2010: Community Management predictions

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Image by mira d’oubliette via Flickr

As is traditional at this time of year, we’ve been looking back over 2009 and all the enormous leaps of innovation and learning that have happened in the social media space. For some of us old, creaking community managers that have been around longer than broadband, it’s slightly dizzying that the role of ‘community manager’ is creeping into the general lexicon. My mum suddenly understands what it is that I do!

So if 2009 has finally galvanised the concept that online community spaces need managers, is 2010 going to be the year when the role is formalised and ranked as highly as other CRM roles? Will the old broad term ‘community manager’ be split into various roles with tighter definitions and remits?

What will online communities look like in 2010? What will community managers be talking about? What legal changes are bubbling away? We asked some fantastic community managers for their 2010 predictions, and if their thinking comes true, 2010 is going to be a very exciting year.

Roles and responsibilities

Vincent Boon, Community Team Leader at Sony Computer Entertainment agrees thinks roles and responsibilities will become more targeted and defined: “The role itself will become less broad, with community managers trying to cover all the bases, but instead companies will employ different community managers, for their different areas of communication.”

Vincent suggests new roles will spring up around:

  • Social Media
  • Forum Specific
  • Creative Media 
  • Conflict Resolution 
  • Shaping Conversation/Interest 
  • Age group specific 

“Maybe my categories are incorrect, or you can think of many more, but with the role of Community Manager maturing, I believe the role itself will diversify into areas of expertise. Although whether this will happen in 2010 already, might just be wishful thinking.”

Wendy Christie from eModeration tweets: “Earlier involvement/consultation/hiring of CMs in new sites/products, maybe? I’m starting to see that, I think.”

She expands by email: “I think we’re starting to see a more widespread involvement of Community Managers at the early stages of project development. So rather than “we’re most of the way through developing the site which will involve some sort of interactivity - oh bugger, how do we manage that side of it?” we’re starting to see more cases of CMs identified from the beginning as vital members of the team.”

Community and moderation company, TemperoUK, agrees: “Trend = CM will take on a bigger customer service/CRM role”

Moderation

Tempero’s founder, Dominic Sparkes says: “For social media management, 2010 is going to be a year of realising moderation is vital, sentiment tracking will prove ROI (hopefully!) and platform integration will be second nature.”

Ilana Fox, head of Social Media at ASOS says more retailers will be getting into social media. She tweets her prediction for “more personalisation on news and retail sites. Google will cause problems.

“Issues with UK sites launching international versions in terms of moderation and media law.”

Community in Enterprise and Research

Stuart Glendinning Hall points me to Dion Hinchcliffe: “I reckon that Dion Hinchcliff may be right in seeing the role of community manager becoming increasing important in Enterprise 2.0 projects in 2010. Particularly in markets which are already leading on E2.0, such as Germany and the US.”

Andy_buckley tweets that he sees a: “Blurring between panel and communities.” He expands, “as more later adopting clients think about having a community I think they will want both qual (community) & quant (panel).”

Community as a force

Ed Mitchell, Network and Community expert, sees: “Purposeful communities - active groups using collaborative tools to do stuff in their neighbourhoods - like the hyperlocal stuff, transition
towns etc.”

Monitoring

A favourite community manager of mine, Alison Michalk from Fairfax Digital predicts: “The rise of social media monitoring is going to have an impact. I’ve already seen reps start jumping in to respond to statements in my forums.

“I think ‘platform-neutral’ brand involvement is on the rise (clearly there are benefits towards this approach over attempting to build their own community) - and just how this impacts communities is yet to be seen… will we need ‘protected spaces’, how will the merging of people’s personal/professional roles impact the online space in years to come…”

My prediction

I agree with our experts here, 2010 will be the year of more roles, with distinct remits, and a more ‘conversational’ approach within all but the least enlightened organisations. I believe that a studious approach to community will deliver greater understanding of how to measure success and monitor effects, and I believe there are likely to be more community-based roles than real experience out there to fill them.

But at risk of sounding like a doomsayer, my real prediction for 2010 is one of caution. This last year has been great fun, community is (rightly) at the forefront of the best of the web, conversations and connections are starting to be taken seriously and proving their worth at enhancing so many other areas  of business.

Now it’s time community grew up.

All eyes are on us, and there are still grey areas to be ironed out. Every community manager, publishing, curating or editing content from users, needs to have a handle on all the relevant laws and liabilities.

