Are you strangling your community?

social fish
social fish

This is a guest post by Sarah Robinson, who wrote this fantastic post for us a while back. Her new book is out and I asked her to share some thoughts about community building, a topic dear to our hearts. BUY THE BOOK– FIERCE LOYALTY: UNLOCKING THE  DNA OF WILDLY SUCCESSFUL COMMUNITIES.


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.

But lately 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.

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 et 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)    Simplify the process of joining your community. So often I see communities ask prospective members to answer a long list of questions before they can become members. They want that data!! 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)    Ask for and feature content submitted by members of your community. Even if it isn’t perfectly “on message”, featuring content like this gives community members a sense of ownership and pride. You can bet they’ll want to show off their contributions – members and non-members alike. You’ll see a great example of how to do this at

3)    Hold regularly scheduled Open Chats with your community. 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. Countless chats like this are happening on Twitter that you can observe. You’ll find a massive list of them here:

4)    Hand over the responsibility of leading these chats and other regular community gatherings to members of the community. 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 and how to do it.).

If you don’t have any volunteer leaders for your gatherings, that is 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)    If someone breaches the rules or the parameters of community membership, try not to squash them like a bug. If it puts your brand or organization in imminent peril, handle it as quickly and deftly as you can. Above all, value the relationship with the member above enforcing the rules.

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.

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 and watch it die a slow and painful death or you can take a risk. A risk that can pay huge dividends and give you a more humanized organization filled with Fiercely Loyal members.

Which of these ideas will you try first?!

More Recipes
social fish
Go to the Social Media Risk Management Conference – Dec 13-14, NYC