5 ways to not run your online community like a dictator

Do you let your fans lead conversations about your brand, or do rule your online communities with an iron fist? Take this advice and loosen your grip.


I was in a new client meeting discussing the strategy around building fierce loyalty into a failing community. If I said the name of the organization, you would instantly recognize it. It is huge and heavily depends on its community to spread its message and ensure success.

Lately, however, that community has floundered. It’s stuck in old methodology and unable to connect with a fresh audience. I see this a lot in long-established organizations. What used to work so well doesn’t work any longer, and leadership is at a loss as to why things are falling apart, and how to stop the unraveling.

I asked how much the community itself is involved in creating messaging and shaping operations. I hadn’t finished asking the question when the vice president of marketing practically growled at me, “We dictate the message of the community. We dictate the operations of the community. If we don’t, we cannot control the brand.”

I physically winced.

I wish I could say it was the first time I’d heard this from the C-suite. It is alarmingly commonplace, and stems from one thing: fear.

Don’t be the dictator

Organizations want to play the role of dictator because they are afraid of what could happen if they don’t. They have a long list of catastrophes that are certain to ensue: the brand’s image will suffer, the brand message will get diluted, etc.

Unfortunately, their stranglehold of control also strangles the life out of the communities they desperately need.

The last time I checked, dictators do not inspire fierce loyalty and the pride, trust and passion that go along with it. Dictators inspire fear and dread. Followers will leave a dictator as soon as a safe and viable alternative presents itself—if they don’t overthrow him first.

I understand releasing some control to the community produces its own kind of terror, and I don’t recommend you suddenly jump into that ocean. Instead, wade in with small steps that allow you and the community to get used to this new way of operating.

Here are some ideas to get you started:

1. Make it easy to join.

I often see communities ask prospective members to answer long lists of questions before they can become members. Of course brands want that data, and I understand. But who is the joining process about—you or your potential member?

Simplify the joining process and get new community members in the door. You’ll have plenty of time to get the answers to your questions. Here’s the super simple registration page to join the My Community Manager forum.

2. Feature community content.

Even if it isn’t perfectly on message, featuring content from your fans and community members provides a sense of ownership and pride. You can bet they’ll want to show off their contributions to members and non-members. See a great example of how to do this at Ikea Hackers.

3. Engage in open chats.

Bring a question or two to get the conversation started, and then spend most of your time listening. It’s during these open chats that potential leaders of the community will emerge. Yes, they may have ideas that are different from yours, but their ideas may also be better. You’ll never know if you don’t let them be heard.

Countless chats like this are happening on Twitter, and you can observe them. Here’s a massive list.

4. Let your community lead the conversation.

You must still be present to respond to questions, challenges, etc., but allow a volunteer leader to guide the bulk of the conversation. (Resist the temptation to tell him or her what to do and how to do it.)

If you don’t have any volunteer leaders, that’s a red flag you must do more to increase the feeling of ownership among your members. If you watch some of the chats in the list above, you’ll see that community members run many of them.

5. Encourage community leaders to enforce the rules.

If a comment or action from a community member puts your brand in imminent peril, handle it as quickly and deftly as you can. But under most other circumstances, try to let your dedicated community members make it clear that that’s not how your community rolls, and hope it discourages bad behavior in the future.

This summer, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) got the reputation of a pitbull as it chased down and enforced its rules with the many small and minor rule breakers. Of course it’s important to maintain brand integrity, but the IOC burned many bridges and blew the opportunity to build fantastic new ones.

Above all, it’s important to value the relationship with the member at fault over enforcing the rules.

If these ideas make your heart race with trepidation, I get it. Letting go of control and allowing room for failure can be a scary proposition.

You can keep your tight fist around your community if you want to watch it die a slow and painful death, or you can take a risk. Taking the risk can pay huge dividends and give you a more humanized organization filled with fiercely loyal members.

Which of these ideas will you try first?

Sarah Robinson is president and CEO of Sarah Robinson Co. A version of this article originally appeared on Convince & Convert.

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