A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel on importance of reputation in online communities. I was privileged to share the limelight with the most excellent community managers: Bill Platt of Engine Yard, Sean O’Driscoll of Ant’s Eye View, and Annie Fox of Buzznet. We were quite an unruly bunch, and almost gave our moderator Caroline Dangson a heart attack when we decided to have a drinking game on-stage. Some say, it was diluted Coke, but there are no guarantees. Enjoy.
Volunteer community moderators are your secret weapon in keeping your community friendly, professional, and helpful.
When run well, a volunteer moderator organization can do wonders for you. They can be your eyes and ears into what’s going on in the community, they can be your sounding board for new ideas, and a source of ideas and suggestions to make your community even better.
Before we even start with recruiting your volunteer moderators, let’s talk about what makes a volunteer moderation team work well.
Once you got that covered, you will need moderator guidelines. That’s a document with clear rules for the moderators to follow while enforcing your code of conduct and the terms. Things such as what to do with a flame post, when to lock a thread, and how to deal with spammers. Spend a couple hours in the quiet spelling that out. If you have never written such guidelines before, google “forum moderator guidelines” and adapt what makes sense to you.
Do we get to recruit moderators now? Nope, not yet. If you are starting a new volunteer organization, you better lay down the rules for how one becomes (and stays) a moderator right from the start. Who qualifies to be a moderator? Maybe someone who’s been on the forum for X months, or someone with N forum posts.
In order to avoid creating a clique, and to combat volunteer fatigue, you will also need to put in place some succession/election mechanisms that will allow you to introduce new blood on a regular basis as well as give the old guard a way to step down without losing face.
The rules that work well for my volunteer group are pretty simple, and go something like this:
- You have to have 500+ forum points to qualify.
- We hold elections every six months and qualified people can step forward at that point, while the existing moderators get to vote on the candidates. We allocate a full month for that process.
- If a candidate receives no negative votes, they’re in. Even a single negative vote is enough to take the candidate out of the race.
- All existing moderators have to re-commit for the next 6 months during the election time. If they don’t do that during the election month, they get removed from the group.
Note: Spare no energy to repeat that there is no disgrace in stepping down if you have no time or your priorities have changed. You want this group to consist of active moderators, not sleepers.
Procedure matters, of course. And you have to make sure you hold yourself to the highest standard first, and never ever break your word. Even if your favorite community member has just been vetoed from being elected a moderator.
Why? Because you want this group to work with as little friction as possible, and that requires that no single person has major problems with any other. Also, because you have to show them your trust in order to earn theirs. Trust begets trust, and you’ll have to always have their back, so that when the time comes, they will have yours.
Now you get to go recruit moderators. If you have no volunteer moderators yet, go find out who are the most active forum contributors and approach them. Tell them that you are looking for volunteers, and point them to the guidelines and forum rules that you’d ask them to enforce. First batch you can just let in at your own discretion, and make sure they know that the elections will be happening at regular intervals after that.
Give them a private forum to talk amongst themselves, where only you and the moderators will have access. Establish a moderator meeting or some such to get the group feeling like they belong, and if you have a VIP program, include them in that.
You will have to be an active participant in the forum yourself, to make sure you don’t miss any questions, and also to let them know that you are around if they need you.
As the moderators start implementing your guidelines in real life, you may need to amend them or to add new rules. If you are unsure what to do, ask your moderators. That will show them that you respect their opinion, and help them feel appreciated. And that is what makes a volunteer organization thrive.
Where do you start, when all you’ve got is your company web site?
Start with a forum. If there isn’t one, spin one up. If you can get support from your IT, the better, but if not, you may have to buy a SaaS solution, hosted by the vendor. Get your boss to approve the expense, and you’re set.
Create a general discussion forum and a forum for a handful of your main products. Don’t create too many at once, you want to avoid tumbleweeds by fragmenting your discussions too much. If people demand a certain forum, there’s always time to create it. That will even make you look good, too, since you will listen to the community and deliver what they want.
“You can observe a lot by just watching,” said Yogi Berra. So now that you have a forum, chill out for a bit. You are trying to grow a community, after all. So let it grow. Watch it closely while it does.
Remember the 90-9-1 rule? Make it work for you. Watch over time as people post questions and answers, and identify the upper ten percent. You can only do this after a few weeks of activity, that’s why you needed to chill, so chill while you still can. Once the community starts going, you will have your hands full!
Identify the top posters and offer them to become your community moderators. Start with the most active ones and go down the list. A team of about ten should be enough for most forums, but there is no harm in having more, depending on whether you are trying to cover all time zones and multiple languages.
