Never forget who is in charge of your online community

by Martin Reed on 27 June 2008 in Articles

Leadership within online communities

As your online community grows in popularity, you will need to deal with a number of different personalities in order to ensure the continued harmony of your community. You will also have to deal with abusive members, who may become increasingly persistent as your site becomes more popular. During this time it is essential that you do not lose sight of the fact that you are still in charge.

Considering the opinions and wishes of your community members

If you fail to consider the opinions of your members when making decisions, you risk alienating your membership base. If community members feel unvalued and ignored, they will soon lose interest and the loyalty they have to your site will diminish. That being said, it is important for you to remember you are still in charge and have the final say when it comes to decision making.

If you are thinking of introducing a new feature, or changing the design of part of your site, you should always consult your members. Even if you don’t implement all their suggestions, the fact that they have been asked will make your members feel valued and add to their sense of shared ownership of the community. Community members like to feel as though they are involved in the future development of the site – by involving them as much as possible, you will be strengthening this perception and increasing their loyalty to your site.

At the same time though, you need to make the final ‘judgement call’ as to whether what your members want is right for your community. I would be very wary about going against the popular sentiment of your community – after all, your main priority as a community developer is to keep your members happy. However, at times your members may make requests which you do not wish to fulfil – they may want you to lift the ban on a persistent abusive member, or introduce a feature which is currently out of your budget. These are the times when you need to remember who is the boss. You are in charge, and you make the final decisions.

Always be professional and consistent

If you decide to make a decision that is against the will of some of your members, you should explain the reasoning behind your decision. Your explanation should be professional and demonstrate that you have fully considered the feelings of your members. Perhaps even more importantly, you need to ensure you remain as consistent as possible.

If you ban an abusive forum member, and ignore requests from your members to allow them back, you will lose credibility if you act differently on a separate occasion. If you decide to rescind the ban on one member but keep it in force on another, you will appear inconsistent and potentially weak as a leader. You also risk accusations of favouritism – if your members latch onto this, you will find it extremely difficult to remain credible in their eyes.

Act confidently at all times

If your members sense you are a weak leader, they will test you and take an increasing number of liberties to see what they can get away with. Abusive members will become increasingly troublesome as soon as they sense a leader who lacks confidence. In order to be confident, you need to have clearly defined rules on what you do and do not accept, and a planned course of action on how to deal with guideline violations. Once you have plans like these in place, when trouble strikes you will be able to act more confidently as you have a set plan of action to follow.

If you are unsure about something, for example whether a forum post contravenes your rules or guidelines, or whether you should delete a thread or ban a member, take some time away to think about the decision. You need to ensure that the decision you make is the right one. Ask yourself whether you can justify your actions if your community disagrees with what you are planning to do. If you can, then take action and do it confidently.


It is important to give your members a say in the development of your community. You should ask them for their opinions and feedback and you need to understand how important it is to keep your members satisfied. On the other hand though, you need to balance this with the fact that you are in charge. You make the final decisions, and your members need to respect this fact. Your members will respect your leadership as long as you are fair, professional, confident and consistent.

Your thoughts

Have you experienced times when you felt you were losing control of your online community? How do you feel a community manager can exert leadership without repressing or alienating its members? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment below.

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Angela Connor June 28, 2008 at 4:08 am

I’ve had instances over the past year when I did step away to think and what I ended up telling myself is what you mentioned: “I am in charge and I’m making a decision, period.” As I close in on the first year of launching and managing’s online community, ,I have a renewed sense of purpose. I’ve been telling people at the office that we are entering “GOLO 2.0″ and members will know exactly what’s not acceptable. I think those swift, quick decisions can be a bit hard to come by early on even IF they are clearly defined. It’s an empowerment that a community manager has to come to realize on his or her own to be a good community leader.

Amish Made Furniture June 28, 2008 at 11:15 am

Democracy is all very well in theory. While it is indeed a good idea to consult your members, you cannot abdicate responsibility to the group as a whole. You cannot compromise on being decisive for being popular.

A dust collecting fool June 29, 2008 at 2:25 am

Perhaps it’s my personality but I never forget who is in charge. I am one of those born leaders, even when I don’t really want to be… It just works out that way.

