Warning: Power members may actually harm your community

by Martin Reed on 17 February 2009 in Articles

Community building with power members

It’s great having passionate members. They’ll start interesting discussions, welcome new members and get involved in lots of discussions. The model member, right? The problem is, these members can be intimidating and actually stifle the development of your community.

What is a community ‘power member’?

Pull up your member list. Sort by members with the highest post count first. Right at the top are your ‘power members’. They might not be your most valuable, but they are the most powerful.

Power = Intimidation

New members of your community are nervous. As soon as they contribute, it is a big deal. They are putting themselves on the line – will they be accepted? Is their contribution ‘good enough’? Did they follow the right protocol? Power members can really help here – they’ll welcome the new member (hopefully). The problems start a little further down the road.

Power users can be intimidating. Remember, every member of your community is valuable – not just the ones that are contributing 24/7. Your quieter members may end up no longer welcoming new members – after all, your power members jump in within a few minutes so they don’t need to. Your quieter members may stop answering questions from other members – after all, your power members jump in within a few minutes so they don’t need to.

The more active and immediate the presence of your power members, the more they risk intimidating other members. This results in fewer contributions and works to focus even more of your community’s content in the hands of a small minority of your member base.

The same issue can arise if you are too keen to use your moderator powers, or are too visible or active in the community. If you welcome every new member publicly within a minute of them joining, what motivation do your members have to follow suit? After all, the ‘most powerful and influential member’ (you!) has already welcomed them. What value can they add by doing the same?

If you eagerly jump in and delete or edit posts, you are taking some of the shared responsibility away from your community. You are effectively ‘dumbing’ your community down. Why not wait a little, and see if your members can resolve conflict themselves? Sure, you might need to eventually jump in, but give your members some time to work things out themselves, first. If a member reports a post they aren’t happy with, instead of just deleting it, ask that member to see if they can diffuse the situation – tell them you think they have that ability, and to give it a try.

Your members might just thank you. If they manage to diffuse a potential conflict themselves, congratulate them and thank the peacemakers. You want to keep hold of those members.

Turn the spotlight

Power members are great for a community, but you need to recognise their potential downside. If you notice some of your members are becoming a little over-eager, turn the spotlight away from them. Seek the opinions and invite contributions from other members. If you see a conversation taking place that you think will interest some of your quieter members, invite them to contribute. Acknowledge and praise your quieter members when they contribute. You want to make these members more confident. If they turn into power members, turn your attentions to a new batch of shy members.

Never keep the spotlight on one group of members. Let everyone have their moment of glory. Your community shouldn’t revolve around a small number of members. It should be open and inviting to all of them. You’ll always have some members that ‘consume’ more than they contribute. Focus your attention on these members – after all, you’ve already won over your power members. They aren’t going anywhere.

You don’t want to discourage your power members – they are doing a great job at keeping your community ticking over. Your aim is to get more members active and involved – imagine if you could consider 100% of your members to be power members. Wow.

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{ 29 comments }

Nicole Price February 17, 2009 at 11:30 am

Now i see how you mean power members can be a draw back, not only because they can be intimidating to others but also because they may feel a little proprietorial or possessive?

Tom February 17, 2009 at 4:04 pm

Hmmmm, good point. One that has given me something to think about. I try being as active as possible in my community, welcoming everyone personally, being there for my members.

I try encouraging the older, more loyal regs to be open to newbies by being extra friendly to newbies myself, hoping they’ll follow my example.

I work hard at stamping out cliques and ensuring the regulars drag the newbies into integrating with the community.

I’d say there’s only one point you’ve missed out about how power members can harm your community……………………. if you piss one of them off and they throw a strop and leave, or if you have to ban one of them.

Sure, losing any member is damaging. But losing an influential & ‘famous (to your site)’ member….. people are going to notice and will start asking why.. and may even play follow the leader.

Sally February 17, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Really good points. I have been in that situation—as a ‘regular’ member who posts alongside the power member and experiences them firsthand. Psychologically, it feels like there’s not enough air to breath–this member is in every section, every thread, as though trying to take up all the space for themselves. “Publicly” they appear helpful–but if you send them a private message asking for help/advise they are suddenly cold. It’s incredible how often that happens.

In a way I think they burn themselves out. They are so busy making endless posts and gathering the rest of the community around them. Others retreat into the background, their “presence” in the room dims. They don’t seem “as real” anymore. If you stumble across one of their posts you are surprised. “Oh….there he is!” You are happy to see him still around. It all mimics real life, I think and so the solution would involve the direct intervention of the mods; as was so rightly pointed out.

Good blog!!

Mr Woc February 17, 2009 at 4:44 pm

Hi there

Good post and well said lol, I agree when you wrote “Your community shouldn’t revolve around a small number of members”

I couldnt agree more and It can become a problem when little groups form as this puts others off joining in as they often just talk among themselves and ignore other chatters, I try to remind people who are regular chatters they were all new once and it does work as I have kept on and on reminding people this, but its a constant battle.

