Editor: In this two-part post, Patrick Groome, the administrator for the Penny Arcade forums, shares some of his community management best practices. Part 1 of this post can be found here.
4. Creating too many categories
Over specialising categories is a common problem that manifests itself differently in communities old and new. It most commonly manifests as a gigantic front page, filled with every possible permutation of the community’s general topic. A community about games might have separate categories for firstperson shooters, thirdperson shooters, side scrollers etc, where they would better be served with either a category marked “Shooters” or simply an overarching category marked “Games”.
In new communities, this stems from a desire from the founder to make sure that any topic the community could want to talk about is covered. While this is understandable, it will lead to users simply being intimidated by the enormous number of categories at their disposal. In most communities with vast numbers of categories, the majority of them will lie fallow. If a new user posts in one and doesn’t get a response, they’re unlikely to persist much further.
In old communities this is simply the result of gradual category creep. For example, any general discussion community will sooner or later have users asking to create a whole category based around the more popular threads. Sometimes these are topics that can sustain their own category easily. At other times, these will be fields that are sufficiently specialist that you would simply be shunting the dozen or so people who already post in the relevant threads into a category on their own, where it will become obvious that the topic does not have enough interest to sustain it. These categories will either die out, or loll around for years with a few dozen posters, becoming increasingly cliquey over time.
So when should you start a new category? There might be a number of reasons that are particular to you, but I try and keep two criteria in mind before I start a new category. The first is whether this category brings enough unique value to the community to be worthwhile regardless of whether it sees a lot of traffic. An example of this at Penny Arcade would be our categories dedicated to art and writing (The Artist’s Corner and The Writer’s Block). They see comparatively little traffic (although both are still active), but both offer something special that can’t be found in other categories. The other criteria is whether discussion of the topic covered by the new category would simply not happen otherwise. Another example from Penny Arcade would be our Games and Technology category. Games discussion was so popular that any discussion of Technology issues simply dropped off the front page. With the extra visibility of it’s own category, our Technology category was able to generate much better levels of discussion and traffic.
5. Over democratizing
￼This point feeds into the previous one. It’s very tempting as a manager to outsource your decision making to either the users or the moderators. We’re all aware of the stereotypical 'nazi mod', a tyrant who rules over his community with an iron fist and brooks no disagreement. No one wants to be that guy (although we are all guaranteed to be accused of it at some point). It’s too easy however to simply run your forum by constantly asking the users for feedback. There are several problems with this. The first is Parkinson’s Rule of Triviality, which causes people to give disproportionate weight to trivial matters because they feel they can more easily understand them. As difficult as managing a community can be, it’s something that everyone feels that they could do. As such the signal to noise ratio of feedback threads invariably favours noise. There are simply too many suggestions and too many opinions for you to take them all onboard. If you apply this to any situation in which you’re asking the community to make decisions on your behalf, the problem will be increased tenfold.
Your moderation team are a much better source to turn to, and it’s wise to have them involved in all major decisions involving your community. After all, moderation is entirely based on good judgment. If you don’t trust the judgment of your moderators, why are they doing that job? However, many of the pitfalls of user feedback still apply. Back in the mists of time at Penny Arcade, the moderators would spend many hours arguing over various minutiae of running the forums. Invariably two groups with polarised views would emerge and reach a deadlock as fast as they could. I’m sure all my fellow moderators will confirm that I was always a blameless angel in these events. The upshot of this was that reaching any kind of consensus became incredibly exhausting for all involved.
The solution to this is simple. Solicit feedback, but don’t solicit decisions. That’s your job, and outsourcing it is an abdication of responsibility. Listen to the opinions of the people you trust and then do what you think is right. If 95% of people tell you to do something that your gut and brain tell you is a bad idea, do what you think is right.
6. Forgetting to have fun
This is a simple point, but one that’s easy to forget. Community management can be a headache. If your day to day is nothing but dealing with problems, cleaning up spam and reading abusive messages from people you’ve banned, you’ll lose touch with why you’re doing it in the first place. Have some fun. Think of a community game, make a thread about a subject you love, solicit pictures of puppies, gossip with the staff in the mod forum. Whatever helps keep you relaxed and enjoying the community.
Remember that in some respect, everyone on your forum is there to have fun. Whether it’s because they want to talk about games, hang out with like-minded people or even get into protracted arguments about politics; they’re there to enjoy themselves. As soon as you lose sight of your own ability to have fun, you’ll lose sight of how to ensure that your users are having fun.
This isn’t a purely selfish thing to do either. At Penny Arcade we recently had a Valentine’s Day game coded by Tim at Vanilla. Our users spent the day submitting poetry, love letters, jokes and songs to each other at the behest of our forum bot, renamed Robot Cupid for the day. This was hugely enjoyable for me, the staff and the users. Our users will be talking about it fondly for years to come. Even better, a look at our stats the next day showed a huge bump in traffic. People were clearly telling their friends that something cool was happening, old users were popping in to see what all the fuss was about, and new users were jumping into the fray.
One of the overarching goals of any community manager should be to make the forums a fun place to hang out for all their users. That includes you!
Guest post by Patrick Groome. Patrick is the Administrator of the Penny Arcade forums. Penny Arcade is one of the most popular and long running gaming webcomics and organizer of the PAX gaming conference.""