I was inspired by this post in Angela Connor‘s blog. If you don’t know Angela Connor, I urge you to check her out; her blog is extremely insightful and is one of my favorites.
Her ideas make a great deal of sense, and I think some of this is why the Blizzard forum experiment in real names for users was such an immediate and egregious flop.
The ‘net, like it or not, is for many people a place of masks. You pretend to be younger and thinner than you are. Or you pretend to be unmarried. You pretend to be a Klingon. Or you’re a teenager and pretend to be an adult. Or you pretend to be another gender or richer or lovelier or more conservative or whatever.
And the masks can be freeing to many. Perhaps they were freeing when the ancient Greeks donned them while performing “Oedipus Rex” for the first time. I think there is more of a place for them than perhaps we’d all care to admit. Because there seems to be a value to being able to spread war paint (or lamp black) on one’s face, or wear a Halloween costume.
And this is not the same as our reality. It is related but not identical. Maybe the librarian who goes out for Halloween dressed as a dance hall girl wants to be known as someone who takes risks (and maybe foolish ones, at that). But when the morning after rolls around, she’s back in the library helping others do research.
This kind of anonymous commenting allows for something like this. Because the sympathetic guy who’s really seething inside gets to call people out. He gets to be a bully and be an all-around racist jerk (I have worse names, but don’t wish to besmirch my blog). But then he surfs to a different site where he can chat up the ladies with his sensitive New Age guy demeanor. And then when the time to log off comes, he goes home and kisses his wife and plays with his children. And this is all one guy.
To comment openly through a full, correct name (usually) medium like Facebook would be to cut off the dance hall girl. And it would stifle the racist jerk, the ladies’ man, and any number of other secret selves in favor of a drab and ordinary world. Even on a news site, which is pretty much the definition of drab unless there’s some sort of a hot story, the jerk, the dancer and the Romeo all want to be free.
But we shouldn’t take their opinions as seriously as the real people. Because, even though those personae live in real people’s skins, it’s the real people who vote, marry, pay taxes, work, make the news and are members of our real society.
The trouble is telling them apart and knowing which one is real.
There isn’t a lot that you can do about this. You can, however, stretch out the individual phases.
The first phase is discovery. It all starts with excitement. The user has found your forum! It seems huge! The user can’t possibly read everything. It’s all too much. It’s heady, and the user may very well tell everyone he or she knows about you. Or, the user might want you all to him or herself. Either can happen.
The next phase is nesting. The user makes friends and starts to get into an enclave or two. Enclaves are little groups within your forum, whether formal or informal. Even if your forum does not have actual designated groups, per se, this still happens. In a single fathers’ community, for example, a user might hang around with other users who became first-time fathers after the age of forty. In a folk music forum, a user might spend time with (and follow around) other users from Ohio.
This is perfectly normal — a carving of familiarity in an alien sea. But it does set up the next phase.
The next phase is boredom. The community has too much sameness and does not seem to be changing quickly or thoroughly enough for a user’s taste. But the user sticks around, however, grudgingly.
The final phase is departure. Whether that comes with a bang (a user suspension) or a whimper (the user simply fails to sign in any more), is immaterial. Or, there is a third type of endgame, where the user posts a topic about their departure. This topic can be fond, hostile or even a ploy to get other users to beg that person to stay.
Does it always have to be this way? Well, this kind of a cycle is more or less inevitable. The trick is to stretch out the first two phases, discovery and nesting, as much as possible, or to have the user cycle back from boredom to nesting again (e. g. to find a different group to hang with). Or, a positive situation would be if the boredom phase were at least short (and put off) so that the departure phase would not be a suspension. And it would be less fraught with meaning. A user taking leave, no matter how popular that user is, will leave behind less of a hole if he or she is a part of a 100,000-person forum versus a 100-user community.
How do you do this? By phases, of course!
The Discovery phase has two essential elements: new users and new topics. Increase both with good SEO and with encouraging as much user participation as possible.
