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How Public Should Our Community Go?

Written by Molly Talbert | on April 12, 2016 at 10:00 AM

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People often ask, “should my community be open, or closed?” as if community access is an either/or question. Meaning -- either the doors are sealed, and only members have access to the community, or you open the floodgates, and everyone with an internet connection can read and participate in community.

There are pros and cons to both approaches, especially depending on your industry and community goals.

If you want to grow your membership, increase brand awareness or use the community as lead generation, an open community is beneficial -- increased SEO, member-created content, and the opportunity for prospective customers or members to see your organization’s value. Plus, open communities prove your commitment to transparency and show the human side of your business. Even if the general public views negative comments about your organization, they’ll see how you react -- which can make or break a prospective member’s decision to join.

Closed communities also have their place in the world. They’re useful if your members need to discuss sensitive issues or if you want to create an exclusive experience. There’s also a level of safety and member privacy behind a login -- a closed community means your organization may lose out on member-generated SEO, but it’s a fair price if being open doesn’t further your organization’s or members’ goals.

And what if you don’t want to choose one or the other? Are there any options for a middle ground?

More than just open or closed: community's myriad privacy policies

Depending on your platform, you actually have many options. With so many different configurations, you can customize your platform to fit everyone’s needs, maintain your lead generation and increased SEO, but still keep member’s privacy and trust intact.

Three Ideas to Set Up Community Privacy Settings

  1. Create a general policy where the public (i.e. anyone with internet access) can read discussions but can’t participate; only approved members can create accounts and post. This open/closed hybrid lets approved members maintain control of the conversation and receive an exclusive value, but still lures in nonmembers -- they can see everything going on, but now understand the value of membership since they can’t currently participate. Keeping the community open but protected from nonmember posts also helps your community’s SEO, so prospective members can find you through general searches.
  2. Give the general public full access to a few areas, but not to the entire site. Even if people aren’t members of your organization or current customers, they can still create accounts, login and participate -- but only in designated areas. Create teaser content that gives them a glimpse into the community, so they’ll want to sign up and learn more. This can be a great way to let prospective members interact with current members -- current members are often your best recruiters. Create a specific discussion area where non-members can ask current members questions -- you’ll learn what people’s needs are, what current members love, and who your best ambassadors are.
  3. Depending on your platform’s configuration settings, you can also allow nonmembers to participate in discussions, but put all their posts in moderation. That way, they can contribute, help create content and learn how valuable your organization is, but you still keep track of their participation. This is another good hybrid approach, more nuanced than simply “opened” or “closed.”

Don't make community privacy settings without warning members

What happens if you need to change your community’s settings, or at least open or close several discussions? As your community grows and evolves, there’s the chance you’ll want to reconfigure the settings to better match the community’s ecosystem, members’ needs or the organization’s needs.

Don’t make any changes without at least warning your members -- especially if a community goes from closed to open. Even if you think the information is innocuous, changing the settings before giving members a chance to review their posts, adjust their profiles, etc., is a breach of trust. Just because you think it’s fine -- or even valuable -- to post that information publicly, certain members might feel exposed.

Get creative with community configurations

If these three examples don’t perfectly fit your organizational and member needs, there is plenty of room for creativity.

In deciding how to configure the community’s privacy settings, keep in mind what the organization’s needs are and what the members’ needs are. The community is that middle ground, where both parties overlap. What types of conversations do you anticipate happening? What is the culture of your organization like? Answering those questions will help you decide what level of privacy to set throughout the community and which configurations would work best.

Topics: Community Platforms & Updates, Online Community Management

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