Every community manager needs to understand the business aims of their organisation, and how community fits to them. To be a community manager within an organisation is not to be a renegade, it’s to be a diplomat.

For me, 2010 is going to be the year that we took ourselves more seriously, tooled up legally, and set clearer principles for moderation, and expectations from us and of us.

Agree? Disagree? We’d love to hear your predictions for 2010.

Think local, very local

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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 www.cockneyrhymingslang.co.uk.

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

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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 UKfamily.co.uk, 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.

Why?

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? (freshnetworks.com)
  • Building the business case for online communities (freshnetworks.com)
  • Social Media Measurement - Without Myopia (marketingpilgrim.com)
  • Are You Measuring the Right Things? (thecustomercollective.com)

4. Moderation and safety

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Image by ian boyd via Flickr

Why moderate?

“Why moderate?” says Sue John, Online Community Manager at Britishexpats.com. “Well mainly for the benefit of the community. It helps to keep things on topic, keeps information and conversation flowing, helps keep a lid on troublemakers and trolls. [Moderators] help and assist new members by welcoming them into the community.”

Alison Michalk, Editor & Community Manger at Fairfax Digital agrees: “I think mods are akin to Traffic Control. They welcome and direct members to the best area… They have three roles - friendly participant, leader/rule enforcer and member advocate.”

Moderation is essential to a clean, healthy, vibrant community. A good moderator has a light touch, barely noticeable, and a well-moderated community is spam-free, troll-resilient and buzzing.

Moderation options

Most things in online community management are fluid, shades of grey (opinion, approach, even what metrics are important) but the options for moderation are fairly static:

  • Pre-moderation: This is where content added to a community needs to be approved by a moderator before it goes live. This is particularly apt for communities aimed at children and vulnerable people. Webchats and ‘live’ Q&As will often be pre-moderated, with inappropriate questions or comments being weeded out before the chat subject ever sees them.
  • Post-moderation: This is where all content added to a community goes live straightaway but is then reviewed by a moderator and removed if necessary.
  • Reactive moderation: Where members and visitors flag up inappropriate content for moderators to review. This is more suitable for a community of adults, where topics aren’t particularly sensitive and the route for flagging content is simple and clear.
  • No moderation and self-moderation: Where no formal moderator reviews content and the community self-governs (or doesn’t as the case may be).

Which is the best form of moderation?

“Reactive - ownership in hands of community,” tweets Mark Sheldon, Engagement Manager at Pluck, “requires less internal resource. Provide a ‘thumbs down’ to minimise abuse reports.”

He explains: “Thumbs down tends to weed out subjective abuse reports, but still gives the user the sense of having stated their dislike.”

Which is a valid point, for a community of adults, seasoned online community users and aware of their ability to self-regulate and the methods by which to do so.

I particularly like the idea of a thumbs down function, to stop people reporting posts just because they don’t like them, rather than because they break any rules. However, balance is key, and a complimentary ‘thumbs up’ function should, in my opinion, always accompany.

But for a community designed for children for example, reactive moderation would be unsuitable.

So the type of moderation really does depend on what kind of animal your community is:

  • Who is the community aimed at?
  • Is it particularly at risk of malicious posting?
  • Does your membership feel comfortable with self-regulation?
  • Do you have the resources to pre-moderate quickly enough or will messages take too long to go live?
  • Is the subject matter particularly legally-sensitive?
  • Are children or vulnerable people going to be using it?
  • Is there a high chance of defamation e.g. a celeb gossip community?
  • How much control do you need rather than want?

Again, we come back to the importance of planning, and thinking strategically and honestly about why you are building a community, who you are building it for and how it should (and will) work.

To edit or not to edit

One potential tool in the moderator’s kit is ‘editing’. You have a fantastic, long, detailed post chock-full of conversation starters and open questions. And then one paragraph happens to include a couple of lines of pretty toxic accusations against another community member. You don’t want to lose the value of the whole post just because of this one paragraph, so you edit the bad bits out.

Do you?

If you do, you are running the risk of being held responsible for the content of the post as if you, yourself, wrote it.

Not only do you - as a moderator and the organisation you work for - become an editor, responsible for the content, but you run the risk of changing the meaning of someone else’s words and upsetting the community, making them feel invaded and trampled over.

If a post is fabulous, apart from one crucial bit, then it comes down to two options:

  1. If the dodgy content is time-sensitive i.e. it needs to come down NOW: take the whole post down.
  2. If it breaks your rules, but no laws, and you don’t feel it’s doing much damage, give the original author the option to edit it within a determined timeframe. If they don’t, take the whole thing down.