This however is a fine balance, as sometimes this can cause problems in itself, as often people can be selfish and only think about their own needs!

Woc

tom February 18, 2009 at 6:39 am

wow these power members seem like nasty peices of work in my opion and reading what comments everyone has left i wouldent want any “power member working in my communtiy. mabye its these people that are making it worse?

Amish February 18, 2009 at 6:44 am

This reminds me of teaching/moderating skills in class rooms. If all present have to feel that they are benefiting the same techniques that you mention here are used. Amazing how offline strategies work in online situations too!

Mike P February 18, 2009 at 11:12 am

Great post. We ran across this problem when I was at eBay. “Power” members can be very intimidating and stifle organic growth, no doubt. There are many different ways that you can encourage new member to participate and interact with one another, and get some of these “power” members to assist you as well. Creating new communities for new members or mentoring programs with “experienced members are some initial thoughts and programs that can go a long way.

Mike P / @nhscooch

Jeremy February 18, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Good article! I’ve struggled with this in a couple of ways.

My community is very seasonal, so I benefit greatly from power users in my slower periods. If not for them, there would be nothing happening in my forum for about 4 months! The problem is, they get so used to posting and responding, that they can dominate discussions and respond before anyone else would even have a chance. In the long run, they help me more than they hurt.

My other struggle is keeping myself from being a power user. I have a hard time deciding the amount of time I should wait before posting. If I respond to a poster too soon, I may keep somebody else from joining a discussion. If I post too slowly, and nobody else responds, I risk having that new member forget about the forum, or not return.

Tom February 18, 2009 at 8:50 pm

I wouldn’t go that far other Tom. Power members can be, and are, good for your community. The problem is the shadow the power members cast. You have to keep a good relation with them, work with them, and try to lead them into involving newer or shyer (sp?) members in their posts.

And then of course it’s your job to encourage the quieter members to post. The power members are already loyal. I keep a good relationship with them via PM, although my two biggest power members at the moment are extremely liberal, and I, extremely Conservative, so it’s important for me to keep my views to myself and chat to them in PM. If they build a personal bond there’ll be less clashes.

So in public I skip their posts, which are usually powerful, intellectual posts, and instead quote any new members’ posts or any quieter members’ posts and elaborate on what ever they’ve said, to try and move that limelight away a bit.

As Martin said, it’s all about balance. You need power members, but you also need to control the size of the shadow they cast over your forum.

Tom February 18, 2009 at 8:54 pm

Good post Jeremy, I agree completely. I tend to do that, too, look at a post and think “should I answer yet?”. I try to wait until a quieter or less popular member posts, and then I quote them and elaborate to emphasize their importance in the discussion, and congratulate them on their good points.

I also try not creating too many new threads, and instead if a quieter or newer member goes off topic somewhere I say “interesting point, [username].. you should post a new topic about that, that’d be an interesting discussion!” to try and encourage them to create new posts.

I love my forum and my members so it’s hard for me not to login all the time, so I’m constantly seen there, kills me not to post new threads sometimes.

Nicole Price February 20, 2009 at 9:47 pm

@Tom, I can imagine how tempting it would be to post a new thread and how in the interest of the community you hold back and encourage others to do it instead. That is a good point that I had not thought about that technique to involve the less active or more reticent members.

Edward February 24, 2009 at 10:58 am

Great article, and something I’ve been involved in myself (on both sides).

I do think it’s important to remember that power members are also important (I know, you did address this). I’ve found that communities don’t often have their own personality until there are a few big characters involved. The trick is, like you said, balancing between having a presence and being overwhelming.

Roger February 24, 2009 at 1:08 pm

I couldn’t agree more – this has actually happened to me before. I joined a forum, really interested in the content, had read a few posts etc. and I finally decided to make a post of my own asking a question about something I was unsure of. The first response was a power user (some thousand or so posts) telling me I’m stupid and should read this post from 8 moths ago where someone asked the same question… Needless to say I didn’t go back.

Sally So February 25, 2009 at 9:22 am

Hi, this is my first visit and comment on your site. I’ve come across sites like Roger has mentioned where people get abuse when asking a simple question. Its not nice to see people ganging up and saying the same nasty things and it does put me off contributing to the topic. I think moderators should know when to step in and block comments from ‘power members’ even if it ‘hurts their feelings’.

Tom E February 25, 2009 at 9:56 am

I actually had a situation recently where my top power member left the community (I won’t go into the complex details). I was worried – this guy knew his stuff, always had a good perspective to offer, could be very high-handed and proprietary with other members but on the whole was a real asset. Would things implode?

What actually happened was that the second tier of users stepped up to the plate and started contributing more, and we started getting more new users. I still miss that particular user’s comments and knowledge, but not his attitude, and as someone remarked in an email yesterday it’s made the whole site friendlier. So if a PM does quit – don’t be scared, embrace the opportunity.

I’d also add that if your community is designed to generate insight (for research, a brand, etc.) a power user is even more dangerous – they are likely to create groupthink and narrow the perspectives the community creates.

