Community Management Tidbits – Wandering off Topic
Wandering off Topic. Even the most literal-minded among us rarely remain perfectly on message all the time. It’s hard to express yourself quite so linearly.
It doesn’t just include how we interact with our fellow human beings.
Most conversations meander; otherwise they become dull. And there are just so many ways one can talk about the fact that there’s a 40% chance of rain over the weekend, even if you’re speaking at a Meteorologists’ Convention. Even very specific programs, such as This Week in Baseball or This Old House jump around. Our human attention spans aren’t what they used to be, but there’s more to it than just that. It’s also about creating a memorable presentation. A little memorable off-topic talking can save an otherwise limited conversation.
Communities Go Off Topic All the Time
The same is true with communities. You make and promote conversations. Because no one is writing scholarly papers. Or advertising copy. Seriously, put down the company’s vision statement and step away.
Picture this: you’ve just started a forum, with a modest group of users. But after only one or two topics, or five or so posts, they leave. Now, there will always be people who join a forum for one small, specific purpose and then depart. In addition, you will always have a healthy percentage (often a good 90%) of lurkers, no matter what you do. They are a part of every community, and they are a sign of health. Don’t worry about them!
But right now your issue is that there’s no traction. Users come in quickly, may or may not get satisfaction, and then disappear. And because they are not engaging with one another, there isn’t enough momentum to create cohesion among them.
Fixing the Problem
Here’s where targeted off-subject conversations can work. Let us assume that your forum is about water softening. It may seem to be an esoteric topic. You probably won’t get people too emotionally engaged. Most will come in looking for a dealer, a part, a catalog or some quick advice.
Wandering Off Topic Helps
But there are targeted, related topics you can try. Your users are virtually all homeowners (some may be landlords or superintendents), so which topics do homeowners typically discuss? There’s mortgages, appliances, pest control, landscaping, and purchases and sales, for starters. The landlords in your community will inevitably have tenancy issues. Expand what you consider to be on topic to some of these areas by adding a few feeler topics like these.
Consider humor as well. Humor can fall flat, and it is easy to misinterpret. In addition, people from different countries, religions and cultures will find disparate things amusing (or offensive). Hence there are risks involved. However, in the water softening forum example, you can offer a topic on, say, a humorous battle or competition where the course is changed (the tide is turned, perhaps) on the presence of softened versus hard water. Absurd humor does seem to work better than other types, so this kind of a topic can offer a little less risk.
Another tactic: begin recognizing great topics, posts and answers. Promote people who draw in more users – you can spot them fairly quickly. This can take the form of badges, up votes, sticky topics and special user titles. Mail them company swag if the budget allows (tee shirts, baseball and trucker caps, note pads, branded flash drives, whatever you’ve got). Give these people a little more leeway than most when they do go off message.
Corporate may want you to stay on message, all the time, but that’s simply not realistic as it ignores normal human interactions. Furthermore, it tends to drive away users as they only hang around for the length of a few topics. But give your users more topic leeway, and they will be more inclined to stay and become customers — a trade-off that any Marketing Department should embrace with ardor.