August 11, 2009

Entitlement: When User Empowerment Backfires #octribe

Scott Moore called for posts on the topic of Fostering culture in and around online communities I chose the suggested subtopic: Culture clashes between the community and the host organization.

This is my first #OCTribe post, and I’m running late, so please forgive the terseness. I may flesh this out a bit more over the coming days — randy

This post is directed at social media product designers and community moderation staff.

How much power do you give your users?

  • Do you invest special powers in your users, perhaps to help you moderate your community?
  • Do you have, or want to have, user advisory groups to help improve your product by providing feedback direct from the customer?
  • Do you have appointed (or self appointed) long-term community leaders that are causing you problems but you’re petrified of how much damage they’ll do to your community and/or business?

If the answer to one or more of the above is yes, you’ve been headed in the right direction. But, you need to be introduced to the community moderation thoughts around the term Entitlement.

Matt Warburton has been a senior community manager for eBay, Yahoo!, and LinkedIn and has been recently sharing many of the the lessons he learned with other social media developers and media managers. One of his recent presentations, “Voice of the Customer Programs” detailed some of the benefits and challenges of deeply engaging users for product feedback. Though his thoughts were narrowly applied to creating user advisory committees, several of the issues he raise apply more broadly to online communities especially when some users in are given backstage access to product staff and/or special powers to moderate the actions of other users.

From one of Matt’s Voice slides, entitled Best Practices:

  • All participants sign an NDA
  • Limit tenure of participants
    • 12 month tenure recommended
    • Fresh perspective
    • Avoid behavior problems/entitlement issues
  • Remove non-constructive or disruptive users
  • Require direct staff interaction in meetings, calls, and discussion forums
  • Require all participant inquiries to go through Community team

Matt learned these best practices the hard away while he was at eBay. When they originally set up user advisory councils, which -amongst other things- gave users inside access to development and product management staff. Originally, they didn’t limit the tenure of a user on this council, and this lead to very bad problems as some of the users came to think of themselves as eBay insiders and became troublesome on their message boards. Some of these users would complain bitterly that they weren’t being listened to, or that eBay was not giving appropriate credit, etc.

Entitlement Defined

Experienced community managers describe this effect as user entitlement – when either early adopters or specially selected users are given special access or power, especially indefinitely. This creates a negative feedback environment in the community: new folks come to see it as cronyism and the established users see themselves as the elite and think that they have some measure of control over the company. This can lead to the company being unable to make needed significant changes, paralyzed by fear that the community backlash will cause irreparable harm. By never empowering special users indefinitely, you can help prevent the buildup of entitlement.

I think Matt’s bold bullets above may apply wherever you encounter entitlement – not only in user advisory councils, but whenever users are granted special powers or access either explicitly or implicitly.

Backlash Can Be Good

Yahoo! Finance message boards are a good counterexample – where the backlash is exactly what the company wanted. The message boards were a mess, anti-Semitism, racism, day trader wannabes spreading scandal and lies about companies – consistently this feature of Yahoo! Finance was listed as the worst. When we added threading and reputation, there was a hue and cry from the community: we’d made it less chatty and more about sharing stock information. We lost 25% of our page views immediately as a very small number of active users left the boards for someplace else they could chat the way they liked. But, something amazing happened, the quality of postings jumped significantly. The masses, who were readers – not posters, were able to provide feedback about what was good and what was not, and those who stayed (or started posting because things got better) started carrying on the conversations that we’d originally intended the boards for.

Lines of Control

There are three categories of control over an application/site:

  1. There are the things the company always decides on its own – These includes issues related to legal juristiction and government compliance, business model prioritization, branding and marketing, and the order that features and bugs will get fixed. The law of law and the budget.
  2. And there are the things that the community always decides – this usually includes the social customs of the interaction, what’s the most interesting/useful content, and if they will play with you at all. The law of two feet.
  3. Lastly there is the great in-between, where both the company and the community work together to figure out what is possible and profitable for the majority. This category is where user action is directly related to corporate re-action and vice-versa. Some common forms of this include creating extra content (tags, links, etc.) and user-moderation of other users’ content. This is where much of the gold in social media/online communities is, but it is a balancing act. If you detect entitlement, it’s a sure indicator that this category has become too broad. This is the law of tit-for-tat.

There must be clear lines about what the users can influence and what decisions belong solely to the company and these lines must be made clear on the site and by all staff that interact with users.

Yes! Empower users! But never forget that power should be limited and scope and time, and come with responsibilities on behavior.

Do not fear getting rid of bad apples (as long as you do it consistently) – they don’t really have the power over their peers that they think and they have been driving away even more users that you never hear from!

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, your comment may need to be approved by the site owners before it will appear. Thanks for waiting.)