‘White Hat’ Trolls

Most technology platforms hire white hat (ethical) hackers to undertake regular penetration testing (simulated cyber attacks) to identify and fix potential threats.

But your community doesn’t just face cyber attacks, it faces social attacks too!

As you grow you face the constant threat of bad actors joining your community to manipulate and cause harm.

Maybe we need ‘white hat trolls’ too?

Can a ‘white hat’ troll join your community, spam other members in private messages, share fake news, and lower the quality of conversation in the community without getting caught? Are your systems for preventing manipulation of bad actors as robust as you think they are?

It’s harder to run a white-hat test of your moderation systems, but the results might just be as valuable.

Why Growth in Engagement Slows (5 reasons)

There are several possible reasons.

1) The people most likely to join your community are already members (or decided not to join). Like a virus, people are either infected or ‘immune’ to it. Those left to reach are either new to the topic or in tricky places (language barriers, technology barriers, less interested in the topic). You see this in the community lifecycle.

2) You changed something about your website or promotion. You made a tweak that affected how many people visit your community. This is either a technical tweak on the community site that hurt your search traffic or a change in the service or company website which now sends less traffic to the community. Give this up to six months. If nothing has changed, you need to make another tweak.

3) The community experience has gotten worse. The community experience has worsened. You might not have updated your filter system as you grew, the quality of responses has declined, or the community is less welcoming. Too few newcomers are sticking around.

4) Most topics have already been covered. You’re the victim of your success. Most of the common questions have already been asked. Members can find the answer without having to ask the question.

5) Fewer people are interested in the topic. The overall popularity of the topic is in decline. Less people are searching for relevant search terms or your customer-base is shrinking. New competitors might have emerged where people can have a similar experience.

Growth in engagement will naturally slow over time. That’s to be expected and isn’t a problem.

The danger begins when slowing growth precipitates a perpetual decline. When you’re not attracting enough newcomers to replace the community’s natural churn, you need to take action.

Don’t Use Pure Voting Systems

Community voting systems often create front pages filled with professional-looking content.

This might include detailed, long-form, articles, professional-looking videos and images, or podcasts few can create.

This deters most members from participating.

If a member doesn’t feel they can create content at a similar level, they don’t participate.

That’s why you usually don’t want a pure voting system. It too often reflects the skill set and resources of a core few members which sideline the rest.

Instead, you want to have featured content, discussions, and other materials that you (and a few allies) select to appear on the front page too. Call it ‘editor’s picks’ if you like.

Feature the raw content with blemishes. Show the diversity of the community (of people and their creations). Make it obvious that this is a community that welcomes all contributions.

Cut Out Every Unnecessary Word

You’re probably communicating too much redundant information to your community.

You might be sending out too many messages or by filling those messages with unnecessary information.

This causes two problems.

First, you’re burying the key points in any message. Your members are less likely to do what you need them to do if you’re overwhelming them with too much information. And that point of overwhelm is a lot lower than you might imagine.

Second, it’s training your audience to ignore most of what you say. If you fill your communications with too much redundant information, members get used to ignoring most of it.

Many community’s use some variation of the following in their newcomer journey:

“Subject: Welcome to the community”

“Welcome to the community! We’re thrilled to have you with us and we’re looking forward to helping you in your [xyz] journey. The [xyz] community is a place to ask and answer questions, browse for information and make connections with people just like you.”

This entire paragraph is redundant and the subject line is written to be ignored.

No-one will remember it tomorrow and the word ‘community’ pretty much implies all of the above. If people can see questions and answers on the homepage, then you don’t need to announce that’s what they can do there.

Your members will only remember 2 to 3 points of any communication – and that will only happen if they stand out and are memorably written.

Far better to use something like:

“Subject: 3 Things Insiders Know About [Topic] (that you probably don’t)”

“Let’s get started

There are three things our members know which you probably don’t (yet).

These are:….





Whatever I write for 1), 2), and 3), I can pretty much guarantee the majority of people will read it.

I can put in unique rules, inside jokes, or some background information that will engage members far better than any dull welcome email.

So, do a review of the copy on your site and the information you’re sending out. Try to remove about a 3rd of your copy and a 3rd of the content within your copy. Then rewrite it to be far more engaging.

Developing A Great Community Strategy

“I’ve written a great community strategy, but can’t get the organisation to adopt it”

Then it’s not a great strategy, is it?

It doesn’t matter what’s in the strategy if your organisation doesn’t embrace it. You can’t write a strategy in isolation for an unsuspecting audience and expect them to swallow it whole when it’s published.

That’s simply not how it works.

A great community strategy isn’t written, it’s facilitated. You set up collaborative processes to educate and solicit the opinions of your stakeholders. You bring everyone on the journey with you. You get people into the same room (or Zoom call) to discuss competing priorities, the trade-offs and build a consensus about where and how to move forward.

This also means you won’t get everything you want. That’s how collaboration works. The theoretical best strategy for the community and the best strategy with the resources, permission, understanding, and attitudes within the organisation are often very different.

The final strategy document should never be at risk of rejection. It’s simply the outcome of the discussions and decisions you’ve guided your colleagues through so far.

This is why it might be best to hire an outside consultant. This is a time-intensive process and is a very different skillset from simply managing a community (it also helps to have someone independent from the existing web of relationships within your organisation and with experience working at many other organisations).

A great strategy should feel like a breakthrough. All the critical decisions have been made. There shouldn’t be any more hold-ups. Everyone should be aligned on the community’s value, everyone should know what they need to do to support the community, and everyone should be excited to make it happen.

Some resources:

Your Brand’s Online Community Strategy
The Online Community Strategy Guide
Online Community Strategy Course
The Online Community Lifecycle

Validating Problems

A simple tip that can save you a lot of pain; validate the problems you’re seeing.

