Community Management Tidbits – Corralling the Cats
A look at 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.
A Last Thought on Corralling
Communities which are 100% on point aren’t communities at all. They’re advertisements. If you truly want your community to attract users and not be thought of as just being a pure marketing endeavor, then guess what? You have got to allow for off-topic discussions. While you probably shouldn’t let the cats win, at the absolute, barest minimum, you should let them have their fun.