Using pseudonyms to encourage activity in online communities

by Martin Reed on 27 July 2009 in Articles

multiple accounts community activity

It’s a common problem – you launch an online community but nobody is talking. Even if you have members from (or even before) day one, if they aren’t creating content and engaged in discussions then you don’t have much of a community. As a result, you decide to take the lead and create some posts yourself, but once again there is little engagement. It’s a vicious circle.

Be prepared

Don’t launch your community until you have content and some dedicated, passionate members. These should ideally be people you know – either from offline relationships or from new relationships you have developed online. There really is no excuse for being unable to do this. If none of your friends have a passion or interest in the subject matter of your online community, find people that do. Run some searches on Twitter. Hit up Google Blog Search. You’ll find people. Learn from them, respect them, and develop a relationship with them. Finally, recruit them.

Ask questions

Questions should be the foundation of your online community. You need to be asking yourself questions all the time – in this case, you need to ask yourself why people aren’t contributing. Is the content interesting enough? Is the site easy to use? Do existing discussions get ignored? Are you attracting the right people?

You should also be asking your community questions. Give them a reason to get involved in the discussion.

The temptation to register multiple accounts

You might be tempted to register a few accounts yourself using different pseudonyms. After all, if it’s just you creating all the content, people are less likely to get involved. Even if they do respond to discussions you start, they won’t bother creating new discussions if they come to see that as your role rather than theirs.

Creating multiple accounts is a divisive issue amongst community managers. Some will say it’s unethical (you’re effectively lying to your audience) and not a good way of building genuine relationships with your members.

I’m on the fence.

I don’t think there should be a need to use pseudonyms as long as you have planned your community right. You should know where your potential members are and why they will want to join your community before you launch. You should recruit golden members before you launch and ensure they are talking before you launch. Activity breeds activity.

However, if you are still struggling I don’t think there is anything wrong with using pseudonyms as long as:

  • They add value to the community (real conversations, real contributions)
  • They aren’t used for promotional reasons (don’t use multiple accounts to endorse products or services)

The danger of multiple accounts

If you stick to those two guidelines, then using multiple accounts can actually benefit your community in the early days. You’ll help establish norms within the community – you’ll be able to help set the tone and seed the culture and personality of the community. You’ll also encourage activity – after all, nobody wants to join a community that only has one active member.

That being said, if you do decide to register a few pseudonyms, pause for a moment and consider how you would feel joining a community and then discovering that the community manager has multiple accounts. Would you feel cheated? Would you lose trust in the community?

Confusion and effort

It’s going to be hard having more than one personality. You’ll need to remember who each of your pseudonyms are and not get them confused. You’ll need different personalities for each one and different writing styles. You’ll need to post at different time intervals. This deception is turning into a lot of hard work isn’t it? Surely all that effort would be better spent attracting genuine members and encouraging genuine member interaction?

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Danny Brown July 27, 2009 at 7:09 pm

This is a really good question, Martin. My gut feeling says “No” – it’s false economy and you’re not really building a community as such, more names and numbers.

Yet I was talking about this with Rich Becker of BlogersUnite over at Twitter, and he made a good point about multiple team members who were open as to who they were, as opposed to a single account setting up multiple ID’s under his or her name.

Personally, I think I’d still go with “No” – but, I can see how it might work as well. :)

Mike July 27, 2009 at 7:45 pm

lol good post.

I am in the same dilemma right now. I have a community that isn’t performing as well as I would like it to. I totally know what you are saying about “the vicious cycle”

Michelle July 27, 2009 at 9:55 pm

My thoughts keep coming back to this. I have been struggling to get this community off the ground for over 2 years and all I get are blips of activity surrounded by seas of nothing. I get tired of talking to no one… Maybe I should start talking to myself.

You say there’s no excuse for not being able to find “some dedicated, passionate members”. Maybe I should take that as a hint. If I haven’t managed it in over 2 years, I’m never going to do it.


Martin Reed - Community Manager July 28, 2009 at 8:00 am

Michelle – As you have a localised community, you have a lot of opportunities to find and engage with potential members. Have you tried recruiting friends to join? You need to make the community irresistible for people that live in your region. Have you tried promoting your online community in your offline community? Don’t forget offline marketing – especially for a local community like yours.

Noname July 28, 2009 at 8:36 am

Once people start suspecting there are fake-users, they will also suspect real people to be fake. Mistrust will spread. Be careful..

Nicole Price July 28, 2009 at 9:42 am

A dilemma of great importance. Should one use any kind of subterfuge to make the community seem bigger than it is? I would rather that it grew organically which would make it ah honest community.

Michelle July 28, 2009 at 2:41 pm

@Martin: Ironically, I started this communtiy to try and make local friends. I do have some offline friends that I met in MOMS Club but they are busy moms and totally not into computers. I have tried offline marketing and have put cards in a few places that take them but am finding it surprisingly hard to find places to put flyers up. It seems like not that long ago there were bulletin boards all over the place where folks could post stuff but not anymore.

