Using and assessing feedback from online communities

by Martin Reed on 13 August 2009 in Articles

using feedback in online communities

Your members are the most valuable asset your online community has. Therefore, it is only natural for you to seek their opinions before any changes are made to the community or the product/service it supports. Likewise, it is also important to listen to the unsolicited opinions of your members. Acting on their suggestions may not always be the right course of action to take, though.

Special interests

Your community is not one huge group of people who all share the same opinions. Some people are louder than others. Some people are naturally shy and hesitant to voice their ideas. Be careful who you listen to. Just because your community’s most active member voices an opinion or request, it doesn’t mean they speak for the whole community.

Your community will form groups – whether you specifically cater to them or not. Each group will have its own special interests. Let’s say you manage a gaming community like City of Heroes – there will be groups of people who prefer certain archetypes, others who prefer certain powers over others, and players that support different gameplay strategies. All of these groups will be looking to further their own interests. They may argue that a certain archetype or power in the game is flawed – that doesn’t mean that it is, though.

You need to dig deeper. Why are they suggesting this? What’s in it for them? Does this further the product for them, or for everyone? Don’t just canvas the thoughts of one group – cast a larger net. What do fans of the archetype or power being criticised think? Do they agree that it’s flawed? Make sure you’re always getting the full story.


Power members are both a curse and a blessing. On the one hand, they can help lead your community in a positive direction. On the other hand, they can wield excessive influence and actually be a distraction. They can also make quieter members less likely to voice their own opinions.

Be careful when influencers in your community offer their opinions. Even if their suggestion is met with a chorus of approvals from other members, you still need to be cautious. Often, people will support a suggestion simply because everyone else is – especially if that suggestion is coming from an influencer.


It’s great to have a community of individuals who are passionate about your product. However, passion can cloud one’s judgement. People can lose all sense of reason and logic when they are hugely passionate about a subject – just take a look at some communities based on religion or politics to get an example of what I mean (sorry, no examples).

Passion is good, but take it with a pinch of salt.

Features do not make a community

Good community managers know that features do not make an online community – it’s the members that do that. However, many of your members won’t even realise this; they’ll often ask for additional features that they have seen elsewhere. Don’t add everything they request. Force yourself to justify every additional feature – the more you add, the more of a distraction they can become.

Don’t ask your members if they want a feature – ask them how they would use it. If you’re met with uncertainty and silence, you can safely assume that the feature isn’t really needed.

Filter, dig and consider

So, how do you decide whether or not to act on suggestions put forward by members of your online community? Here are some ideas:


1. Who is making the suggestion?

2. What is in it for them?

3. How much influence do they have within the community?

4. Who supports their idea? People in the same group, or a wider demographic of members?


1. Ask ‘why?’ – Why do you want the change? Why would it be a benefit?

2. Ask ‘how?’ – How would the change affect them? How do they see the change affecting others?

3. Ask them if they think the community or product it supports can survive (and continue to thrive) without the change.

4. Ask other members from another demographic what they think (privately).


1. Beware of special interests, groupthink and instinctive resistance to change.

2. Are you getting the whole picture? Are all your customers members of your online community?

3. What do you think?

Don’t introduce a feature or change your product just because a few members of your community suggest you do so. Online communities are a great way of being in touch with your audience and reducing your market research costs. However, you need to see the bigger picture. You still need to use your own judgement.

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PhilB August 13, 2009 at 5:20 pm

Good peice thank you. It is easy to charge down a path based upon the loudest voices. At RiverMuse we are in hte early stages of building our open source network management community, so the advice is timely.

Tom August 13, 2009 at 9:22 pm

I run an FC Council, think I’m mentioned it before. This is where the regulars of the community vote in a ‘FC Representative’, this is a normal user who will have the opportunity to meet, discuss and chat with myself and my Co-Hosts, along with two other users that the Rep chooses.

I take on board their comments, listen intensively.

However, sometimes you have to do what’s best for the community in the long-term, which, as you know, I have done recently and it kicked up a right storm. The storm is settling now and all the stroppy heads are coming back.