The Nesting phase can be encouraged and promoted by keeping your community a safe, warm and welcoming place. Having formal specific groups is not strictly necessary for this, but it can be of help if your users are struggling in this area. And, if you do go with formal groups, ask your users which groups they would like. They might surprise you. And it (almost) doesn’t matter whether a group is terribly active. It will still serve its purpose, to continue to afford your users with a friendly place within the forum, even if it is small. This is a place they can call their own.
The Boredom phase can be delayed and/or truncated by keeping the twin flows of new users and new topics going. This means more and better SEO, offering new features and encouraging your users to continue adding new, interesting and diverse topics. Can’t think of new topic fodder? So try taking a stand on a controversial subject, or ask for comments on a related news article. Or look in your archives, and see if an older subject might benefit from a fresh, new take.
Finally, the Departure phase can, of course, be put off if the first two phases stretch out. When departure happens, don’t ask most users to stay. Unless you have a very tiny forum, this kind of behavior will be impossible to scale. And it generally doesn’t put off the inevitable for too terribly long. Instead, try to find out from the user just why they are leaving. Except for purely personal, internal circumstances (e. g. the user just started a new job and has no time for your community any more), there may be something you can learn from and improve on. And asking why will also give you an opportunity, not to entreat the user to stay, but to let the user know that he or she is welcome to return at any time.
Your users’ interest in your community will wax and wane. You cannot always do anything about it, but if an effort is made, your users are generally going to appreciate that. And your circle game will go on.
Community Management Tidbits – Snakes in the Garden
Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?
It’s inevitable. Virtually every community open to the public is going to get its share of trolls and spam. To keep from being overrun, you need to be vigilant.
A troll is, essentially, a disruptive presence.
But know your community. Chances are that a community of young mothers will have a far different tolerance level for disruptions versus a community of gun enthusiasts. And disruption also has a situational definition. Because a community of atheists very likely does not want to hear from someone extolling the virtues of prayer. Similarly, a community of fish owners may not wish to read about how to make fish ‘n chips. Or maybe they do.
Shaping the Dialogue
You, as the Community Manager, can shape the dialogue. And one thing you can do is to help dictate the community’s response to, and level of tolerance for, off-topic digressions. For example, with the possible exception of a dating site, few communities will welcome new people as their main subject of conversation. Yet every community probably should have a means for the currently existing membership to welcome newbies. This is not only common courtesy; it can help newbies to stick around. So decide just how much going off-topic you wish to allow.
Next, enlist your super user(s). A super user is, essentially, someone who loves the site, is around a lot and probably makes a lot of good or at least decent content. These people can often be tastemakers so you can enlist their assistance to defuse a troll’s behaviors or bring discussions back on track. Or, at least, these people can take the lead in creating and promoting other content, thereby burying and nullifying a troll’s handiwork. Furthermore, if your super users can create, promote and magnify their own content, that can assist your other users in wielding a great and powerful weapon against trolls: ignoring them.
Another solution is to use blocking software, either to suspend the troll’s posting privileges or to curtail them. Or, if available, allow your users to electronically ignore a troll (or at least demote or vote down that person’s posts), by either blocking the troll’s posts or disproportionately promoting those of their friends.
Completely suspending a troll from all usage of, and interaction on, your site is something of a nuclear option. It does not mean you should never use this tactic, although I would advise you to use it relatively sparingly. After all, a troll may simply be someone unused to forums, who charged in without looking. Tone and humor are hard to gauge, even with a liberal sprinkling of emoticons. Everyone has bad days and your “troll” could actually be a perfectly good member, or even a superstar user, in disguise, if properly nurtured. So go easy on the heavy-handed moderation if you can. Pick your moments and battles: a person urging suicidal members to go through with it should not be tolerated, but isn’t a debate among music lovers about the merits of Bach versus Mozart, well, healthy?
