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Moderation 101: 6 Tips to Help You Toe the Community Line

Written by Molly Talbert | on January 14, 2016 at 8:30 AM


Don’t underestimate good moderation -- it’s a skill that takes practice. And if you want strong engagement and robust discussion on your community, it’s an ability your community manager must have, especially at the beginning.

A large part of becoming a good moderator is knowing how to strike the balance between controlling conversations to maintain order, contributing to make sure conversations don't die, and giving members or customers free reign to express themselves. You don't want mayhem, yet you don't want to dampen discussions before they even get going.

Here are a few tips to help you learn how to toe the line.

1. Create community guidelines

This should be one of your first steps when starting a community -- create a written/downloadable guideline that will be ready before launch day (if you don’t have one yet, put this task at the top of your to-do list!). When writing this guide, keep in mind that it shouldn’t just be a list of rules to follow -- take this as an opportunity to educate your members and customers about community and how to monitor themselves and others. It’s more of a guide than strictly a rule book. Clearly state expected behaviors as well as behaviors you don’t want to see. In that vein, define who the community is for and not for -- this helps bond members or customers, since it reinforces they’re the perfect audience. Make this document easy to find and have on hand for all members -- it should be a valuable resource for both new members learning the ropes and seasoned members who need a refresh.

2. Know your community guidelines upside-down and backwards

Now that you’ve written the guidelines, it’s your job to know them inside and out. It’s important you know what behavior is and is not constructive. If there are breaches in the code of conduct, you need to easily spot them so they’re addressed swiftly and professionally.

Moderation is more than just knowing the rules, though. As a community manager, you're pretty much a living, breathing example of them. You should see yourself as a poster child for how to behave in the community. If someone wonders, 'How do I start a good thread?' or 'How do I deal with a terse comment?' they should be able to look at you for good examples.

3. Remember debate is good

While you’re monitoring discussions, remember debate and tension are good. They’re a sign of community maturity and trust amongst members or customers, so don’t rush in and shut down a discussion that’s getting tense. Those are the conversations that prove real value -- how helpful is a community if everyone is always on the same page? There’s no learning or knowledge sharing when that happens. Differing opinions and debate make a community more lively, engaging and worthwhile for everyone.

It's important to note that allowing tension and debate doesn't mean turning a blind eye to disrespect or abuse. There is a big difference between healthy debate that progresses the community and an unhealthy fight. Your guidlines should not only lay out behavior that constitues abuse, but should also have a policy for dealing with it - if or when it does arise.

4. Don’t immediately answer every question

It’s tempting to answer every question, especially if it’s been sitting unanswered for a few hours or -- gasp -- days. Resist the urge! Don’t touch it (at least not yet). At first, you may think answering every question makes you a community manager rock star (not to say you aren’t), but you’re actually training members to be passive and inactive. It’s like telling your kids to clean their room but doing it for them before they get the chance. Before you know it, they stop trying because they assume you’ll just do it -- and that you’ll probably do a better job than they would’ve anyway.

So rather than jumping in right away, here are a few ideas. First, wait. It may take a few hours or a couple days, but someone may surprise you by chiming it. If a question has gone a few days unanswered, then go in and answer it, but try to give it some time before you take initiative. Second, reach out to respected community members and ask them to answer. This has the added benefit of training them how to use the community. Third, find people you can impersonate. This tactic is a little deceiving, because in the end you’re still the one answering the question. But the important part is that you don’t look like you’re the one answering the question. Impersonating people (with their permission and input, of course) can be especially helpful when you’re just starting out and people aren’t used to commenting and responding in your community. You’re still the driving force, but it still promotes diversity in voice, which is critical for inspiring more people to jump in.

5. Don’t be a robot!

Sure, we know you’re not a robot. But if you don’t show any personality, you may come across as a robotic overseer, like a cylon. How do you think people will respond to that? If you show a little bit of yourself -- some humor, quirk and unique voice -- you’ll come across as more human, relatable and trusting. This doesn’t mean don’t act professionally or turn your community into a Facebook page where you post pictures of your Mexican vacation -- it just means being a little relaxed and personable. You know how people would rather reply to a discussion post with a real picture rather than a generic avatar? It’s similar to that. People would rather listen to a real person than someone who comes across as an automatic bot.

6. Trust the community can moderate itself (to a certain extent)

As your community grows, creating its own social norms and expectations, learn to trust those members. Heavier moderation may be key in the beginning, like impersonating people to encourage others to contribute. But as you build momentum, hopefully you won’t need to be so involved in every minute detail. And that’s ok! If you did your job well -- wrote an excellent guideline and modeled good behavior -- your members or customers should be well trained, able to keep valuable discussions alive and self police unproductive behavior. As new people join the community, it’ll be easier for them to get up to speed, since they’ll have so many positive role models to emulate.

As you can see, all the burden shouldn't fall on you, all the time. Part of being a good moderator is training members or customers to moderate discussions themselves. And once they start moderating, you know your community is on the right track - they're finding value in the community and taking ownership of how it's used.

What are some of your 101 tips for new community managers? What’s the hardest moderation lesson you learned?

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Topics: Online Community Management, Engagement, Online Community

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