Eva White June 30, 2008 at 12:28 pm

I had a group of people from our college form a community online. Then it grew so big since the only criterion was to have attended that college, it was like an ocean of people with cross connections all over. I stopped checking it out.

Mr Woc June 30, 2008 at 2:34 pm

hi there

Interesting article, I think anyone running an online communty has had periods when they thought they were not in control with whats happening, its only natural.

I think an important point here is, you cant keep everyone happy all of the time, you can only do what you thinks best for your community you are bound to upset some people sometimes, by all means involve people as much as you possibly can, but to be honest when ive asked for peoples feedback or any ways to improve my community, the response is usually pretty thin on the ground, most people prefer to take a back seat and watch the community develop.


Nicole Price July 1, 2008 at 7:29 am

It can get a bit tricky, being authoritative without being authoritarian. But certainly the message of being in charge must be sent. Gently, but unambiguously.

Amish Made Furniture July 1, 2008 at 2:56 pm

You still have to strike a balance between being the boss and keeping your flock together. Too much authoritarianism and you may lose a few members!

Adobe Photoshop Tutorials July 4, 2008 at 7:29 am

Democracy is all very well in theory. While it is indeed a good idea to consult your members, you cannot abdicate responsibility to the group as a whole. You cannot compromise on being decisive for being popular.

Digital Signage Man July 5, 2008 at 4:58 am

Well, I think there’s a fine line between pleasing the audience and attracting it. Great content naturally attracts, but many times there needs to be a very strict moderator…in my opinion. But it depends on what type of community you’re talking about I guess.

Fredericksburg Attorney. Andrew. July 7, 2008 at 12:59 am

Thanks for writing this awesome blog. You just gained a new subscriber!!

You’re right that there’s a delicate balance between controlling a community and leaving it free to flourish. And what’s right for one community isn’t necessarily right for another.

website tutorials for begginers July 7, 2008 at 5:53 pm

Every community has its own rules or at least has to have its own rules. These might be in written form at some “rules section” of the website, or unwritten rules by common sense. In small communities these rules are enforced by its own members that report or cast out the “outlaw”. This is due to the fact that a small community has members that take as much as give back to the community. In larger communities, or social networking sites, members are unable to enforce anything. Thus strict rules should apply “from above” with severe consequences. Users need to know what they can and what they cannot do. Larger communities tend to attract trolls, spammers, etc. that are not there to provide useful information or “play along” but to ruin or gain something in expense of the other members.

Smiley July 9, 2008 at 2:45 am

I’ve been slipping lately, mainly out of stress. Thing is, I’m a hands on person, so I don’t like leaving the community in the hands of other people, so I never take a break. The stress load piles up and things have gotten a little out of hand lately. Lost a couple of members due to a confrontation which I, admittedly, handled badly.

So yes, my advice to everyone is.. if you feel like stress is building up…. take a break. Go away for a while, otherwise you may say/do something you later regret.

We live and learn, things are back under control and I’ve gone back to being the good guy. I’ll never make the same mistake again.

The point is, if you’re in no fit state to be in charge.. then leave someone who is while you take a break and regroup.

Monavie July 14, 2008 at 10:45 pm

I agree that it is nice to have a say on changes. I mean, I wouldn’t want to sign into one of my favorite sites to see that everything has changed and I don’t know my way around anymore! But like you said that is ultimately up to the site owner and members of a community should think about that too.

Martin Reed - Blog Author July 17, 2008 at 1:08 am

Angela – Thanks for your fantastic comment. Sometimes you do need to step away and remind yourself that you are ultimately the boss, but it can take a while to have the confidence to realise this – as you found out yourself.

Amish – You’re right. Although you don’t want to be unpopular, you do need to be respected. You can maintain this respect by involving members and making it clear that you value them and their opinions. Your members need to understand and accept though, that you make the final decisions.

Fool – Good for your! I just hope you don’t come across as a little overbearing when interacting with your community members!

Eva – That sounds like a really interesting community. The more diverse a community’s membership base is, the more vibrant the community often becomes.

