Should you use automation in your community?

by Venessa Paech September 28, 2020

 Automation can help with the management of your online community if applied carefully and to the right situations. So how can you tell what those situations are, and if you should introduce automation to your community?

Answer these questions

When determining whether a community management task is a good candidate for automation, ask and answer these five questions as a guide:

  • Is it repeatable?
  • Is it standardised?
  • Is it scalable?
  • Does it currently take a lot of time?
  • Are there benefits not being tapped because the task is being done manually?

If the answer is yes to most or all of these, then that task could well be a good candidate for automation. There’s a lot of manual work in community management and automation helps ease the burden of the most repetitive frontline tasks. This time can be reinvested in other important areas of community management – from strategy to governance.

What can automation do?

What you can automate will depend on the community platform and tools you’re using. In most community platforms you’ll be able to automate around five main areas:

  • Onboarding and orientation
  • Engagement
  • Reward and reputation
  • Low-tier moderation

Onboarding and orientation

You can automate welcome messages for new members and instructions about how to get the most/best use out of the community. Some platforms offer a bot assisted orientation tool (similar to an automated ‘tour’ of new features in software), that can step people through different areas of the community and perhaps introduce community leaders or topic specialists.

Make sure you include community guidelines and governance messaging in this type of automated sequence, and ensure these type of automated communications are refreshed regularly. This could be paired with personalisation that sends a specific message based on what the information the system has about that user and their needs or objectives.

Engagement

You can typically automate some content posting in your online community. This can be helpful to let you plan ahead, but you shouldn’t ‘set and forget’ engagement. The most important thing is what happens after that content is posted.

You can also use automated prompts – on a community platform and via email or messaging tools – to nudge engagement with community content or events, and re-engage inactive members over time. But remember, engagement that’s not qualified isn’t constructive, and, if you’re manipulating people’s attention, is unethical. Use this type of automation wisely, to trigger reconnection with the core value proposition of the community, with fellow members, or even to start a conversation about why that member may be less engaged or differently engaged now.

Reward and reputation

Many community platforms allow you to configure the awarding of status and privileges as part of building reputation within the community. This may take the form of accumulating points for certain activities (e.g. answering questions, welcoming newcomers, posting content others mark as valuable, reporting content that breaches rules).

These reputational gains (and losses where appropriate) can be automated, freeing you to have a conversation, even a ceremony around that status if warranted. It also allows you to think more deeply about how you manage the reward and reputation components of your community. Refine your model and test new approaches while the automation does the calculating, reward granting and basic messaging.

Low-tier moderation

Use platform functionality to set filters for content that may be inappropriate for your community, such as profanity. You can usually also use these to pre-moderate certain content that might be risky, such as URLs, and you can configure settings to automatically block users with certain criteria if necessary.

Depending on your platform, you should be able to automate responses to reported content and may be able to configure basic triage support for certain issues using these tools. Anything beyond black and white, low-tier moderation should remain in the hands of a trained and supported human.

With all these areas, you should be able to configure workflows and ‘power automate’ certain task sequences that happen repetitively in your community. This can buy you back a good deal of time!

On social media platforms, you have less control and configurability. You can usually automate some combination of the following:

  • Onboarding (for private groups only)
  • Content posting
  • Messaging (in select platforms and scenarios you can schedule messages to members in advance)
  • Low-tier moderation (keyword filters)
  • Low-level support (using add-ons like Facebook Messenger bots)

If you’re a talented programmer and great with tools, you may be able to DIY some other solutions, but take care that you’re hacking responsibly and safely.

Learn about the different applications of Artificial Intelligence for community

Proceed with caution

Most importantly, before adding an automation to your community that may remove or reduce the human element, think through the risks and harms it might inadvertently cause. Every community is different and in some communities, removing a human touch (even at a point of the process that feels routine or transactional), might have a social or emotional ripple you didn’t consider.

If you can, talk to community members about your plans. If you have peer moderators or community leaders, check in with them. Explain what you’re thinking of introducing, how it will help the goals of the community (freeing up your time so you can do other work on or for the community is perfectly acceptable), and if there are any risks or considerations you should be aware of. Having them onboard will make rolling out any new functionality or processes smoother when the time comes.

You still need humans

No automated or AI system works well without humans ‘in the loop’. You need to configure your automation in the way that best suits your community needs and culture, and exercise regular oversight to ensure everything’s working. You need to be on hand in case of issues and there’s still a ton of essential community work to do – from strategy to engagement, to moderation and reporting. Make sure any investment in automation isn’t about replacing people, but rather about freeing you and your team to do even more important work for community members and stakeholders.