Build a stronger online community by empowering your members

by Martin Reed on 10 July 2009 in Articles

empower online community members

Just because you are the community manager it doesn’t mean you should have all the power and responsibility. Instead of forcing yourself to justify giving responsibilities to your members, force yourself to justify not giving them.

Ultimately, your online community belongs to its members – or at least, your members need to have that perception. They won’t feel this way if they are unable to contribute or have any influence. You need to take some risks – the more influence your members feel they have, the more loyal they will be.

Community Mediators

Instead of you having to intervene whenever your community guidelines are broken, why not have a team of members who do so for you? Depending on how well you trust them, you may or may not give them the power to delete or move content. This doesn’t really matter, though. The fact of the matter is, you are empowering your community to resolve its own problems.

Yes, there will be times when some disputes cannot be resolved and arbitrary action needs to be taken. However, if you give your community a chance you’ll be surprised at just how good your members can be at working out their differences.

The more you intervene, the less interested your members will be in self-resolution.

Community Moderators

You don’t want all of your members to have moderator privileges – reserve these for the trusted few. This will ensure that moderator positions remain scarce, desirable and are seen as badges of honour. It will also ensure your moderators work hard to keep their positions.

Resist bringing in moderators from outside your community. They won’t understand its culture or personality. They won’t know your members. You’ll have a lot more teaching to do, and many more mistakes will be made.

Community Ambassadors

Don’t just empower members within your community’s walls. Send them out into the big bad world! Do you have a twitter page? How about a Facebook page? If so, then put one (or more) of your members in charge of them. Give them responsibility to promote the community through these mediums. You’ll have less work to do, and the outcome will probably be more favourable, too. The members you choose to act as ambassadors will feel extra special, your target audience will be more receptive to discussions with a ‘real person’ rather than just ‘a brand’ and you’ll be demonstrating just how much you value, respect and trust your members.

More Ideas

  • Community Counsellor – How about an agony aunt column run by a community member?
  • Community Liaison Officer – Can members of your online community answer common questions instead of you?
  • Community Experts – Acknowledge and take advantage of the experts in your community. PC help? Avatar designers?

Community Guidelines

Just as your community needs to have guidelines, those you empower need to have guidelines of their own, too. Work with them to figure out what their precise role should be. Work with them to draft some templates (where necessary), or ‘best practice’ guides. Even now, you’re empowering your members – and they haven’t even started yet!

How are you empowering members of your online community?

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Nicole Price July 11, 2009 at 10:42 am

Yes, what your Ambassadors can do or undo for you will determine the success and popularity of your community.

Stuart Glendinning Hall July 12, 2009 at 7:34 am

Nice piece. I think it’s part of job of a Community Director to plan and implement an empowering approach with his/her community managers.

This benefits the community manager by helping them in turn empower community members as you’ve outlined above.

It also helps avoid burnout in such a demanding role in which the traditional tools of ‘command and control’ are less available to the community manager; and it supports the difficult task of harnessing the power of conversation within the community in order to create value.

sally July 13, 2009 at 2:00 am

Yes, I agree with that. But sometimes it’s a little more complicated.

“Power” is a sensitive thing in an online community. It can have funny effects. You may sincerely want to “empower” others and hope this will create many positive results in the community as a whole. But if others power is increased then other members power is automatically weakened in a reverse response. Think of it like this: if you are standing in a group and every person has twenty dollars–then everyone is equal in the amount of money they have. But if you hand just one person fifty dollars–well, maybe he deserved it and all agree that he should have fifty. Meanwhile, back at the ranch….twenty dollars doesn’t seem like so much anymore. It’s a subtle psychological shift. Everything is okay for awhile–then suddenly everyone is once again in a fight for rank. The one holding the fifty dollars will start defending his fifty dollars with the usual results: manipulation, politics and especially politics behind the scenes–where you can’t see it or stop it. Of course people will accept moderators who have that title clearly stated, and they wall off “moderator” in their mind as “other”–like a security guard and so accepted. But giving Joe Blow over here the title of Community Liason or Advice column–well poor Joe had better not start holding it over everyone’s heads what a wonderful Joe he is. Maybe he won’t. Maybe he’ll know better.

