Thoughts on Community Management


Chris Myles, an active Buzz user, albeit a critical one, has a buzz post out suggesting that Google Buzz needs a “Customer Advocate,” to do “community management” for Buzz. I suspect that as Buzz grows over time, that community management types might begin being added to the product team. Having been very involved in web communities over the course of the past seven years or so, I thought I’d post some of my own thoughts on this subject matter.

So far to date, I think Google has been doing a *very* good job with community management on Buzz without having any specific individual as a formal “community manager.” Overall it seems that many on the team, from product managers to engineers, are simply informally doing a lot of good community management directly themselves.

Engineer DeWitt Clinton has perhaps been the most vocal Google engineer interacting with Buzz’s users, but his voice is far from a solo one from the team. Bradley Horowitz, who describes himself as a “Product Dude” at Google, is a significant Google executive voice who is providing community management. So is Todd Jackson, Buzz’s Product Manager. Josh Willis has been vocal. And many, many others on the team have consistently dropped into conversations providing sort of unofficial community management.

Even more impressive, many Google employees who are *not* on the Buzz team, still are actively participating in Buzz and directing threads to the team or helping out in other ways whenever they can. I’m talking about you Erica Baker. 🙂 It is obvious to me that the spirit of good community management is highly valued by the team and it’s leadership. I’m impressed.

So, does Buzz *need* an official community manager? I suspect that they *might* at some point. Buzz is still early and the hand holding that the team is providing likely can’t scale with millions of users in the long run. But before we just assume that they need to start hiring managers, let’s keep in mind that community managers aren’t always necessarily good for communities. In fact community mismangers can sometimes actually be poisonous for a community. That said I think that great care should be used in the selection of the right community managers for any community and whenever possible non-interventionist tools should be considered before community management intervention.

Principles of good community management:

1. Whenever possible, empower your users to deal with internal community problems *themselves* directly. Empower them with the technological tools to self manage community conflict.

One of the problems on Flickr is that over the years there have been some powerfully and negatively hostile community interactions. Malicious anonymous harassing trolls have invaded groups and people’s photostreams and other public areas of the site and posted the most hateful and objectionable material. The first line of defense against these sorts of negative elements is to empower your users to deal directly, immediately and decisively with these sorts of situations.

Trolls, spammers, racists, hate mongers, etc. will invade any community. It is only a matter of time. But the first line of defense against dealing with these individuals should be a robust “block” feature. One of the things that FriendFeed did right from the get go was their “Block this user” function. Basically using the block this user function on Friendfeed wipes that user off the face of FriendFeed for you. They are gone. Entirely invisible. This is a powerful tool. It’s powerful because it *immediately* removes personally objectionable content from before a users’ eyes (by choice). Rather than reporting bad behavior (which still ought to be able to be done) this immediately addresses the negative situation and empowers the offended party by feeling that they have power and control over the negative situation that they are dealing with.

Further, a robust block command actually *discourages* trolling, spamming, racism, hate speech, etc. Because these people are quickly minimized and end up talking to themselves and unable to get a reaction grow tired and move on.

If you can solve a problem with technology, that’s superior to solving it with community management.

2. Be very, very, very, careful with censorship. Censorship should *not* be an everyday hammer that a community manager uses to solve every potential problem. The censorship on Flickr as applied by community managers is really bad. I’ve had literally hundreds of hours of my own work permanently deleted there. This pisses me off as a user to no end. If feels personal and spiteful and petty and creates an enormous amount of ill will. A good community manager should resist the urge to simply censor someone they disagree with, or who is reported, or who they don’t like personally.

There will be times when censorship is necessary. Illegal content for example. If a company gets a DMCA notice, they will likely have to deal with copyrighted material in their network. But even here, the *greatest* of care should be taken to censor as little as humanly possible. A few years back I posted a screenshot of a known griefer’s television appearance on Fox news. This individual filed a false DMCA request to have the image removed with Flickr. The EFF later pursued this individual and as part of a settlement against him made him publicly apologize for illegally abusing the DMCA. But the way that Flickr handled this was not by simply doing the legal minimum of removing the image, they actually nuked hundreds of comments that went along with the image unnecessarily.

If there is some thread that must removed. Kill the absolute bear minimum. Be strategic. Take out a single line, not an entire thread, and certainly not thousands of other completely non-offensive threads, simply because they are tied to a user that you’ve found offensive in one instance.

3. Hire someone who lives, eats, sleeps, breathes, your community. Consider hiring from within. Good community management is not a 9 to 5 job. It doesn’t go on vacation. Hire someone who is emotionally invested and involved in your community and who has a deep seated passion and love for the product you are creating and for the difference that it is making in the world.

