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Moderating Discussion Lists: A Quick and Dirty Guide

... okay maybe not dirty, but you get the idea :) Moderating email discussion lists - be they business-to-business, tech- or consumer-oriented - takes a great deal of skill, patience, and tact. Light touch is the goal with moderating, but it sometimes takes a heavy touch to steer the ship. Balancing that line is the art. For a long time I've had the idea of a moderator's touchstone, a small, quick reference guide I could refer to when a problem came up in one of the communities we manage. There's no way to make a guide like this comprehensive. Moderating is an evolving, changing, all-various responsibility. It changes depending on the style of the community, the moderator, the list members and the platform.

What's a Discussion List?

The concept of an email list is explained here on Wikipedia, and here's a long history of marketing discussion lists to peruse. In a nutshell, a discussion list is simply an online forum distributed by email. There are lots of different formats the list can take, from HTML to text, from post-by-post to digest, but the basics are pretty, well... basic.

Why are Discussion Lists Useful?

Are discussion lists even useful? Ask Zappos. The Shoe Digest has been a huge success. Not only does it enjoy a large and rabid following (with some 50,000 subscribers), they are extremely active. On any given day the Shoe Digest receives from 30-40 posts! A recent contest launched through the Shoe Digest saw nearly 350 entries. Only a small percentage ever see the light of day, which keeps the quality of content very high. Discussion lists allow a company to cultivate a direct line of communication with their customer base. A short list of reasons a business can profit from email discussion lists follows:
So where are the search and internet marketing discussion lists? There aren't many, but here's a start: Premier SEO list: LED Digest Invitation-only list: I-Advertising Jill Whalen's newsletter: High Rankings Google Group for SEM: SEM 2.0 Mostly design, but excellent: Evolt Please let me know of any lists I've overlooked in the comments.
Discussion lists... • Build community • Create activity around a brand • Create brand recognition • Form a channel to relay brand messaging • Offer a channel for promotion and marketing • Create valuable content archives • Create opportunities to form partnerships • Create an opportunity to listen to customers Clearly they work. The question is, how do they work? And that's a tough one to answer. Basically, they take a lot of work. It takes time to build community. But once you do, they can be monetized any number of ways. A word needs to be made on the significance of discussion lists in the current web ecosystem. Do they even matter anymore? In a nutshell, email's on the way out and we all know the reason why: spam. However, it's still a highly viable and lucrative marketing channel for businesses of all shapes and sizes, and accounts for one of the highest-converting online marketing tactics. So while email lists are passe and on the decline, they're still important and represent a fairly untapped area for smart marketers to explore. The image below shows keyword trending from 2004 using the top three keyword phrases for searches related to email lists. As you can see, email list has declined dramatically, but discussion list has stayed fairly flat and steady.
Email list search trends

Moderating Styles

Your style is your own of course. This section is about what sorts of styles of moderating lists tend to work, and includes some tips for how to cultivate your own. Style is an important consideration. Unique styles of commenting, of dealing with the ever-present trouble-makers, of guiding a community really help to create an interesting culture. Speaking as a community member as well as moderator (and publisher), I know what I like to see: personality! The more varied aspects of an individual that I can see, feel, and get to know through their online persona, the more I'll like that individual - even if I don't always agree with their viewpoints. It's the humanity we're hungry for on the web. Be real!

Background on this Advice

Many of these tips come from my experience working at Adventive, an old-school publisher that served the marketing community in the pre-Google era with over a dozen high-quality discussion lists. The tips here are the result of a cooperative effort between the Adventive staff and our fleet of moderators, people such as Shari Thurow, Nick Usborne, Lennart Svanberg, Bryan & Jeff Eisenberg, Adam Sherk, BL Ochman, Eva Rosenberg, Rob Frankel and Detlev Johnson. The list is like a who's-who of internet marketing today, and the advice below is the collective wisdom of their experience as Adventive moderators. This advice was used internally at Adventive for several years. It's long past time to expose it to the light of day.

