Online communities love to play follow the leader

by Martin Reed on 7 May 2008 in Articles

Leadership in online communities

People love to imitate those they admire and respect. You can use this to your advantage when building an online community; lead by example and watch your members follow your lead.

You begin as your community’s most valuable member

When you start a brand new online community, you are its most valuable member. You are responsible for creating content, encouraging interaction and recommending the site to others. As new members join, you should be welcoming them and asking them questions in order to build a relationship. Members to a new community are not aware of its personality or its culture – it’s down to you to impress this upon them.

The early period is your community’s most influential

Establishing a culture and personality for your community is essential if you want to differentiate your site from the competition. It is almost impossible to change your community’s reputation, personality and culture once it has been established, therefore you need to be sure you pay great attention and attach a large amount of importance to getting it right from the outset.

Know what you want from your community early on, and use this to shape your community and its culture. If you fail to pay attention to this, you may be storing up problems for the future.

Behave as you want other community members to behave

Let’s say you are developing an online community based around sarcastic news reporting; in this case, you want there to be wit and humour in peoples’ posts. In order to encourage this behaviour in your members, you simply do it yourself. Make cheap jokes on a regular basis, and watch as your members soon follow your lead. Welcome every new member with questions and interest, and watch as your members do the same. Write lengthy, intelligent posts and you’ll soon see your members do the same.

I read many comments from community developers with questions such as ‘How do I encourage more questions?’, ‘How do I create a friendly community environment?’. The answer is always the same: lead by example. You want members to ask more questions in order to encourage interaction? Then start asking them yourself! You want a friendly environment? Be welcoming, inviting and accommodating to every single one of your members.

If you find your members tend to flare up over the slightest disagreement, you should try getting more involved in conversations that you may disagree with. When you post, explain that you disagree with their argument and outline the reasons why. Be sure to mention the fact that you respect their opinion and would be interested in hearing what other members think. If you continue to do this over the long term, and members see you doing this consistently, you should be able to slowly adjust your members’ behaviour as they begin to copy the style you have adopted when disagreeing with specific posts.

You won’t find members copying your behaviour overnight, but if you keep your approach consistent you will find members slowly start following your lead. Over time, you may decide that you want to pull back a little from your community to see if it can stand on its own two feet. This is fine as long as your withdrawal is not immediate and abrupt. If your members suddenly lose their leader, you may end up losing them. Remember: you want your community to follow your example without being totally reliant on you.

Your thoughts

Have you tried leading by example in order to develop and influence your community’s personality and the behaviour of your members? Have you found that over time, members mimic your behaviour? Share your thoughts, comments and experiences by leaving a comment below.

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{ 18 comments }

Amish Made Furniture May 8, 2008 at 12:29 pm

Let us again go to real life situations. What do effective leaders do? They lead by example on a number of factors but, encourage and even urge individualism and initiative. Why can’t the same be done in online communities?

Smiley May 9, 2008 at 2:55 pm

I have to admit, I’ve never really taken much notice of this until recently. When I first started FC and all the way up until just a few weeks ago, I saw myself as ‘one of the group’. Sure, I had a tag. But I saw it more as, I was one of them, but on the side I just helped them out and made sure perverts were kept at bay.

Worked well up until now. It worked great when we were just a small group. People trusted me, came to me with every little problem, had a laugh with me, were more at ease with me than any of the staff, I think a lot of them just saw me as one of the group, too. I’ve always had a right hand man, see. Never operated without one. Got my original back now who was very popular, left a few months back due to personal reasons, came back a few weeks ago, and then of course I’ve got the co-host who is a representative of the management who sets a great example. So I’ve got those type of people to set a good example and keep a balance between my personality and the site’s professionalism.

But when it gets to the point where there’s a new signup everyday and a new ‘active’ regular every week, with 600+ posts every day — there’s clashes of personalities and reading your articles lately about how they mimic the leader has come to light in some of the posts where some users have had snidey pops at each other like I do towards unsavoury characters which lead to trouble.

So now I’m behaving myself and posting a lot more professionally. Still getting involved, still having a laugh, but being a lot more careful about my wording and how the ‘tone’ of my post comes across. It has paid off, order has been restored and members are acting more mature. I was surprised to see a few of them even go for their ignore buttons like I keep drilling it into them to.

I’ve never really enjoyed playing the ‘I am your leader’ type role. I’ve never liked being the one in charge, I don’t know why. I’ve always found comfort in knowing there’s someone above me, so I haven’t really enjoyed the forums as much lately now I’ve realized I have to be Mr. Responsible to keep order in the forums, I don’t like the feeling of people ‘following’ me, that’s why I have someone on an equal footing to me now, and gradually, on a long term basis, phasing myself out more as the one people see as the one in charge.

My plan is hopefully for them to gradually see Ranger as the one in charge, rather than me. But yes, it’s definitely important for people to watch their footsteps when they’re known as the leader, you end up playing politics in the end. Sounds silly for an online community, but it’s seriously how it goes. Such as my co-host only agreed to be co-host on certain terms, such as she made me promise I’m not to go into the chat while drunk. It’s my own blooming site and I have to agree to rules myself.. but that’s why she’s co-host, she only wants the best for the site and she knows the importance of setting an example.

Eva White May 10, 2008 at 8:29 am

A new online community is the same as any new group coming together. You need to get to know the members i an atmosphere of trust. If that element exists, its much easier for people to be themselves.