Onto spam. Spam is essentially a form of commercial speech. You first need is to define it in your Terms of Service. You may wish to allow your members to promote their own blogs but not their own commercial ventures. Or you may be more tolerant of commercial speech if it’s more on topic (say, a parts dealer’s site being touted on a Chevy enthusiasts’ board). However, you need to get this rule clear, and you need to be consistent in its enforcement. You will, inevitably, miss an exception or two. Accept that as just something that’s going to happen, post your rules and move on. And make certain to make it clear that the Terms of Service may be subject to one-sided changes at any time. This is not the time to ask for a vote by the site’s membership.
Zero Tolerance for Spam
Once you have spam defined, you really should go with a zero tolerance policy. First off, it’s easy to be overrun if you’re not careful. Plus, if you allow spam to remain on your site, you are allowing the spammers to piggyback on your SEO. Excise them and their messages quickly and, unlike in the case of trolls, don’t be afraid to rapidly go to the nuclear option.
You will, inevitably, get appeals on any form of communication you’ve provided to the membership, whether it’s in the form of a Help Desk ticket, a feedback form, an email address you’ve made public, a “contact us” link or something else. Monitor these channels and investigate every appeal. Some will be groundless, while others might not be. So, if it’s at all possible, make sure that you have fully reversible means for excising potentially spammy messages.
Enlist Your Membership to Help
Also, provide your general membership with the means to report spam. The membership will not always perfectly understand your rules or apply them consistently and fairly. But that’s not their job. All you need is a report, and for them to be your eyes and ears on the ground. You, of course, should also be checking, along with your moderating team if you have one. But give your membership the means to report spam and they can help you. They want to help you.
Trolling and spamming are not the signs of a failed forum. To the contrary, they are often signs of success, that your forum is large enough that spammers wish to market to your members or trolls seek to shake them out of complacency. Spamming and trolling only indicate a failed forum if you let them take over your site, drive out all other means of interaction, and those snakes send your other members scurrying for the hills.
Community Management Tidbits – Look at Me! Look at Me!
Look at Me!
We’ve all seen it done well, and we’ve all seen it done not so well, and even downright poorly. Now let’s look at applying it to your extant community.
A poorly executed marketing strategy cannot only turn off your preexisting users; it can also get your site marked as a Spammer. And the scarlet S can get your site unceremoniously dumped from Google. And that means, essentially, the equivalent of the death of the site.
Long story short: don’t spam
In order to effectively market your community, you need to cover three kinds of SEO/Marketing. Those are onsite, offsite and offline. Onsite will be covered later in this series, and that information will not be repeated herein. Plus, it may seem a tad counter-intuitive, but onsite SEO is not that big of a deal. Yes, you need good keywords and you need good content. But after that, your optimization and marketing efforts need to move offsite.
Let’s start with directories and search engines. You must submit your site to Google. However, don’t submit to any other search engines. Why? Because others’ share of the market is virtually nonexistent. Hence this is a waste of your time, and they will likely pick up your site from Google anyway. So don’t use a blasting service. Heavens, no. You don’t need it and it is absolutely not worth it.
Directories are even easier. For general interest sites, you can start with only submitting to two.
Technorati – only use this if you have a blog. Just submit your blog and copy in the code they give you, and
Alexa – this is less vital than the other one and the metrics are not that great, but it is a free and easy thing to do.
Other directories you can submit to (depending upon your site’s overall purpose) include places like Universal Business Listing, Google Places, CitySearch and Yelp. It can be best to do well locally and rise to the top of the search engine rankings for specific search terms like, say, Indiana Relationship Forums, than to attempt to break into the top rankings for a more general terms, such as Relationship Forums. Consider directories in other languages, too!
Social Bookmarking and Networking
Social Bookmarking and Networking are different animals. Much like for search engines, there is a huge panoply out there, plus it’s tempting to just blast out information. Don’t. You don’t need to.
Only submit your site (and your blog, if you have one) to the following social bookmarking sites:
Forget the dozens of others unless there is a very specific and perfect match between your site and what they bookmark. Because they are mostly tiny, they can be spam factories and they are generally just not worth your time and effort.
Social networking implies more interactivity, and not just voting links up or down, perhaps laced with the occasional comment.
