There is a growing movement to leverage user-generated content (UGC) in our content strategies. The reasons and logistics for doing so would constitute a whole other article, but suffice to say that UGC proves to be a valuable contribution to our knowledge of how customers use our products, where their frustrations lie, and a source of information about how we should shift our development roadmaps to respond to customer needs.
For some organizations, leveraging UGC means garnering feedback from users and integrating the content into the documentation. For others, it means setting up and maintaining content within a user-community structure. User support content stays within user forums, and supported by less formal content structures. For the more daring and forward-thinking organizations, they have found ways to allow UGC to converge with their own content, with the end goal of delivering more and better user support without breaking the bank.
To be able to leverage UGC, an organization needs to have a community from which to draw information and opinions, and those communities need moderators. Community management, a relatively new career track, seems to be a logical next step for content developers. It was with some interest, then, that I attended a session at the SXSW conference called Lessons in Community Management. With community managers from YouTube, Flickr, Current TV, Etsy, and MetaFilter together having a panel discussion, I couldn’t pass up the learning opportunities.
Community Building Changes Everything
Community management looks quite different for a smaller community than it does once it hits a critical mass. The community manager (CM) caution was to look at community management practices to see how they scale. In a smaller community, all issues were handled by a single moderator, but as soon as the community reached a certain number of members, the number of good, bad, and ugly posts simply outnumbered the hours in a day. Rather than add a raft of community managers, the switch was to implement a certain amount of automation, which would allow the community to police itself.
Features such as content flags, that identify sexist, racist, or blatantly inappropriate comments allows the CM to receive notification when a handful of what may be a deluge of daily posts need to be removed. Requests to “fix posts” – often the culprit is a user pasting in bad HTML – still come to the CM, who is the logical person to get behind the scenes and tweak the mark-up. In certain communities, there are legal constraints about what can be posted, and the CM needs to be aware of the legalities within various geopolitical communities. For example, it is illegal in Germany to post items promoting Nazi items, and related posts must be removed. As the community grows, building a user experience that allows filtering out objectionable material, including ads, and alternate discovery methods, becomes a necessity.
It Helps to Have a Thick Skin
Legalities aside, the advice of panellists is to have community guidelines, and be clear about how they will be implemented. A good benchmark is to let it be known that items will be removed when they hamper the ability of other users to enjoy the site. While there are likely to be sticking points around topics containing, say, the word “sex”, CMs must be prepared to stick to the community guidelines. In such cases, it helps to have a thick skin. Every CM reports that they’ve been called a fascist (or worse) because they’ve removed content considered objectionable by the community, or been deemed not socially responsible enough with their ads. A CM needs to walk a fine line between censorship and maintenance of community standards, and it’s not always easy. The best course of action is to keep management transparent and let community members, particularly the high-participation members, know the decision-making process behind the actions. As the public face of the organization, the CM becomes the representative of the collective “personality” of not only the organization but the community itself.
Managing Community Operations
Transparency is important for operations, as well, particularly in communities where the content providers have a high investment in the community – the artists who use Etsy to sell products comes to mind – any changes to the user interface or community operations needs to be handled with care. Consulting the users and being sensitive to their needs is recommended. They are likely to have ideas and suggestions that can enhance the upcoming changes.
Being aware of community needs also keeps the CM open to trends that affect operational needs. For Current TV, an independent news site led by Al Gore and Joel Hyatt, an important trend was that community members, unable to submit content to the site, were linking to off-site comments. To keep the discussion on the site and retain and enrich the community, the site functionality was tweaked to allow for submission of news stories, which ultimately morphed into a crowdsourced or outsourced model of news contribution. However, as with any operational change, there are unintended consequences along with the intended consequences. Their news producers began to feel marginalized, and the CM was faced with the challenge of finding a way to serve the needs of all the community groups. Eventually, they found a way to provide a more prominent role for the heavier users while also keeping the “outsiders” engaged.
Managing a Community is Managing People
The panellists agreed amongst themselves that common perception is that community management is easy, and quickly dispelled that notion. Managing a community is, ultimately, managing the expectations of individuals. There will always be people who think that the CM has an agenda. There will always be crackpots who are loud and persistent, but don’t make sense. Panellists maintained that elegantly handling problem members is what sets apart a good CM. Knowing when to respond is as important as knowing when not to respond. In many cases, letting a persistent complainer “dig themselves a hole to Crazy Town” is the best option, as the member cements their own reputation by their actions, and the community will shut the person down themselves. In other cases, it is important to step in to stop “the bridge too far” when, for example, a member goes on attack against another member.
The CM has to be open to engaging in one-on-one responses to feedback, whether they be suggestions or complaints, and looking for contemporary ways to keep the dialogue going. Feedback channels, such as Twitter or weekly “town hall” chats within the community, go a long way to maintaining a healthy relationship with community members. (Ironically, the chronic complainers generally decline to participate in town hall meetings. The idea that their problem might actually get fixed takes away all their fun: complaining!) There is no such thing as over-communicating, nor is it overkill to use all possible channels to do so. Equally important is to listen – really listen. One-way communication cannot replace a dialogue, and it is critical that community members are heard, even if their suggestions or complaints cannot be fixed.
Monitoring Community Norms and Community Growth
Part of a community’s growth is niche groups, where members will self-organize to discuss specialty topics. While this is to be expected and encouraged, as this is where passionate users will contribute heavily to the community content, it is also important to watch for hot spots. Outsiders or even internal “invaders” can upset the pH balance of a community, which could cause the high-value contributors to reconsider their participation as good community members.
When the community “garden” is tended, fertilized, and weeded, it should grow and adapt. The CM should be prepared to grow and adapt along with the community. The move from anonymous comments to exposing user IDs, for example, is a common response to try to raise the lowest barrier to entry into a community. By making the experience more porous (through techniques such as comment ratings and reputation points), banal commenting is a bit more self-regulating, which allows the CM to maintain the “not that regulated” moderation style.
The conclusion I drew from the panel discussion is that while an organization may start a community because they wanted to get certain benefits from it, such as UGC for their support site, ultimately the community exists and thrives because of what members feel they get out of it. The organizations that start a community and expect it to grow without any care and attention are deluding themselves. Members may join, but may soon get discouraged and let their accounts grow cold, and eventually leave. In that regard, a talented CM is the gardener that helps the community grow and thrive.
More Suggested Reading:
Electric Alphabet, Kate Eltham, Building Online Communities
Life with Alacrity, Christopher Allen, Community by the Numbers: Power Laws
A List Apart, Coaching a Community, Laura Brunow Miner
Making Communities Work – Dedication, Mike Pascucci,
About the Author
Rahel Anne Bailie brings considerable experience to her work, and a range of skills that span the fields of content development, content management, and user experience to help organizations articulate their content strategies. Coming from a technical communication and user-experience background, Rahel understands the complexities of content structure and flow, and uses that to match business requirements to user needs. She embraces technologies that serve to improve the performance of communication products and the processes to create and maintain them. She is a Fellow of the Society of Technical Communication, and holds memberships in related professional associations, such as CM Pros, UPA, IAI, HTCE, and VanUE, to keep current in pertinent practice areas.