Online community management: everything in moderation, including moderation


As the media landscape continues to splinter organisations no longer rely solely on column inches gained from media relations initiatives to influence their publics. Instead public relations practitioners are easing organisations away from third-party, earned media towards shaping communities which allow organisations to engage directly with their publics – writes Scott Guthrie.

But, what happens when only a handful of your circa 9,000 members are engaged in your community? What if you believe your community has been taken over by spammers, and self-promoting Show Boaters link-baiting to personal blogs?

 

Spammers and self-promoting Show Boaters

The owners of a Linkedin group to which I belong believed that noise from self promoters and spammers was drowning out participation in thoughtful posts. So, they decided to take action. They announced a change. Under the sub header: “What this means for you” we were told by the group owners that “the main change is that members will now have to ‘earn the right’ to be published” and that the role of moderation was now being outsourced. The announcement linked through to an article written by the marketing company contracted to moderate the group: “there needs to be a set of guidelines for posts that every member adheres to” ran one line. Whilst in the postscript, marked: ‘IMPORTANT,’ repeat offenders were warned: “And if they keep doing it, it’s good bye.”

 

Catching more flies with honey than with vinegar

Moderation is an integral element of online community management. The trouble is that this Linkedin group’s idea of moderation is a bit Old Skool … perhaps even a bit … Old Testament: “Thou shalt not spam”.

Their notion of moderation harks back to yesteryear; a time when people might actually have used words like ‘hark’ and ‘yesteryear’.

Naturally you don’t want your community overrun with inappropriate material. But, as my grandmother used to say: “you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

Today, online community management moderation isn’t all about telling people off. It’s more than getting shot of the dross: blocking the spammers, resolving disputes and removing off-topic posts.

Online community management

Successful community moderators spend a large chunk of their time stimulating and sustaining discussions within their community. They start discussions. Encourage members to participate. Seek members’ opinions to questions. Nudge members discretely to start discussions. They gently steer the direction of the community by promoting the discussions they want members to participate in over others.

Today, moderators are facilitators. They use their deep understanding of the community and the organisation, or profession it represents, to contribute expert insight. They bind the community together building a sense of belonging. They’re not reactive but rather they follow a plan of action; a map by which they nurture the community allowing it to blossom.

The Linkedin group’s owners continued their announcement of change with “our focus is on quality discussions which promote lots of participation”. This, of course, makes a lot of sense.

In his excellent book Buzzing Communities Richard Millington’s references a 2008 paper by Jones, Q. Moldovan, Mihai., Raban D., and Butler, B., which provides empirical evidence of information overload constraining chat channel community interactions. In other words, people become snowblind which leads to paralysis when blasted by too much information. As the volume of messages increases, Jones et al tell us, members are more likely to:

  1. Respond only to simpler messages.
  2. End active participation.
  3. Generate simpler responses as the overloading of mass interaction grows.

It’s right that the Linkedin group should want to concentrate on quality over quantity. Millington points out that focus on quality of discussion can attract more members and engage them at a deeper level. But, this involves tight, facilitation-minded moderation and skilled helmsmanship of the community.

 

Everything in moderation, including moderation

Oscar Wilde, the well-known online community manager and sometime Irish playwright (1854-1900) captured the essence of community management in one of his many bon mots: “everything in moderation, including moderation”. There was a time when moderation was synonymous with community management – and was often performed by the webmaster. Today, though important, moderation is just one facet of community management. Millington offers eight activities today’s community manager should be regularly engaged in:

  1. Strategy: Establishing and executing the strategy for developing the community
  2. Growth: Increasing membership of the community. Converting newcomers into regulars
  3. Content: Create. Edit. Facilitate. Solicit content for the community
  4. Moderation: Remove obstacles to participation and encourage members to make contributions
  5. Events & Activities: Create and facilitate events to keep members engaged
  6. Relationship & Influence: Build relationships with key members and gain influence within the community
  7. Business integration: Advocate internally within the organisation and integrate business processes within community efforts
  8. User experience: Improve the community platform and participation experience for members

Dalijit Bhurji describes the community manager in Share This as “behaving like the perfect party host, who makes sure that there are the right mix of people, introduces guests to one another and throws in the odd game to get those who are a bit shy involved. It is about being part of the conversation while not constantly demanding to be centre of attention.”

The Linkedin group’s idea of community management seems closer to that of nightclub bouncer. Or high school principal at a school dance listening in to conversations to check no smutty jokes are being told. Checking bags for smuggled-in liquor. Walking the dancefloor with a ruler to check dancers are keeping six inches apart. A party pooper.

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