In another life, I was manager at a gym. I wasn’t a trainer — I was in terrible shape back then — I just looked after the facility and the people who used it. I didn’t learn much about fitness during the three years I worked there, but it was a crash course in how people form communities, how they use resources and how they observe (or ignore) rules.
Because when you strip away the tools and the Web 2.0 lingo, social media management isn’t all that different: You’re helping people form a community around shared resources and a common purpose. And if that community is going to be successful, you’ve got to get everyone to play by the rules.
Here are six hard-won lessons about how to help your community thrive by getting everyone to play by the rules:
Make the community own the rules. Don’t rely on common sense. Don’t post your community rules in an obscure corner of the room and trust that the message will get out. If you want the rules to be well understood, post them everywhere and talk about them often. The gym I worked at had a punching bag on the third floor. If you work a punching bag without gloves or a hand wrap of some kind, you run the risk of splitting a knuckle and getting blood on the equipment — which is a health hazard and a pain to clean up. But interrupting someone in the middle of punching something to lecture them about safety protocols is just awkward. The key to keeping the bag blood-free was in making sure there were plenty of signs making the rule visible and in talking to members of the community who used that resource, getting them to understand the value of protecting that resource and effectively making the community self-policing. You might still need to call a person out from time to time, but if the policy is clearly stated in writing and backed by the rest of the community, it’s much easier to enforce.
Apply the rules evenly. The only thing worse than having vague or unwritten policies is applying them selectively. Case in point: most gyms have dress codes for health, safety and community comfort reasons. Getting anyone to take the rules seriously means making everyone take them seriously. Getting an angry 350-pound man to put his shirt back on is tall order any day of the week. If he can point across the room to a petite young woman wearing open-toed shoes, he’ll feel discriminated against and there’s no way you’ll be able to get him to comply. Whatever rules your community has, make sure they’re clear and applied consistently so that no one feels singled out.
Take troublemakers aside. People feel more combative when they have an audience, because no one likes to lose in public. If you tell someone to do something in front of crowd, you’ve issued a challenge. If you take them aside, then you’re talking to a person, not a public ego. And you’re making a request, not issuing an ultimatum.
Put the chain of command to work for you. Some people like to push the rules to see what they can get away with — whether it’s sneaking a friend into the gym or violating a blog’s comment policy with self-promotional fluff — and they’re willing to argue with an underling if they think it’ll help them get their way. Calling in a second person to play “bad cop” administrator and lay down the law can help settle these spats, because it lets you, the community manager, be sympathetic without actually caving in to their demands — that decision has already been made and it’s way above your pay grade.
Shame is a powerful weapon. I once got into a physical altercation with a naked man while on the job. I found him in the men’s locker room, about 15 minutes after the gym had officially closed, taking his sweet time in the shower. When I told him he had to leave, he became aggressive — maybe he thought the awkwardness of the situation would make me leave him alone. Instead, I pulled out my walkie-talkie and called in the rest of my staff and the dynamic shifted dramatically as the man suddenly became ashamed of himself. When you’re alone with a person behaving badly, they’ve got the upper hand because you want them to stop acting out. When you draw a crowd’s attention to misbehavior, the crowd has the power to collectively shame the troublemaker into putting their clothes back on — sometimes literally.
Put the community first. Enforce every rule you’ve got. But don’t have more rules than you absolutely need. If you see someone using community resources in an unusual way, resist the impulse to clamp down and stamp the activity out. Maybe you’re watching the birth of a new sport or a new use for your content. Every time you step in to engage with a member, you should be working to make their experience better or to protect other members. Remember that your allegiance isn’t to the rules. It’s to the community.
How are you handling conflicts within your own social media community?