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Team members handling conflict in online community

How to Handle Conflict and Controversy in Online Communities

Conflict and controversy create socially polarized environments. Learn how to handle these issues within your online communities.

In offline communities, conflict and controversy create socially polarized environments. Negativity monopolizes these interactions because in our own personal lives, they are the very interactions in which we aim to absolve ourselves.

However, avoiding conflict is also isolating. Dancing around issues of contention without actively building towards resolution fractures relationships; it fractures communities.

The alternate solution is to handle the matter head-on by building an understanding of each conflicting viewpoint at a deeper level. This is what creates human bonds. This is the kind of interaction we need to enable in online communities.

The Problem with Banning Conflict in Online Communities

The most common response to conflict in online communities is to “put the fire out” as quickly as possible. Yet most of the time, this reaction is acted on before the situation has been fully assessed.

Too often it’s assume that the presence of challenging content will disenchant community members and unfavorably impact the perception of the organization. But in the haste to silence topics of discomfort, organizations often overlook the fact that this action can marginalize passionate and active community members.

Consequently, these brand advocates are taking their loyalty and contributions elsewhere, to a place where they feel a greater sense of value and support.

How to Manage Controversial Content & Discussions in Your Online Community

As an online community manager, you have three basic options for how to react to conflict:

1. Ignore the situation

2. End the situation immediately by removing it from the community and/or removing the instigators

3. Keep an eye on the situation and facilitate when needed

Before deciding how and when to step in, take time to answer the following questions:

Who is the Source?

Are the participants who are engaging in the situation regular contributors, new community members, or resemble something closer to trolls? The source of the conversation can be a big indicator for the how topic will progress, just don’t judge newcomers prematurely.

Is the Topic Controversial or Contentious?

Allowing people to debate over controversial topics is good for online communities. Controversy brings members of similar interests together – on each side of the table – and, when facilitated and handled professionally, can build bridges of understanding and respect between conflicting parties.

However, if conversations get overly combative to the point of being offensive and inappropriate, single out the source of contention by contacting the individual directly.

Is the Topic Related to Your Audience’s General Interests?

If the topic of conversation fits within the scope of the community, the motivation behind the contribution is rarely malicious. Sure, sometimes conversations are started to stir the pot, but they can also draw attention and drive interaction in your community in a way that fosters greater sense of community, member-to-member stickiness and collaboration. Peers with common ideologies often band together organically.

Of course, there is a second situation to take into account here – negative conversations about your brand, product or the online community itself. Ignoring or hiding the problem will not provide an ideal resolution.

Conversely, a negative comment in your online community is your best opportunity to create a positive experience. Consider negative critiques as an opportunity to hear out your members and get actionable feedback. Even if you can’t provide an ideal resolution, the action will show members that your organization cares about the experiences of the people who support them.

Online Community Management Takeaway

Relenting complete control over the conversations that take place in your online community can come with a great deal of risk and anxiety. However, the most positive and impactful community experiences can stem from the very freedom you allow your audience to create their own experience.

Listen, take note and let content practices evolve based on where the audience drives it. If that includes conflict, take a step back, maintain a watchful eye and give social ties the opportunity to form.

Katie Bapple is a senior online community strategist at Higher Logic. She works with businesses and nonprofit membership organizations to develop effective customer community strategies and implement online community management and growth plans.


Katie Bapple

Katie is Sr. Director, Agent Experience at Liveops, Inc. She has been directing the growth and development of communities since 2008. She’s worked with communities ranging from Fortune 100s to associations and non-profits. Prior to Higher Logic, Katie spearheaded the portfolio of communities at Ziff Davis, Inc., with more than 2.3 million members.