Your need to be relevant to your community

by Martin Reed on 26 January 2009 in Articles

Community building with personality

People identify with those they share common interests with. They really bond with those they think are ‘the same’ as them. The more you have in common with the members and values of your online community, the better. This involves having a personality that is relevant.


Empathy is a wonderful thing. It not only builds community, it strengthens it. Your community looks to you for guidance (especially during the early, formative period) – so make sure your members can empathise with you.

Empathy in an ‘offline’ context

I worked in a call centre from 1998-2001. This is when I learnt about empathy and mimicry – I initially worked in insurance claims and we had to reject a lot of these claims. By speaking in a style similar to the caller, and using stories to make yourself similar to the caller, you help build a relationship. It makes people more likely to like you. It is harder to be abusive towards someone you like.

As my career progressed, I moved to inbound insurance sales. Our client demanded a ‘professional’ telephone manner at all times, regardless of the caller. It was harder for us to sell that client’s products. It was far easier to sell insurance from clients that didn’t place such restrictions on how we spoke to customers. Of course, we remained professional but we would mimic the speaking style of the customer to make them feel more comfortable with us. We would share stories. One minute we might sound cockney, another minute we may be doing our best Hugh Grant impressions.

Telephone conversations are difficult – you can’t see the person you are communicating with. Online communities pose the same challenge.

Match their style

If your members are relaxed and informal, you should be, too. If your members don’t care about making the odd spelling mistake, don’t be overly worried about the odd typo, yourself.

If your members use your community in an ‘odd’ way (a way you hadn’t envisaged), and this becomes popular, then make it the ‘official’ way.

Share commonalities

Some of your members love to travel? Great! So do you! Tell them where you have been. Tell them where you plan to go next. Ask them to recommend some places for you to visit. Find something that you have in common with your members and use it to engage in conversation.

Share stories

Bob just had a tax audit. Remember the time when that happened to you a few years ago? Share your experience. Offer advice. Remember when you tried to avoid jury duty? One of your members is looking to do the same. What about the time you got caught drinking alcohol when you were underage? Even old stories help build relationships.

If you manage a community of car enthusiasts, make sure you talk about cars! Just don’t forget to also talk about other topics, too. Talking about cars will help make you relevant to the overall community. Talking about yourself and your members will help make you relevant to your individual members.

Don’t be fake. Just be aware.

Just because you should be emphasising what you have in common with your members, it doesn’t mean you should be fake. I manage an online community for women, yet I am a man. I still develop relationships with my members, though – I just do it by looking for other commonalities, and I emphasise them.

I have a different personality for the different communities I manage. In Just Chat, I am less visible and vocal as the community is well developed. When I do get involved, I am more likely to take a more professional, business-like tone. This is what members are used to, and what they expect. In Soap Forum, I am a little more sarcastic and enjoy playing around with members and am known as being far more light-hearted. Come on, it’s hard to be too serious in an online community devoted to television soaps!

Here, I try to keep the content of my articles professional, but allow my personality to sneak through in some of the posts and in the comments section.

I am not being fake. I am not deceiving my members. I am still being myself – I am just allowing different elements of my personality to shine through, according to the personalities present in each community.

I think you should be doing the same. What do you think?

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Sally January 26, 2009 at 6:53 pm

I think this was fantastic! I can really understand all these points and their importance. For example, on a particular site I started adopting the “style” that was there–just like you said–even though it was so different from mine–because the members of that site seemed a little distant and cool, and I could’nt break it. And having things in common and letting them know about it–all good advice.

Ray January 27, 2009 at 5:54 am

Some good advice here.

If you were appointing forum moderators for your community would you expect them to display these qualities, as well? Or should they be more distant due to the importance of their role?

Amish January 27, 2009 at 8:17 am

No wonder! You learnt your lessons in the toughest school in customer service. It is nice how you apply those lessons to community building. Good advise. If only people would listen.

