Time is the one resource that community managers can never have enough of. A community manager is often asked to take care of a combination of:
- Social listening
- Social media
- Blog posts
- External and internal communication
- Management and recruitment of volunteer teams
- Event organisation
It’s a lot of plates to keep spinning. Constant prioritisation and re-prioritisation of incoming tasks is required, and important factors inevitably fall by the wayside and end up underdeveloped. Simplifying the workflow of your community forum is a great way to save time and effort without compromising the quality of the forum community. A great forum doesn’t necessarily need constant attention, and if you’re finding that your forum does there are a lot of ways to fix the problem.
What Forum Activities Take the Most of Your Time?
The first key to getting rid of a time suck is identifying it. Every community is set up a little differently, but there are a few common pain points to cover that most CMs will run into at some point. We’ll go over a few here, with some suggestions on how to streamline them.
Moderation and Spam Cleanup
Actively moderating your forum community can be an important part of a CMs role. It’s a great way to set an example for your moderators, and is crucial in setting appropriate standards of behaviour early in the life of your community. Keeping a community clear of spam is equally important, if not more so. Spam makes your community look bad, and members will treat it as indicative of a lack of investment from you in the community. If you don’t care, why should they?
Needless to say, these are both issues that can require a lot of hands-on time. Your long-term plan however, should always be taking your hands off the tiller for moderation purposes. A CM’s job isn’t moderation, it’s setting up the systems that enable moderators to work. Right from the start of your community, you should be keeping the long-term vision for your community in mind.
When it’s clear to members what kind of behaviour is acceptable, that culture gains momentum and becomes harder to change. If you’ve set up the right behaviour from the start, moderating your community will take a lot less time and effort.
You should aim to reach the point where members “self-moderate”. They don’t respond to trolls. They don’t write “hilarious” responses to spammers that bump their threads to the top of the community. Members stop acting well for fear of moderator intervention and begin behaving well because of an investment in the community. One key point to consider to encourage this: when trouble brews, don’t just target instigators. Make it clear to people that took the bait or piled-on afterwards that their behaviour is just as unacceptable. “But he started it!” wasn’t an acceptable excuse when I was seven, but in many communities it seems to be accepted law.
Spam cleanup will ideally one day fall to your fantastic moderators, but in the mean time the trick is to:
- Set up a smart spam filter like Akismet that will catch the vast majority of spam
- Implement a system that allows your members to bring spam to your attention, or downvote and hide it
- Clean up little and often. Going on a spam hunt once a week is arduous, once a day is five minutes of work.
In most situations where spam gets out of control, it’s because the spam filter is improperly set up. If spam cleanup is taking more than a few minutes of your day, something is wrong. Check everything is properly plumbed in and working correctly or look for a new provider.
Managing the Moderation Team
Your moderation team is either going to be your biggest hassle or your biggest time and effort saver. I seem to frequently be on calls with community managers who are struggling to manage moderators, and express a need for rigorous tracking to make sure that their mods aren’t messing anything up. Conversely, I think of the moderation team at Penny Arcade and how they do nothing but make my life easier. I frequently need to take a break and focus on other things, and it never even occurs to me that the mods are going to wreak havoc while I’m gone.
I can’t take sole credit (I’ll try and imply it though), because I inherited many of them from previous administrators. I’ve noticed patterns in successful mod teams though. In successful mod teams:
- The community management team spent more time discovering and vetting candidates. They didn’t just pick the busiest or loudest people, or the people who volunteered.
- There isn’t a huge gap between the paid staff and the volunteer moderators. It’s accepted that both are vital, in different ways.
- The moderators are given the tools they need to do their job, without roadblocks or arbitrary bureaucracy
- Once the moderation team is set up, the community managers largely get out of their way
Conversely, the communities with moderator problems are hallmarked by:
- A lack of real, person-to-person contact between CM and moderators.
- A restriction of the tools (notably banning) that the moderators need to do their jobs
- A sense from the moderators that they’re the only ones working to improve the community
- Moderators are constantly trying to guess what the CM would like them to do, rather than receiving solid guidance
Moderators are in your corner. They’re your team. It’s frankly miraculous that volunteer moderators exist, given the often thankless nature of the job. Spending the time to work on the mod team might seem like a ballache, but in terms of ROI there’s nothing that beats it. You’ll free up an enormous amount of time in the future if you invest early in your moderators.
Onboarding New Members
This is a tremendous time suck for many community managers. It’s important to ensure that new members have a pain free entry to your forums, but onboarding presents limitless opportunities to overspend your time.
I’m on record as feeling like the traditional "community concierge" approach may be an ineffective use of time. Rather than spending time shaking virtual hands, make sure that it’s easy for new members to figure things out on their own. Some points to consider:
- How are your community guidelines? For ideal onboarding, they should be interesting enough to read, to the point and answer any reasonable questions that a new member might have.
- Ask your members what kind of pain points they may have had when they joined up. Better yet, if you’re ever able to find a member who didn’t fully engage, ask them why. It’s very difficult to find the problems in your own onboarding, you need fresh eyes to tell you where you’re going wrong.
- Do you have too many categories to post in? Are there too many points where the categories cross over? Make sure members aren’t confused about where to ask their question, or where they’re likely to find the content that interests them.
Having the answers to common questions easily available saves you time answering them again. Writing great, easily digestible community guidelines saves you from closing threads and dealing with inadvertent rule breakers. Making sure that your categories make intuitive sense saves you moving threads from place to place and increase early engagement. The upshot of all these things is less hands-on time making sure that the cogs are spinning properly.
Running a Community Forum Can Be Extremely Low Hassle
Don’t believe anyone who tells you that running a forum requires a lot of busywork. It doesn’t. A properly set up community forum can potentially pretty much run itself. What a forum does require is up-front work to make sure your systems are running efficiently and correctly. Don’t waste hours on your forum, year after year. Get it right early and spend the rest of your time watching it pay off.