Jeff February 25, 2009 at 2:44 pm

Interesting post. I always thought that power users are good for the community. And indeed they are, but as you described there are some real downsides to them as well. I guess every good thing has potential downsides and this is just another one of those instances. Thanks for the insights.

Alex February 27, 2009 at 6:10 am

Hi,

2 Roger: Same situation with my visit to a quite respected programming forum. Some of the “power users” literaly trashed around my post simply because my question was debated among some 2 months old posts. Needless to say that the post in question did not contain an answer afterall.

Jeremy February 27, 2009 at 11:21 pm

I’m not really a huge fan of community cheerleaders. This is probably because I am young and they always think they know more than I do. An example is the head of the local HOA who always tries to tell me what I “should” be doing. But, the thing is I don’t bother anyone, so I don’t see why he cares so much…

jennifer March 2, 2009 at 9:16 pm

I think that if a power user isn’t trying to “unify”, then they are really dividing. And usually because they crave the attention. If they are posting and taking a natural leadership role of trying to bring new members out, or attempting to include regular less verbal posters, that’s fine. But too often they are really in it for the ME! ME! ME! aspect, from which nothing good will come.

Peter March 4, 2009 at 7:39 am

Hey, this is a pretty good point. I’d never really thought about it like that, because power members have so many positives.

But I like the notion of explicitly seeking out the shy members and giving them kudos. From experience this does indeed work, but you’ve just made that notion click for me.

Thanks.

meadd823. March 5, 2009 at 12:17 am

{quote}Pull up your member list. Sort by members with the highest post count first. Right at the top are your ‘power members’. They might not be your most valuable, but they are the most powerful.{end Quote}

As a member who has the highest post count on a forum this is news to me. I thought I just talked a lot, plus I have been there a while .

I am not trying to be divisive nor am I trying to unify – I’m just chatty. I don’t respond to every topic nor do I over shadow every discussion. . Some times I welcome new members especially if they don’t have very many welcome responses but other times I do not. I never figured my post count made that much difference. Guess I learned some thing new here today.

In my opinion every one who joins a community does so for self gratification, no matter what thier posting style is.

Greg March 5, 2009 at 12:31 pm

Interesting and thought provoking post. It all depends on how power members really function – whether he/she is a facilitator or a destructor

meadd823. March 22, 2009 at 12:34 am

[quote]whether he/she is a facilitator or a destructor{end quote}

it seems like he or she probably has elements of both – I fully understand while my style is attractive and engaging to some it is repelling to others but this holds true of every one including those in present company.

{quote from power member article}If you notice some of your members are becoming a little over-eager, turn the spotlight away from them. {end quote}

Even more perplexing is the notion that chatty people do so because of “spot lighting”. I was never given any attention by the “powers that be unless of course I do some thing wrong.

Some of the concepts I understand like measuring a strong community by interaction and depth but others like power members I do not. I was totally shocked by the concept.

. I came here to learn how to serve my community better – I got here by googling forum moderating.I haven’t been able to find much out on-line, Maybe I am using the wrong key words or something.

If there is a place I can learn how to be a better moderator then by all means point me in that direction. Apparently I am in the worng place.

greg thanks – hope things go well with your endeavors. . . .

Shawn July 2, 2009 at 10:26 am

My ROOMMATE is one of these power members on my community, but don’t tell him that I said that! It gets interesting at times.

Laura July 28, 2009 at 6:20 pm

I read your article and smiled.

It’s something I’ve seen and witnessed (and come up against).

Interesting name though, ‘power users’. I’ve always thought of them as regulars, but power users is much more apt!

David July 30, 2009 at 4:15 am

Handling an online community can be really difficult. I have seen first hand the kind of spats and arguements that can occur over nothing. Somehow people seem much more agressive behind a keyboard.

Edward August 14, 2009 at 11:02 am

meadd: You may not realise it, but high-posting members are steering conversations (and I have been one, so there’s no shame in it). You may not be spotlighting on purpose but the attention IS on you more than anyone else. Even if you’re helping someone else with a problem, replying multiple times signifies that it’s YOU who are helping and not someone else (it also kinda implies that you live there, therefore it’s your house).

You may not see it territorially but I guarantee there are some quiet members who do. (not that the answer is NOT helping, but just to give you a perspective on it)

Paul November 30, 2009 at 1:42 pm

I have definitely seen power members poke fun at new members for not knowing whats going on. This is not good at all. Addressing the issue is also a hugely difficult task.

Steve January 14, 2010 at 12:36 pm

Good article. Running a forum is harder than I expected it to be – it can be a fine line to walk at times between allowing free and open speech and cracking down on those trangessors who just want to inflame. The danger alluded to in your article is that a forum can become “cliquey” which then deters other newbies from joining and taking part. Encouragement of new members – from greeting them personally (if time allows) to thanking them for their contributions – is the way to go, I feel… for me at the moment, at least!

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