Community Management – How to be a Terrible Netizen
Are YOU a Terrible Netizen? I have been managing Able2know for over fifteen years and I have seen my share.
It is a generalized Q & A website and the members are all volunteers. I have learned a few things about making yourself the biggest jerk online during this time. Because I have seen a lot of people being awful, as if it were their aim in life.
How to Be a Jerk Online
Post as fast as you can and don’t think about it. And anything worth doing, is worth doing fast. Editing is for wimps.
When you’re being attacked, never step away from the keyboard. Because the way you feel about people online is never related to the offline world. It only comes from online events.
Be vague with your words. Because anyone who cannot figure out what you really mean is an idiot, and you should tell them that. Clarity is for other people.
Everyone should/must get you, oh terrible netizen, even the aforementioned idiots. What you have to say is perfectly wonderful for every audience and needs no tailoring.
Yet More Jerk Advice
Be First and Best, every single time. Why let anyone else be happy? They’re a bunch of idiots anyway.
Always get in the last word, terrible netizen. And this is even if you have to do that over and over again while someone else tries to do the exact same thing. That person is an idiot. You, of course, are not. Never!
Call people by names, because there’s nothing that says maturity like using a taunt from second grade or a word that trips a profanity filter.
Discuss as many controversial topics as you like, and don’t expect hard feelings. Because if people become defensive, their skins are too thin for them to be online in the first place. So have at them.
Never stop, and never surrender, and never ignore anyone. All comers deserve your pearls of wisdom, 24/7! Therefore, even months later, when the other person has clearly gone off to do something else, go back and pick at that scab some more.
I hope you let me know if you’re going to do any of these. So I can find a way to cross the street and walk in the other direction when I see you online. ‘Course, that probably just makes me an idiot.
Community Management Tidbits – Let’s Get this Party Started
Let’s Get this Party Started! You’ve made the decision to have a forum on your website. Great!
It can be for any number of reasons, such as to cut the number of lower level technical support calls, to generate buzz for various advertising campaigns, to generate sales leads, or maybe to bring together people interested in a common cause. And you have a site with forums, done up in Drupal, or maybe using a PHP application out of the box. Or it might exist on Facebook exclusively. Or perhaps you’ve conjured up your own proprietary software.
And … nothing.
You’ve got no users, no content, no conversations. The community should be a hubbub of activity, a virtual village. Instead, you’re stuck with a ghost town.
Whaddaya do now?
Recognize that no one wants to be first attendee at a party. So, you’ve got to get the party started. But how?
For any website to succeed, you need to be strong in four areas:
SEO (Search Engine Optimization)
So let us operate under the assumption that you’ve got the first two set (and, if you don’t, make sure you fix, perfect and beautify your design as much as possible). If you’re not already getting metrics, go get Google Analytics and Yahoo Site Explorer and get started on Compete (Compete takes a few months to gather data, so get cracking now). Add Alexa and Quantcast if you wish, as well.
Now with those two set, you can, fortunately, work on the other two together. First of all, let’s work on some elementary Search Engine Optimization. SEO divides into optimizing onsite and optimizing offsite. So start with a few basic offsite measures. It used to be that you had to submit your site to the DMOZ Directory. Yahoo runs this human-edited directory. At this point in time, that advice is out of date. Don’t worry about it. You can do just fine with social media and indexing on social bookmarking sites instead.
Submit your site to the follow social bookmarking sites:
There are any number of others but these are the really big ones and give you the most bang for the buck (most readers) versus others out there. You don’t need to pay some service to do this. It will all take you less than half an hour, no lie.
For onsite SEO, let’s move onto Content. Because the two are intimately intertwined. Furthermore, your future users are going to want to see topics. And they are going to want to see them started by a number of different people. You’ll need to pull in some friends for this, and divide the new topics up as much as possible. Be sure to start with topics like this:
Welcome to the New Members/Getting to Know You
Basic News from outside your company, about you (if you’ve got a company blog or press page already, link to them here and
A few (say, half a dozen) topics showcasing your best keywords but are written for humans to read
That brings us to keyword research. Go to your competitors’ sites, right-click and select “View Source”. Which keywords are they using? Consider using similar if not the same ones. So if your site is about, say, infant and child care, your main keywords and key phrases are probably going to be words and phrases like infant, child, child care, childcare, children, baby, babies, pregnancy. Do Google searches using these keywords and key phrases, with and without the words forum or community added. Look at those sites’ keywords and key phrases as well. Because you want to keep thinking of terms that your target audience will use for their own searches. Incorporate these words into your site and into the titles of some of your first topics.
