To really understand social media, you must also understand online communities


Audience at a Dan Deacon concert

It is very easy to get excited by social media. By “Likes” and “Follows”. To think about the tools you can use. To worry about creating content. To feel you must rush to be on the latest platform or site. But in all this excitement it can be easy to forget something that is more important than the tools, platforms and sites that you can make use of - the skills and expertise you need to identify, manage and grow a true online community.

When we talk about social media we are really only talking about tools that we can use to help us and the people we engage to achieve a task. To make a success in social media we need to understand online communities. For those of us who have been working in this space for many years this has long been the basis of all our work.

What is an online community?

There is a temptation to assume that all use of social media is the same - that we are ‘doing social media’. But this is just not true. There is a fundamental difference in how people behave when they are primarily in a group of actual friends (such as on Facebook) and how you interact with people not because you know them and are friends with them, but because you share a common interest (such as in a forum for fans of Arsenal football club, a site for mum chatting about nutrition in early years or a group of runners helping each other with training advice and tips as they prepare to run a marathon).

An online community is a group of people who exhibit this second behaviour. They do not necessarily know each other, and may not have any desire to become friends in that broader sense of the word. They do have a common passion, interest, concern or question. And they can find and engage with others online because of this.

Working with online communities

For most organisations looking at social media, it is only by identifying, building and engaging with online communities that they will start to get real benefit. Online communities are truly scalable because they do not rely on becoming ‘friends’ with people but mean that you (the organisation) and the rest of the community engage on topics that you all share in common. This is real engagement in a way that just amassing Likes or Follows is not.

Social media just provides the set of tools you can use to do this. But the real skill is threefold:

  1. Firstly to be able to identify the community you want to engage and understand why they would engage with you. What is the passion, problem, concern, issue or question that you can connect with your community about? And why would they connect with you at all about it?
  2. Then how do you find these people and help them to find you? Likes on Facebook or Followers on Twitter do not necessarily make an online community.
  3. Finally how do you manage them. There is a valuable and often heated debate elsewhere about the differences between a social media manager and a community manager, but any community does need the ‘party host’ role. A community manager who facilitates conversations and activities, helps to moderate the community so that it is a productive and friendly place for all, and who acts as the link between the organisation and the online community.

With all the excitement of social media it often feels like we have forgotten what we have known for many years about online communities and the way they work and interact. For anybody looking at or working in social media a solid grounding in how online communities work and how we should work with them is essential.

Why every online community needs a suicide policy


by net_efekt

by net_efekt

My husband’s been reading John T Cacioppo’s Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection and as usual when he’s enthralled by something, I’ve heard about it at great length.

While I have yet to read it (I’m too cheap to buy a second copy instead of waiting for his) it has made me think a lot about loneliness and online communities at Christmas.

For some people, through physical and perceived isolation, online communities and social networks are a main or even sole route of social interaction.

Detailed 2004 research by Dr Vladeta Ajdacic-Gross of the Institute of Social and Preventive Medicine, at the University of Zurich found that suicide rates actually decline dramatically in the run up to Christmas Day - Christmas Eve has the lowest suicide rate for the whole year.

The trouble starts after Christmas, suicide rates increase dramatically, with a peak in early January.

So it’s important to know what the realistic risks are, and when, before putting any plans in place.

Any seasonal suicide sensitivity needs to continue into the New Year, and your process for dealing with a suicide threat needs to be written and ready all year round.

No-one wants to write a will and it’s no different as a community, no-one relishes writing a suicide policy. But every community needs one, even the happiest, most sunny side up communities.


  1. Every community needs to be supportive, not just support communities.
  2. Every community contains people. Where there are people, there is unpredictable behaviour.

Several professions are at particularly heightened risk of depression and suicide, and consequently even a professional community aimed at sharing knowledge and best practise could be a platform for lonely, isolated people.

On one of our communities, which is mainly a place to discuss health and beauty, sometimes life gets in the way. During a product trial, a happy-go-lucky community member experienced an unexpected and upsetting event in her life. She came to the community, to a place she felt safe, surrounded by friends and she shared her news.

It wasn’t health and beauty news, it was real, personal news and she found comfort and support amongst online friends.

