Managing and Scaling a Team of Volunteer Community Moderators

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I was chatting with my friend and fellow community professional, Patrick O’Keefe, the other day. Patrick has been managing online niche communities since 2000. Most notably, KarateForums.com, and also is the founder of the Managing Communities blog and the Community Signal Podcast. Needless to say, when I have a question or want to get feedback on how to handle a specific type of community issue, he’s usually the first community builder I go to.

We started chatting about moderators. (Note: For the purpose of this post, we’re just going to talk about volunteer moderators.)  If you ever managed a large online community for more than a few months, you probably have some experience managing one, two or maybe a full team of moderators. Either paid or volunteer.  If you are like anything like me, you probably learned a lot of what to do and what not to do by simple trial and error. I know I did at least.

This post will outline:
-Steps to take when building a volunteer moderator team
-Managing and setting expectations with moderators
-Building loyalty and trust with moderators

Building a Volunteer Moderator Team

Building a team of moderators isn’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to start small just like how the community grew. When the community is still in its infancy, it’s only you and maybe a handful of early adopters responding to everything, you are the one and only moderator. However, as the community grows, there will be a point where you will start to become the bottleneck of the community’s growth. If everyone comes to you wanting replies (and not each other), you have become the king or queen bee and a bottleneck to growth.

One way to keep that from happening is to look for people in the community that are showing interest in being more engaged and then actively encourage them to do so. In time, some of these early adopters may possess certain traits that could make them amazing founding moderators. Some common, key traits of great moderators are being detail-oriented, welcoming and community-focused. You want someone whose default behavior is to praise and lift others in the community up (and not just show-boat about how great and awesome they are).  If there is only one thing you take away from this post, it is that the number of comments a person has is a terrible way to determine if someone will be a good moderator. Being the most prolific poster in the community doesn’t mean you will be a great moderator. In fact, that’s probably one of the most worst people to have as a moderator. You are looking for “team players” not the “A List celebrity.”

As your community grows and you want to expand the moderator team, you can take recs from your existing moderators. That scales organically and likely builds on the existing team culture.

Managing Moderators

Whether you have one moderator or a team of 12, it’s all about consistency. This is something that Patrick does with the KarateForums moderators. It’s all about having both a consistent community mission as well as posted moderator guidelines. Sure, the mission and moderator guidelines will evolve over the years. KarateForums.com has been around since 2000. A lot can change in 16 years. Heck, Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist then. However, it’s crucial that everyone on your moderator team is on the same page and acts and enforces the same moderator guidelines. This creates uniformity and doesn’t create situations where moderators go rogue or one moderator undermines another moderator.

This doesn’t have to be a complex 60-page document. In the KarateForums’ example, this is all specified in two documents.

Moderator Guidelines Document
This is your moderator guidelines- what’s acceptable and what isn’t tolerated in the community. The vast majority explaining what you’ll moderate should be available publicly to set proper expectations.

Situations Guide 
This is a ongoing document that Patrick uses that spells out all the most common situations and violations that can occur within the community. Then, the suggested response (often times with email templates). In Patrick’s case, this covers about 90% of all the violations that the moderators will see.

Building Loyalty and Trust with Moderators

When chatting with Patrick, the thing that stands out the most to me is how much loyalty and trust he has built up with his team of moderators. He has been managing KarateForums for 15+ years (an incredible feat in itself). Even more impressive, he has volunteer moderators that have stuck by his side for 5,6,7 and even 10 years. He consistently does three things that no doubt contribute to this.

Praise moderators in public; Criticize in private
When something awesome happens in the community, Patrick is the first one to deflect it off him and praise his moderators. When a moderator makes a mistake, he’ll deflect any negative attention it gets in the community on himself and then treats it as an learning opportunity with the moderator in private. You are only as strong as your team. When highlighting the wins publicly and treating mistakes as learning opportunities privately, he’s building a lot of trust with his moderators.

Build a strong team culture
Another thing that he does is treats his entire team as equals. He doesn’t want one moderator to manage another moderator. They are all managed by him.

He also doesn’t allow moderators to criticize one another. If they have a problem with how another moderator responds to something, they are encouraged to go to him. Then, he’ll go talk to  the moderator in private (still treating any mistake as a learning opportunity).

A culture of transparency (No secrets!) 
The fastest way to kill trust is to hide stuff from others. Patrick documents every encounter he has with community members, and encourages all of his moderators to do the same. When he has a difficult conversation or has to ban a previously active member from he community, he’ll document everything so that the moderators can see it. They might not always agree with the decision, but the rationale for how it responded is always laid out. This builds a ton of trust and loyalty over time.

Patrick and I also chatted about a few more things including how he got started in community management, common mistakes that new community managers make early on and trends that he sees happening over the next few years. You can listen to our full chat via this recording on Blab. 

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About the author

Jessica Malnik

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