Much has been said lately about the Digg.com community censorship and subsequent reversal of their approach. (Paul has a nice take here.) Here is a quick overview to save you time. Digg received a cease and desist letter to remove diggs with a code that can allow people to decode DVDs. Digg removed those posts. Digg banned Diggers. Diggers revolted. Bad press insued. Digg reversed their opinion and will not censor posts. Unknown legal ramifications will surely follow. Have they dugg their own grave? We'll see.
Digg should have known better and really needed to have a plan for a case like this. But, in their defense, this is still the wild west of social media and communities are still making mistakes and creating new rules. The idea of the online community is not new. The social web just connects previously disjointed entities to allow multiple forms of connection within a group of users. So how do you cultivate a community while keeping it in check? I've dealt with quite a few over the years for clients ranging from professional sports teams to consumer packages goods each with rabid followings. Here is my green thumb guide for planting the seed and watching it grow.
R-E-S-P-E-C-T. This is the most critical aspect of dealing with any community. People are choosing to spend time on your site and with your brand. Be a gracious host. Offer to help people, welcome new posters. This applies to social networking sites, message boards, blogs, wikis, etc. If you respect them, they'll respect you.
Set expectations and boundaries. Another crucial, often overlooked step. Simply state what you will not accept. Foul language, slander, etc. Be specific and enforce your decisions. This is not an excuse to pull off posts or comments that come against you or your products. Be honest with yourself, you'll hear bad things and good things. Engage with both and help people see that you care. (If you don't care, simply stop reading this right now and put up some brochure-ware.)
Make decisions public and invite response. If you have a change to policy or you're creating new policy, post it for the group to review and respond to. Don't simply flip a switch overnight. Get your user's buy-in on this and you'll see your sheriffs emerge.
Find your deputy sheriffs. In every community I've ever seen there is a small group of people who like to enforce the rules. They tattle on people that break them, monitor new posts and will be very vocal in telling you when somebody is out of line. These are the people that a) you can empower to officially monitor the community to save you time and money and b) they are, more often than not, evangelists. They're super engaged in what is happening and are extremely influential among other users in an authoritarian manner.
Enable the 1%. As Ben and Jackie have so eloquently discussed on their blog, about 1% of your community is creating the majority of the content. These people may have some overlap with the sheriffs, but you'll see some new faces in this 1%. They're uploading photos and video, posting comments and adding to the message boards. These are also very influential people, but not in the authoritarian way that sheriffs are, these people are leaders and the go-to people for other users. Evangelists can inhabit this position.
Engage with the community. This is the most important way to cultivate a great community. Engage with them. Respond to comments. Respond to the good and the bad. Welcome new users and encourage them to contribute more often. Respect them first and foremost. The best communities I've seen have very active owners. The worst have disconnected, disinterested owners who swoop in to flame users.
These are just a few of the ways to cultivate a great community. In today's socially networked world, people have a lot of options. If you don't provide a supportive, nurturing community chances are one of the users will. Worse than that is when a group gets so disenfranchised with you and your brand that they start a community of haters. Start early and engage often. It's never too late to reclaim a community with these steps.
What other ways have you seen? How have people engaged with you and made you feel welcome to join in?