April 2011
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Day April 20, 2011

The hard work of building community online.

As more and more of my clients take the plunge into using social media as a serious outreach strategy, the question of control is invariably one of the first to come up. Foundations and nonprofits are used to deciding how and when they share information with their constituents, and moving from a broadcast model to two-way communications can be daunting. What if people write something inappropriate on our Facebook page? What if people attack us in the comments section of a blog post? There’s no question that social media involves allowing the kind of honest and open interaction with people who care about your work that can often be uncomfortable. But it doesn’t mean you have to just accept the discomfort. Actively shaping the kind of online community you want– whether on your Facebook page, in the comment section of your organizational blog, or in an online forum on your website– is a key part of managing your brand today.

And few people know more about the business of building online community that Matt Haughey (or mathowie to his friends online– a rather large group). Haughey was one of the original programmers of Blogger, and later the creative director of Creative Commons, but his real claim to fame is as the founder of Metafilter, an eleven-year old online community with more than 50,000 active members. What sets Metafilter apart from the Diggs and the 4Chans of the world is the consistently high quality of the discussion, whether on the main site (where users share posts featuring “the best of the web”) or the advice sub-site, Ask Metafilter, where users can get thoughtful answers to questions ranging from who the best stereo repairman in San Francisco is to where to find interesting visualizations of the internet– two queries that Metafilter users have answered for me in the past. And all of this activity– thousands of postings a day– is refereed by a staff of only four moderators.

A supportive, self-regulating community of that size doesn’t happen by accident, and Haughey shared some thoughts about what goes into making it a reality in a talk he gave at last month’s South by Southwest conference. A few of his points seemed broadly applicable to the online work of many nonprofits, so I thought I’d share them here.

Lesson 1. Be your best community participant

A successful online community requires the active participation of the people who are running it– this is most definitely not a “set it and forget it” activity. That means making sure you’re responding to the community. You need to stay engaged with the conversation by thanking people where thanks are due, challenging points with which you disagree, and generally modeling the kind of behavior that you want to see in your community– a task that only becomes more important as the number of people engaged in the conversation increases. Making sure you have the support you need from colleagues to monitor and respond to what’s being shared with you is critical to maintaining a healthy online community.

Lesson 2. Don’t be overprotective

Your natural inclination when running any kind of online community will be to clamp down when the conversation is headed in a direction that makes you uncomfortable– and that goes double for organizations that need to protect carefully nurtured brands. Haughey’s advice is to resist this temptation, and give the community room to question, explore and engage with difficult topics– that’s what makes them a place users want to be a part of. Rather than deleting comments as a first resort, cultivate relationships with community members who can help you maintain the kind of atmosphere you want, and consider formalizing their role as moderators. This kind of self-policing community is far more vibrant– and ultimately easier to maintain– than a tightly controlled one.

Lesson 3. Set goals

Another key point from Haughey’s talk is the importance of setting goals for your online community. What does success look like? Is it a Facebook page liked by 1,000 people? Blog posts that attract hundreds of comments? Or a community that can be moved to action with a tweet? Whatever your goals are, there are metrics you can use as indicators of success, and data you can mine from your web analytics to help find the patterns that indicate what’s working, and what’s not. Being strategic about building community online is not only possible, it’s vital to getting it right.

All of which leads to a final point I took from Haughey’s presentation, though it’s one he doesn’t make explicitly: the business of building community online is hard work. More than half of his talk is devoted to the backend tools that he and his fellow moderators use to manage the massive amounts of information being shared on their community– automated scripts that help highlight the good and flag what needs correcting. Yet it’s complicated, time-consuming work, even for someone with these tools, and eleven years of experience.

It’s worth it, though. Whether you view success as the creation of a thoughtful,vibrant community, as Haughey does, and especially if it’s in the service of a larger goal: creating an engaged, active network of supporters of your work by fostering authentic dialogue.