Flirting with success: Metaphors for understanding online community behavior

It’s about time you listened to your community culture.

 When you’ve been in a relationship long enough, you start picking up on your partner’s ticks. Over time you memorize their habits, their likes and dislikes, and maybe even their less endearing quirks. Online communities aren’t much different. They aren’t just people. They’re groups of people, so they’re a little more complex than one-to-one relationships. But they still need attention and care, and they each have their own habits and needs.

And so we meet your potential new beau, Mx Community Culture. They enjoy your product, they have a penchant for your brand, and they love when you listen to their side of the story. So what? If you really want to impress them with your community management skills, you’ll need to turn on the charm and make a point to understand your community’s culture.

Read between the lines.

With a human date, doing a lot of research beforehand might be a little creepy, but when your date is an online community, you get points for doing your homework before your first soiree. [Not to be all Facebook-stalker, but…] As soon as possible, explore the online community and read as many of the posts that have been written there as you can. You don’t have to read them all, but you’re trying to land a sweet date, so put some effort into it.

What are the posts about? You’ll notice patterns of discussion based around your organization’s products, services, events, and so on. You will also notice patterns of discussion around your organization’s mission and brand. In the case of companies, you’ll see discussions about product or service quality. With non-profits you’ll see strategic planning and peer-to-peer information sharing. As you explore the patterns of discussion, you’re beginning to understand your community’s culture [I’m linking this article again because you should read it].

Use these discussions as the foundation of your relationship with the community, and don’t ever stop listening to them. It doesn’t matter how much you nod and say, “Yes, dear.” Your community will notice if you stop taking them seriously.

Curvalicious? Def.

Now, we’ll assume that your “research” hasn’t completely skeeved out your potential partner and you’ve landed a date with the community of your dreams. When you walk into the restaurant, or cyber cafe, or wherever your date takes place, the first thing you notice is that your date showed up. Good. The second thing you notice is what your date looks and sounds like. Now I don’t want to sound too shallow here, but with communities, this stuff really counts.

When you shake your date’s hand and they say hi, you might be greeted by a voice like the screech of tires and fingernails on a chalkboard. [Don’t ask me why. Some communities are just that way. Take a look at YouTube.] Or, if you’re lucky, your community could be soft-spoken and mild-mannered like AARP. [Everyone digs some life experience.] No matter what your community’s tone, though, you’ll find that your community, like any person, has moods. Be prepared to deal with these moods, and if you can’t, then hopefully you can ask for help from the community’s parents. More on that in a second. For now, let’s focus on who’s in front of us.

And as your eyes meet the eyes of your one true community, you begin to notice other features. Not only does each community have its own tone, each community is unique in how it’s structured and in the way it functions and looks. [Spoiler alert: this is a really dry article. Emphasis on really and dry.] Some communities are split into multiple discussion boards each covering one or two topics. Some communities have only one or two discussion boards where people discuss every topic under the sun. How your community is structured depends largely on its purpose and your organization’s and members’ expectations.

Meet the Fockers.

Since we brought it up, let’s talk about the community’s parents: your organization—your closest allies, your bitterest enemies, and your greatest resource. As the progenitors of your community, your organization has shaped it from the beginning, defined its purpose, and fostered expectations for the bundle of joy you’re about to treat to a spaghetti dinner.

However, unlike normal human parents, your organization has documented every step in the life of your community. From the twinkle in the strategic plan’s eye to the beta test ultrasound to the Cesarean launch strategy, everything has been meticulously recorded. You’ll be expected to sit on the couch for a while, looking through the baby photos and studying the CliffNotes version [or maybe its unabridged] of your community’s life before mom and dad will let you out of their sight. But this isn’t a lesson in abject boredom. Just like you have to learn your life partner’s family dynamics to truly comprehend the full scope of your partner’s life, you need to know the strategic directives, key performance indicators, and other expectations handed over to you by your organization to really understand the community.

And the time you spend with the parents now will pay off in other ways as well. When your community goes off the rails, shaves its head, and moves to South Carolina, you’ll have someone to help clean up the mess and bring your beloved community back to its senses. In times of community strife, additional words from a CEO, board or committee member, or almost any other longtime member or employee of your organization will carry more weight than yours alone. It’s these folks who can help divert community disputes and troubleshoot problems. Be sure to espouse and maintain their support as they’ll be your saving grace more than once.


After dinner you realize at some point you forgot you were nervous, and the spaghetti dinner turned out to be a hit with your date and your wallet. Eventually, you’ll get to this point with your community, too. Once you and your new partner get into the swing of things, you’ll begin to anticipate your community’s needs, and you’ll find you know more about your community than you thought you did. Don’t fall back on your expectations, though. Any relationship is a work in progress, and every day you’ll need to approach your community as though you’re about to learn something new—because you will.

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  1. Pingback: Community manager toolkit: Metrics for tracking growth and engagement – Skariphos

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