Tips for Moderating Discussion Lists

Consider the tips below a sort of grab bag for list moderators. There is a lot here, but it's not meant to be comprehensive. These are the gems of advice earned through long years moderating lists and creating lists for our clients. I hope you find them useful, and please share your own tips in the comments!
      • There's a lot to be gained by staying quiet and not posting too many moderator comments. When you do post a comment, it will get a lot of attention.
      • Encourage differing opinions as much as possible, even if you don't agree with them. Publish controversial posts (within reason) and mix your discussion threads up by inserting opposing viewpoints.
      • When starting out and list activity is low, personally send a message to a colleague requesting a contribution. Or, pick out a known expert and send them a request. Not only will they be flattered, you'll get a good post.
    Discussion lists are yet another channel for marketing
      • Personal opinions work well to start discussions. The stronger the opinion, the stronger the reaction (and the heat, so be careful). Therefore, always end with a what do you think? type of question.
      • For newsletters and digests, save redundant posts (such as when several people respond with the same answers) for a dry time with the list is quiet. A good rule of thumb is to allow no more than 4 posts on one topic per issue. This saves posts and keeps the list easy to read.
      • Always send a thank you email to first-time posters. Send off-list emails to others regularly as well, it keeps list members engaged.
      • Send as many personal off-list correspondences as time allows. An explanation as to why a post was rejected, or a note explaining that a post is being held, are great ways to foster community.
      • Save very long posts for a time when list activity is low; consider splitting extremely long posts into several parts.
      • Encourage people to send you high-quality articles, which can be good filler for slow days as well.
      • User your moderator's role to start new discussions by sometimes playing the devil's advocate. Do what you can to spur on lively activity and exchange.
      • Try to avoid giving answers - that's the job of the list members. Instead, ask questions.
      • Insert as many moderator comments as possible, commenting on the posts you've published and steering the discussion. However, be aware of your presence and don't become overbearing; sometimes it's more beneficial to stay quiet and run the discussions transparently.
      • Try to reference the origin of on-going discussions, including an issue number and link where relevant.
      • As moderator, you are the leader of your list. That calls for real leadership - however you choose to express it.
      • Every list has its own character and culture. This character is partially created and nurtured by the moderator. Be aware of the list culture, and protect it.
      • Don't let a thread run for more than a month, unless current events breathe new life into the topic. Many times contributors will simply re-hash previously covered points. Limit the thread at some point, and file away unused posts for another time when you can revisit the topic.
      • Be careful what email you toss out as being autoresponders. List members can be pretty lazy, sometimes replying to the wrong email address or including a long thread of previous comments in their post.
      • Do you have a complaint about something posted, or a threat that you'll be sued? Try to find a way to smooth out the situation. The angriest, most threatening person may turn into your most loyal supporter. Email magnifies mis-communication.
      • Try not to let a single subscriber smother the list with too many posts. Send a gentle message off-list telling them to slow down, or archive their posts.
      • Know how to distinguish when someone is sending you a personal note versus something that they want the world to see. If you feel strongly that your readers should see it, either ask permission to use it or talk about the subject and the point without referencing the original poster by name.
      • Use personality and keep the tone light, even if covering serious topics. Humor is refreshing!
      • Screen out personal attacks. These can be devastating to a list. Keep the discussions impersonal and on-topic. If someone appears to have written something in white-hot anger, send it back to them and ask if they're sure they want to come across that way.
      • Be very cautious of publishing rude or insulting posts. Read through them, and if they can be edited to provide useful information, use them. If not, toss 'em. There is no need to deliberately offend anyone on your list.
      • Use blurbs from current news headlines occassionally on your list, especially if a piece of news is relevant to current discussions.
      • Stay away from 'form articles' and the like submitted by self-promoters. These are easy to spot, often submitted as attached documents, and very often have already been submitted to a variety of other lists and online sites.
      • Feel free to ban topics that have proven particularly controversial and non-educational in the past.
      • If a post is primarily a recommendation for a product, gain confirmation from the author that they are not affiliated with the company that produces it.
      • Nurture your frequent posters. They are a lists lifeblood.
      • Keep your eyes and ears open for humorous stories, ancedotes and jokes in your topic area. They make good filler and keep readers smiling.
      • If you feature an article, send an email to the author notifying them. They may end up contributing some further comments to the list, or even become a subscriber themselves.
      • Read posts carefully. Skimming too quickly can result in missing something that is inappropriate or offensive. Just one word can start a bad reaction!
      • You can't make everyone happy, and complaints will come from time to time (for many possible reasons). Answer them professionally and explain your reasons or position as needed, but avoid spurring on arguments or becoming defensive.
      • Remember to never take anything too personally.
      • If you haven't heard from a frequent poster for awhile, drop them a line to see what's new. A handful of sharp, active posters can really keep the list energy high.
      • Over time you'll come to know who the resident experts are on various topics. If a related post comes in and you don't hear from them, consider sending them a heads-up asking for input.
      • Be good to new members who send in basic or frequently-covered questions. In addition to pointing them to the archives, be friendly in letting them know why you're not publishing their post, and consider answering their question briefly yourself (set up some template answers).
      • Proof your moderator comments. Spelling and grammatical errors look unprofessional and can hurt your credibility.
      • When list activity is slow, the tendency is to be hard on yourself and the list. Remember that it's cyclical. Posting activity on a discussion list ebbs and flows constantly: have faith.
      • Trust your instincts and don't second-guess your decisions.
      • Above all, keep the interests of the list ahead of your own personal interests.
      • Now that you've read all these rules and guidelines, sit back and take a deep breath. Moderating lists can be a lot of fun. Keep it simple and light-hearted.
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