Good guidelines

  • Ensure that you have very clear, plain English guidelines, so that any moderation decisions are backed up by the rules that govern all members’ use of the site.
  • Contrary to myth, rules are there to be kept. Members agree to the rules of the site when they sign up, so don’t feel guilty or awkward about enforcing them.
  • Make sure the rules are clear - this makes it easier to be fair and consistent. It also stops it being personal i.e. as community manager you can legitimately say, “hey, it’s the rules, it’s not me!
  • Situations will arise that aren’t covered in your guidelines. Use your intuition, talk it over with your team, then use the experience to inform adaptations and additions to your guidelines. Next time you’ll know what to do!
  • Record everything. Any warnings, any relevant contact with members, record it all - you never know when you’ll be asked to show your reasoning. Don’t worry about it, if you have nothing more whizzbang just keep notes on a spreadsheet with a date and description.
  • At FreshNetworks, we suggest a three strikes and you’re out policy, with immediate bans for serious offences. This is another reason notes and records are important. People will try to quibble!

Tough calls

Solid rules and guidelines help cut down grey areas, but touch calls will still present themselves. Often in the form of a new user, who takes the time to write lots of very detailed, helpful, friendly posts, that all contain a mega-whopping link to their eBay shop or affiliate program or an active user who usually behaves impeccably and starts trying to agitate other members and slowly divide and conquer…

  1. Use your judgement - if a post doesn’t sit right, if you feel uncomfortable with someone’s language, the chances are that other community members will feel the same. Included with your judgement will be your recall of history and your records. If you’re unsure, check your records for previous activity like this, spend a little time looking at how the member is currently behaving, and how the community is reacting to their content.
  2. If you’re still unsure, ask for a second opinion. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes and chatting it through will make all the difference. If it’s not time sensitive, give yourself five minutes, do something else, make a brew, and then come back to it calmer.

Fights and feuds

An arbiter of good sense in community management, Rich Millington blogs at FeverBee. He says that fights are good.

Wha…?

No really, fights (not malicious activity, but clashes of personality) he says, show that you’re doing a good job:

“Fighting is good for your community. It means that members care what other members think of them. You’re doing a good job. Seriously. If members are fighting you’ve created a close community…

“Remember why most people leave communities. Few leave a community because they get into a fight, most leave a community because it’s gotten boring. “

While I wouldn’t recommend provoking fights (nor taking part, an absolute no-no, these are not your fights) encouraging healthy debate and highlighting vibrant discussions isn’t something to shy away from. While the debate rages within the confines of the rules, your community is functioning well.

Dealing with feuds on an online community will test anyone mettle. They can go back years (particularly in mature communities), can be brought in from real life relationships, can be the result of online relationships becoming offline relationships, may involve cliques, troublemakers, deliberate campaigns… We didn’t say being a community manager was easy!

Big fat no-nos… there are a few

There are certain situations, certain content, that undeniably must be moderated. Largely common sense will prevail and almost any community manager or moderator would remove:

  • Illegal content
  • Explicit content (unless this suited the nature of the community)
  • Blatant spam
  • Clear defamation of a celebrity or known person

But what about repeating a well-repeated rumour about a celebrity? Or accusing a TV expert of not knowing enough about a subject?

It is not the same as repeating well-worn gossip to a friend in a bar. This is a no-no too.

Case in point: In 2007, Mumsnet.com, an online community started and managed by a group of mums in North London, paid author Gina Ford a five-figure sum to settle a libel claim.

Gina Ford, a well-known figure in the baby book market, advocates strict, routine-based methods that some members of the Mumsnet community took exception to and allegedly defamatory comments were posted.

A legal fight ensued, with Justine Roberts, Mumsnet’s founder telling the press the site’s 15,000 daily comments were “impossible to monitor unless you have eyes and ears everywhere”.

In this case, the reactive moderation was not reactive enough and it proved costly.

3. Growth of a healthy online community

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Sun CatcherImage by ecstaticist via Flickr

What constitutes a healthy community?

This is a big question. A really big question.

In short (although we’ll deal with the long version too), it depends on what you (or your client) wants the online community to be doing, how the community feel about that, how much churn and spam there is, how the numbers reflect the KPIs set and how ‘happy’ the membership is.

When we say ‘happy’, it’s important to say that we mean happy as members of the community (happy that they are safe, respected and encouraged) rather than happy as people, even the best community manager in the world can’t enforce that!