Look at synonyms! If baby works better than infant, then use baby in the title but you can still put infant within the body of the post. Think like someone searching. What are they really looking for?
Don’t be afraid to be specific, for the child care site, try topics on such subjects as teething, sibling rivalry and readiness for kindergarten. Keep the keywords in the titles if you can logically and grammatically put them there.
Consider some really niche topics, such as handling siblings who are acting out because one child has special needs or a terminal illness. Because searchers are looking for those answers as well.
Now, you’ve got some content, and you’re getting some SEO, even if you are still low in rankings (don’t worry, it’s percolating). But you still need users. Here’s where invitations come in. You, me, all of us – we have online networks. We’ve got friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter and a network on LinkedIn, and a whole host of other groups of online acquaintances. Plus we’ve got friend and family email addresses.
So craft an invitation. Make it polite, pleasant, simple and short. Be definite about what your forums are about (e. g. write more than “Please check out my site.”). In particular, if you know people who like forums (perhaps you already regularly post on some other forums site, even if the main subject is radically different), invite those people. And do this in small doses, say, 30 people at a time. This will keep an influx of new members from overwhelming you. And you can greet everyone personally, at least to start. Furthermore, it will add to the feeling of exclusivity that a small site can engender. Don’t worry if people start inviting others to your site, even people you’ve never heard of before. Because this is a good thing. You want them to do this.
So look for sites to link to you, and be sure to get reciprocal links. Consider adding Google News Reader, and a blog to provide directed quality content if you don’t already have one. Furthermore, it will keep your users updated as to outages and new features as you add them. Add a Facebook fan page for your site, although I’d recommend waiting at least a little while after launching. After all, if no one likes you on Facebook, you’ll have the same issue. It’s trying to attract people who don’t want to be first. Furthermore, you’ll need at least 30 Facebook fans (that number may rise in the future) to get metrics. And then you can really get this party started.
But above all, have fun. And get this party started!
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 still 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.
Screen Name Unreality
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) behind one screen name. But then he surfs to a different site where he can chat up the ladies with his sensitive New Age guy demeanor, all behind another screen name. 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.
Hesitation Generation. So as I travel around the ‘net, I also take note of what is happening in my own backyard. What I have seen is an odd and somewhat disturbing trend.
I am the Project Manager for Able2know and in some ways it’s got its finger on the pulse. But, a caveat, the pulse is rather limited. This is a mere fraction of the web and therefore, by extension, an even tinier fraction of the world. Yet this is the world I know, and so I will report on it.
A2K is a generalized Q & A website where people can post all manner of questions. The availability and quality of the answers varies greatly. Keep in mind: no one is paid to answer questions on Able2know.
Hence inquiries about voltage are generally answered with an admonition to hire a licensed electrician. Requests for medical advice are answered vaguely, and nearly always involve telling the poster to follow up with their personal physician. Inquiries about the law receive a nearly identical treatment, save for the advice to contact an attorney.
You don’t need a degree in psychology to be able to dispense advice. Anyone who appears to be clinically depressed is told to seek treatment. Anyone who appears to be abused is advised to leave, and to contact their local authorities.
But it’s the people in the middle who I’m talking about.
What does it mean when someone stares at you? What is a good idea for a first date? How do I ask someone out? How do I get someone to ask me out? And the saddest – how do I get over a heartache?
And it’s amazing to me (and it really should not be anymore) how many people are paralyzed at the thought of actually speaking to the object of their desire. They wait and think they are seeing signals, and then they ask what those supposed signals mean. It’s like reviewing the Zapruder film, frame by agonizing frame.
My advice is usually – ask.
How do you feel about me?
Do you want to go out for coffee?
