community interacts the most. You shouldn’t be the first responder to every thread and there’s a lot of threads you don’t need to post in at all.

It’s also important to not be the one starting all the conversations – A gentle nudge here and there to direct the attention of power users is always a positive but don’t attempt to foster every discussion. This approach leads to a stranglehold on ideas by the staff and can actually wind up causing resentment among members of the community who feel like their input doesn’t carry as much weight as it should.  An effective community manager is more active in a ‘behind the scenes’ role – they alert community members to the topics that might interest them and encourage those users to get involved instead.

They also get the chance to tie together like-minded users who may have not interacted before: By letting a user know that their expertise, opinion or advice is desirable, you can strengthen both your relationship to the community and the relationships that exist within the community.

If you’re already the loudest voice in the room, take it down a notch. Try to off-set your quieting by appearing more active in other places. You can spend less time on discussion and more on pro-active education, via a blog or Knowledge Base. When you have an idea for a discussion topic, rather than starting the thread yourself, try choosing a community member who can lead the discussion for you. This way you can foster discussion in the areas that will help without directing the flow of ideas.

Behind the scenes community management is sometimes slightly more difficult than an aggressively hands on approach but the rewards are great. Just remember, don’t be the loudest voice in the room but always stay audible.