4. Hire someone who can get out on the road. There is nothing like face time. You cannot underestimate the enormous amount of positive energy that can be generated for any community when real life social interaction begins to take place. Recently I had an opportunity to spend some time photographing music service Pandora. I met their founder Tim Westergren. When I met Tim, one of the things that he was most proud of was of a map pinned up outside his office which documented all of the cities that he’d visited going around the entire U.S. holding meet ups with their users. Set a budget and get your community manager out on the road. Set public events where the most active emotionally invested users can personally get to know this individual face to face.

Town hall meetings are great. Use your corporate offices all over the world as much as possible to host get togethers, etc. People that work for your company will be encouraged to attend because it’s easy for them (at their office already) and people that love your product will consider it a wonderful experience to get to see your offices first hand. It’s also easier to get management to stop by for an hour for a meet and greet if they don’t have to drive somewhere specifically.

5. Authorize transparency. You will never be able to please everyone in your community. You will always have people who hate things that you do. Don’t shy away from these problems and issues. Keep the lawyers as far away from the community managers as possible. Be open and comunicative even if it means telling people something that they don’t want to hear. Err on the side of being too transparent over withholding information. If there is some reason why information can’t be shared, explain the reasoning behind that.

6. Acknowledge your critics. Critics of a service should never be marginalized or dismissed or certainly locked out of help forums or censored. Critics can be a pain in the ass, they can create discord in your community, they can hurt esprit de corps. But… oftentimes their points are valid. They document real problems and bugs. They challenge your service or product to be the most excellent that it possibly can be. One of the highest ambitions a good community manager should have is to turn a critic into an evangelist. There is no greater accomplishment in my mind or measure of the success of a community manager.

7. Act immediately. Nothing creates a worse problem than letting an issue fester over time. And internet time moves fast. In 24 hours a community problem can easily move outside of your community and be significantly amplified across the web. Digg, reddit, Slashdot, Twitter, blogs, etc. are very quick to latch on to community problems. Nip your community problems in the bud. Immediately address them, even if the address is simply that you need more time.

Recently Starbucks decided to launch a social media beachhead on Flickr. This was probably not the best idea as Starbucks historically has had a less than good reputation for prohibiting photography in their stores. But rather than deal with this conflict immediately, Starbucks let this issue fester on and on and on for months. Users in their Flickr group got so upset about Starbuck’s inability to address this problem over the months that almost every thread kept bringing this failure up over and over and over again. Finally Starbuck’s was forced to lock down the entire group. Effectively censoring all who had participated. Had Starbucks come up with a faster solution to this problem this failure could have been avoided.

8. Monitor all channels for your product. Recently when I updated my CoolIris/Firefox I found that cmd-click would no longer open a new background tab. This was frustrating to me as a user because it was a change that I wasn’t used to and made it much harder for me to use that product. So I tweeted out that I disliked this. Within hours someone from Cool Iris tweeted back an easy solution to my problem and I tweeted back that they were the Bestest after that. They turned a very negative feeling I had about their product into a very positive feeling. Good community managers should not just monitor their own community. They should monitor what is being said about their community outside their community. Twitter, facebook, FriendFeed, etc. And while the eyes of a community manager cannot be everywhere at all times, all employees of a company should be empowered to forward things that they find out there to the community manager.

9. Promote, promote, promote, promote. A good community manager’s fingers should be blistered by the end of the day from hitting the like button over and over and over and over again. Give praise to the most prominent members of your community religiously. Acknowledge them even in the smallest of ways. Build them up. These are your evangelists. These are your ambassadors. These users provide you a tool to leverage good vibrations. They broadcast and spread your message of product excellence. Let them feel the love.

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  3. laura says:

    I agree with much of this. That said, I heard a new favorite phrase at sxsw this year: Free Speech Fallacy (or the fallacy of free speech)
    I’d hope you use a bit more care in your choice of language in such a well-thought out post as this.

    I agree pains should be taken with regards to removing content or limiting the type of posts allowed. My community is not your democracy however, and throwing around words like “censorship” in this atmosphere weakens its legitimate political meaning. Removing comments connected to a piece of content (likely also tied in the db) is *not* censorship. And subjective judgment must be used with regards to content and community Guidelines, again, not censorship.

  4. […] Thoughts on Community Management. One of the best general blog posts about tending an online space we’ve read in a long time. Superb.  […]

  5. Kamotho says:

    Amazing and brilliant we have built this site through ning with a membership of 200 people and invitation of over 23000 invitation.
    Thank You.

  6. Flange says:

    Thanks for sharing!!!