5 ways to encourage online engagement

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It is tempting to focus soley on moderation when discussing online community management, but without driving discussion in the first place, a community manager will have nothing to moderate.

Here are five things every community manager should do to encourage discussion in an online community.

1. Use mixed media

Using different types of media always produces good engagement results. Images and picture galleries often generate the best engagement online and this is certainly the case for the Facebook pages we manage here at FreshNetworks.

2. Keep the community informed about latest updates

One simple tool to add to an online community is a “latest activity” box on the homepage. Members of one of the closed communities I manage regularly comment on how useful this tool is for quickly navigating the site and for keeping up to date with recent activity.

3. Email newsletters

By far the largest driver of traffic to the communities I manage are the weekly email newsletter updates I send. They highlight conversations that are important to the brand and in the early lifecycle of a community the email updates are particularly important in developing a relationship with community members.

4. One to one contact

Contacting users on an individual basis is a fantastic way of building  good foundations. Thank them for performing actions, suggest content they may like or point them towards new activities in order to build long-term engagement.

5. Ask questions that matter to the community

Asking simple questions is recognised as a good way of generating discussion. However, this only works if the questions you ask are relevant to your audience. Take the time to understand what your audience react to and then plan around this.

Using these tactics are just a few of the many ways that you can encourage discussion in an online community. What works best for you?

15 essential articles for online community managers #CMAD

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Image by moriza via Flickr

To celebrate the second annual Community Manager Appreciation Day, we’ve brought together 15 essential articles for online community managers and social media managers. From why community managers should get involved with their online community before it is even launched, through how to manage and grow a community, to how to measure the impact you are having.

This collection of articles, resources and thinking should have something for everybody to learn from or to add to. We’d love your thoughts on these and also your own favourite community manager articles and resources.

  1. When does a community manager’s job begin?: Why it is critical that your community manager is involved in helping to plan and design the online community before it is launched.
  2. The Ten Commandments of managing online communities: An insightful presentation on how to manage online communities from Julius Solaris.
  3. The biggest mistakes an online community manager can make: From lack of engagement to a lack of discipline, we look at five of the biggest mistakes an online community manger can make.
  4. How word of mouth grows online communities: A case study on the role of word of mouth helped to grow an online community at a critical early stage.
  5. Five things to consider when engaging social media influencers: Influencers in social media can be a great help when growing your community and become advocates of your site. However engaging them can be difficult. Here are five things to consider when engaging them.
  6. How to react if somebody writes about your brand online: A simple guide to help you decide when, and how, you should respond if somebody comments on your brand online.
  7. Why you shouldn’t join every conversation about your brand online: When you should, and when you shouldn’t, join conversations about your brand online (and why you shouldn’t feel the need to respond to them all).
  8. Champions, active users and trolls: Defining the different types of users in an online community and exploring how they behave and how you should manage them.
  9. Moderation and safety: Why moderation is important, the four types of moderation you can choose from and how to decide which approach is right for you.
  10. Should anonymous comments be allowed in your online community: The pros and cons of allowing anonymous comments in your online community, and those times when it really is the best option.
  11. Comparing paid and organic search strategies for online communities: Which are more successful drivers of traffic? And which are more likely to drive engagement?
  12. Eight ways you can use your online community to get insight: Eight tools and activities you can use in your online community to get insight from your members.
  13. What online community managers can learn from gaming: How to use gaming techniques to help manage and grow your online community.
  14. Using experts to encourage real engagement with your community: How experts can add value to your online community if used sensibly, and in a way that meets the needs of your community members.
  15. Is time on site a useful measure of how successful your online community is?: The short answer is ‘no’. This article tells you why, and where time on site is a useful measure.

Getting your community management processes in order

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As a social media agency, FreshNetworks works with clients both to manage their online communities, and also to train, mentor and coach others to help them to manage their social media activity themselves. In fact the best approach to social media for many brands can be combine experienced skills in online community management with a deep knowledge and understanding of the brand. Big online communities will inevitably find that at some stage the people managing the community change or grow. You need to be able to handle these changes without disrupting the community you have worked so hard to engage. And the secret to this is process.

Here are FreshNetworks’ four key processes to get in place on any online community when it is going through change.

1. Record all your processes

Keep a record of “what to do” in any situation on your online community. Make sure you retain the vast array of organisational knowledge that your community manager has built up over time. This could be in a number of ways, from hidden forums or private wikis online to word documents and excel spreadsheets.

It’s important that records of community activity, moderated content and guidance notes are kept up to date but they are doubly important when your community manager leaves to allow the new staff an insight into the history of the community and its development.

2. Let the community members know what’s happening

If for no other reason, it’s just politeness and common courtesy to let the members know about any significant changes that will occur in the community.

Make them part of the process, let them know in advance that you will be leaving and give them some information about your replacement, going so far as to asking the new community manager to introduce themselves in a post before they start.

3. Have a reasonable handover timeframe

This is so often neglected in employment across the board but it is crucial that you have the old and new community manager working together for some time, ideally a couple of weeks.

It’ll allow the new community manager to learn about the vibe of the community and what they consider acceptable. It will also provide an opportunity for a lot of questions and answers between the two community managers and give the departing staff the chance to share the in depth knowledge of the community they have developed and grown.
This chance to develop some good progressive outcomes should have a greater focus than a swift handover.

4. Hire skilled staff

We have written before about the skills you should look for in an online community manager. Make sure that you employ someone who will be effective in the post and continue to grow your community - skills in community management are as important as knowledge of the brand, and the perfect person (or indeed perfect team) will cover both of these.

