Community tip #3: Learn to delegate

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Something we often strive to burn into the minds of newly minted community managers here at Taunt is the importance of delegation, and the required trust in those to whom you delegate tasks.

Back when we started our largest social site, something that took me a while to really buy into was the concept of leveraging your existing community to support itself. Having learned my lesson the hard way, I won't make that mistake again.

When we launched the site — our first reasonably high-volume community site, entirely custom-built — I was under the impression that site management, content and user moderation would be a snap. Hey, the site was done, right? Nothing more to do, really, aside from keeping users in line.

Learn to delegate
Learn to delegate

Of course, the first week of operation, I realized that we didn't have a profanity filter. Not necessarily a big deal on most sites, but ours was a creative writing site with an audience that ranged from schoolkids to seniors. The site got Digg'd and delicious'd on our first day (hey, remember that this was over five years ago), as well as garnering positive reviews on Mashable and ReadWriteWeb (among other sites) shortly thereafter. Of course, the associated techie community decided to have their way with my nascent site in unflattering ways.

Day One wasn't a good day, on a variety of fronts. Sure, we got press, but it wasn't the kind of press I was hoping for. We got the profanity filter sorted out as fast as we could, but it still caused some damage. Add in some unexpected downtime from our sub-par shared hosting environment, and that's more easily avoidable damage. It should be obvious by now that we weren't prepared for the kind of response and usage that we got on launch day. Lesson learned.

You're likely asking yourself now: where am I going with this?

TL;DR: If there are tasks you can offload reasonably easily — particularly simple, regular ones — do it. Don't dicker around wasting time with indecision. Learn from the mistakes of others, and be willing to give up a little control to save your sanity.

Delegate, delegate, delegate!

It took me six months to figure out that we needed help. Yeah, I'm a little dense.

At the time, I was bootstrapping a social network in my spare time, all the while working a day job, working evenings and weekends on my own site, barely sleeping, and trashing my health in the process. I even went in for a variety of ulcer (and related) tests at one point, my wife-to-be highly concerned that I might have one. I couldn't take the slightest break without spending the day wondering if something was going to explode while I was away from my development machine. The stress of the unknown was doing some major damage to my body — and psyche. And this is pretty small potatoes compared to some of the larger social sites out there.

Sudden popularity is not something to be trifled with. If we were to launch a new community site today, I'd be much better prepared. And I'd make sure I had help available if I needed it.

Six months of endless stress, followed by close to a month of indecision, and I decided to try and offload some of the more manageable responsibilities, if at all possible. I posted on our site's blog, requesting applications for moderators. Our users were (and still are) very passionate, but the blog wasn't highly read at that point, so we gave them a couple of weeks or more to get their responses in. Little did I know that this would end up being one of the simplest and best decisions we'd ever make for our community.

Within the first handful of days of posting my call for help, I had nearly twenty applications for moderator positions sitting in my inbox. All of them were elaborate, detailed, and answered all of our elaborate, situational questions in full. Not only that, we ended up with a great variety of (mostly) power users situated in all corners of the globe, spanning a wide range of timezones. This approach also provided us with a stable of future potential moderators we could call on if someone we picked quit in the future. I fielded all of the applications by hand, selected seven of them, and promoted them all to our newly minted "moderator" status within the following week.

My stress level decreased noticeably at this point (although there's always inherent stress in running a social site).

And for bonus points...

From a startup perspective, a great advantage to this tactic is that moderators pulled in from your community are generally happy to volunteer. Your moderators are happy enough to help you out simply for the credit and (localized) power or prestige involved, saving you time and money in the process. Compensation is often the last thing on their minds, and you can always find ways to reward effective moderators on your site without spending a dime. This is often key for early-stage startup communities who gain sudden popularity, but don't have the staff to handle their moderation concerns.

Additionally, something new community managers don't always realize is that having a moderation team that spans a multitude of timezones is ideal. While you may be asleep in Canada or the US, a troublemaker, spammer, or troll in Europe, Asia, or Africa may be causing your users massive amounts of grief with you blindly unawares. Having a diverse moderation team really helps in catching and resolving these types of situations early. Empowering your moderators to be able to solve problems proactively can also save you getting up in the middle of the night to address problems you could have easily delegated. More sleep is always a win in my books.

Finally, promoting moderators from within your community is often most successful as they are already heavily invested in a variety of things: seeing the site succeed; promoting themselves and their status or rank within the site; and generally feeling appreciated if they're already big fans of your product. Moderators inherently have a better, more effective venue for having their opinions heard, so your power users are ideal for the task in that they have an inherent desire to help your site develop and grow.

Uh-oh... what have I just done?

Of course, giving community members the equivalent of "god-mode" may seem scary at first, but there are a few ways to mitigate those fears:

  1. You can generally keep most mission-critical management functions to yourself (or to your in-house staff or team, if you manage a larger site) if your management and moderation roles are properly defined. Most off-the-shelf community packages allow for configuration of multiple user roles with their own distinct sets of permissions.
  2. Implement some sort of logging system. That'll allow you to keep track of what's going on when you're not around. If possible, add in a way to roll-back changes that you or your moderators have made. This gets a little more complex, technically, but can save you a lot of time and annoyance if something goes wrong (i.e. user error or a bug in your site code), or if one of your moderators goes on a rampage for no apparent reason (however unlikely that may be.)
  3. Be fully aware of your moderator staff's identities. Make this a mandatory requirement for becoming a moderator, and you'll cover your bases and keep the moderation staff in line with the knowledge that you know who and where they are.
  4. Peer moderation. While this gets a little more elaborate, many large-scale communities (think StackOverflow, Slashdot, or other sites in which users are promoted from within, often with multiple tiers) allow users to self-police, including the moderation staff. This can give you immediate feedback on how your moderation team is performing, along with advance warning if something is likely to go awry with one of your selections. Don't discount the power of communal feedback mechanisms.
  5. Backups! 'Nuff said.

Taking a load off

When it comes down to managing a large community, it's unlikely that you'll be able to handle the load on your own. Pulling in community members to act as your right hand(s) is a cheap, proven, and effective way to not only police your community, but encourage growth within it. When users see that they have the opportunity to advance within the hierarchy of your site, that gives them motivation to contribute more and generally be more active in positive ways. Trust your users and you'll reap the benefits tenfold.

If you're stuck dealing with daily, repetitive tasks that could easily be farmed out to a moderation team, why not take advantage of your community's passion and let them handle things themselves?

Have any community moderation tips for our readers? Feel free to post them in the comments.

Photo courtesy of MarilynJane on Flickr.

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