While there are international ones (and if you’ve got a perfect match between your content and their focus, then by all means establish a presence thereat), you really only care about the following:
Facebook – an official fan page helps for any number of reasons. First of all, it can make your site known to friends, family members, business colleagues and any other connections to your site’s currently existing users. And you can use it to post photographs and links directly back to your site. Furthermore, you can use it as a rallying point during both expected (and unexpected) site outages.
Twitter – even if your users are not, generally, on Twitter, it is still a useful marketing tool. Try feeding in a slice of the site via RSS. Just like with Facebook, this can expand the network of persons who know about your site.
LinkedIn – if your site is attached to a going concern, then at minimum make sure the company listing on LinkedIn is correct. And make sure all of the company’s employees directly linkg their profiles to it. Furthermore, make sure your site’s blog and Twitter stream are configured to feed it updates.
More Social Networks
Pinterest – demographics skew heavily female and over thirty-five. Got a restaurant? A shoe store? Wedding products or services? Go to Pinterest – but only if you’ve got excellent images.
Got great images but less of a female-centric slant? Consider Instagram instead.
Tumblr – demographics skew heavily under thirty-five and even under twenty-five. Got a video game? An indie film? Go to Tumblr.
Snapchat – demographics skew toward teens and tweens? Consider this fast-moving site.
Google+ – helpful for more than just communities, Google+ pages can bump up your placement in Google search results.
Backlinking is where you get others to add your site link to their own websites. Back-links help a great deal as Google gives them weight when determining your site’s importance. And that is directly linked to search placement.
For your blog, add a blogroll of other sites you admire. Just as importantly, post comments on those sites. This provides value to those other people, so they are more likely to spontaneously wish to link back to you. In addition, don’t leave it all to happenstance. Put a link on your site and approach the webmaster of that site and politely ask for a back-link. Some people are happy to oblige. Others are not, so remove their links from your site after a reasonable amount of time. Some may simply think about it, so give them a little time.
And be reasonable, but also be reasonable with yourself. If you’re not getting link-backs, try to figure out why. Are your requests too aggressive? Or do you ask people with wholly unrelated sites? Do you, perhaps, have no content (or no meaningful content) for them to associate with? Look at your site with a critical eye before throwing in the towel.
Offline Marketing and Optimization
Offline marketing and optimization means going back to techniques used before – shudder – there even was an Internet. Before computers even existed.
Depending upon your budget and your site’s overall purpose, offline marketing can range from something as simple as business cards or baseball caps or tee shirts with the site’s logo to a 30-second spot during the Super Bowl. It can even be completely free. After all, any time you mention your site to someone else, didn’t you just market it?
Look, sitting back and waiting for your site to take off will almost never work. You need to market it, particularly in the beginning. Get your name out there!
Here’s what they mean. A Ghost Town is, essentially, either a more or less empty community or one without deep engagement. People may come in after an initial push and then just abandon the place. Now, the converse to this is people who hang around forever and never seem to convert to paying customers of any sort. In a commercial enterprise, that’s no good, either. But definitely you need for people to hang around, at least a little bit.
Land of 1,000 Flowers
Land of 1,000 Flowers is where there’s perhaps a little bit of everything but there is little connectivity. Some of the problem could potentially be alleviated with a very good search engine, e. g. if people see that the question about who wrote Peter Rabbit has already been answered, they might just go to that answer, rather than asking it again. Of course the downside to this is converting potential participants right back into lurkers.
Drama Central, ah, yes, this bit of juvenilia. This is a byproduct of having a smaller community/one that is not too active. If there are 100 members, and one acts out, that one will loom large. With 1,000 members, that person’s impact diminishes. And with 1,000,000 members, they barely register as a blip on the screen. And, even in a smaller community, if there are 100 members but also a good 1,000 topics are created every month, the one Drama Queen’s attention-grabbing me me me topic can be more or less swept under the rug. However, if your users create only five or so new topics every month, guess what’s gonna be front and center?