Are you seeing anyone right now?
What would you like to do together?
So many of them thank me and promise they will ask (I have heard back from some, and they tend to report either success or relief that they finally know).
But why the heck couldn’t these people have figured that out from the get-go?!?!?!
Back to Ike
It can be a little bit like the 1950s, where girls preen and sit by the telephone, waiting for Prince Charming to deign to call – and heaven forfend he should take more than 20 minutes to get on the stick and call! And guys hem and haw about the most letter-perfect thing to say, when the reality is that the perfect thing to say is something, as that beats the pants off saying and doing absolutely nothing. The same is true in non-cis relationships, of course.
I’m not so sure who that dynamic favors, except for the phone companies. Because minute numbers go sky high, and Facebook’s advertisers benefit as people check each other’s statuses and relationship statuses obsessively. And then they get to serve yet more ads.
It seems as if everyone wants to fast-forward through the movie, and cut the suspense. Instead, all they seem to want is the sunset and the fateful kiss. Dorothy clicks her heels together before she ever leaves Kansas. And nobody seems to miss the Munchkins and the Wicked Witch and the Tin Man and the rest of the middle part. All that matters is the destination, and never the journey.
Something is missing here, and what’s missing is the taking of chances. I get that these are generally rather young people. The vast, vast majority of them are between the ages of 13 and 28. That 15-year span is the worst – it’s a combination of raging hormones and self-absorption. But nowadays that’s spiked with a seemingly inbred inability to take a chance. Plus it’s all fueled by the artificial immediacy of far too much social media.
Instead of risk-taking, everyone seems to want the risks scrubbed out of their lives. They want the endgame handed to them on a silver platter yet refuse to do even a smidgen of the legwork required in order to get there.
A second caveat – this is, to be sure, a small group of people. Furthermore, they are self-selecting. Very confident folk are far less likely to request advice in any endeavor. Plus there is the age issue, as I have already mentioned.
People in their forties ask relationship questions, too, but those tend to be different. They are less about an initiation of connections and more about either reentering the dating pool or the dynamic of being a parent (or dating one) while in the game.
Upshot, Kinda, for the Hesitation Generation
So, where does that leave the Hesitation Generation and the rest of us?
An inability to take risks does not bode well. It clouds decisions on everything from trying a new brand of fabric softener to consenting to an experimental drug trial. It colors employment and investment choices, and keeps people out of new business ventures and away from new books, films and music.
The upside, naturally, is that it may be preventing sexually risky behaviors. That’s a good thing, of course.
However, risks are often good, and a life without them is rather dull indeed. It can be mindless consumerism as people give themselves the same personal rewards over and over again.
The trick, as in all things, is to find a balance.
And now, a bonus.
How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?
One last thing – here, for free, for Hesitation Generation, is my standard heartache cure. Your mileage, of course, will vary.
Expect to feel lousy for a while, and understand that that is a natural reaction. Congratulate yourself – you were affected enough to really feel something.
Relationships often keep us from doing other things, such as seeing other friends. So spend some time with your friends.
Explore things to do on your own. Some are inward, such as making art or even baking cookies. Others are more outward, like taking a class.
More You Can Do
Fill up your time. Being busy gives you few opportunities to wallow in misery. Your boss is likely not without sympathy, but you still need to write the reports, etc. or do whatever it is that you do. Treat your leisure time a little bit more like a job, in the sense that you should make some commitments and stick by them. If your leisure time is to paddle a canoe, then paddle the damned canoe. Don’t back out of that.
Do something physical. Exercise can not only fill up your time, it can also help with depression.
Do something for someone less fortunate than you. Read to a blind person. Serve at a soup kitchen. Visit people in a nursing home. Volunteer at a group home. These actions don’t just help the community, they can also help you gain some sorely needed perspective.
Don’t jump into a new relationship right away. Being single does not have to automatically mean being lonely. This is a time to cultivate your inner resources.
If you think you need it – and in particular, if you are experiencing suicidal ideation – please seek out the care of a professional. There is no shame whatsoever in getting the help that you need. If you need medical help to mend a broken heart, it should be no different from seeking medical help to mend a broken arm.
