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Acting as Your Community’s Referee

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No matter what your niche, you’re always going to have community members who don’t agree with one another. Sometimes, it can get personal and nasty. I see this most often in forums, but if you don’t have forums on your website, you may see disputes popping up in your comments section, or even on social networking sites. Too often, bloggers are asked to serve as a community referee.

The trick is that you want to make all readers feel welcome and able to express their opinions while still diffusing a volatile situation. When two members (or groups) of a community are hashing it out, other members, especially new people who are coming to your site for the first time, may feel like outsiders. They don’t comment because they don’t want to be attacked or take sides in any way. Being a community ref is essential to building readership. Otherwise, you’re fostering a really negative atmosphere on your blog.

At the same time, too much moderation can also be a problem. If you delete comments or forum posts from your more vocal members, you run the risk of killing your community fairly quickly. No one wants to be part of a website where they can’t speak their mind. That’s part of what blogging is all about – interaction and opinion.

Keeping all of that in mind, here are a few tips you can use to successfully ref your community:

  • Have a clear comment/forum policy. Readers should be aware if you’re going to delete or edit their comments because they’re inappropriate. Your policy could include things like “no name calling” and “no using the f-word.” Make sure your policy fits in the spirit of the site.
  • Talk to community members before a ban. Banning someone from commenting or posting in the forums might be for the best if they’re disrupting the entire community. Before you do so, however, reach out to that individual with your concerns. Make sure you explain what they’re doing that you don’t like (for example, calling another member an idiot), and ask them to clean up their act. Give them a chance to do so.
  • Close comments if the debate gets too heated. Sometimes, two sides just talk in circles, which just wastes everyone’s time. Consider closing comments if things start to get nasty, but make sure you update your post with a note about why you’ve done so. This should be a last resort!
  • Invite the two members to a debate. When the whole Thesis vs. WordPress crap was going on a few months ago, the leaders of both sides were invited to a one-on-one debate. It definitely diffused the situation a little and allowed both sides to give clear statements on their opinions without name-calling.
  • Avoid taking sides. It’s your blog, so you should make your opinion known, but avoid taking sides in an us-vs-them type of way. Make every effort so understand and acknowledge the other person’s point of view, even if you don’t agree. Don’t lose readers because you get caught up in the drama of having to be right.
  • Be consistent with your policies. If you’re going to delete/edit comments, posts, etc. or go as far as to ban people, make sure you’re doing it to everyone who breaks the rules. Be fair, not playing favorites because you agree with someone’s position or they are a long-time reader.

Luckily, most communities are pretty self-regulated. In the vast majority of niches, you don’t often have to act as a ref simply because communities won’t engage sometime who is antagonizing everyone else. If you need to, though, don’t back own. You’ll build a strong community by serving as a ref, not by ignoring the problem.


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  • Corina

    Great article and sound advice… another thing I’d mention is that there are lots of tools out there to help manage community and comments, that will also make your users feel more engaged and important. Monitoring community content and engagement metrics at the same time is tough, but I’d worked with some fantastic tech tools out there that make life much easier re: community management and quality.

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