A Circling Storm
A Circling Storm, there are a lot of entrenched factions, hostile to one another. Even in a well-moderated community, this can still happen in a Politics section (and, to a lesser extent, in a Religion section). Hence people form strong opinions and don’t want to back down. How to handle it? I say let them argue, for the most part, but intervene if newbies are being chased off or it becomes too personal.
A Clique, of course this is a niche or fringe group that grabs and hogs the spotlight. This can be whiny teenagers (you know who you are), organic gardeners, birthers, I dunno. They can absolutely create a self-fulfilling prophecy, e. g. if the only people they welcome are from Omaha, then those will be the ones who stick around. And then eventually people from Poughkeepsie or wherever don’t stick around and suddenly your board is filled with Nebraskans.
What to do? Well, it may seem obvious, or it may not. Manage the site! Don’t just leave it to chance!
Light Touch with Management
However, don’t go overboard with management. Heavy-handed community management can stifle. So find a balance, and do your best to follow it, all while respecting the community and its interests, but nudging it in the proper directions if it threatens to go off-course. You don’t just have to let the boat go wherever the currents take it but, at the same time, you also need to leave the dock.
Community Management Tidbits – Get Together – Life online is all well and good. Many of us spend large chunks of our time connected, whether that is via a desktop PC, a smart phone, a laptop, or a tablet. Newer technologies will, undoubtedly, make it even easier to get and stay connected.
But sometimes you’ve just gotta say: Stop the Internet, I want to get off!
Of course you go offline every night for bed (you do, don’t you?), at the absolute minimum. But there’s more to it than that.
When your community has been around for a significant period of time (say, a year), your users are going to, naturally, be curious about meeting one another. In person. With no screens dividing them.
And this is excellent. It is a sign of the community jelling. You should encourage this. Or, if you like, you can even suggest a meeting yourself.
For informal gatherings, there is little, if anything, that you need to do. If you can attend, great! And if you can’t, ask people to take pictures. However, remind your users they should get permission before they take any photographs and post them online. Furthermore, if there will be minors present, emphasize that photographs of them really should not appear online. Be prepared, if the child’s parents ask, to remove such photographs if they end up on your site. But that’s about it.
Formal gatherings allow for a lot more dazzle. A get together can be as expensive or cheap as you like. Your attendees might wish to reserve a block of hotel rooms, or even a hall. Or you might just need to make reservations at a restaurant.
Or you could think outside the restaurant, and consider a visit to a museum, historical attraction or nature preserve. Your group might enjoy attending, say, a minor league baseball game (it’s often a nominal fee to get your site or company mentioned on the scoreboard or over the public address system. Usually this takes the form of a charitable donation).
Or your users might even enjoy a potluck, or a cruise, or a bowling tournament for fun. They might like to run a 5K race (or just watch) or even attend lectures or form a book group. And they might even enjoy helping to build a house for charity or volunteer at a soup kitchen for the day. The only limits are your imagination and the focus of your community. Because a forum devoted to young mothers, for example, might enjoy a gathering where they can bring their children. Whereas a board focusing on a hip hop artist might prefer attending a concert.
For a gathering (in particular, for one specifically planned and sanctioned by you), it’s nice to bring swag. That is, forum- or company-specific merchandise. Make it free for the taking! Hats, tee shirts, frisbees, key chains, whatever you like. The young mothers’ forum might like diaper bags or onesies. That hip hop forum might like licensed mix CDs, or special music that they can download. Just give them the URL and a key or password, so they can get it exclusively, at least to start. And, it’s not a problem if people begin to share the URL and the password. Because you want them to do this.
Gatherings are fun. It’s enjoyable to finally see and personally interact with people you only know from online. Once you’ve heard their voices and seen their mannerisms in the flesh, you’ll never read their posts the same way again.
Community Management Tidbits – Freshening Up – Communities go through any number of cycles, so it is inevitable — the forum becomes stale.
There are a few things you can do. First off, try to see it coming before it happens.
Yes, it’s possible, although it’s not necessarily reliable. How? Check your site metrics. Now, there are natural variations all the time. A bad day or two is not necessarily an indicator of trouble, even if those days come in the same week, or even one right after the other.
