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If you feel as though you are running out of ideas or interesting ways to engage your online community, allow me to offer this: Fall back on the human condition.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past year, since launching and managing is that there are many many ways to connect with others simply based on the fact that we’re all human beings.

We may not share the same hobbies, live in the same neighborhoods or share the same passions, but we are all living and breathing, and most of us want to keep it that way.

So if you’re at a loss for content, hone in on the things that affect us all and center conversations around that. Most members of local online communities have shared interests, therefore water-cooler topics abound and there’s often plenty to work with. Especially if you’re extremely creative.

But those one-size-fits-all issues certainly don’t emerge on a daily basis and even if they do, the interest level ebbs and flows and you can never be too sure how much traction any conversation will pick up.

Ask yourself a few questions and you’ll be sitting on a ton of ideas. What are people angry about? What am I angry about. Who’s upset, and why? The answers to any of those three questions can start one heck of a conversation if asked the right way.

Just last week, I asked my members if they’d notice a drop in gas prices that morning. A simple question, yes…but one that addresses an issue that plagues us all. Trust me, it works.

Give it a try, and do come back and share your results.

It’s no secret that I am passionate about user comments on news stories. I am an advocate for user-generated content and building online communities. I take every opportunity I find to comment on blogs about comments.

I believe I will continue to do that for quite some time. At least five years. Well, maybe two. We’ll just have to see what happens after that. In an ideal world, most news organizations will have realized that they need to embrace comments and hire the staff to manage them by then. If that happens, I will have to find another soap box, but that’s okay. I’m sure I will.

Providing the community with a platform is the ultimate community service, in my opinion, and it’s an important and highly valuable service. It just has to be managed. Set your expectations ans uphold them. Create a community standard! It’s not that hard.

So if you see a post about comments, or you write a post about comments within the next two years, send me the URL so I can add my two-cents. Or, just leave it in the comments area below.

There is a great deal of talk about user-submitted comments on news stories taking place all over the blogosphere. Some say nix them, like that Gawker piece that annoyed me to no end. Others say don’t. Some say they are of immense value, and I tend to agree.

People want to share their thoughts and engage with others. That’s what this social media thing is about right? So how can you actively promote social media, and the benefits of starting a dialog, or consider yourself any kind of “community servant” and discount user-comments? Think about it.
It just doesn’t make sense.

I’ve seen some of the most intricate, thought-provoking comments on news stories. I’ve seen exchanges between the community that command attention and that would easily stand alone as an individual blog.
On the flip side, I’ve also seen some of the most unbelievably crude comments riddled with so much hate that it made my skin crawl.
So the answer is this. If you value comments, as you should…KEEP THEM.
But clean them up.
This is an area that newspapers or any news organization can easily get a handle on.
Hire moderators. Elevate the conversation and show the community that you want to provide an outlet and positive experience.
Maybe it’s me, but this really isn’t rocket science. It’s simply innovation.

I read a lot of blogs yesterday referencing this story in the Wall Street Journal. The title is: “Why do Online Communities Fail” and it offers reasons why, you guessed it…most online communities fail.

I know it’s true, but I spent a lot of time reading the comments on several blogs and posting my own, and what I learned is that there are a lot of online community managers out there who are extremely committed to their communities and doing what they have to do to make them thrive.

Those comments gave me hope, and also validated my efforts and the hours I pour into even when I should be doing anything but.

Here’s a comment I left on this blog:

I will continue to stress the importance of the community manager’s role. This role should be filled by a committed individual who will reach out to the community, encourage them, value them and make sure they know their presence is appreciated. If there is no one actively engaging with users, and doing so with a purpose…the community will cease to exist.

As I think about this further, it seems that the work that goes into managing an online community and attracting new members has been highly underrated. I don’t think that it is yet common knowledge how much it takes to do this job and do it well.

THAT is a major reason online communities fail. Did I conduct a survey to come to that conclusion, no? Do I have adequate support material to backup this claim? Maybe.

Do I have a gut feeling that this is the truth? Absolutely.

Janet at Beeline Labs asked me in one of the comment forums: “What else do you find makes a great community manager?” My answer: “A thick skin, sense of humor and an iron hand when hard decisions need to be made. Empathy would help, and a willingness to be an advocate for users.”

Well here’s one I failed to mention: A keen sense of knowing when to simply, trust your gut.

When is the last time you made a suggestion to a member in your community? I hope it’s been within in the last day or so. If not, you’re missing out on opportunities that could grow beyond your wildest dreams.