Mr Woc January 27, 2009 at 1:26 pm


lol good post and I share a similar background to you, althought i wasnt an insurance salesman lol !

Working in a customer service envoroment does make you think about others more, and I have found its useful during my online experiances, as you are right you think about things from a customers perspective.


Helen January 29, 2009 at 7:11 am

The most relevant point here for us is ‘match their style’ I think that’s a really good point.
The other stuff isn’t so important for me based on what we’re aiming to achieve with our community – we don’t want to make friends with our members as we’re in a position of trust. We want to support them, enable them to feel safe and encourage them. So, in that sense I think your article perhaps assumes a little too much about what a communities direction.

Helen January 29, 2009 at 7:12 am

You post moderate? Not on your forums though right? Just comments?

Martin Reed - Blog Author January 29, 2009 at 8:57 am

Ray – I wouldn’t expect moderators to follow the same principle. It would be great if they did, but I would be hesitant in being that controlling over the behaviour and personality of the cornerstones of the community.

Helen – Avoiding being ‘friends’ can be a beneficial standpoint, as it can reduce any claims of favouritism should you have to use any intervention powers. That being said, you don’t want to be too distant – you need to be involved in the community and have a good relationship with your members.

Just because you are in a position of trust, why can’t you be friends with your members? Surely you trust your friends?

Comments from first time contributors are moderated on this blog, due to people not respecting the ‘no keywords in the name field’ restriction.

Helen January 29, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Martin – yes of course. We do have a good relationship with members and I’m sure lots of them do consider us to be friends – but an element of distance is crucial.

Interestingly, the travel example you give is probably an example where we would be able to engage in conversation – but in the case of lots of the issues that come up we wouldn’t want to, nor would it be appropriate for us to relate our personal experiences. Having looked back at my initial comment I perhaps laboured the ‘can’t be friends’ point too much – I guess I mean friends in the true sense of the word, rather than in the ‘can’t be friendly’ sense of the word.

jennifer February 1, 2009 at 9:32 pm

Martin, I had forgotten about the Female Forum. I just bookmarked it!

Nicole Price February 1, 2009 at 11:27 pm

For some reason I love the picture in this post particularly ; I always like the pictures you include, they are bright and uncluttered but manage to say a lot.

Tom February 13, 2009 at 7:49 pm

I had a lot of trouble because of this lately. The most horrible thing that could ever happen.. happened.. and happened to me of all the people in the world.

I got 6-8 new users in the same day, all know each other, all came from another forum they were unhappy with. So I thought, fantastic, more new people to mould into loyal regulars.

…Only to find out they’re extreme liberal PC pansy far-left types !!!!!! The forums turned into a warzone over night, all my old regs vs this new clique that signed up. Because they signed up, visited the debate section, and didn’t hide their liberalism for very long. They weren’t shy getting involved that’s for sure.

I’ve always been an Al Murray/Alf Garnett banter un-PC type. So the forums developed into a PC-free zone.

This new clique went around claiming everyone were Nazis, racists, the old regs fought back, unfortunately I was in bed at the time. But they were at it for hours.

I settled the disputes in the end with a few firm warmings and banned their ringleader.. but it has forced me to divert the forum into a new atmosphere. One that is more politically neutral – this means I no longer reply to any thread where my personal political opinions can come into play. This way my old loyal regs won’t follow me and thus won’t clash with the new regs, who are recruiting more of their liberal friends from their old forum.

I guess my point is to other community owners, when creating your atmosphere at first.. be very careful.. and prepare for the future and think about any future members you may suddenly have register that may clash with your atmosphere!

Nicole Price February 27, 2009 at 7:00 am

Do you find it difficult to maintain your different personas without being artificial or is it easy to compartmentalize in that sense?

Paul November 27, 2009 at 2:59 pm

Sharing stories is very nice and can help the community to better know you. Thank you for sharing your story at the beginning of this article.

We are starting to get to know you better.

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