Perhaps it’s easier to look at what constitutes an ‘unhealthy’ community? Here’s what my vision of an ill, ailing community looks like:

  • Members’ questions and opening posts go unanswered, by both other members and the community manager
  • There is a visibly high amount thinly veiled spam (a loosely connect reply to a post that is stuffed with links) and a splattering of out-and-out ‘buy these diet pills now’ spamola
  • Feuds and fights have escalated, crowding out genuine discussion; with even mild-mannered members turning decidedly Lord of the Flies
  • People are leaving, loudly
  • The original purpose, theme or appeal is unclear, or lost, and the community is in the throes of a panic-stricken identity crisis
  • OR worst of all, it’s totally and utterly barren

Notice at no point did I mention quantities, traffic or ratios of active users.

Sure, your online community should have KPIs but one person’s page view target is another’s irrelevant number. The number of members a broad-interest lifestyle community has will - and should - differ from a special-interest, academic knowledge-sharing community.

That’s why it’s very important to work out - right at the very beginning of the planning stage, ideally before - why you want to launch a community and how you hope people will use it.

There is solid value in having numerical targets and understanding how many members need to be engaging to keep momentum, but there is no definitive ideal traffic goal any more than there is one topic area for all communities to be built around.

Tara Hunt, author of The Whuffie Factor, has a lovely bite-sized definition:

The health of a community is the gauge of where various qualitative and quantitative metrics lie in relation to the goals you set.

How to encourage engagement

It’s all very well promoting the community in all the right places and sweet-talking potential members into joining, but the real challenge (and the real trick) is making sure that they engage once they’re there.

Think open questions, talking points

If you want to get a conversation flowing, don’t ask “do you wish you were 21 again?” because the answers are all likely to be “yes!”.

Instead, ask, “if you could talk to your 21-year-old self, what advice would you give?” or “If you were 21 again, what would you do differently?”. The answers will be varied; they’ll contain talking points that will lead to more questions and more talking points.

Keep it simple

You don’t need to think up dazzling forum talking points that will show everyone how clever and well-read you are. In fact, the chances are this would frighten off all but the biggest show-offs. Keep it simple. Ask questions or start conversations that you would ask your friends over a drink, or like to know people’s thoughts on at a dinner party.

There’s more to engagement than posts

Don’t be led down the path of thinking posts are all that count. Sure, having a healthy number of bloggers and posters is fantastic, but there’s more to engagement than this. Have members rate each others’ posts, upload photos, comment on blogs or even respond to images with images.

Trust your own interests

Unless you know it’s a complete diversion from the interests of your community, start conversations and write blogs about topics that interest you. You won’t be the only one interested and because you’re speaking from your own experience, it will come across as far more authentic. Community managers are allowed to be real people too, your members will appreciate it.

Careful with current affairs

Legal matters are a whole other guide and there are many books on media law available if you want to brush up. But remember these top level rules:

  • Don’t play with fire. Reporting restrictions of current court cases or investigations includes message boards, blogs and forums. Do not encourage debate around ongoing court cases, except with extreme care, because once you have pulled the tiger’s tail, it’s very hard to get it to stop the tiger typing when it crosses a legal line.
  • Defamation laws still apply to community platforms. If a newspaper prints a story saying a named known celebrity is a love rat, and it’s untrue, they are subject to the same laws as if a blogger on your site claims that their named neighbour is cheating on his wife.
  • Naming and shaming. It is not acceptable for any community members to talk about a named person (that they know or do not know) and tell untruths, or give away that person’s private information.
  • Clamp down on risky behaviour. You are giving your members a platform to communicate, to chat and to engage. They do not need (and should not want) to give out their personal email addresses and mobile phone numbers. Perhaps they just don’t realise how open communities are, perhaps it’s a testament to how safe and friendly you have made your community feel. Either way, you need to give gentle but firm guidance on personal safety and personal information. Eventually your community champions will take on the baton themselves and report unsafe behaviour, and set examples of good behaviour, all by themselves.

A sobering example: In 2008, a record payout was made to a social housing firm in Sunderland after seriously defamatory comments were repeatedly posted and published on an ‘anonymous’ news and discussion site, called DadsPlace (sic). Eventually, the owners and administrators of the site were revealed through detailed investigation and they were found to be responsible and made to pay £100,000 to the victim of the defamation.

Online communities aren’t places to allow dubious behaviour to claim sanctuary.

More on this next week in the ‘Moderation and safety’ section of our Community Management series

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