If you are Admin–don’t ever give your power away. And then have to take it back. Don’t get in that vicious cycle. It will wreck you.

Souxi July 13, 2009 at 3:23 am

Sally I can see your point. Your basically saying that if some members have more “powers” than others it’s going to create jealousy right? Well already some of us, are Community Reps and that hasn’t caused any jealousy or any type of ill feeling from any other members as far as I’m aware.

We have one member who is already a “Community ambassador”, she’s in charge of our Twitter page. That doesn’t bother me or anyone else in the slightest, good on her. She certainly doesn’t go around rubbing everyones nose in it or blowing her own trumpet, which, if I’m guessing correctly is what you think might happen?

Do you think that if some members have more “powers” than others that means they will get too big for their boots and that the “power” will go to their heads and that the other community members with “no powers” will feel resentfull?

I honestly cannot see that happening at Female. The ladies there are just so friendly and welcoming. Why not pop over and see us? You’d be very welcome. :)

Martin Reed - Community Manager July 13, 2009 at 12:25 pm

Sally – I certainly agree that you need to be careful and considerate when giving out additional powers and responsibilities to members. It’s easy to give out powers, but much harder to consequently take them away.

I disagree that giving some members more recognition or responsibilities than others will upset other members, though. I have never seen evidence of this in any of my online communities – it all comes down to how you dispense these powers; you need to be respectful and sensitive to this potential issue. It’s also worth remembering that not everyone wants additional responsibilities anyway!

I think Souxi makes a good contribution to this discussion based on her experience at Female Forum.

sally July 14, 2009 at 2:01 am

I agree, Martin. I tend to overdramatize things and I wish I would get out of that habit. A balanced discussion is what’s needed, not just from the viewpiont of the end user who’s had only unhappy experiences.

Female Forum? hmmmm….maybe I will check it out. : ) *scratches head* you mean there’s no males at ALL? *winks*

Jim Bowden July 15, 2009 at 5:59 am

These are tried and proven FORUM COMMUNITY building techniques. They work for all forms of community and social networks. The key is to express to your community members that they are STAKEHOLDERS in the community by rewarding their EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT with indicators of “ownership.” Wikipedia blew up because of this.

Tom Fiberblend July 20, 2009 at 8:18 am

I used to run a successful online forum and has problems with moderation/engagement – I used a few of these techniques to give power back to the users and it worked really well. The users were teenagers in schools so it made them feel like the owned the community – great tips!

Joshua Dodson July 22, 2009 at 4:51 pm

I most enjoy the types of communities where there are very few people with all of the power and everyone else has an equal say. I guess you could say I tend towards a collaborative environment as long as the people have a vision for where they want to go and what they want to do.

dave July 31, 2009 at 1:09 pm

I like the idea of having a group of people monitoring the community. Promoting through other communities is a great idea.

Crystal A August 6, 2009 at 4:57 pm

We’ve introduced “Peer Moderators” to our forums and it has been a big help. Not only to me as the main Moderator but also in helping keep peace within the community. Not only does this forum member with this special privilege help keep an eye on things, but as a fellow community member he’s able to get the behind-the-post stories. This article has helped to support this program and given me a few more ideas.

Melany S. August 7, 2009 at 10:44 pm

The community is all about its members coming together to get something done. Letting your members feel like they are capable of effecting change in the community is excellent stimulus for them to cooperate more in the future.

Edward August 14, 2009 at 10:47 am

I agree with a lot of what Sally said. I am REALLY reluctant to give mod powers to every day members. Maybe it’s because I’m a distrusting control freak (!) but it’s so hard to do.

Even if you are okay with giving them access to certain parts of the site, I feel like there’s never any real accountability. When the going gets tough, even the most dedicated community member can turn on you and say, “Hey, I’m only a volunteer.” The “free” aspect is always a wedge issue, especially if there are other, paid staff (not necessarily in the same position).

Daniel August 26, 2009 at 11:28 am

Great tips to helping grow a online community. Users like to feel empowered, and keeping them happy will benefit everyone.

David December 8, 2009 at 4:04 pm

I suppose that if you are part of a community then there has to be a set of common, shared values between all the members. Sure, some will overstep the mark but sensible moderation and peer pressure will help enforce those disciplines too..

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