How could we ever assume that someone in their darkest moments, considering something terrible, wouldn’t come to a place they regularly spent time and felt safe? We couldn’t assume that. That’s why every community we run has a suicide policy, regardless of their membership or topics.

Writing a suicide policy

There are several factors to consider, and you must consider them properly:

  • Could there be minors using the community?
  • Do you have means of contacting community members?
  • Do you have real names and locations for community members?
  • You will need a templated (but customisable) message containing links to supportive organisations such as the Samaritans and any specifically relevant organisations (such as a professional benevolent society with counsellors available).
  • Do you have functions within your community that could be used to post images or videos of an attempted suicide? It is incredibly rare, but it happens.
  • Do you have an in-house legal team to discuss this with?
  • Is there a reporting function for other members to flag content they’re concerned about? Do members know this is not just for spam or offensiveness?

It’s a tragic subject, but as community managers we have a responsibility to try and keep our members as safe as possible.

Having a plan in place won’t cause any problems if it’s never needed, but not having a plan in place could leave a community manager with a scenario that haunts them for a very long time.

Ben LaMothe meets Shirley Brady, BusinessWeek’s community manager


BusinessWeek Names Me As One of Four Social Me...
Image by cambodia4kidsorg via Flickr

Guest post by Ben LaMothe

In June 2008 Shirley Brady joined BusinessWeek as its first community editor. In this first of a two-part interview, Shirley explains what the newly-created role of community manager means at BusinessWeek and how she engages with the magazine’s influential-yet-niche readership.

Before joining BusinessWeek, she was a writer/editor for the U.S. trade magazine CableWorld, where she launched and managed its website,

Prior to that she was a writer/editor at Time Inc, working for Time in Asia (based in Hong Kong) before moving to the Time Inc mothership in New York in 1999 and working for Time and People. She’s also won awards for her work as a TV producer, writer and on-air presenter, including the Canadian public broadcaster TVOntario, Discovery Channel Asia and CNN International. She has been based in New York since 1999.

As community editor of, what does your job entail?

Suffice to say I’m passionate about this role and truly have one of the greatest gigs in journalism! BusinessWeek is among a handful of media organizations that’s really putting resources and aligning itself to be open and responsive to readers, which is what attracted me to coming onboard last year. So what do I do, on a day-to-day basis? As part of BW’s senior management team, I manage our engagement efforts with the goal of increasing participation (quality and quantity) of participation by BW’s regular readers and online visitors. Rather than have users post comments and zoom off, we want to build loyalty by having them connect, collaborate and share – with other readers and with our journalists.

In practical terms, this entails overseeing BusinessWeek’s efforts to include readers and incorporate user-generated content (comments, suggestions, longer form opinion pieces) in BW’s journalism, elevating our readers’ participation on the same level as our journalism.

That includes soliciting reader participation in special issues, slide shows and other editorial projects; guiding BW’s journalists to respond to comments on their blogs and articles, which we feature on the “belly band” or scrolling bar on our homepage; helping point our writers to reader-suggested story ideas that they report for our “What’s Your Story Idea?” initiative; commissioning and editing “MyTake” essays from readers who’ve posted smart comments on our site, which provides more space to expand on their views, on the same level as a BW writer or contributor; produce our In Your Face series, which features thought-provoking reader comments on the home page and across the site; produced our first list of the top 100 readers on our site (in tandem with our journalists, particularly our bloggers) and our first reader dinner, which gave us amazing feedback on our efforts from some of the most engaged (and vocal) members of our community; oversee BW’s social media outreach including Twitter ; serve as editorial liaison for the Business Exchange topic network; track and share insights into online traffic and other metrics, including BW’s reader engagement index; work with my colleagues in tech, art, interactive, edit, marketing, research and other departments to implement these initiatives and improve the user experience on our site; and in general, develop best practices and raise the bar for reader engagement and BW’s digital journalism strategy, internally and externally.

In the first year, we were pleased to see BW’s reader engagement index increase 31% with nods from PaidContent, Folio and other media brands, with John and me speaking on numerous panels and interviews such as this to discuss BW’s engagement efforts. But it’s only the beginning!