The time will come when all online communities will grow and the people managing them will change with this growth. Getting your processes right from the very beginning will mean that you can make changes without disrupting the very community you are managing and growing.

When does the online community manager’s job begin?

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START / STOP
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Many community manager positions advertised online ask for someone to help supervise and develop a newly launched community. In my opinion this is far too late to look at employing a community manager. They should be involved from an early point in the development cycle, ideally when plans for the community are still being developed.

There are a number of reasons why ensuring the online community manager is onboard from this early planning phase:

  1. They can get to know the platform the community is built on
    Knowing your platform, how to add and update content, how to moderate, how to make changes to user profiles is core to the community management job.
  2. They can be involved in the user testing
    If your community manager finds something awkward or confusing you can be certain your community members are also likely to.
  3. They can prepare engaging content
    Having time to prepare content for your community, be it forum topics, a list of future polls or a schedule of blogs will aid the smooth running of the community in the first few weeks.
  4. They can be involved in seeding the community
    Being there to seed the community with content and invite those all important first few members in allows a community manager to identify trends and get an instant feel of how the community is likely to develop.
  5. They can develop internal relationships
    Often under-rated, having the time to develop relationships with other employees who may provide content, or be able to help with questions that arise about your brand or services, provides long term benefits to the community.
  6. They will have time to develop a library of external resources
    Sourcing resources such as external blogs and relevant news articles allows you to quickly update the community and provide a talking point for community members.

When that “go live” date passes and you offer your community out to the world, having a community manager who has been given a chance to familiarise themselves with the environment and build internal relationships before the traffic arrives will only help with the long term success of the community.

Should anonymous comments be allowed in an online community?

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Should people be allowed to leave anonymous comments in online communities and forums? It’s a question that has been debated many times and people have different perspectives on it. Some say that “No, if people don’t say who they are then its easy for discussions to get out of hand”, whereas others say “Yes, if you want people to be honest you need to allow them to be anonymous”.

The issue of anonymity when commenting in online communities is actually more complicated than some arguments would suggest. And the answer is both yes and no.

What do we mean by anonymity?

When talking about anonymous comments we need to consider two types of anonymity:

  1. If the commenter should be anonymous to other members of the community
  2. If the commenter should be anonymous to the site owner and community manager

These two aspects of anonymity are often confused. As a general principle of online community management, anybody wanting to add to the discussions and debates in the community should share at least a minimum of information with the site owner and community manager about who they are. This is not just so that they can capture the data, but because the social exchange of an online community works on the basis of openness, transparency and honesty.

This of course works both ways - in a successful online community neither party should be anonymous to each other. The brand, organisation or people behind an online community should be honest about who they are and why they are sponsoring or running the site. And people who want to comment on or add to the discussions on the site should be open and honest about who they are. At least privately to the people running the site. You will also find that asking for a minimum of information about people before they add their thoughts or comments will make them more likely to consider what they are saying. Even if other community members don’t know who they are, the site owner and community managers will and will be able to contact them.

So in this respect, no comments should be allowed from members who are anonymous to the online community manager or site owner.

Should people be allowed to be anonymous to other community members?

So, even if we say that users should not be allowed to add to the discussions in our online community without telling us who they are, should they be able to remain anonymous from other community members?

This question has always intrigued me as there is a whole spectrum of ways in which community members can identify themselves depending on the community and on what the individual member chooses to share. And they offer varying degrees of anonymity that could be offered to me as a user

  • I could have a generic username, ‘Anonymous’ and no further information about myself - this is perhaps the most anonymous I can be to any other user of the online community
  • I could choose a username that reveals nothing about me, ‘Grey2834′ - by allowing users to choose their own username there is an increased risk that they will share information that will allow us to identify them. Perhaps I use the same username on other communities and forums and this will let you understand more about who I might be.
  • I could choose a username and have other information on my profile, perhaps by city (London) and age range (30-39). The more information I share the greater the chance people will start to identify me.
  • I could use my first name (Matt) and some other information - the more I share the less anonymous I become
  • I could share my full name, date of birth, address, email address and mobile telephone number

Different online communities will ask for different levels of information and different users will share different amounts. The only way to allow truly anonymous comments would be to allow users to use a generic username (such as ‘Anonymous’) and share no other information about themselves. Even then they will never be truely anonymous as the subjects they write about, the examples they give or the things they say will share things about who they are and what they do.

As a general principle, the more users share about themselves, the more others in the community will learn about them and identify with them. The more the community will grow. This does not, of course, mean that I need to share with you my name, date of birth and address. You could also identify with me based on my contributions and the things I say without needing to know who I am at all.

However, people do interact better with others if they know something about them. If they have a name to call them, for example, whether or not that’s their real name or a username. If they know where they are or some other things that let us understand more about them and the things they say. For this reason, where possible, community members should be encouraged to share some information about themselves.

Should anonymous comments be allowed in an online community?

So should anonymous comments be allowed in an online community? The simple answer is ‘no’ because the social contract of any successful online community is honesty and at the very least community members should not be anonymous to the community manger or site owner. But does this mean that community members cannot be anonymous to other community members? This question is more complicated. Online communities work best if people share some things about themselves with their fellow community members and it is very difficult to ensure complete anonymity. As part of that same social contract, community members like to know something about the people they are talking to online, even if it is just a username of some description.

Of course, there will always be exceptions to this rule, where the need to encourage contributions and discussions will supersede the benefit of building a community based on members knowing something about each other. Dissidents in China or Iran sharing information and experiences would be one such example. Discussing sexual health issues with teenagers might be another. In these and other cases, anonymous comments are perhaps the only way to encourage honest and open discussions. But in the majority of cases such protection is not needed and completely anonymous comments should not be allowed.