A Strong Online Community Starts by Supporting Community Managers
Associations recognize the value of building online member communities. However, cultivating these spaces requires respect for both members and staff managing the platform. One community manager shares her recommendations for how associations can offer support.
Keeping an eye on conversations and content in online communities is not for the faint of heart. Content moderators for various social media platforms have reported experiencing burnout, as well as emotional and psychological trauma from reviewing the darker side of the internet.
Although Tirza Austin, senior manager, online community, at the American Society of Civil Engineers, may not need to censor disturbing images, she does need to be online and available nearly 24/7 for platform users.
“When I started at ASCE, I felt that every member should get a response to submissions within 24 hours,” Austin said. “That approach really wore me down.”
Over time, she developed healthy boundaries to safeguard her mental health, such as waiting until the following Monday to respond to a weekend submission.
Austin was able cultivate these skills thanks in part to support from ASCE and its volunteer leaders. With five years under her belt, she has several recommendations for how associations can support their moderators and build stronger online communities.
Supervisors should recognize the stressors involved in monitoring an online member community. For instance, practices that are often used on larger social media platforms may not hold true in association communities.
“We don’t remove content or block someone right away,” Austin said. “They’re members who are paying to participate in this platform, and we have a relationship with them.”
That means community managers may feel less comfortable stepping back from work while on vacation, during off hours, or over the weekend. “As an association moderator, my role is to avoid escalation,” Austin said. “It’s about ensuring that everyone plays nice without overly censoring the conversation.”
To help staff feel safe and supported in this role, supervisors should ensure that these employees take breaks and work with them on how to manage the platform while they’re away. They should also have frequent discussions about lessons learned, well-tested strategies, and new ways to approach difficult situations.
Sturdy Chain of Command
As part of their work, community managers may receive negative comments from frustrated members who had a post rejected. When this happens to Austin, she knows she can fall back on her editorial board—ASCE’s volunteer committee that is responsible for making decisions about questionable content.
Having a volunteer committee review the post and decide next steps lifts the burden of responsibility from staff moderators. “I tell [frustrated members] that a committee of their peers made the decision about their submission,” Austin said.
If a situation gets out of hand, having a clear policy in place that includes both association and volunteer leadership will also help staff feel protected.
“ASCE’s appeal process includes executive leadership, which is my boss, the chief communications officer, and her boss, the executive director,” Austin said. “If there’s still a problem, the complaint would go to ASCE’s executive committee.”
While this situation has never occurred at ASCE, having these guidelines in place shows employees that volunteer and staff leadership have their back. “The editorial board is supportive, as are my boss and executive director,” Austin said. “They all recognize the value of this community.”
Associations should also provide support to volunteer moderators who help oversee online communities. At ASCE, this support takes several forms, but it ultimately comes down to respect.
For example, if the editorial board doesn’t agree with each other on decisions, staff will take the committee’s collective pulse on the issue, which can help the group reach a solution without influencing the decision.
In addition, ASCE’s editorial board knows that staff will stand by whatever is decided.
“It’s empowering for [our editorial board] to know that staff will work with them and make sure to administratively carry out their decisions,” Austin said. “It’s about giving them respect.”