In addition to the above, I spend a great part of each day in our reader comments, across our articles and blogs, to gauge our online conversations and find/identify thoughtful commenters to follow up with. That reader zeitgeist gets fed back to our news editors and informs BW’s editorial. We don’t moderate comments on our articles (they are posted automatically unless something in our spam filter – an offensive word or a link – places a comment into the pending queue for review).

We also review any comments flagged as offensive by members of our community, and I’ll weigh in on whether a comment should be taken down. So a significant part of my job is monitoring and maintaining our standards, which helps elevate the conversation and helps make a more engaging place for our readers to feel welcome, to share their points of view and want to come back on a regular basis.

I should add that reader engagement is by no means a one-person effort. For example, comments on our blogs are moderated by our journalists, who are encouraged to nurture their respective communities of readers who frequent their blogs.

I also work closely with BW’s online management team, news editors and channel editors to foster these efforts; Celine Keating, a veteran BW copy editor who assists me in reviewing user comments and flagging any discussions that get out of hand; Ira Sager, the online editor who manages our blogs; Francesca Di Meglio, a reporter on our Business Schoolsteam who has done a great job building our thriving b-schools community of lively MBA forums and guest writers for our MBA Journal franchise; Rebecca Reisner, who produces our popular Debate Room series (arguably,’s first foray into reader engagement); Greg Spielberg, who worked with me from January to August as our first reader-engagement intern; and BW’s business-side team (Ron Casalotti, Michelle Lockett and Maki Yamasaki) who oversee user participation and outreach on BW’s award-winning Business Exchange, which launched in Sept. 2008.

As a side note, it’s been fascinating to see how Twitter has informed our efforts and my job. Many of our readers post their Twitter handles in their comments, so we continue the conversation between our readers and journalists by being active in the conversations that bridge and Twitter. We’ve now got more than 60 staffers just from BW editorial on Twitter; incorporated Twitter widgets on some of our blogs and within Business Exchange, which earlier this year enabled users who linked their BX profile with their Twitter accounts to simultaneously comment on both platforms – the first Twitter integration by a major media brand, as far as we’re aware. We also recently launched an official BusinessWeek Twitter feed.

In Part Two of this interview, we deal with the interaction between the Community Desk and Editors, and how Community Management in news is changing BW’s evolving strategy.

Think local, very local


Day 6 - Night hunting by Mourner via Flickr

On a LinkedIn discussion about community management, a great comment was made about the importance of understanding foreign cultures when moderating international communities, such as those around football tournaments.

Very true. But I would expand it. As a good community manager, and especially as someone with a moderation role, you must think regional. Very regional.

When I was at school, I had a headmaster that was very proud of his Liverpool roots. One day, when talking to us about linguistics and on one of his lengthy preambles, he mentioned a ‘jiggerrabbit’.

Being a class of Devonshire teenagers, we stared at him blankly.

A ‘jigger’ is Liverpool slang for ‘alleyway’. A ‘jigger-rabbit’ is slang, therefore, for a cat.

It’s a great word, and a great example of how a word can simply not exist outside of a very tight radius on a map.

Now if I saw ‘jigger-rabbit’ in certain contexts, as a moderator who has been to Liverpool maybe two, three times in my life, I may well have thought it to be an insult.

Imagine seeing the phrase ‘black jigger-rabbit’. How does that sound to you? It means ‘black cat’, of course, but if you didn’t know the meaning, you could jump to entirely the wrong conclusion.

A good community manager gets to know their community inside out – and let’s not forget that communities themselves have their own little cultures and phrases too – and that includes letting yourself pick up on these nuances.

It’s impossible to learn every slang phrase across the world, of course, but you can pick things up, you can check unfamiliar words that don’t sit right.

The brilliant Urban Dictionary is one to add to your toolkit, as is

As a community manager, you need to develop a keen eye for these dialectical delights, otherwise they could turn around and bite you on the Queen Mum.

5. Metrics and reporting – the backbone of understanding your community


RulerImage by Balakov via Flickr

We’ve touched on metrics before, and how understanding what you need to measure can help you understand how healthy your online community really is.

Metrics are vital. Understanding the who, what, where, why and how many of your online community is vital. Understanding if you’re doing your company some good (or bad), is vital. Setting KPIs is vital and knowing whether you’re hitting them, is vital. Metrics are vital.

