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5 Ways to Avoid Squashing Your Community Like a Dictator

Authors: Sarah Robinson Sarah Robinson
Posted Under: Customer Experience
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I was in a new client meeting not too long ago, 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 it heavily depends on its community network to spread its message and ensure success.

Lately, however, that community has floundered, 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 is no longer working and the leadership is at a loss as to why things are falling apart and how to stay the unraveling.

I asked how much the community itself is involved in creating community messaging and shaping community operations. I hadn’t finished getting the question out of my mouth when the VP 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.

And I wish I could say it was the first time I’d heard this kind of thinking coming from the C-suite. It is alarmingly commonplace. And it stems from one thing and one thing only: Fear.

Don’t Play 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: brand experience will suffer, brand image will suffer, brand message will get diluted, etc. Unfortunately, their strangle-hold of control is also strangling the very life out of the community they so desperately need.

The last time I checked, dictators do not inspire Fierce Loyalty and the Pride, Trust and Passion that goes along with it. Dictators inspire fear and dread. And followers will leave a dictator as soon as a safe and viable alternative presents itself (if they don’t overthrow you first).

I also understand that wading into the waters of releasing some control to the community produces its own kind terror and I don’t recommend suddenly jumping into that ocean. Instead, wade in with small steps that will 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

So often I see communities ask prospective members to answer a long list 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, get new community members in the door, and you’ll have plenty of time to get the answers to your questions. Here’s the super-simple registration page for joining 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 alike. You’ll see a great example of how to do this at

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 your own. Their ideas may also be better than your own, and you’ll never know if you don’t let them be heard. Countless chats like this are happening on Twitter that you can observe. You’ll find a massive list of them here:

4) Let Your Community Lead the Conversation

You must still be present to respond to questions, challenges, etc. but allow the bulk of the conversation to be guided by a volunteer leader (and resist the temptation to tell them what to do and how to do it).

If you don’t have any volunteer leaders for your gatherings, that’s a red flag that 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 many of them are run by a community member.

5) Encourage Community Leaders to Enforce the Rules

If a comment or action from a community member puts your brand or organization in imminent peril, handle it as quickly and deftly as you can. 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 got the reputation of a pitbull as they chased down and enforced their “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. But here’s the thing: 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?

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