With the growth of social media, the idea of an “online community” seems almost quaint. Thinking about what a community or online forum is all about, most people today may think of a dry, sterile environment where customers and companies connect in order to solve Level 0 support issues, or a Wild West atmosphere where groups of like-minded individuals gather to air grievances about their favorite games, their local laws, or that last movie they saw.
While the technology of online discussion evolves and changes, communication between individuals is still as simple, and as complicated, as it ever was. And whether you are building a forum for your friends to talk about your book club or are the SVP of Support for a Fortune 500 company, there are traps that all online communities fall into in regards to that communication. Often, those traps are tripped or avoided by your community management style.
The style of management your community follows (and the type of Community Managers you employ or recruit as volunteers) determines the types of connections and communication your community members will follow. For the sake of this article, I’m breaking these styles into three major categories. None of these are are “better” or “more effective” than the others, as each is helpful to a certain type of audience, and encourages a certain type of conversation. Knowing what type of style you wish to employ (or which aspects of each you want to borrow from) can help inform your Community Managers in the experience your community membership will have, and can expect to have, no matter who is steering the ship on any given shift.
Community Management Styles
(Note: This is not an exhaustive list, nor should each style be considered an all-or-nothing investment. These categories are best used to spark discussion about your community and how you want your members to communicate, collaborate, and enjoy the experience of participation.)
Gate Keeping / Rules Enforcement
Community managers who are tasked with just keeping the conversations on track and in the right categories (and making sure that nobody violates policy) have a hands-off approach to conversations. The forums and discussions are the product of the community members themselves, and if everybody follows the Code of Conduct, the community will become whatever the members decide on their own.
Gate keeper Community Managers are best utilized in communities that are populated with passionate members who have strong opinions and need a space to find an audience of like-minded people. Often, these memberships can fall into heated discussions, arguments, or outright brawls because of their closely-held opinions on whatever the subjects of discussion happen to be. By keeping the discussions in the correct swim lanes and de-escalating fraught situations, gate keeper Community Managers allow these self-determined communities follow the direction of the crowd.
Lecturers / Presenters
Often, a community is built around messaging that a company, school or other entity wants to make sure their audience receives in a certain way. This often happens in educational settings or job training, but also can revolve around areas like client forums where new products or services are being offered, or discussion groups about specific subjects, such as a book club.
The presentational style of a lecturing Community Manager means that a content schedule must be decided upon well in advance, and that all managers are informed of the conversations the community is expected to have. While community members often can change the direction of discussions, it’s up to Community Managers to make sure that the messaging that the owners of the community want to communicate is consistent, and that those who visit the community come away with similar ideas about what the discussions were about.
Lecturing/presenting Community Mangers must be nimble in the way they present the subject matter and steer conversations, as it can often fall into a “blogging with a comment section” feel if there is too much speaking on the official end without asking for feedback and ideas from the membership.
Cruise Directors on vacation voyages are employed to make sure that passengers are happy and having fun in the way they want to be happy and have fun. Determining the individual needs of each passenger and catering activities, suggestions, and questions to the sole purpose of enriching the voyage is an arduous task, and requires a specific set of people skills.
So too do the cruise director style Community Managers have to determine what the community is going to be, based on what the membership determines. Often, the community members arrive at the online community with an idea of what it should be about, but then don’t know how to start the discussions or ask the questions necessary to build the communities they’re looking for. This is where Community Managers, wearing their best cruise director smiles and knowledge of what’s available (and what will suit different types of people) need to step in.
This style of Community Manager is best suited to online communities that are expected to be “organic,” but aren’t built up of especially passionate discussion-starters. Company forums that are looking for insights from customers on specific areas of the business are a good example. You don’t want to send those members into an area where they can simply air grievances, but neither do you want to set up strict discussion guidelines, lest the community become simply a documentation repository. Cruise director style Community Managers need to be good listeners, empathetic, and quick to change direction based on what the community itself asks of them.
Planning is key
The time to determine the type of community management you need is well before you launch your software, and the managers themselves are only part of the equation. Run through different scenarios with your community planning team to determine what your membership is expected to discuss, how they will interact with the official “voice” of the community, and what insights you’d like to glean from all the discussions going on. Then go and find the type of people who best fit the style of management that will best suit the community.