I think maybe I just need to take a break for a while. I know you always say adding new features isn’t the answer but maybe it will help this time. I’ve got a lot of upgrades planned that I’m trying to find time to code and not worrying about the forums for a while will give me time to work on those. Once I’ve made the other parts of the site more interesting, I can come back and give the forums my full focus and see if I can finally get it going.

Thanks for letting me vent. Again. LOL


Martin Reed - Community Manager July 28, 2009 at 7:01 pm

Michelle – Have you asked your friends/people you’ve recommended the site to why they don’t use it? Tell them to be honest. The truth might hurt, but you’ll get some answers.

Michelle July 28, 2009 at 8:37 pm

@Martin: They just aren’t interested. These are folks that might remember to check their email a couple of times a week. Posting on a forum is a totally foreign idea. LOL


Mathew Davies July 30, 2009 at 11:30 am

Hi Martin, nice article.

I have members, but they don’t seem interested in writing topics and posts for a new forum. They just end thinking no one will ever read them so they give up before they’ve started. I might create a few extra accounts and write some content under those names. Hopefully that will help kick start my forum.

Frank Lynch July 31, 2009 at 11:26 am

:-) That’s a food for thought ! creating or not creating pseudonyms, see i think the need for pseudonyms arises only when your community is not well planned and you are not promoting it enough, You should know your Target audience before creating the community,and now when you know TG target them in such a way that they all want to join your community, look at the existing community for your niche topic , study there strategy and if they are really good apply on your community as well.Or better become a member rather than owner ..lolss

Nicole Price August 5, 2009 at 6:15 am

The Administrator of one of the community sites that I am a member of, invited me to contribute in another name or if I could, in two. I flatly refused. I think that it would be unethical.

Tom August 6, 2009 at 7:36 am

When starting a new forum I always have 2-3 personalities. It’s not divisive to me, nor unethical. I am simply creating content. I don’t lead my members on. Ie: create fake relationships with them under a pseudonym.

As long as it’s done right, there is no harm and it is beneficial. You also must know when to stop and phase out your pseudonyms. I do this generally when there are a few new threads being created and plenty of replies to existing threads by members. I don’t just stop posting as them completely, though. I just lower the number of posts they make each week until they become forgotten and insignificant – then they go.

And as far as maintaining personalities goes – I certainly don’t have that problem. I’m a borderline multiple personality disorder anyway !! Heh.

But yes, they should be only used in the very short-term, and ideally before you “officially” launch the community. You should post and post, set the tone and atmosphere of the community, then launch the community. Genuine members will then see plenty of content – and you can start phasing out your pseudonyms!

I really wouldn’t recommend using them for an already established community. If you already have plenty of members and your forum has been busy in the past and is now going through a quiet patch, I think there are other steps to take – ie: look at your rules, ask why members have stopped posting – rather than setting up a fake account to try and give it a kick-start.

Tom August 6, 2009 at 7:43 am

On a side note, I do, now and again, even when it is established, create a ‘joke character’. It’s blatantly obvious it’s me, people know it’s me – but they enjoy it and ‘play along’. This is just a bit of fun of course and not really meant to be a serious pseudonym.

Ie: At Christmas time I always sign up as Santa Claus, and take on the personality of an overly-violent, drunken bitter Scottish Santa who hates Christmas.

“Where’s me frickin’ Whiskey? I’ll smash ye face in if ye nae give it me!”

I also have Professa Chump, the wanna-be gangsta rapper who rhymes every sentence he writes. Rhymes very badly, so badly it becomes highly comical and raises laughs.

So there are other, more ethical uses for pseudonyms. It’s not necessarily about misleading your audience. It’s also about entertaining your audience and creating an atmosphere of fun and banter, of humour. It also shows you to be more human and approachable, since they think you’re a fun kind of guy, rather than “a stiff”. Of course I have a Site Manager to be the stiff for me.

So it doesn’t always have to be cloak and dagger. You can have “characters” and still be open about it.

Nicole Price August 7, 2009 at 9:43 am

Tom’s approach seems perfectly justifiable as right from the beginning he has been using more than one identity. There is no subterfuge involved here. His Santa Claus role too seems quite acceptable for the occasion. Otherwise, I still maintain that to me at least, it seems to be unethical.

Mr Woc August 10, 2009 at 11:36 am

Hi guys

I could have swore i had posted on this, but anyhow these registering multiple accounts and any tactic like this always ends up biting u on the ass, as people are usually very good at picking up on these kind of tactics, and will just end up leaving your site as a result !


Jonathan August 10, 2009 at 9:36 pm

Good points about multiple accounts. I think the initial recommendation to find willing participants before launching is more appropriate.