Putting qualitative and quantitative measurements to the back of your mind - or worse, not considering them at all - is a little like setting up a restaurant, cooking a load of food, and not looking to see if anyone’s eating it.

Recording, reporting and analysing your data is as much a part of community managing as keeping the spam out and the conversation going.

But what should you record?

As ever, it’s a ‘piece of string’ subject. There are some established standards when recording any web traffic, of course:

  • Hits
  • Unique visitors
  • Page views
  • Time spent on site
  • Pages per visit
  • Entry points
  • Exit points
  • Most popular sections
  • Most popular pages
  • Referrers

And some fairly obvious community specific standards:

  • Number of members
  • Number of active members
  • Number of blogs/posts/comments/images

But here’s where it starts to get interesting. Given that all online communities are basically a similar beast (a group of people brought together in one online space and communicating in a variety of ways), you’d think the list of key metrics would be pretty defined. You’d be wrong.

Lucy McElhinney, Community Manager at, has a couple of favourite stats. She tweets:

Return visitors - to gauge lurker/reader engagement, Active members (the number of members who ‘did’ something in the last month)

Ooh, and obviously advertising like the page views per visit metric as in communities it’s normally so high.

Ratios are also very telling. As well as the basics, Adam Cranfield, Digital Media Manager at CIMA likes to know the “ratio of responses to discussions,” and “ratio of comments to blogs.” He also introduces a lovely turn of phrase that I’m going to steal wholeheartedly: nuggets.

Also, I want to measure ‘nuggets’ - new knowledge, useful to the company, gained through the community.

Reporting on the current health and vitality of a community - especially when you’re community managing on behalf of a brand - is more than just a numbers game. ROI is more than just financial.

Great stories from the community can form positive PR activity; feedback (negative and positive) can inform improvements to customer services and spread learning about best practice throughout the company.

And as community manager, you are the gatekeeper to all this knowledge. Through recording it, filtering it and reporting it, you can affect real change. Frank van Gemeren, Game Producer and owner of Frag-em says you should pay attention to negative sentiment within the community:

There’s always action=reaction, so a lot of negativity means there’s something going wrong on some level, be it community involvement or policies, support, the actual product, or future expectations of your target audience.

For Frank, it’s not just about numbers:

I believe more in the qualitative arguments than in quantity. While quantity can be used to measure popularity and brand recognition, which is important for PR, you won’t build up a healthy, loyal community with a lot of hype and then failing to meet the expectations. That’s where the negativity comes in.

As with moderation and launching before it, monitoring stats and activity is not something to ‘just do’, something to just have a go at and see what sticks. If you are serious about creating a valuable, worthwhile community, you need to think about recording and reporting metrics and activity before you’ve received even one visitor.

As we’ve said before so many times, planning is the key. Really thinking about what you want from your community proposition and how you will measure if you have it, is essential.

Newsletter metrics

So what happens when you communicate with members outside of the community platform, through newsletters or mailshots?

At FreshNetworks we’re increasingly working to co-ordinate and strategically plan all newsletter communication in the most effective way for the members and the brand owners. There is a lot more fragility in the relationship here.


Mainly because unlike communicating within your community, where members have chosen to come to the space you have provided, here you are pushing your content into their domain. Their private space.

If you do it badly, intrusively, it could result not just in an unsubscribe from the mailing list, but a reaction on or an exodus from the community.

Put simply: You need to be as certain as possible how best to use newsletters. You need to know what works. And what doesn’t.

Newsletter metrics are a whole other blog post (and one we hope to bring you soon) but one lovely little formula I want to highlight is the Disaffection Index, first mooted in a 2005 MediaPost article:

Rather than unsubscribe/delivered, the Disaffection Index (DI) is calculated by dividing unsubscribes by the response rate: unsubcribes/unique clicks

Calculated this way, the DI tells you how many people either a) clicked on your email for the sole purpose of getting off your list or b) were so dissatisfied with the payoff (promise vs. delivery) that they chose to unsubscribe.

It’s simple maths but it’s packed with insight:

DI = (unsubscribes / unique click) *100

More on this to come…

  • Is time-on-site a useful measure for online communities? (
  • Building the business case for online communities (
  • Social Media Measurement - Without Myopia (
  • Are You Measuring the Right Things? (