You'll get what you expect from your online community

What do you think about your audience?

I’m not asking to recite any market research or website usage metrics you’ve collected about your readers. Give me your gut, emotional reaction to that question, instead.

Let’s tweak the phrasing of my question. How do you feel about your readers?

Are you proud of them? Do they make you angry? Do they surprise and amuse you? Do they get on your nerves and annoy you? Do wonder if they’re even paying attention to anything you do?

I’m going to take an educated guess here and assume that many of you would respond, “a little of all the above.” I’ve certainly felt each of those reactions in dealing with the readers on my sites, not to mention on the newspaper websites where I’ve been entrusted to deal with reader-submitted comments and other content.

But I’d ask you to stick with the question and settle on just one reaction. What’s the primary thought, emotion, or reaction that you feel about your readers and their participation with your website?

Why am I asking you for this? Because, as a leader of your news publication’s online community, the attitude you bring to that community goes a long way in determining both the tone and the essential functionality of that community.

If you reflexively respect your audience, truly believe that they collectively know more than you do, and that they want the best for your community, too, then it’s going to be relatively easy for you to engage with those readers and inspire them to provide great information for your site.

But if the idea of reading comments and posts from your audience makes you react with disgust, and just avoid your comment sections and forums, well, I hope that facing this reaction helps you realize the Catch-22 that feeling can create for your publication. If you don’t want to engage with your readers, for whatever reason, that makes it real tough for you to elicit the change that you want from that community.

Trust me, I understand how reprehensible commenters on newspaper websites can be. But if you’re waiting for the readers submitting comments to your website to change their behavior on their own, well, you’re likely to be waiting for a very long time. And what kind of leader does that make you?

Try this approach instead. When you think about your audience, don’t think about just the people who are submitting comments to your site right now. Think instead about everyone out there who might be interested in the content and focus of your publication. Including the huge supermajority of readers and potential readers who’ve never submitted a comment, photo, blog, or tip to your website. Don’t forget that they’re out there, too.

If you can feel respect for and curiosity about that larger audience, you can build a civil community of those readers online. But you’ve got to retain that faith in your audience. The moment you lose that, you’ve burned out. Then it’s time to turn off the comments, disable the submission forms and disconnect for a while, until you can find a way to get that faith back. (I’d recommend setting aside extra time to reconnect with people offline. Volunteer in the community. Get engaged in community organizations, local schools, or service groups. Strengthen your offline community building to sharpen those skills before you try community building again online. You’ll also have a lot of fresh new friends and acquaintances you can invite to contribute online, to get your Online Community 2.0 off to a positive start.)

So if you’re not getting the quality of comments and reader participation on your site that you want, don’t blame your audience. Ask yourself, instead, what you can change to get more participation from those civil, informed, literate, and considerate readers who’ve been holding back. What could you change to inspire them to come forward? What could you do to reward them to come back? What could you change to discourage the blowhards and bigots from getting in their way?

The first step toward making that happen is to believe that it’s possible – that your audience has things to say that are informative, engaging, and constructive. Because if you don’t believe that they do, they will live down to your expectations.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at