What are associations for? People need to connect. To find peer-support, to engage in knowledge-sharing, and to discover development opportunities. They want to come together, united by common interests and concerns, towards a shared purpose.
As a safe, moderated, private space for exactly this, an online community therefore has the potential to be the epicenter of your association. Last week, we hosted a live discussion for community managers, led by Arianna Rehak, Catherine Hackney, and Luke Zimmer, to talk about handling conflict and encouraging a positive, productive environment in your online community. The session was very much collaborative, and the participants all contributed their insights – some of which have been captured in this article.
An effective online community can bring a tremendous amount of value to your association. Here are the three key takeaways from this inspiring and informative discussion:
When conflict, confrontation, or contrariness enters your online space, it can be tempting just to suppress or hide it. But for such negativity to be adequately addressed, it’s important to respond with honesty and clarity. In addition to any direct communication you might have with the person sparking conflict, negative posts are also an opportunity to impart a lesson into the community itself, serving as a tool for other members, as well as the person in question, to understand your terms.
When dealing with a post hostile to the association, for example, it is often beneficial to everybody for you to address the challenges face on, in the shared space. Why might a member lash out? What might prompt any bad online behaviour? Getting to the root of the problem will also help you establish trust and respect, which are key to community flourishing.
More often than not, a person will have a reason for being particularly negative. Perhaps they feel like they are not being heard, or they are not receiving the support they desire. Transparency demonstrates that you, as a community manager and as a face of the association, are listening actively to their concerns.
Share your successes
The community is so integral to your members, and often so woven into the fabric of their association experience, that it can go unnoticed by staff members in other departments – and knowledge of the community gets even more diffused as you move up the ladder towards high level board members.
“One thing we do is post testimonials from our members in our “all staff” forum.” – Jen Bowers Blanford, Community Engagement Coordinator, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
Buy-in across departments and along the ladder is so important: with all the staff behind the community as an integral part of the association’s project, you can begin to create a culture that sees community success as organizational success.
“Care about what members care about, and aim to educate your members on the mission of the organization…help them understand it’s actually their mission.” – Erin Hall, CAE, Product Manager, MemberClicks
Just as a fresh batch of cookies are a great way to curry favour, offering staff members “data cookies” in the form of testimonials and reporting helps them to see how the community has specifically helped each department. In return, each department’s movements give momentum for community activity in some way, and they should be thanked for this. The association’s goals should be reflective of the community’s goals, and vice versa.
By sharing sweet data cookies in the form of community successes, the more bitter pills – when something more disruptive has surfaced in the community – will be easier to swallow (Mary Poppins had it right, it seems).
Community Managers are people too
“The more the community feels that sense of connection with the [association and its] mission and purpose, the more likely they are to engage and speak up within the community leading to more honest and real conversations.” – India Heady, PR/Communications Coordinator, Western Veterinary Conference
Making mistakes, admitting vulnerability, and saying “I don’t know” are all part of being human. This is no bad thing – offering the human side to an organization, referring to yourself by your name, and speaking in the first person, means that your conflict management doesn’t become formulaic. Especially in such a private space, it fits the tone of the environment for you to be candid and personal.
As a microcosm, your online community lays the foundations for effective relationships both among members, and between members and the association itself. Taking it seriously, nurturing its members, and caring for its health, can create a ripple throughout your whole organization.