Talking about communities, and newspaper communities in particular, often leaves people with a warm and fuzzy feeling. It’s true that being a community manager enables you to meet wonderful people, but the reality of daily community management can be difficult and unsettling. Every community manager has to deal with community politics (the online equivalent of office politics), disillusionment and a lack of appreciation. However, there are some ways to deal with all of these problems.

The Daily life of a community

Let me give you an example of a recent issue we faced at my own newspaper.

One day on our site’s forum, a well-known and respected community member was the target of some nasty personal attacks from people who resented his success and the fact he obviously enjoys discussing his achievements.

In reaction, the man announced that he wanted to start his own, private discussion group within our site. He wanted to have the right to choose who could join the group and have total control over its content. He even had a name for the group, and it incorporated the name of our newspaper.

Other community members, including those not involved in the initial conflict, were upset by what they perceived to be elitist behavior. This caused yet another dispute within the community, and more headaches for us.

Second Life Community

My second example doesn’t come from a newspaper, but it’s illustrative of what happens in strong communities. It also shows how a strong community can contribute to a company or organization.

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This example is from the virtual world of Second Life. The “residents” of Second Life produce a staggering number of virtual objects, which they sell for Linden Dollars, a virtual currency that is convertible into real dollars. Much of what you see in Second Life is user generated. In August I attended the Second Life Community Convention (SLCC) in San Francisco, an event that’s organized by the Second Life Community.

One thing I noticed immediately is that members of this community have very strong opinions. They are extremely important stakeholders and they are often displeased with the platform’s lack of stability and by unexpected policy changes made by the creator of Second Life, Linden Lab. Members make sure their voices are heard.

However, the community also has enormous appreciation for Linden Lab (company employees are called “the Lindens”), and they have a deep respect for the chairman and founder, Philip Rosedale.

Linden Lab is very active within the community. It maintains in-world office hours to help users and hosts a wiki that covers common technical issues. Lindens attend numerous “in-world” activities, and the company also helps sponsor the community convention, where employees and executives deliver speeches and participate in seminars.

Yet community members still complain about inadequate responses and feedback from Linden Lab, and a lack of collaboration between residents and the company.

The lesson is that even healthy communities will experience friction. The good news is that the sources of friction are often consistent, regardless of the type of community. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at some of the sources of friction within communities built around media and news, and examine how successful community managers can deal with them.

Three sources of friction

  • Power: Community members contribute to media and news organizations by commenting, writing blogs, participating in chat events, and giving leads for stories. Not surprisingly, they expect something in return. Rather than money, they often seek to influence how the the organization and the newsroom operates. This can be a source of friction,

    Also, within any community, there’s often a small group of people that are far more active than the average member. These important members often feel they deserve special treatment by the organization and by the less active community members. Sometimes, they can become stars in their own right, having as much, or sometimes even more, prestige as the journalists within the community. This can also create problems.

  • Disillusionment: Community members are often aware of what’s being offered in other similar communities. These other communities will sometimes roll out new tools and features. On top of that, your members (also known as the people formerly known as the audience) increasingly have access to sophisticated tools for producing their own content. This can cause members to demand that your community and organization adopt the latest tools and features as quickly as possible. There’s a danger that people will lose faith in your organization’s desire and ability to provide them with the very best tools. This can lead to complaints and, eventually, to a loss of members.

  • Lack of appreciation: A community manager will often face criticism from all corners. On one hand, she’ll be confronted with disgruntled community members; at the same time, she can experience a lack of appreciation from colleagues and management. What is she doing all day? they wonder. For its part, the community might also express frustration that the community manager is unable to respond to requests or questions. In the end, if no one appreciates a community manager, then it makes it hard for her to act in the community’s best interest and effect change.

    Community members can also feel unappreciated by the organization, especially if they are dedicating a significant amount of time and effort to the community and aren’t being recognized for their contributions.

Five ways to reduce friction

Now that we know some of the sources of friction, it’s important to look at solutions. First of all, these are not miracle cures. There will always be conflicts and unpleasant situations when groups of people work and live together. But there are some good strategies that community managers can use to help turn troubled communities into inspiring and friendly places.

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Linden explains Office Hours on its wiki

  • 1. Speak up. Don’t be shy. Let yourself be heard, not only by the community, but also by your colleagues. You’ll often have to mediate between the community, the newsroom and management, and your voice needs to be heard.

    Also make sure your interventions are visible within the community in order to let people know where you stand and how you can help. Of course, the principle “praise in public, blame in private” is good to follow, but you do need to be honest and transparent. Linden Lab maintains office hours within Second Life so employees can engage with residents, but this initiative wasn’t publicized enough within the community. Members didn’t know when or where to go for office hours, and this reduced the effectiveness of office hours.

  • 2. Focus on concrete issues. Community problems are often the result of very specific issues. Your job isn’t to define the role of Web 2.0 in the 21st century — it’s to manage the community. Show that you are aware of the most pressing issues and are working to resolve them.

  • 3. Be honest. This is self-explanatory, but let me offer a couple of scenarios to consider.

    Chances are that your employer is a for-profit company. The shareholders, be they public or private, own the place. But there are also other stakeholders such as advertisers, third party services and partners, management, and customers. Don’t be shy about explaining the competing interests at stake in any given issue. Yes, having the latest, greatest features can be of value to all stakeholders. But your organization also has to invest in technology in ways that can result in financial returns. Be honest about the factors at play in any given decision, and take care to manage expectations. People may not be totally happy, but they will understand.

    I previously explained a situation wherein a member of my organization’s community wanted to start his own private group using our brand name. In order to handle this, I contacted him and explained the problems associated with using our name without proper consent. He understood our position and the issue ended there.

  • 4. Be firm. It is of utmost importance that members feel safe within their community. Debates are great, but you should have a zero tolerance policy for personal attacks. Debates are about arguments, not people. Have clear rules and ensure that members respect each other even when they strongly disagree.

    Linden Lab is very good at creating this kind of atmosphere. Even though criticism can be harsh, there’s a great sense of humor and passion that makes the Second Life residents appreciate their world.

  • 5. Be grateful. Members invest time, emotions and sometimes even money to build and maintain the community. They care deeply about the project, and you need to express how much you and your colleagues appreciate their contributions. Also, don’t miss an opportunity to tell colleagues and management about the wonderful things being done by members.

    One of my lasting memories of the Second Life conference is the gratitude shown by Philip Rosedale at the community luau.

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My views on community management are the result of my experiences at our newspaper, and from observing or taking part in online communities such as Second Life. Please share your experiences and best practices in the comments.

Roland Legrand is in charge of Internet and new media at Mediafin, the publisher of leading Belgian business newspapers De Tijd and L’Echo. He studied applied economics and philosophy. After a brief teaching experience, he became a financial journalist working for the Belgian wire service Belga and subsequently for Mediafin. He works in Brussels, and lives in Antwerp with his wife Liesbeth.