Mr Woc – I agree; sometimes it does feel like you are losing control. You just need to accept and understand that it is impossible to please everyone, all of the time. As long as you can justify the decisions you are making, and are happy with them, then they are the right ones for your community. Even if you are not getting a great response when asking your member for feedback, don’t stop requesting it. The fact you are making the gesture is often more valuable than the responses you will receive in return.

Nicole – Yes, it can be a real challenge!

Amish – You are right; it’s all about keeping a balance between being in control and sharing some of that control.

Adobe – Being decisive is important, but you don’t want to alienate your members or become unpopular! An unpopular leader will struggle to develop a successful online community.

Digital – Good point; the amount of action you need to take as a moderator will depend on the community and your audience.

Andrew – Thanks for your kind comment. You’re right that a moderation style that works for one community may not work for another. You need to understand your members and act appropriately.

Website – I agree with you that every online community needs to have clearly defined rules, but I would say they need to be written down to avoid any ambiguity. I am not sure that rules should be as strict as you state, with ‘severe consequences’ for those that fall foul of them – if you follow this approach you risk alienating your members and losing them.

Smiley – The most important thing is that you have recognised the mistake you made. As long as you learn from your mistakes, they can be beneficial to the future development of your community. It is important to recognise the value of taking a break every now and again.

Monavie – You’re right. Not all changes or suggestions made by community members are used, but it is important that they have a voice. If members feel ignored or that their needs aren’t being met, they are far more likely to leave.

Smiley July 24, 2008 at 11:09 pm

I agree. My main problem was, I lost sight of who I was all together. I went TOO opposite. I knew I had to tone my personality down if I wanted the site to be a success, but I guess I did it to such an extent that I became a pushover because I actually became too passive.

Rules have been tightened up now, people put in their place without stifling free speech – explained calmly that their opinions do matter a lot, but I cannot, and will not reverse a decision I’ve made when it comes to banning someone (I like to be consistent) – you know how cliques are. One of their ‘leaders’ gets banned and the rest kick up a fuss for a week or two and they forget all about them as they find a new member to recruit – lol.

Now I need to find that balance between ‘the good guy’ and ‘the bad guy’ at the same time.

Cristiana August 4, 2008 at 4:16 pm

“If you are thinking of introducing a new feature, or changing the design of part of your site, you should always consult your members.”
Do we have bloggers who think in that way? I think that who will ask this, he/she will look like in charge of that community. It is pretty good way to realize the members that you care them. Thanks for that nice tip.

Martin Reed - Blog Author August 4, 2008 at 8:06 pm

Smiley – I think it’s great that you have the confidence to stick by your decisions. Just be aware that you may make a mistake from time to time, so don’t be too inflexible when it comes to reconsidering your actions!

Cristiana – If you are serious about developing a real community around your blog, you should definitely listen to (and invite) ideas and feedback from your readers. Remember – a blog is also an online community!

Musica Cristiana March 17, 2009 at 10:03 pm

I once was the author of a blog a good amount of traffic, and yes sometimes I used to get some rude comments from people that their only purpose was to make me feel bad. sometimes I did not published those comments, sometimes I did. I used to get very conflicted feelings about it, I’ve always believe that everyone has the freedom to express themselves, but them again, I thought it was my blog.. dealing with cyber people is not easy.

John Williams March 31, 2009 at 4:09 am

What I’ve found in 15 years of business, is if I listen to my members I react to their requests, they are more receptive to things I suggest. If you try to railroad them you will end up with fewer members because they will leave and possible tell others of why they left, so you are the last to know. This is from personal experience…

John Williams.

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 10:59 am

Well, our admin staff is a bit larger than it needs to be so sometimes I feel a lack of communication before things happen, so I can understand that.

Shug July 26, 2009 at 2:55 pm

Consistency of actions and decisions is very important not only of the ultimate leader but of the moderators also
Thanks for the interesting blog

Steve August 3, 2009 at 8:17 pm

It is very important imo to keep members feeling involved, there’s nothing worse than a forum where the admins have the god complex and do whatever they want, some forums I’ve been on you get the banhammer for even disagreeing with the admins, not a pleasant atmosphere to keep people coming back.

Gabriel March 29, 2010 at 8:41 am

This is why if you are really going to build a community you need a proper strategy, you need to know your short term and long term objectives…. trust me: it is not an easy task.

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