Time the Avenger
The real issue is a decline over time. The two main metrics you care about are time on site and the percentage of new users versus returning ones. There is nothing wrong with having a lot of returning users. It’s a forum, and people get comfortable and will to want to keep coming back if the comradery is good. However, you do need to get a relatively constant stream of new users. As for time on site, check the average, and see if it has been declining over time. This is over a significant period of time as in: over the course of about a quarter of a year.
Follow the Bouncing User
Hand in hand with both of these metrics is a third: bounce rate. Bounce rate is defined as a visitor coming to only one page prior to exiting the site. You’re a lot more likely to see a higher bounce rate if you attract a lot of new users (e. g. they see what they want immediately — or don’t — and then depart). A lower bounce rate is generally a more positive metric. Hence, as you can see, in this instance, the converse may be true.
Therefore you should have some notice when things stagnate. Even if you don’t track your metrics too closely, you should follow your users. Are they not making too many new topics of any sort? Or are they complaining? Are they leaving?
But once you know, and it doesn’t matter how you determine that the community is stagnating, what do you do?
Don’t panic. This is relatively normal. One thing you should do, though, is determine whether it is a seasonal issue. As the weather improves in the time zone(s) where most of your users live and work, they will go outside and — gasp! — go offline. In that instance, don’t worry, the users will come around again. But there’s no reason why you can’t practice a few of these techniques anyway, in order to be proactive. Fortunately, if that’s what’s going on, it’s far less dire.
So let’s assume that the weather and the season are not factors. Your percentage of new users is down and has been declining. Your users’ time on the site is tanking. They’re leaving. And the ones who are staying are bored, angry and restless. Worse still, they’ve taken to causing trouble in order to entertain themselves.
Here are a few techniques:
Improve your SEO – attracting more users will help to replace the departing ones.
While you’re at it, target your SEO better. E. g. let’s say you have a forum about relationships, but not a lot of gay and lesbian users? Try adding keywords about, getting link-backs from sites that feature, and get listed on directories that cater to: gays, lesbians, bisexual, and transgender individuals.
Purchasing Another Forum
Consider purchasing a smaller forum that caters to the new users you hope to add. There are plenty of small forums out there for sale. Look for not only a targeted forum at a good price, but also an active one. Prepare the forums by telling your original forum that new people are coming. You can even tell them which kind of community they come from. Ask your extant members to be welcoming.
As for the board you are absorbing, diplomatically tell them about the transfer. Do this in as many places as possible so that as many people as possible see it. If that forum has a blog or a newsletter, use it to communicate this. Expect consternation, and expect some people to leave without giving the other forum even a chance.
Avoid Duplicate Accounts
Check your database, to be sure that you do not bring in what the database will think of as duplicate records. Whether your primary key is username or email address, or something else, compare the extant member list to the member list of the community you’ve purchased. For any duplicates, give the members of the board you’re absorbing the chance to rectify the situation by asking them to select a new username or email account (or whatever else you may be using as your database’s primary key) in advance by sending them a private message. Do not tell them where they are going as you can end up with even more duplicate records if the absorbed users create new accounts at your currently existing forum.
So keep it on the QT. And, to make it easier on yourself,
have a contingency plan for any records that are still duplicate (e. g. you tell the absorbed user and they fail to timely help you to fix the problem, and,
keep the lead time short, as in less than a month.
Add new features. What kinds of features? Blogs, skins and groups are all great features to add if you don’t already have them. Spread them around and only offer one at any given time so that you have reserve magic rabbits you can pull out of your hat, or
Ask your users! Really? Yes. Send out a survey or conduct a poll, or just open up a topic or a blog post, asking: what would you like to see on the site? Some users will be flippant, but many more will take you seriously. And, most importantly, listen to your users! If you can implement any of the changes they request, see if you can do so over time. And if you can implement more than one, do so in stages (with the more important or more requested one being done first) so that the new features can keep coming. If you cannot, explain why. Your users will (mostly) understand. Some of them may even be able to assist you with implementation.
