As a community manager, you should expect to deal with conflict between members of your online community. What’s talked about less often is conflict between you and your community.
When change breeds conflict
Over at Just Epals, there was a conflict between members over forum posts appearing in dashboard feeds (a list of all recent activity in the community). This pushed all other updates off the feed, until all that was left was a list of notifications of new posts in a handful of forum discussions (mainly word games).
Some members loved this, others didn’t. Some contacted me to ask that forum posts be removed from the dashboard feeds. I thought it was a good suggestion, so I went ahead and made the change. The disapproval from the community was almost instantaneous. What was once a conflict between members was now a conflict between members and their community manager.
Members complained that they couldn’t keep track of the forums anymore. They complained that members were consequently leaving the community.
I still think the suggestion to remove these notifications from the dashboard feed was a good idea. However, I can’t forget that my job is to satisfy the members of Just Epals – not myself. Instead of risking a continued conflict, I started a forum poll with the simple question, “Do You Want to See Forum Posts in the Dash Feed?”. Majority would rule.
In the end, the vote was unanimous. Members wanted forum posts back in their feeds. Therefore, it was done. Those who didn’t want the forum posts in their feed saw that most people disagreed with them and liked them being there. Both sides saw the fact that I was willing to listen to them and take their opinions on board.
Members of online communities are largely resistant to change, but that doesn’t mean you should stop experimenting. Sometimes a change will stick, and it will be hugely beneficial for the community.
1. Explain why the change was made.
2. Outline your position (set in stone or open to discussion).
3. If you’re open to discussion, invite constructive feedback and keep an open dialogue.
When your hands are tied
Perhaps the biggest conflict I had to deal with was when I took the decision to use an alternative supplier for the chat software at Just Chat. We had used the same software for around seven years so making this change was huge – the chat experience was fundamental to the success of the site.
I was happy with the existing software until the supplier launched a new version. It was awful – if we had stuck with it, it would have ruined the site. The new version was a huge disappointment; the supplier was fantastic in terms of support and I envisioned being a customer of theirs indefinitely. How they got the new version of their software so wrong is still a mystery to me. When I saw a beta version, I knew that it just wouldn’t work on Just Chat. Therefore, I had to look for an alternative supplier and fast.
After finding a new supplier, I slowly rolled out the new software on Just Chat along with an announcement explaining why we were making the change. Immediately the calls came to put the software back to how it was before. Unfortunately, even if I wanted to, this was impossible – the version that users of Just Chat were used to was being discontinued by the vendor. Change had to happen.
I was convinced the new software I picked was right for Just Chat. It offered far more flexibility and customization and would (in time) make for a more enjoyable chat forum experience for our users.
To deal with the conflict between the community and myself, I actively encouraged constructive feedback and suggestions. I made changes based on feedback received, and posted regular updates when the changes were made.
1. Acknowledge and explain the cause of the conflict.
2. Outline what you can and can’t do to address member concerns.
3. Keep a dialogue going. Answer questions and help members adapt to the change.
When you are determined
In 2008, we banned a number of Just Chat’s power members. This was done due to their behavior getting worse over time. Despite numerous warnings, these went ignored – our power members thought they were untouchable due to the huge influence they had within the community and the number of posts they’d contributed to the forums.
When we banned these members, there was a huge response from the community. Members felt we’d been over-zealous and banned without warning (not true). Others told us the community would die now our most prolific posters were gone. Others threatened to leave unless we reversed our decision.
We stood firm. We’d made numerous warnings that continued abuse and ignorance of our site rules would no longer be tolerated. The members we’d banned chose to ignore these warnings, so they had to live with the consequences.
This was something we couldn’t go back on. If members saw that we weren’t consistent when it came to enforcing the site rules, they’d simply be ignored forever. We needed to send a clear message that our warnings were genuine and that abuse of our rules wouldn’t be tolerated.
There was a huge subsequent dip in activity on the message boards for months. However, this gave other members the opportunity to make their voice heard and contribute. It was amazing just how many members there were that wanted to get more involved but felt pushed out by the vocal ‘power members’. They saw their chance, and they took it.
1. Outline the rationale behind the decision that caused the conflict.
2. Decide whether to allow public discussion (this could make things worse).
3. Listen to member concerns, privately if necessary.
As always, the key to conflict resolution is dialogue. You need to be honest, though. If there’s no chance of you changing your mind or addressing member concerns, don’t make out that there is. Most of the time, ignoring your members is the wrong thing to do but sometimes it’s necessary. It’s a fine line and a tough decision to make, but that’s just another one of the challenges of being an online community manager.