Even after all these years, the wild west of the internet hasn’t been completely tamed. There are still communities floating in the ether that are largely or completely rudderless. How does this happen? There are any number of ways, but some are more common than others. Some communities simply don’t require management. These are typically small, well-behaved, exclusive or completely private. Other communities see eschewing moderation as a conscious choice, and thrive on the anarchic atmosphere that results. These are the communities that regularly appear in the news due to their users doing something foul.
Why are communities abandoned by their owners?
For those dealing with customer communities, the most common problem by far is stakeholders leaving the project. Perhaps the community manager was promoted, or the project manager left the company. The result is the community being left in limbo. This can happen to any social media. Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, community forums, I’ve seen all of them abandoned in wake of a staff upheaval.
For a customer community, this represents a huge waste of resources. The labour that goes into the setting up of a forum is essentially wasted if, for want of a guiding hand, the benefits can never come to pass. It’s understandable for a new hire to look at their predecessor’s work with befuddlement and decide that it’s best left alone, but it’s extremely short sighted. It makes far more sense financially to take advantage of previously spent resources and develop the forum community and take full advantage of the potential benefits.
Bringing your community back to civilisation
Adding moderation to a customer community that’s become accustomed to a long leash can be tricky. A number of perils await the community manager that intervenes. In the absence of a strong management presence, strong personalities in the community will often take charge and attempt to run the place themselves. Any community manager can tell you that a large post count is rarely a guarantee that a person has any degree of social capability. Ousting these people from their self-appointed positions can be difficult, they’re likely to push back hard at anything that might reduce their community standing.
The general user population is likely to be less of an issue. The most common cause of discontent with users are rules that take away freedoms that they may have taken for granted. I've seen communities fall into disarray over rules as seemingly uncontroversial as “no personal attacks”. If you’re confident that the changes you’re bringing to the community are for the best, you should weather the storm. While it’s always worth considering the words of your community, you should also bear in mind that a certain percentage of users will complain about any change.
Have faith in your community manager
The single biggest mistake of project managers in dealing with these situations is simply not playing the long game. If the holder of the purse strings panics at the first sign of dissent and demands the community manager takes back any prospective changes, that community will never be effectively moderated again. You hired your community manager for a reason, trust them to do their job even if the circumstances look tough. If you’re worried about their plan, here are a few important steps to go through
- The community manager should make themselves known to the community, introducing themselves and making friendly conversation. The community shouldn't think of them as a monolithic corporate entity sent to ruin their fun.
- Make a basic plan for the community and share it with them. Let them know what changes will be made, but don’t make too many at once. Making too many changes at once not only spooks the users, it makes it harder to tell which changes are working.
- Be friendly but firm about the changes. There’s a line to tread between harshly laying down This Is How It’s Going To Be and being totally ineffectual due to fear of public reaction. Users should understand that their opinions are being listened to, but that the owners are in charge.
- Sometimes things don’t work out as you hoped. Be prepared for that, and be ready for it. If you need to roll back a change, the community won’t crow too much as long as you’re honest throughout the process. That said, be sure that a change isn’t working out as you hoped before you roll it back. Don’t jump on every blip or wobble and declare it a sign that your community manager has failed.