Community Management Tidbits – Going From a Collection of Users to a True Community
What is a True Community?
I’ve written at least seven obituaries.
That is, perhaps, an odd thing to confess. But when Jill, Kevin, Paul, Joanne, Olen, Joan, and Mary all passed on, it was up to me to write something, to not only commemorate their lives, but to try to help comfort a grieving community.
I am not saying you will write as many, or even if you will ever write even one. And I certainly hope you will never have to, as they can be gut-wrenching. But it was with the first one – Mary’s – that it became manifest (if it was not already self-evident) that, to paraphrase the old Brady Bunch theme, this group had somehow formed a family.
How Can This Happen to Your True Community (Without the Tragic Part)?
But no one has to cross over to the other side in order for your collection of users to coalesce into a Community with a capital C. The secret is very simple, although many companies don’t want to hear it: it’s going off-topic.
Let us assume, for example, that your community is a corporate-run one. And the product is a soft drink. Corporate tells you to stay on topic, on message. However, your users are saying something very different.
For it is easy, as you’re talking about the soft drink, to slide into discussing foods eaten with it (frankly, for such a community you’d almost have to go off-topic. Nobody but a truly dedicated corporate marketer can talk about a soft drink 24/7). Food slides into a discussion of recipes. Recipes turn into a talk about entertaining. And then suddenly you’re off to the races and talking about family relationships.
Corporate tries to pull you back on topic. Yet your users pull the true community ever further away And they pinball from family relationships to dating, raising children, and elder care, if you let them.
The Community Manager’s Role
Here is where you, as the Community Manager, can talk to Corporate and forge a compromise. Corporate needs for people to talk about the product, tout it, and virally promote it. And they need people to make well-ranked (on Google) topics about it. Corporate may also realize that they need to hear the bad news about the product as well. The users need to talk.
So make a compromise. Create an off-topic area and move all off-message topics there. And be fairly loose with your definition of what’s on topic. In our soft drink example, the recipes topics, even if they don’t use the product as an ingredient, are still close enough so you can consider them on topic. Also, don’t be surprised if the corollary is true. Hence topics that begin on message veer off it, even by the time of the first responsive post. That’s okay. Those topics should still be considered to be on message. Because Google is far more concerned with a forum topic’s title and initial post than with its tenth response.
The Benefits of the Off-Topic Section
Don’t be shocked if your off-topic section becomes a large one. And recognize that you and your Moderating staff (if you have one) may need to make on message topics in order to continue creating germane content. But your true community will be talking and the site will be a lively one. It’s a party that’s going nonstop, your users will stick around and from this you can build a marketing database. And that is one of the standard corporate aims behind creating a community in the first place.
So when your users start talking about life events, such as births, school, divorce, moving, jobs, marriage, children and, yes, deaths, it matters. And when they start supporting each other through each of these phases, it marks a bright line distinction between a haphazard agglomeration of users and a true team of like-minded individuals.
Finally, that team, that family, that army, is what being in a true community is really all about.
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 Without Management
Drama Central, ah, yes, this bit of juvenalia in a community without management. 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
In A Circling Storm, there are a lot of entrenched factions, hostile to one another, when your community goes without management. 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 Without Management
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.
Small Things – Every forum starts out small. Getting started is one thing. How do you get big?
The secrets to getting big go hand in hand with those for getting started: Search Engine Optimization and content.
Small Things Like SEO
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.
Add an RSS feed if you have not already. You can feed it into Twitter and Facebook using a promotional site like HootSuite.
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. Because such an outage can make some users nervous. So, Facebook (and Twitter, too) can be a means by which you reassure them.
Small Things About Site Redesign
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 things on a daily basis 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.
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 smartphone, 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.
Get Together Swag
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 get together 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 for freshening:
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.
Freshening Up With New Features
Add new features for more freshening. 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.
Freshening Up: The Upshot
Communities, like anything else, can become a little flat and need freshening. 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. You start freshening up the snack bowl. It’s not much different with an online party. You’ve got to keep it lively.
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 950,000??? 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.
When they don’t scale, they start to really stink after a while.
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.
Scale and 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.