10-min read
Aug 4, 2021

The Art of Community Moderation: Your 7-Step Guide

Kirsti Lang

Moderating your community begins long before you hit the 'delete post' button.

Updated on May 12, 2022

'Proactive' moderation might seem like a bit of an oxymoron. How can you be proactive, when so much of community moderation is a response to what your members post and how they behave?

But smart community pros know that moderation starts long before you hit the ‘delete post’ button.

"While you can't ever totally eliminate trolls, spammers, and bad actors, you can make the process of moderating your community easier by building a strong culture," says Director of Community Education at Commsor Noele Flowers. "The culture of a space is what demonstrates most loudly to members what is valued, allowed, discouraged, and banned — even more so than community guidelines. Building a culture actually rests largely on what many classroom teachers do to establish norms: modeling good behavior. You can do that best with a proactive engagement plan."

That said, there is a necessary reactive element to moderation (which we'll unpack below too). But let's start with working smarter, not harder.

Proactive community moderation

1. Start with strategy

Community moderation really begins with a robust engagement strategy and content plan. In your proverbial moderation battle plan, think of these as your first line of defense. They provide direction and structure for your members, illustrating what sorts of discussions are acceptable, and how they're expected to engage and interact.

"Your best tool to ensure a healthy environment in your community is optimizing for quality. In this way, the Community Manager makes it very clear what the community is about, what the right things to post in there are," Noele says. "We set the tone."

Many community builders make the mistake of thinking it's already obvious how members should behave in their community, she adds. "However, usually with any community space, the options to use it are pretty open-ended — most community builders should shoot to have about three to five core uses in mind for their community, while remaining flexible."

2. Establish community guidelines

Showing members how to behave is great, but explicitly telling them what is acceptable and what's not is important too.

Setting these up can be daunting, but don't get bogged down in defining highly specific scenarios — you're never going to be able to anticipate every possible action or outcome. 

"Community guidelines are intended to be living documents," Noele says. "You may eventually add many more details to them as more specifics come up, but you don't necessarily need to include everything off the bat. Just be responsive."

Start with things that are broadly applicable to all communities, and then fold in a few things that are unique to your community. For example, if you're managing a community of entrepreneurs, you'll need to have specific guidelines on what members can and cannot post when it comes to self-promotion.

3. Create contingency plans

Even the best CM won't be able to anticipate every single issue that may arise in the community — but they can still think a few steps ahead.

👉 Actionable Tip

To do so, ask yourself these questions:

  • What are some things that could go wrong? For example, if you're managing a product or software community there's a chance you'll be on the front lines if it breaks.
  • What is the best way to deal with them? What would your members be after in this scenario? Likely reassurance that your team knows and is working as fast as they can to find a fix.
  • Whose help would you need? Your community might be the first place someone flags the issue. Which stakeholders do you need on metaphorical speed dial to let them know of the problem? And who is the best person to keep you updated on the fix as they work?

4. Emphasize community values, not just rules

Many communities will spell out things you're not allowed to do, or things you'll get removed from the community for. But the opposite approach — highlighting the things you do want people to do — is what will really help the community thrive.

In her time managing the Teachable community, Noele highlighted things like ‘abundance mindset’ and ‘success is in the details’ as community values. "That’s not at all to say you get removed if you don't have these things,” she says. “We're spelling out the best vision we have of the community — a place where people share specifically how they succeeded so it's replicable, and are friendly toward potential competition.

"We would use these values to prompt people toward making stronger contributions, like asking people follow-up questions to dig into the details, or congratulate people who demonstrated community values."

5. Prune content

If a post contradicts your community values — even if it doesn't explicitly violate your community rules — it's OK to remove or redirect it.

"This is most likely not something I would admonish a member for or remove their post immediately, but I do prune retroactively so that if new members are reading through all community posts, they don't see a weird pattern that contradicts the culture you're trying to build," Noele says.

"For example, if you've been explicit about the fact that the community is not a place to get product support, and people keep using the community for it, it helps to redirect them to where they can get product support, remind them how to use the community most effectively (in a friendly way!), and then remove their post when all is sorted so it doesn't become part of the record."

This might not be standard practice for all communities, Noele caveats. "But this is what worked best for me in my last project to set a consistent culture."

Reactive community moderation

6. Enforce (and adjust) your guidelines

Consistently enforcing your community rules and guidelines is essential for creating a happy, healthy, and safe community space for all your members.

As explicit as you've tried to make your guidelines, a scenario is not always cut and dried when it comes to violations. Trusting your gut is important, so if something doesn't quite sit well with you, that's a red flag. Ask for second opinions when you're unsure.