Tom August 11, 2009 at 12:20 am

Only if you’re rubbish at acting!

i can be any1 i like

Ah kan change me typin style to fit wot eva personality am s’posed to be

Yo I iz from da bronx asl peeps

..Like I said. Borderline M.P.D :D

If you’re rubbish at creating content under a different account due to a lack of acting talent, then this method is certainly not recommendable.. As Mr. Woc points out – if you don’t have the knack for it, you will get found out.

bt if ur gud at wot u do den creatin content unda diff accs b4 launchin can b vry beneficial

but ye shud only use it sparingly like, you dannae wanna go t’far wi it like, if ye do that then ya jus bein unethical.

You should only do it to create content, and then phase it out. No my keyboard isn’t broke, I was changing my typing style.

Edward August 14, 2009 at 10:28 am

It’s risky, sure, but I’ve created multiple accounts on a few forums I moderate. I only do it when I want to get into discussions that I can’t have as an admin; debates where I want to express an opinion (no flaming, obviously!) and I can’t do it as a moderater. Also, I have occasionally used multiple accounts to ask questions where, again, I can’t do it in a mod capacity. That’s okay in my book.

I also think this is genuine enough that, even if people figured it out, they’d understand why you did it.

John August 16, 2009 at 9:14 pm

I agree you should not rely on them for a long time, but I don’t think it hurts when first starting out. It’s like a dance with nobody dancing yet, but when someone starts others join more naturally.

Tom August 17, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Couldn’t have phrased it better myself, John.

Julian Bradder August 18, 2009 at 10:05 am

I find this area particularly difficult in a business to business arena – too often in the early days, it is people on the sell side of the market and the atmosphere is one of nervousness, caginess, and secrets, the old way of doing things – if only it we’re easier to get people to understand that what visitors want to see if some sparring, some thrashing out and comparisons of idea! Perhaps this ethos is just going to take time.

Chris August 22, 2009 at 9:48 am

Multiple accounts is actually not necessary. If all conversations is from one ADMIN like people I’d actually be more likely to return. I always look for good information not quantity. Post good information from just one person and people will join!

Tom August 22, 2009 at 6:15 pm

That probably works if you’re running a quite serious forum or a straight forward, very niched forum.

But if you’re starting up a generalized forum where the competition is much higher, you’ve got to set the initial tone, the mood, the atmosphere. You can’t do that with one person. Your forum needs that content already there for new people to read and get a whiff of the atmosphere and get an idea of your forum’s personality. You can’t build personality by one post by one person. You must have the personality already set in its foundations and then when new people come along they can build on that foundation as they please.

However, without personality the forum will be stale and new users won’t bother posting, and if they do, it’ll be very boring and won’t last very long.

Christopher Hill September 1, 2009 at 7:11 am

To generate activity you can use pseudonyms and start the activity on your community. But is this ethical? Is it the right thing to do?

Stu September 3, 2009 at 12:41 am

It’s interesting what you said about needing to remember what each of your pseudonyms is up to.

My mum always told me “you need a good memory if you’re going to lie all the time”

I think this applies perfectly to this situation.

raphael September 14, 2009 at 8:38 am

I would also “fake” some discussions at the beginning to give my website a start. Is not unethical in my opinion, just a trick.

Rusty September 16, 2009 at 11:09 pm

Don’t forget that individuals that frequently comment on blogs are not always the best audience. These people can often be a vocal minority that do not reperesent what the average person is trying to extract from your writing.

Paul November 18, 2009 at 6:08 pm

It seems that using pseudonyms is not the problem, its the person building the community. You can a great person using pseudonyms to build his community or you could have a spammer life person using them. Either way time will tell which person is really trying to make a good community and which is just tring to cash in.

Daryl Wilkes November 25, 2009 at 10:12 am

A great thread with some fantastic comment on both sides of the fence!
I am just starting up my Community & am still weighing up the idea of creating content uder a pseudonym……..I am leaning towards no at this time though!

Martha Jones January 4, 2010 at 10:30 am

Pseudonyms are OK for me (hey, even I use pseudonyms a lot) but I have an issue with the “multiple account” thing. Personally, I would not like any member to have more than 1 account on a forum (I don’t think anyone needs more than 1 account unless the member is joining just to spam; besides it creates confusion as well) but till date, I have not found a forum software disallows more than one account per member. I believe it is simply not possible without doing some manual checks.

Thanks. Keep those helpful tips coming.

Martha Jones January 4, 2010 at 10:36 am

Actually Paul, I believe most communities are started with good intentions-that is, helping like-minded people reach similar goals. However, some forum admins get distracted down the road and stop involving themselves in the forum activities; that is when the forum is done to death. A community cannot be run effectively without active participation from the admin as well as members. I do agree that you need to do some “pre-planning” before building a forum. Not only that, you would probably also want to have an “exit” strategy in place.

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