Community Preserved, Lessons Learned

I use this blog to write about online community management best practices and to promote others in the field that have good advice to share. In this post, I’d like to recount a recent experience that reminded me how useful these best practices can be.

I manage a network of online communities that are member-created and member-run. People come to us, create a forum, then (hopefully) grow and manage that community. As you might imagine, we have some good forum hosts and some hosts that aren’t so great. We also have some real superstars.

I recently found myself in the uncomfortable position of having to take disciplinary action against one of these superstar forum hosts and remove that host from the forum he created and built.

At Delphi Forums, the company I work for, we don’t discuss disciplinary actions publicly, so I’m not in a position to say much about the circumstances that prompted us to block this host from his own forum. But I can discuss the steps we took afterwards, and I think these actions provide some useful lessons for community managers.

After removing the forum host, we had a dilemma. Should we shut down the forum? Should we make it read-only so that the archive of information would be preserved but active moderation would no longer be required? Or should the forum live on as an active community?

This forum was launched more than 15 years ago and is well known in its niche. Because of the long history of the forum, it’s archival value, and the fact that its members remained active and engaged, I felt we needed to act to keep it open. So I posted a message in the forum explaining that we were forced to remove the host and that we had taken over management of the forum temporarily.

Some understood the move to take over the forum, given the circumstances that led up to the action. Others greeted my presence with suspicion. But nobody was happy about the turn of events. We needed to win the trust of the members and set about finding a new host.

From the very start, we stressed that we wanted to hear input from members as to what to do next. When I posted a message about finding a new host, a leading member asked if they would have a say in the decision, or if the new host be appointed by Delphi Forums. I replied that I was very interested in hearing from forum participants on how this ought to be handled and asked him for his thoughts. His reply served as the basis for how the new host was selected.

In the ensuing days, we worked with members to hammer out a process for picking the new forum leader. The person we selected as the new host is knowledgeable in the subject matter of the forum and has a knack for getting members to interact with him and others in the forum. As I write this, the community is buzzing with activity and the new host is engaged in a spirited give-and-take with the members on how to manage the forum going forward.

Given the circumstances, we couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.

This episode taught me some important lessons and reinforced some of my longstanding views on community management:

Be transparent. From the start, I knew I would have to go into the forum, explain what we had done, and stick around to answer every single question the members had. While I wasn’t willing to answer some questions because they would have violated our privacy guidelines, I did my best to explain why the old host had been removed and why we acted as we did.

Acknowledge everyone’s point of view. Some members wondered why it took us so long to act. Others expressed anger that we had taken action against an individual who had worked so hard to build the community. I responded to everyone with empathy, making sure each member knew that they were heard, even if I didn’t agree with what was being said.

Be polite to a fault. There were plenty of  angry comments from members who felt we were mishandling the situation. I responded in the most professional, non-confrontational way I could. In the end, one of our harshest critics posted a message saying the way we were handling the situation impressed him, and after insisting he would quit the forum, decided to stick around and participate.

Respect the traditions of the community. The members of this community are involved in a hobby that has a formal system of societies and clubs that elect their leaders. So while we had never selected a forum host based on a vote of the membership, we made an exception in this case. After working with the members to determine how the voting process would work, we created a process that would allow the members to cast secret ballots to elect a new host.

Praise in public, criticize in private. As I said, the forum host in question had been a valued member of our community network. From the start I refused to do anything but praise this individual. Members who criticized our decision in less than charming terms were met with nothing but politeness. For the most part, this kept the conversation positive and got members to approach the host replacement process with an open mind.

Have you faced a thorny community management problem? How did you resolve it? Please share in the comments section below.

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