What I’ve done is, the ‘group’ that was opposing the change, I’ve gotten them the most involved in the customization of the new client.. so now they’re happy.

Win-win. Just waiting for the user numbers to grow organically again now after a few week down-time.

Sue August 14, 2009 at 8:18 am

Change is difficult for any community and yes it is very important to listen to the feedback and suggestions of the community. The best communities grow organically to meed the needs of the community and the people who use it. Although any change is not always an easy transition, you will also have some who don’t like change. I learnt a long time ago you can’t please all of the people all of the time.

Nicole Price August 15, 2009 at 7:15 am

If you ask for open ended suggestions and advise, you will be flooded with so many that it will be impossible to satisfy all of them. I like the approach suggested by you, to offer them a feature and ask if they would like that. More constructive responses will be generated. For the Administration however, there is need to be sensitive to pick ideas from the general activity going on.

Tom August 15, 2009 at 10:30 pm

New features are regularly suggested, often implemented, and rarely used.

This is my personal past experiences.

You have to think what kind of site you want. If you have phpBB forums. People will ask for the arcade feature, music feature, photo album feature, blog feature.

…At first you’ll install them because you’ll think they’ll attract people. WRONG. A few regs will use them until the novelty wears off and then they’ll collect cobwebs and dust.

If people want games they’ll go to, or some free gaming site.

If people want music they’ll go to, or

If people want photo albums they’ll go to Photobucket, Blogs they’ll go to MySpace or Livejournal.

These features are very fancy, but rarely practical for a community.

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that it’s your policies, your regulars, your ideology, and your staff that makes your community. Not gadgets.

I’m always open to practical suggestions. That’s what the FC Council is for. But I ensure my regulars focus on site-related suggestions and criticism. IE: Policy, website design, attitude of my staff, how we can improve our services. I steer away from adding shiny buttons and sparkly add-ons to amuse the simple mind for a few weeks.. tops!

If people are demanding a new feature, let them know why it isn’t good for your community. Don’t just say “no we don’t need it”. Tell them WHY you don’t need it. But always say “all comments, complaints & suggestions are welcome” – it says this on my site about a 100 times. I’m always getting e-mails with suggestions, and I respond to each and every one of them.

80% of them are to do with site policy, site design, and many of them I listen to because THAT is the kind of feedback you want. Criticism. Criticism is good.

The problem with most site owners is they take criticism as a personal attack. “OMG you’re criticising me, that must mean you think my site is crap”…………….. if they thought it was crap they’d leave. They wouldn’t take the time and effort to e-mail you ;) they think your site is good, but they think there’s room for improvement. Always listen to what they have to say.

Demands for new features = let down gently.

Constructive criticism of site layout, site policy or anything else similar = listen very carefully, and then investigate into it further.
That’s my personal rule.

I have ignored my rule recently. As Martin knows I have recently switched from Flash to Java. None of my users wanted to switch. My Java client had it all. It was smooth, it was modern, it was unique, it was fancy. You could upload your own avatar, upload pictures, microphone, camera, add streaming videos.

…..But it was laggy, often buggy, and didn’t work on older machines.

So I decided to step back in time a bit. Modern is fine.. for modern people, with modern computers. But there’s a recession on. Not everyone can afford the latest quad-core Intel with 2gig memory and 10mb broadband. So I took a step back and decided to re-join the dinosaur age of Java, at the fierce opposition of my regulars. They didn’t like the idea of time-travelling back to the 1990s.

my user numbers dropped from 60 simultaneous, to… that’s right… an amazing 10 simultaneous.

This was only temporary, however. This past few days old regulars have been coming back once they realize that ‘old’ does not necessarily mean ‘obsolete’. My Java chat rooms have voice chat rooms, there’s no lag at all, I can enable cam chat as soon as my revenue surpasses the costs of it, it’s must easier to use, and we’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback from new users and newer regs who found the old client a tad confusing to use.

So whose feedback do you listen to in that situation? Your couple of dozen or more loyal regulars who like modern, fangled shiny things?

Or do you ignore (and thus lose) those regulars, only to be replaced by newer, even more loyal, and in larger number regulars who are more into the dinosaur-age of Java chat?

