Editorial or Governance? Community Management for the Social Age

One of the most powerful things you can do as a community manager is empower customers to share their stories. Marketers have been using ‘happy customer’ success stories for years. What is the difference, then, in creating a platform for users to share their own stories? It’s a simple question of editorial vs. governance practices.

Moving into the social media environment has been uncomfortable at best for most traditional marketers. Marketing people are, out of necessity, detail-oriented and controlling. When you are speaking on behalf of your employer, you had better consider every choice of words carefully. Your punctuation and grammar must be spot-on. You must consider the contextual connotation of every word you publish.

Public relations publishing is a world away from community engagement. When you submit a press release, you make sure it’s 100% polished, has been approved by every manager between you and the CMO (and probably your legal team), and eventually sent to the publishing team. You typically don’t encounter personal responses — your name may not even be on the by-line!

Community engagement requires a whole different level of personal responsibility and the ability to think on your feet to respond with sensitivity to context and controversy. (This is part of the reason I write about empathy so often.) There is no multi-round approvals process when you’re responding to someone’s comment on your blog post. There is also no editorial red pen to control what gets published, especially by members external to your organization. So, now you have rogue authors publishing content under your logo header that makes you cringe. Whether riddled with grammatical mistakes or tackling raw topics, like complaints about your product or service. What’s a community manager to do?

Your initial urge may be to “shut it down.” You might think about sending edits to the author’s post to the author to improve the grammar or give the author more guidance on how to make their content publish-worthy. Don’t. You might consider trying to convince a disgruntled customer to remove their post and take it up with you privately. Don’t. (This is an opportunity to publicly turn an unhappy customer into an advocate – don’t miss it!)

Two issues you will run into if you give in to your inclinations on this:

(1) scalability: Once membership gets to a certain size (for SAP, this is in the millions), you will not be able to individually red pen edit everyone’s posts for them.

(2) censorship: People come to your community to express themselves, whether this means what or how they write. e.g. We have some amazing bloggers for whom English is not their first language. In some cases, they prefer to speak in less-than-grammatically-perfect English because it is more representative of their speech. Some like extra guidance, some don’t. It’s best to err on the side of caution.

Instead, the prevalent guidance of community management must, in today’s self-publishing world, be to set clear and minimal guidelines — then, get out of the way. A healthy community will self-police, like the open market, educating new users and reminding seasoned users in the ways and values of the community. If not directly flagged by the community at large, “bad” content will still receive low engagement, which is a punishment in itself and an incentive for the author to do better next time.

Obvious problematic behavior, such as spamming, harassment, and plagiarism, are clear opportunities for governance. Grey areas start to appear when you attempt to apply editorial guidelines to content. What is “good enough”? Is the author expected to follow your individual writing style and voice? Nothing is going to feel 100% right when written by someone else if you insist they meet your personal writing standards. Instead, focus on keeping out the truly damaging stuff (see: “obvious problematic behavior” list above) and let the free market sort itself out.

Note: Depending on the type of community you are running and the culture of that community, you may need to add additional guidelines to ensure the type of content your members come for is available and prominent. For example, if you run a support or developer community, sales content is not appropriate. Again, the intention is to do the minimum necessary to maintain the value to your membership.

Remember, fellow community managers, you’re not running a newsletter or a PR office. You’re running a cafe. Don’t eavesdrop on everyone’s conversations, correcting their grammar and policing their topics. (Yes, you should still kick out the guy who randomly shows up and goes to every table asking if your patrons want to buy a rose.)

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