I will cover best practices for running a moderator organization in a later post, so here’s just a quick run down of minimum requirements for a successful moderator group:
- Create moderator guidelines, by which they will live;
- create forum rules and code of conduct, to empower the moderators to make their decisions and enforce;
- have some sort of succession/election/retirement process in place to avoid volunteer fatigue;
- stand by your moderators in public, even if you may have to have a private discussion with them later. Trust begets trust, and you absolutely have to trust them first, or go home now.
After you have your moderators in place, you can use this group as a sounding board for new ideas, and also can recruit them into your other evangelism programs. They will become your eyes and ears in the community and will be able to help you find more active evangelists and contributors who in turn can help you find more and more quality people.
There you have it, you have started a community.
If you work for a typical company though, often there already will be a comatose forum somewhere in the depths of customer support area, protected from the knowledge-hungry customers by a login or even a pay wall. What now? You can’t start from scratch anymore. In this case–revive it.
Reviving is a long process, which relies on many things out of your control, but here are a few things you can do right away that will help breathe new life into an atrophied discussion board.
“Tear down this wall Mr. Gorbachev!“ You may not be the leader of the free world, but you too know that openness and freedom are good things. Now put yourself in your community’s shoes for a moment. They want answers, maybe while deciding whether to buy your product, and instead of getting sweet sweet knowledge they are forced to create an account or worse–buy the product before they are even allowed to get to the forums. How would you feel in their place? Yeah, I would get mad, too.
So go and plead and bargain and negotiate, but get at least some of the basic product forums to be viewable by guest users. No login required, no strings attached. Let Google index the publicly viewable content, so that you can begin establishing your community as the number one source of information about your products.
Your sales people may not find this smart, but you are the community manager now. You are in charge of doing what is best for the community, not your sales force. Your community is a reflection of your brand, and vice versa. When you are generous with your knowledge, people will trust your brand more. A strong open community will strengthen your brand and drive more customers to purchase. But you may not always be able to demonstrate this with a clean sales funnel. Thankfully, that’s not your job. Your job is to grow the community.
Once you have your at least partially open forums, go to the step where you chill out and watch, to see the natural leaders manifest themselves, so you can make evangelists and volunteers out of them, and you will be well on the way to a vibrant community.
When it comes to community, “management” is a misnomer. You don’t “manage” a community, you serve it.
When asked what I do for a living, I say “community management,” and cringe. For me, the term management implies a business-like approach, profit and loss, ROI, that sort of thing. Instead, I rather see myself as a mayor of my community.
Come to think of it, with just over a million registered users, I got myself a town to run, with moderators as the police force, web engineers helping with the town infrastructure, and all the different product groups setting up shop in the forums, to help the town inhabitants with their questions and problems.
Every morning, I read through my community notifications: moderators reporting spammers who need banning, new members asking for help finding information, maybe some bug reports for the engineers to fix. My resources aren’t unlimited, and most times I have to choose how to allocate them between regular maintenance work as well as upgrades and bug fixes.
Just like with a real-world town hall, I get requests from different groups for new features, and to raise priority of certain bugs that have been on the back burner for a while. And every once in a while I even get to be a judge in disputes between community members or vendors.
So all in all, I think this analogy stands up pretty nicely, so I will go ahead and stretch it out a little further.
In all languages that I know, the work that a city hall worker does is called a service of some kind. It is public service in English, öffentlicher Dienst in German, общественные услуги in Russian. Are you catching my drift? What I am saying here is that as a mayor of your online community you are less like a corporate manager, deciding between outsourcing jobs to off-shore and cutting local wages, and much more like a public servant, serving your little community and responding to its everyday needs.
Now with this “public servant” mindset, reasons for many of the popular “community management” failures become duh-obvious. Take my favourite pet peeve, the video contest. Just because Coca-Cola corporation is able to attract some brilliant submissions, doesn’t mean you will. And it’s not because your community is any less talented, although I suspect that computer engineers may not make best moviemakers, or they’d all quit their jobs in the datacenter and move to Hollywood. You will not get the videos out of them because that video is what you want, and not what they want. They are your townspeople, not your employees, and you cannot tell them what to do.
Same goes for any “engagement” efforts that have the goals of your company at the center, instead of the goals of the people that make up the community: share your story, photo, video, tell us how great our products are, for a chance to win a trip to our company event or an iPad. Initiatives like these treat the community members like workforce, and try to “pay” them with a prize that may not even be relevant to your company or product. If it’s a cool gadget, you may get a dozen submissions, but you will not inspire hundreds, and you will not make anyone feel like you are tuned into what is going on in your community. It will be perceived as soulless marketing, and that will be the end of that.