I’ve explained to my regulars that more machines are Java-friendly, all machines come Java-ready and we’ll get more users in the long-term as older machines can handle our new client, whereas they couldn’t handle our new client, but they’re still throwing a strop over losing one or two fancy features that stopped hundreds of others using the client.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is sometimes you have to annoy the majority of your current user base…… to please hundreds of future users. You have to do what’s best for your site. Most of my old regulars are coming back because there’s one thing I will never betray them on.. and that’s site policy. Abusers, harassment and perverts will never be welcome, and the sooner they realize we can protect them better on the new client (we have better bans now. Cookie & C class.. before we only had IP).. the better.. because that’s Friendly Chat’s main popularity & selling point. Our policies.

I told my regulars. “It’s not the client we use. It’s not the shape or colour of the buttons. It’s our policies, it’s our staff, and it’s your attitude that makes the community”.

Do NOT be afraid to do what’sbest for your community. It’ll empty for a few weeks when you make an unpopular decision.. but trust me.. they’ll soon come back.

Martin has 9 years more experience on me, so has seen what I’ve just gone through dozens time over probably. People throwing strops over changes. has probably “died” over an unpopular change in the past.. but as he knows.. not only do the regulars come back.. but the changes were always for the best in the long term.

Sometimes you just have to go against the grain for the greater good.

Sue August 17, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Tom, that is so true. People come to a community for the “community,” not the bells and whistles, and as you quite rightly noted some community managers/owners get so hung up on the bells and whistles they forget about the reason people are visiting their community in the first place.

Umar August 19, 2009 at 4:11 pm

Great advice Martin and Tom,
When it comes to tools and features, like so many other decisions in online communities, it comes down to finding that sweetspot – An interface with too few features is confining – members won’t use it while one with too many features is confusing – members won’t know how to use it.

Alex August 26, 2009 at 6:16 am

“Just because your community’s most active member voices an opinion or request” – easy to get swayed by those who shout loudest. It can be hard to find out what some of the less active members think though, so we are bound to get swayed a little buy the most active. A community survey goes some way towards addressing this, but then it is still likely to be responded to by more active members..

What does everyone else do?

Tom August 30, 2009 at 5:09 pm

Do what you feel is best for your community.

Nicole Price September 3, 2009 at 9:43 am

You will recollect that I had dropped out of a community some time ago. Interestingly enough, I got a mail from the administrator after all this time asking me to write to her about why I chose to opt out. I thought that it was a good way to rebuild bridges and replied and have received a very positive response and an invitation to participate again. I have decided to give it a try again.

Tom September 6, 2009 at 3:50 pm

I agree, Nicole. It is a good idea, but also site owners need to remember that some people may be offended if they are e-mailed unsolicited and uninvited. Site owners must be careful not to fall into the spam trap.

I always encourage criticism & suggestions on Friendly Chat. It’s the only way to improve services, and I ensure there are never any reprisals against people who complain about one of my staff members, or criticise the site. Some people aren’t as appreciative of criticism as I.

My users are pretty open, not afraid to voice their concerns – which is great.

If someone is leaving I leave them a PM – on the site – to ask for their feedback as to what we did wrong and how we could have improved our services.

Alan September 12, 2009 at 8:30 am

Their opinions are valuable. If their opinions are translated into new features in the website, that would make them feel they are valuable. They will more likely to stay longer. I think a community website is usually 70% idea from members, 30% from the developers.

Paul November 18, 2009 at 6:10 pm

Sometimes feedback is overrated. Many people hated Facebook for launcing the activity feed but yet it turned out to be a huge success and now other websites are launching similar features for their communities.

Frances February 7, 2010 at 7:16 pm

One should constantly be watching the feedback from your community and respond to both negative and positive feedback in a professional, and timely manner.

Christina March 19, 2010 at 6:03 pm

Change is not handled well by the majority of people. After considering all the above ideas, you need to ask yourself how the change will be accepted by the community as a whole. Keep in mind that some change is tolerable but too much change can be disadvantageous.

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