Mr Woc May 12, 2008 at 2:15 pm

Hi there

Lots of common sense information there, you made an excellent point as well amish, you have to lead by example, once you get a few people around to your way of thinking this rubs off on everyone else !

Woc

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 12, 2008 at 6:47 pm

Ramana – You’re right. Very often it is easy to forget that the online environment works in much the same way as the offline one, though!

Smiley – Thanks for your detailed comment; I am glad that you have seen for yourself how effective leading by example can be. Regardless of whether you see yourself as a leader or not, if you have moderator privileges, that is how other members will see you. Therefore you need to behave in a manner befitting of your title.

Eva – Getting to know your members is hugely important. Regardless of how well you know them though, some may still get a little out of hand from time to time. That’s why it is important that you lead by example.

Mr Woc – I think a lot of it is common sense, but it took me a while to realise this point myself; therefore I think it was helpful to write an article dedicated solely to this issue.

Joe Takkle May 12, 2008 at 9:42 pm

The whole internet is based on hive mentality. It is how anonymous works, and it is how all social media networks exist. I joined facebook and myspace solely because someone said “Hey, you should join this.”

Online Furniture Store May 13, 2008 at 7:07 am

I agree that leading by example is the best way to indicate what direction a forum should take. Not only can you indicate the dos, you can also implicitly indicate what are the strict No-nos, and what degree of latitude will be allowed.

Smiley May 13, 2008 at 2:54 pm

Sorry for my rants. I’m afraid you’ll have to get used them them, ha!

myLoupe May 13, 2008 at 7:57 pm

I agree with everything you said. In order to make an online community successful, you need to view it as a real brand, not just a website. The most successful sites out there, Myspace and Facebook for example, treat themselves as a brand just like Nike and Apple do. This is what makes them so successful because they consider every aspect and are always open to external factors. They have a business plan and are willing to adapt when necessary.

Nicole Price May 14, 2008 at 3:37 pm

Interesting thought. Since its all online and people don’t ‘really’ know each other, a person can create a persona he/she desires and lead by example as you said.

John Walters May 14, 2008 at 11:25 pm

In a new community one must be aware of the certain rules which should be followed. There is a right and a wrong way to act and obviously when the member count is small the impact you have is much larger.

The moderators have power but they work much more efficiently if they are respected. This is similar to in real life situations. At school you always found it easier to behave with teachers whom you respected. If you respect them they respect you. It also works the other way. As a mod you certainly shouldn’t act above the other members.

Bape May 16, 2008 at 11:06 pm

When I used to run large graphics related communities, I tried to set the best example ever as an admin. I followed all the rules, was very fair, and didnt run it in a ruthless way.

Set an example!

Make Money Online May 18, 2008 at 6:47 am

I worked in a company where I handled about ten people, for almost a year. These people are very conscious about what other people do, especially how they use their free time. There are really some people who has a hobby of looking for people who are “not busy” while they claim to be busy.
I knew this is very unprofessional so I showed them that we should appreciate each other rather than identifying each other’s mistakes. Good thing, they changed and had a harmonious relationship among them before I left the company.

Chat May 20, 2008 at 5:47 am

I see any website that is catering to people they do not no to be more of a business / brand with a reputation then a personal website that a mother might visit so keeping a positive image is super important in my eyes.

Martin Reed - Blog Author May 25, 2008 at 4:40 pm

Joe – You make a very good point! Most of us want to ‘fit in’ and ‘conform’, hence the success of many of the larger social networks.

Reena – I completely agree; that’s why it is always important to be aware that your own behaviour will strongly influence the personality that your online community will develop.

Smiley – Keep the rants coming, mate!

Loupe – I am not sure I fully understand your comment. Yes, being aware of your brand is important as it represents the difference between how you want to be known, and how others perceive you. If you fail to lead by example, you may end up widening the distance between your brand identity and brand perception.

Nicole – Exactly. Let’s say your community is about pirates – you could develop a persona for yourself as being an experienced pirate of the high seas! Stay polite, drop some ‘Aarrrs!’ in every now and again, and you’ll really help set your community apart form the competition, and probably end up with loads of ‘pirate’ followers!

John – I agree. If you want respect, you have to show respect. If you want your members to be respectful to one another, you have to lead by example.

Bape – I couldn’t agree more.

Make Money – I love it when people drop in examples from real life to demonstrate evidence of what I write in my articles. Thanks for your contribution.

Cody – I think most websites cater to people they don’t know. Sure, they should know who they are targeting, but they don’t really know every individual that visits the site. Regardless, a community should always place a priority on developing and maintaining a positive image.

Monavie May 30, 2008 at 11:26 pm

This is a good read, especially for me. I always get too caught up in what I say and how I say it. I’m kind of like Smily, ” I’ve never really enjoyed playing the ‘I am your leader’ type role.”. I’m fine working by myself and being independent, but I get a little scared at the thought of people following me! I’ll try to take your advice and just step out from the crowd. Thanks Martin!

Martin Reed - Blog Author June 26, 2008 at 11:14 pm

Monavie – Many community developers fail to realise that their community will often mimic the behaviour of its staff members. Now you know this, you can take a far more proactive approach when it comes to developing your community’s personality.

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 10:28 am

I try not to remind people that I actually have the magic wand; just try to fit into the community. People look to me to use the options that I have instead of worrying about it, which is great!

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