Suggestions come in many forms. They can be direct or indirect. But most importantly, they must be targeted and somewhat flattering.

I read a comment left on a blog by one of my users that was hilarious. I immediately left a comment for him telling him how funny it was and suggesting that he write a blog about it and include the whole story.

That blog was posted in less than 10 minutes.

I told another member that I would love to see pictures of the garden she’s always talking about in the blogs, and voila…an image gallery soon followed. This member is now one of the most active posters, uploading bi-weekly image galleries of her garden. I’ve rewarded her by placing the galleries on the home page, increasing her exposure in the community.

As community managers we often get so caught up in our tasks that we forget we have a very influential position. And from time-to-time, it should be exploited for what it is.

Ask a cyclist to blog about safety while biking. If you see someone discussing books, ask them to create a group for book lovers if your site offers that feature. The clues are all around you, just open your eyes and see them for what they are.

If you’re looking for an easy way to get your community members talking, write a quick blog complaining about an issue in your life and they will quickly commiserate. It’s human nature. Throw out a topic and let them run with it. Keep in mind though, that it It has to be something they can relate to, so don’t go on and on about something that matters only to you and expect people to care enough to jump on board.

Were you stuck in traffic this morning? If so, you weren’t the only one. Complain about that, and stories of individual traffic woes will follow. Trust me. l did it just today in my editor’s blog.

My complaint of choice? Gas prices. Who doesn’t want to complain about that?

Try it. Everyone can stand a little free commiseration. And do come back and share your success story.

When it comes to creative name-calling and malicious monikers, leave it to online community-dwellers and those who hang out in the comments section of our news stories.

In addition to managing the online community, I also supervise a team of moderators responsible for approving and disapproving comments connected to our news stories. We have policies, continue to create new ones and opt for civil discourse. But that does not stop people from attempting to get away with murder.

And you know, sometimes it’s just downright funny. So, given the fact that most folks appreciate a bit of comic relief…I will attempt to provide some.

Here are some of the names we’ve seen for our presidential candidates. Forgive me if you’ve seen some before.

John McCain

  • Insane McCain
  • McSame
  • Mc Grumpy
  • McBush
  • McShame

Barack Obama

  • Obamanation
  • Nobama
  • Obama Yo Momma
  • Obamma

And not to leave out our current POTUS…The latest is simply, “Bushtard.”

And on an unrelated note we most recently received this comment on a story about a man who was suing another man for having an affair with his wife.

“Maybe she was a skank. They’re out there you know.” Some days I just LOL in my office.

Now it’s your turn. Do tell…

What have you seen out there in the land of comments?

I love it when the members of my community make suggestions. Most of the time. It tells me that they care enough to want to see improvements or a better user experience, and I think that’s a good thing.

Some ideas are good. Some aren’t. Some I definitely consider, and others are simply way off base. BUT, no matter what I think about the suggestions, I acknowledge them, thank the member for caring enough to make a suggestion and let them know that it has been “duly noted” or “added to my list.” Depending on the topic, I may even divulge that it’s been under discussion and we’re considering it.

How’s that for non-committal?

But seriously, what I’ve found is that most members just want to be heard. They want to know that you value their input and that when push comes to shove, they matter.

Do your community members matter? If you don’t know the answer to that, neither do they.

Take some time to let them know, and see what a difference it can make.

One of the most important aspects of my job as Managing Editor of is cultivating a relationship with users. I’ve learned that it’s only as tough as you make it and that you can connect with people online in many ways. Often it’s just by sharing a blurb about your own life or even asking a simple question about theirs.

In an effort to grow our new GROUPS feature, I’ve created several groups that I am pouring content into on a daily basis. One group is geared toward teachers and the other focuses on Brides-to-be. Good idea, right given the fact that there will never be a shortage of either?

Well, just last week I wrote several simple blogs posing simple questions, but questions I knew everyone would want to chime in on. Here are a two examples:

The results were great, and by reading all of the comments, I was able to come up with slew of new ideas.

So my advice is this: When it comes to connecting with users, don’t “over-think it.”
Start a conversation, and sit back and watch it grow. Consider the community a huge group of your friends, and act accordingly.

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July 2008

Just so you know

This is a personal blog. The opinions expressed here represent my own and not those of my employer. Feel free to challenge me, disagree with me, or tell me I’m completely nuts in the comments section of each blog entry.


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