Communities, like anything else, can become a little flat. It’s like any other party. If a party gets dull, and it’s not yet time for everyone to go home, you bring out different foods, change up the music or even break out the board games or call other friends to come over. It’s not much different with an online party. You’ve got to keep it lively.
Let’s start with SEO. If you haven’t checked your keywords in three months, check them now. Compare to your competitors, and check Google Adwords. Consider changing up your keywords for a while and see if you can draw more traffic.
The basic principles of offsite SEO apply: get your site listed on other sites which are more popular. Also, consider article marketing (if appropriate) and blogging. Perhaps some of your best content can be repurposed as articles or blog entries. Ask the creator(s) of that content for their permission (even if your Terms of Service say that you own all posts, this is courteous) and update and repackage the content. Articles are a great way to generate interest in your site so long as you add your URL into the “About the Author” section. And make it clear that you allow reprint rights only so long as the article remains completely intact, including the aforementioned “About the Author” section.
One good blog deserves another. If you want to see if your better content can be presented on others’ blogs, why not create your own site blog? So at the absolute minimum, you can use it to inform your users of site changes and planned outages. But you can use it for a whole lot more. Because you can showcase and expand better content, announce contests and promotions, and keep important site information front and center. Plus, if you add a blog, you can again make the rounds of basic social media bookmarking sites like Reddit and Stumbleupon. Add another one to your bag of tricks: Technorati, which is a site that, among other things, lists blogs.
Create a Facebook fan page and, at minimum, populate it with the RSS feed. And also use it to assure users if your site goes down, particularly for unexpected outages. Such an outage can make some users nervous. Facebook (and Twitter, too) can be a means by which you reassure them.
Another area where you might be able to better grow your user base is with some site redesign. Be careful with this as a community can often take (frequently somewhat unfounded) proprietary interest in the site’s look and feel. One way you can ease users into a change is by telling them (don’t ask for permission) that you’re going to be testing some site changes. Consider using A/B testing and compare a few different versions and see which one works better.
Consider simplifying your registration process, if you can, and embrace user-centered design. You still want to use a captcha code and you still want to have your members sign up with a real, usable email address.
But look at your process and see if there are any unnecessary hurdles. Are you asking for something like a potential user’s middle name or home city? Isn’t that kind of useless (and many users would feel that the home city information would be excessively intrusive)? Jettison the question and your registrations might increase. Since you’re tinkering with the signup process and not the overall look and feel of the site, your regular membership might not take so much of a proprietary interest. They might not even notice.
Check your metrics. Small daily changes are not going to matter too much. But if you’ve got a continuing decline over time, or if membership is staying the same and not really increasing much, you may need to take action. To grow your site, you need to continue to promote fundamental principles: improve your site design and test it; take care to add and promote good, keyword-rich content; and continue good onsite and offsite SEO practices. And be patient as small things become bigger ones. Most communities weren’t built in a day.
Community Management Tidbits – Drawn to Scale – There are little forums, and there are big ones. And there are forums with a very personal touch, and those without. It should come as no great shock to most people that smaller communities tend to have a more personal slant than much larger ones.
When you first start your community, like it or not, you will be building traditions. Perhaps your organization welcomes everyone personally, either in a topic or by sending a private message. Maybe you even mail out some swag the old-fashioned way, using the postal system. Or you write it up in a newsletter.
This is all perfectly fine when you’ve got a community of fewer than 100 users. But what happens when you hit 1,000 users? Or 10,000? Or, like Able2know, the site I’ve been managing since its inception in 2002, where you go from 2 users to over 450,000??? And of course there will be more to come.
Suddenly those nice personal touches become nice for everyone but you and your staff. Suddenly, they are nothing more than a burden, like a nest full of baby birds, constantly demanding a feeding. Yesterday.
Hence you must start setting expectations early. If you want to welcome everyone, recognize that, if you can automate at least some of that (or delegate it), then it will be far more sustainable for far longer. Many forms of forum software allow the administrative team to send out a private message upon an event. One such event can be confirmation of an email address and/or a completed registration. Hence you can set up your software to send out a welcoming message.