To have a community that is abuzz with cool people doing cool stuff, you have to keep your ear to the ground and your hand on the pulse of the town, and look for cool things that your community members are already doing. The moment you see a cool project in the making, swoop down and shower the person(s) in question with any kind of support you can provide, and don’t really ask for much in return. Just empower them and get out of their way.
That last bit about getting out of the way is very important too. You see local government supporting citizen initiatives all the time. Say, there’s an art project that got a grant. While a grant will often have clear guidelines as to what kind of art project will be sponsored, you won’t see the mayor actually picking up the paintbrush or donning a tutu to help. Once the grant recipient is picked, they can do as they please within the constraints of the grant.
As a result, the town gets a new mural or a dance performance, the starving artists get to stave off starvation for a while longer, and the mayor gets a happier community.
The sooner you realize that you are the one serving the community, and not managing it, the sooner you will stop stepping on the rake of artifice and begin having genuine engagement with people in your community.
No matter what you call it, your community of users beats an overseas call center any time.
You know that something has gone mainstream when the Economist writes about it as a new trend. In this week’s edition dedicated to technology, the newspaper writes about “unsourcing” as the next big thing in tech support after outsourcing.
“Unsourcing”, as the new trend has been dubbed, involves companies setting up online communities to enable peer-to-peer support among users. Instead of speaking with a faceless person thousands of miles away, customers’ problems are answered by unpaid individuals in the same country who have bought and used the same products. This is done either in discussion forums set up on the company’s own website or on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
From there, the article goes on to extoll the awesome savings TomTom and BestBuy have seen by allowing their customers help each other. As usual, Gartner is cited as ultimate authority, claiming up to 50% potential support cost savings.
So how do you make your customers do your support work for you? Enter another buzzword (that one I have actually heard of): Gamify! Provide points and achievement levels to entice the customers to play and compete, and you’ve got it made. People will fall over themselves to answer technical questions, and you will be able to lay off half of those Philippino support agents you hired back when Outsourcing was the name of the game.
That’s all fine and good, but as with many business publications, the focus is entirely on what the company wants. In this particular case, the company wants its users to provide tech support for each other, and needs to game them into doing this work for free. I dunno, this sounds one-sided, and a little scammy to me.
What this article fails to mention, and many Business majors miss on a daily basis, is what the customers actually get out of it. Because it’s not the points. You can set up your community support forums using the latest software, and use the newest gamification technology to motivate people to donate their time and expertise, and you will still fail if you only focus on your selfish goals.
Online communities of use have existed for almost as long as the Net itself, despite what the Economist and Gartner may believe. Smart companies have been embracing online communities for a long time, and the really smart ones have built such communities and kept them free of the corporate censorship and marketing copy.
The distinguishing quality of a community of use, as opposed to say, anime fan forums, is that the users come together to help each other succeed with whatever it is the community organized around. Like knitting, or using Photoshop or other software, or fixing vintage automobiles. In order for such a community to thrive, it needs to empower its members to exchange opinions and information freely, and to allow constructive criticism and even talk about competition.
In order to thrive, the community needs user’s trust, and you gain that trust by making sure that:
- The information in the community is unfiltered by corporate and therefore genuine.
Some policing is always necessary, and I will write about community moderators separately. Things such as flame wars and profanity do not enhance a community and should be kept to a minimum and cleaned up. What I am referring to is removing user posts that are not in line with corporate messaging or having employees post on forums without disclosing their affiliation.
- User contributions will not be censored because they may express criticism or suggest a competitor product that may help resolve the issue better.
“Help users be successful” is your mantra as the community manager. If a competitor’s product will help your user succeed, what would you rather have: an unhappy user of your product, or a happy user of a competitor’s product who now trusts your brand more for allowing them to find out about the alternative?
- The forum owner (the corporation in our example) will not abuse its power for propaganda and will mostly leave the users in peace to do their thing.
When building a community, your goal should be to empower the users to do what they came here to do–ask and receive help–and get out of the way. If you come up with nifty new ways to help users help each other more effectively, or create a new reward program to recognize the power-users for their disproportionately huge contribution, that’s fine, because it helps. But don’t dedicate prime real estate of the landing page to a new flash ROI calculator and push the forum list down below the fold!
So in short, yes, the savings from engaging and empowering a community of your users can be very real, but they will not just magically materialize if you don’t approach this exercise with user benefit in mind.