Aaron Sumner


SXSW Interactive 2009 Day Five Takeaways: Building Strong Online Communities

I've been going non-stop back in Lawrence since returning from Austin late Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning. I've still got some South by Southwest-related reflections to share. I'll start with one of the better ones I attended, Building Strong Online Communities. The panel, made up of Ken Fisher of Ars Technica, Alexis Ohanian of Reddit, Drew Curtis of FARK, and Erin Kotecki West of BlogHer shared several lessons learned on how to manage online communities (and when to let them do their own thing). There was some overlap from an earlier session on community management, but here are some takeaways:

  1. Community-oriented functions like comments can be effective crowd sourcing tools. Comments on Ars Technica features started out via a desire to reduce the amount of e-mail received by the site founders, hoping community members could begin answering others' questions.
  2. Watch for the "tyranny of well-organized minorities:" Balance complaints by considering the number of complaints to overall community activity. Don't forget the silent majority, though--you can reach out to them, but ultimately, trust your gut. After all, it's your site.
  3. E-mail doesn't scale well as a feedback mechanism. Twitter may prove to scale better.
  4. Give users the tools to take the community where they want. Use transparent feedback mechanism. Give people a place to criticize outside of general discussion areas. Use transparent feedback mechanisms.
  5. I liked this (paraphrased) version of FARK's terms of service: "It's my house, and I want you to have a good time at my party, but if you start tearing things up, get out."
  6. When making changes that affect your community, ask, don't tell. Give people a heads-up and involve them in decisions--but don't listen to them too much. You may need to tell people to "get over it," or at least suggest they'll get used to it. (The frequent backlashes every time Facebook unveils a change come to mind.) If people are still up-in-arms about a change after two weeks, then do something about it.
  7. The panel had mixed feelings about using surveys to gauge community reactions, but either way you look at it, be transparent and share the results of your survey with the community--even if those results show that you were wrong.
  8. Start small. Start with focused communities; don't create "ghost towns" by over-planning up front.
  9. Learn to take criticism; don't get sucked into flame wars. Community managers need to remain as neutral as possible and handle arguments with grace and calm. Multitasking is required.
  10. Own the conversation by having it on your own site, but watch for conversations happening elsewhere (Twitter, etc.).
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