What should your welcoming message say? Only you truly know your users. What you say to the members of a gun owners’ forum will probably differ from what you say to a board dedicated to people looking for international pen pals. But either way, there are a few messages you might want to get across, no matter what your audience:
Welcome to the site!
Here is a link to the site rules
Come and introduce yourself (if you’ve got a specific topic or forum where people are supposed to introduce themselves, put the link here)
You can find forum announcements/the site blog/major news here
And here’s where you go for help or if you have an issue (this is where a link to your Help Desk, or the address for support, should go) and
Here is how to get your account removed, if you allow that.
Respect Your Users’ Time and Interest Levels
Including all of that information will help to head off some newbie questions at the pass. But don’t make the message too long as no one will read all of it. All you can hope for is for a good minority (say, 30% of your users) to read or skim most of the message, so make it short and bulleted. Hence it should comprise more of a reference than a one-stop shopping place where your users can find answers to their questions. And that will help to assure it can fulfill at least some of its purpose. User-centered, information-centric design is key here.
The personal touch is lovely, and you may still wish to use it every now and again. Certainly if you bring in a larger staff, it will allow for some of that, or at least allow for it longer. But if it gets away from you, don’t be afraid to scale and go to an automated solution. After all, no one expects Facebook to send a personally tailored note whenever they join the site or make a change in their status or friends list.
Community Management Tidbits – Corralling the Cats
Community Management Tidbits – Corralling the Cats – Oh, they can be the bane of your existence, particularly when you’re just starting out. You want them to zig, they zag. Or you want them to go off topic, they stay on it. You want them to return to topic, and they continue digressing. They are the cats.
And you, you lucky Community Manager, you! You have to herd them.
Don’t Feel So Bad; We All Get This
There is an ebb and flow to natural, organic conversations. The problem is, online communities and forums aren’t, truly, natural or organic conversations. There is, at bottom, some form of a purpose to them, even if that purpose is simply to get your users comfortable with one another.
Therefore, in order to strain the ebb and flow metaphor so far as to break it, the best way for you, as a Community Manager, to keep from tearing your hair out, is to go with the flow. But you must have a plan in the background.
So let us assume that your site covers German Shepherd dogs. Your users talk about care and feeding, but they also go off on tangents where they discuss what they’re having for lunch (your users, not, presumably, their dogs). You can either get upset about the lunch topic, provide other, more appropriate topics as alternatives, direct the lunch subject back on topic (kibble for lunch, anyone?), or scrap the subject altogether. Or, you can join the subject.
What you do is going to depend upon not only how much on-subject content you’ve got, but also on your relationship with your users. What sort of tone has been set? If your relationship is a relaxed and whimsical one, then adding to the topic or directing it back on message can both work. If your relationship is more authoritarian, you may find yourself either deleting the topic or restricting user access to it (and users may leave for good over this. Regardless of what your relationship is with your users, use this kind of nuclear option sparingly.). If your relationship is somewhere in the middle, redirection to other topics can work. Creating on-message topics (or encouraging your super users to do so) has the added benefit of adding keyword-rich topics for the purposes of promoting SEO.
It is best to use all of these options. And, get an idea of just how much overall off-message chatter you will permit. If you are going to allow 40% of your topics to be off-message, then that is four out of every ten topics. Some days it will be all ten. Others, it will be one or two, or even none.
Keeping Users Happy
Allowing for these kinds of natural variations will go a long way toward keeping users happy. And it will add to a more organic rhythm and flow on the site. If the percentage of off-message topics goes too high, you can always pull users back by making good, keyword-rich, on-message topics. Not all users will go. These are volunteers and you cannot make them stay on topic. Some people will never go on topic, let alone stay there. It is up to you to decide whether that is tolerable. You may need to cut your losses with some of them.
The more you let the cats decide where they want to go (or, at least, the more you let them think they are deciding such things), the easier they are to herd. They decide where to go; you won’t need to convince them.
As the Community Manager, some times you just have to be the shepherd.