Sometimes community leaders see problems that don’t exist.

Is one member creating too many new topics?

Are too many responses coming from the community manager?

Are there too many posts? (or too few?)

Are too many members posting in one place?

And sure, some of these many have a genuine impact.

Yet if you ask members in a survey (or simply send out an email inviting members to name the biggest problems they see in the community) my guess is none of the above would rank in the top 10.

You might be spending a lot of time trying to solve problems that only you’re seeing.

Worse yet, you might be spending too little time solving your members’ biggest problems.

p.s. When validating a problem don’t list a problem and ask members to say if it’s a problem, that’s cheating. Use an open text field and see if members name it without being prompted.

Increasing The Quality of Content (instead of the quantity of it)

Too many community strategies prioritise quantity of content over the trustworthiness of content.

This is a shame. It makes the community increasingly noisy without obviously increasing its value to participants.

For a mature community, your goal shouldn’t be to increase the quantity of engagement but to improve the quality of it. People need to have deep trust in the content that’s being created and shared within the community.

Fortunately, the contours of trust are fairly clear:

  • Perceived ability of the poster (qualifications, knowledge, experiences).
  • Perceived integrity of the poster (honesty, intentions to help others, fairness).
  • The consensus of the group (quantity of people who share the opinion compared with those who don’t).
  • Trust in the host (is this content hosted on a site known for being trustworthy).

Begin by hosting an annual trust survey.

Ask members about the following (using a 5-point Likert scale):

  1. Do you feel content posted by members in this community is trustworthy?
  2. Do you feel members who share content have qualifications, knowledge, and experiences?
  3. Do you feel members who share content have the best intentions?
  4. Do you feel enough members share their expertise/opinions in this community?
  5. Do you feel this website has a reputation for trustworthy content?

You can adapt these as you see fit.

Now you can use this to see which factors are the biggest antecedents of trust for your community. More importantly, you can use this to develop specific actions to increase the trustworthiness of content.

You can find sites that are considered very trustworthy and see the specific steps they’ve taken. Amazon has verified purchases, for example. StackOverflow relies heavily upon its rating system and tight moderation. Find sites that exceed in the areas you’re weak in and borrow their ideas.

“Let’s Test This In Our Community”

You have to call it a test before you begin.

Plenty of failed ideas are reclassified as tests when they don’t pan out.

And if it is a test, define success and failure first.

How many people need to do [x] for the test to be considered a success?

There should be no confusion about whether the test was a success or not.

And be clear about what you will do if the test succeeds or fails (again, before you begin).

The point of a test is to take a hunch and remove any subjective bias for the benefit of the community.

You should test your hunches in your community, just set some standards before you start.

Split Q&A From General Discussions

Many online discussions are simply one person asking a question and another providing an answer.

This is obvious in most brand communities.

Once this kind of participation has been established as a norm, it’s very difficult to change it.

If you want people to have more general discussions, ask one another about their best practices, and get to know each other, you usually need to create a new environment for that to happen.

Sometimes that’s sub-groups. You can (slowly) create different groups for each product/topic where members can share best practices. Other times it’s a different category or section of the community entirely.

The odds on members changing their behavior within the current environment are slim.

The odds on you being able to shape their behavior in a new environment are a lot higher.

Removing Criticism Removes Authenticity

I’m in the market for a lightweight tent.

Two distributors have their own communities.

One is filled with positive comments about their products. The other has a mixture of both good and bad remarks.

I emailed the former out of curiosity to find out why there were no negative posts.

Their honest answer (after a little probing) was simple; “if people post a criticism we contact them directly and remove the negative post.”

You can see why this sounds smart (at least at first). The upset member gets a direct connection and the company doesn’t have negative posts about their products.

The problem is a community filled with only positive posts doesn’t feel authentic. People need to see the good and the bad to make decisions.

Without negative posts and reviews, people trust positive posts less.

You can’t remove the negative comments without also removing the authenticity of the community.

p.s. check out this great community job description (and job).

Buy Drinks For The IT Team

I once worked with a director of community who had a simple policy; she would always pick up the tab for the IT team.

This wasn’t cheap, sometimes the bill ran up to a few hundred dollars.

But to her, it was a bargain. It meant she could ask for a favour, get help quicker than other departments, and help get her priorities on their agenda.

Far too many lofty visions for a community becomes grounded because they can’t get the support from the IT team they need. The problem isn’t usually money or expertise, it’s simply implementing the changes to execute the next step in the strategy.

Maybe picking up the tab isn’t the right approach for you, but I’d start building up credit with the IT team long before you need it.

The Scary Task Of Managing A Community Where You’re Not The Expert

It’s scary to start a new job managing a community in a topic you’re not very familiar with.

What if you say something dumb or incorrect? Members might lose respect for you and never regain it.

What if you say something which contradicts what the previous community manager said?

What if you don’t participate in exactly the right way and form the same strength of relationships as your predecessor?

You need a few things here.

First, you need a boss or mentor. You need someone who can show examples of what great participation looks like and what standards or guidelines are key. You also need a boss who encourages you to go out there, make mistakes, learn from them, and not pressure you to be perfect.

Second, you need to be honest with yourself and your members. Don’t pretend to be an expert if you’re not. When you introduce yourself to the community tell them they have far more expertise than you do and you’re hoping to learn from them and ensure the community serves their needs. When they have problems, tell them you’ll do your best to solve it.

Third, you need to see this as an opportunity. You’re in the same position (new to a topic and to a community) that countless other future members will be. This is a gift. You can see what resources people like yourself most need. You can quickly identify what things in the community could be improved for newcomers.

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