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Allyson Kapin 8 min read

Tips for Managing and Engaging Online Communities

Before Web 2.0 took over the world, people were part of smaller online participatory communities called listservs. Remember them? Though not as sexy as Twitter, people are still active on listservs and they continue to be valuable tools for nonprofits and community groups to connect with people who are passionate about discussing issues, sharing resources, and engaging in thoughtful and sometimes heated debates. Yet even after all these years, many organizations still haven’t mastered how to use listservs in building successful and engaging online communities.

The biggest barriers groups face is how to structure listservs.

  • Should they be moderated?
  • How should people frame their topic for discussion when they post to the listserv? By subject line categories?
  • How do you handle posts that are just “loosely” related to the community? Is that considered off topic? Is that a bad thing? Should the posts be rejected?
  • How do you handle heated debates and inappropriate comments?

Do you see a pattern emerging from the questions above? Organizations are typically uncomfortable giving up control. But if organizations are going to truly engage people in meaningful discussions online, they need get comfortable letting people talk, even if that means that they don’t share the same perspectives as some members of the community.

“I think there's a delicate balance to be had. Moderate too little, and everyone except the loudmouths and bullies get shut out. (I say that as a loudmouth myself, no offense intended.),” said Jaclyn Friedman who runs the very active Women, Action & The Media (WAM!) Media listserv. “Moderate too much, and you can't have an honest, productive debate. I'm constantly trying to feel that out.  There's no perfect balance, though - I've heard from several people that they think it's "scary" to post their opinion to the list. That makes me sad, but I feel like if I moderated with any firmer hand I'd be squelching the conversation. I also feel, for our list, it's useful for people to get experience engaging in vociferous debates in a semi-private forum - it makes us more prepared to debate things in fully public places.”

When creating an online community it’s best to establish a few basic rules. For example:

Focus your basic rules on having inclusive discussions rather then controlling what people can or can’t say. This can help set the tone for productive and spirited conversations and sharing. Enforcing a ton of rules on the other hand, can make the community feel like they are being policed and can instantly zap the energy from a community.

Should Listserv Communities Require Subject Line Tags?

This is a big debate. In active lists, comprised of thousands of people, there is value in organizing conversations into subject line tags such as Event, Article, Question, so people can easily skim postings. On the other hand, this can get cumbersome for the community because very few listserv standards exist. For example, some communities ask members to list subject line tags in all caps, or parentheses, or another format. So if your members are also part of several other online communities, they need to remember which subject line tags and formats to use for several different lists, which can lead to confusion. Also, subject line tags that the community manager chose are not necessarily the right fit for all posts, which can frustrate members and limit conversations. One possible solution is to ask the community for their input. Ask members if subject line tags would be useful to them? If yes, ask members for suggestions on topics. Though you won’t be able to make everyone happy, making the community feel like they are part of the decision-making process goes a long way.

How Should Communities Handle Heated Debates

“My rule is this: it's fine if people disagree, even passionately. When they start to attack each other, instead of criticizing each other's ideas, that's when I step in. I will also, on the rare occasion, decline a post that I think is unnecessarily inflammatory, because it generalizes in a false way about a certain group. If it's demonstrably false or stated with clear disregard for the drama it's about to cause, I'll challenge it, said ” Friedman.

Go with the Flow

Building a community, whether it be with 50 people or 5000 people, is about engaging people in discussions, listening to what others have to say and creating value. Don’t be so driven by rules and just talking about X subject. If the community goes a little off topic once in a while that’s ok. Go with it. Empower your community. Let them take some ownership.

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Allyson Kapin

Allyson has been named one of "Top Tech Titans" by the Washingtonian, one of the Most Influential Women In Tech by Fast Company, and one of the top 30 women entrepreneurs to follow on Twitter by Forbes for her leadership role in technology and social media. As Founding Partner of Rad Campaign, she leads the firm's client and online strategic services. For over a decade Allyson has helped non-profit organizations and political campaigns create dynamic and award-winning websites and online marketing and recruitment campaigns. She works side-by-side with her clients to meet their web needs and maximize their online effectiveness to create real world impact.