Have a willingness to modify your guidelines based on the realities of your community. Your initial guidelines can and should be adjusted as your community grows and evolves. Big changes to your rules warrant announcements and lots of little reminders, Noele says. For smaller changes, like refining of wording to make things easier to understand, a simple guideline reminder will do the trick.

7. Review posts at a reliable cadence

A great CM has eyes on everything — so setting a cadence to check it all out is a must. This might mean you set aside an hour every morning to review everything that popped up in the community in the last 24 hours, or you're diving in in bursts between meetings and other projects.

"This might be really surprising to CMs who have tended to spend almost all day moderating and engaging," Noele says. "This depends a lot on scale, because some contributors for huge communities specialize in and only do this work.”

But for the most part, any CM that has scope to engage in strategy work can and should usually pare down the amount of time they spend moderating and divert that time to proactive stuff — for starters, the steps above — which in turn positively affects moderation needs.

"It can be chicken and egg, but I usually encourage people to at least try making this leap," Noele says.

As you review, you'll decide:

  • What needs a response, and what doesn't.
  • Where you can prompt engagement from other members.
  • What violates your terms and needs to be removed.
  • What needs to be escalated, for positive or negative reasons, to other members of your team.

It's worth noting that some communities may require more frequent oversight. A support community, for example, might need someone available round the clock for customers. Communities that deal with sensitive topics, like mental health, may need a similar kind of coverage.

Getting help with community moderation

Know when to bring other people on

Not every CM will need to work with a team for moderation, but there might be situations when you need a helping hand. 

“I've had to expand moderation when a community was high-conflict and needed more round-the-clock coverage, or when there was an event that would lead to more activity and the need for extra bandwidth,” says Noele. 

“This is one of the few times when granular engagement metrics to help you get a better picture of where you might be stretched thin.”

Metrics such as busy times of the day and number of comments posted can indicate a pattern of uptick in activity that you might need help to stay on top of.

Decide who to enlist for help

How you choose a team to help can depend on multiple factors:

  • How often you need help: Is it daily or for a specific event?
  • What internal resources you have: Is your team active in your community, and is this a task they can add to their plate?
  • What external resources you have: Are there community members who’d be interested, would you prefer to hire contractors, and do you have a budget to compensate people for their time?

Depending on your answers to the above, you can choose to enlist team members, community members, or contractors to help.

👉 Actionable Tip

You can create a formal 'application' for community members or contractors. Be specific about responsibilities so that people understand what they’re applying for. Lay out how many hours per week they can expect to put in, and whether they should have prior moderation experience.

“When I've hired contractors in the past, I would do it like any other brief job application and include a work sample so I can see what their written tone is like,” says Noele.

You should also make it clear in the application what selected applicants can expect from you in terms of resources, training, and compensation. If you have a budget for moderation, consider hiring contractors instead of relying on community members to help with moderation. “I'm personally not in favor of volunteer moderation unless the community is completely not monetized,” says Noele. “If the community is run by a brand that is for profit, and they deem that additional moderation is necessary, that's a business expense and should be compensated.”

If you don't have a budget and want to enlist the help of community members, thank them for their time with badges in the community or swag. In either case, check with your legal team to make sure that your relationship with moderators doesn't constitute full-time or part-time employment.

Share resources for them to reference

As part of your onboarding for moderators, you’ll need to share a guide they can use to moderate effectively. This should include your community values and guidelines, how to best get in touch with you if needed, and your protocols for things such as escalation/de-escalation.

👉 Actionable Tip

Your moderation guide should answer questions such as:

  • Does everything need a response, or should you leave some things to the community? 
  • What should they do with support questions?
  • What your crisis and de-escalation procedures are.
  • Examples of what types of posts and language are acceptable, and what aren’t.

Like your community guidelines, your moderation guide should also be adjusted as more specific situations arise in your community.

Noele recommends developing a moderation guide or emergency playbook even if you aren’t going to work with external moderators regularly. “If you're one person, you need a fallback plan that anyone can execute if you're out of office,” she says.

Want to learn more?

The above is one of the concepts we unpack in C School, our 12-week Community Manager program. In this hands-on course, we offer education, mentorship, and independent practice — everything you need to land a full-time job in community.

If you’re interested in applying for a C School cohort, apply here if you’re looking for your first job in community. If you're already a CM, apply here. We've also launched a course to help experienced CMs transition into leadership roles. You can find out more here.

These are rolling applications, so you can apply now even if you want to participate in the future.

You can also email questions to cschool@community.club. This program was built to help community folks break into this field and make their start in a way that enables long-term growth. If it's up your alley, we can't wait to hear from you.

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