Tactics for dealing with problematic community members

Problematic members are a small but vocal group common to online communities. They can be disruptive and a huge resource drain of both time, money and potential reputation damage. Learn some of the best tactics used by hugely successful communities to keep your own community and stakeholders happy.

Tactics for dealing with problematic community members

Tactics to deal with problematic community members online is a need many organisations have. Things have been quite happy for a bit and then BANG, there’s a situation.

Perhaps an argument has occurred and a member has posted these dreaded words:

“That’s it! The POWERS THAT BE clearly don’t care! I’m off and I won’t be coming back!”

Sound familiar?

They wrote that middle bit in UPPER CASE just to be clear that they are ANGRY. The rant is often followed by a group of cohorts agreeing that the community manager or team are completely inept.

They KNOW WHAT THE REAL STORY IS and they DO NOT UNDERSTAND what the team get paid for.

Sigh. Deep breath. You are not alone!

I suspect for many community or social managers that just resonated hugely. A minority are often the most vocal and they cause a disproportionate amount of work.

Read that again:

A minority are often the most vocal and they cause a disproportionate amount of work

Catering to them is not a smart use of anyone’s time. However, the challenge of a troublesome member disguises several challenges that come along with it:

  1. The tirade is now in public on your community page,
  2. The senior team have seen it and they’re now worried about how it looks,
  3. They’re also worried you’re maybe not doing your job effectively,
  4. Losing membership is a concern,
  5. Potential new or existing members might see this and exit.

3 types of problem member

The solution is more prevalent in online communities than you might think. But it’s important to understand that problem members can be broken down into three groups:

They got it wrong and admit it.
Unsurprisingly the ability to admit a mistake and apologise is rare, even online. However it does happen and we acknowledge, learn and move on. Clearly it’s your lucky day. Buy the community team lottery tickets as it could be a while until it happens again.

They have a genuine grievance.
It’s vital that the community manager or team initially treat every complaint as genuine. Investigate what the complaint is and look for supporting evidence to corroborate it.

If you can understand the problem, resolve it and be extremely polite in doing so, it’s no longer a problem.The perceived fairness and authenticity of your community also increases.

If you can, make a point of documenting the issue either into your house rules, T&Cs or knowledge base. Ensure the team are updated on the change and greatly reduce the chance of it happening again.Your members will respond favourably and there’s a tertiary gain.

Members seeing you’ve been fair and respected the incident will quite often be the first to reply next time there’s a problem. “The team are really good at looking into stuff – just give them time” is something I’ve seen often.

This is where we need to focus our attention

They like to disrupt.
Cliques form in many communities. This is healthy. These are indicators your community is amazing. Clique is often a word people understand as negative (much like “criticism”).

However “clique”, as far as the social sciences are concerned, is simply a group of individuals who interact with one another and share similar interests.That said, it’s all too common for a band of like minded individuals to form a clique that seems hell bent on disruption.

They congregate around the more chatty areas but will almost always appear on the site feedback (or equivalent) board. Regardless of who is posting a query they will have a view. Usually it’s to point out that the team don’t do things properly.

Often it’s accompanied by an emoticon – rolled eyes / thinking / blank expression.

Time versus value

You’ve actually done your job well. You’ve created an environment that’s so inviting that members now have a vested interest in staying around. They’ve made real friendships and feel like they have a second home.

What they have done though is confuse time with value. Time is a reflection of the numbers of hours they’ve logged in the community. They probably have 15 million posts, 85 trillion likes and an avatar so sharp it’s a wonder they haven’t cut themselves.

There’s no question they have, logistically, put a lot of metrics into the community. Active member? Check! Posts every day? Check! On the “thanks” leaderboard? Check!

This does not equal value

Value looks at the quality, not quantity of the posting across the community. Are the things they are saying and the actions they are taking adding worth? Do their comments improve the experience for others? Are they making the community a better place?

I’ve worked with many communities and the answer to those questions is almost always a resounding no.

They also have an identity

Time spent in the community has also created an identity. Other members know who they are. They have some weight and, of course, they have some history.

That, in turn, will lead them to believe they have some elevated right to be treated differently or to have a view on everything that happens.

Perhaps this is true to a point. We are never in the business of actively getting rid of members (no matter what they think), and a member who has put time and effort into the community will have created a recognised personal brand.

Therefore we must be considered in our approach in dealing with them.

Tactics for dealing directly with members

Send a personal note
It’s all too easy for all parties to forget real people are behind the online personas. Your member might be having a terrible day. They might even be in a desperate situation and the community is their release.

Send them a personal note or direct message. I’ve seen this work beautifully during my time as community manager at MoneySavingExpert.com with this tactics template:


I’ve noticed you don’t seem like your usual self at the moment. Just wanted to get in touch and see if everything was ok. Let me know if I can help


If you’re comfortable enough and it’s not against policy or privacy, try and use your own name in signoff.

It’s incredible how many times you get this sort of reply:

“Hi Darren,

Thanks so much for getting in touch. Truth is I lost my job two weeks ago and it’s really gotten me down. I know I’ve been a bit aggressive on the community and I’ll try and tone it down. Your note meant a lot.


Not only does the behaviour change, they will almost certainly tell another member privately or publicly what happened. You’ve now not only fixed the situation, you’ve converted them to a supporter.

Use the inner circle

If the issue they’re upset about is fixable, but they’re generally angry regardless, ask them if they can help fix it.

Too many communities DO listen but push out a fix they think works without consultation. The members are the people doing things in your space day in day out so why not get ongoing feedback. It’s VITALLY important you’re clear with them that you can’t guarantee to do it their way, but genuinely listen and acknowledge.

For many, the kudos of having input to something and having that connection to the inner circle is huge. They’ve been listened to and you’ve been fair with your expectation setting. It’s not uncommon for a member to genuinely have an idea that works. Why not capture it?

Present an effective warning

If the behaviour is continuing to get out of hand and they’re knowingly flaunting the house rules, offer a friendly but firm warning.

Communities worry about this but they shouldn’t. At some point you need to establish that a line has been crossed. You are the paid professional here and you need to show a little authority.

Because you’ve followed the first two steps, a warning is now perfectly reasonable. Whilst this may seem an obvious next step, the way you send the warning is important.

You want to balance that authority you have but ensure they don’t feel The member usually responds in one of three ways.

Here’s a tactics template I’ve used in my communities


We’re a little concerned that you still seem unhappy with some issues in our community. We don’t want any member to feel that way but we’re struggling to understand how to help.

We’d love to continue to talk if you want to respond to the PMs we sent and find out how we can resolve things.

However, as Community Manager I have a duty of care to the rest of the community and your comments are causing us a resource issue to deal with. They’re also making other members unhappy.

With regret, I need to let you know that unless your behaviour improves, we would have to consider stopping your account. We really don’t want to do that.

Let us know how we can help.



Notice we don’t use the word warning at all.  We are putting the emphasis of the note about helping the member but struggling to know how to. We also make it clear that as a community professional this is your job. Lastly we carefully frame the escalation step but never use the word ban.

One thing to note is the use of the word “resource”. It’s effective because it’s fairly ambiguous as to what it refers to, but it also makes it clear that you are spending too much time on one member.

At all times we’re offering redemption.

Scenario 1

They will realise they’ve pushed things too far and are somewhat embarrassed it’s gotten this far. Remember at all times you are looking for redemption. By offering them a firm but fair lifeline they get the opportunity to reset their approach without feeling like they have lost a battle.

Scenario 2

It’s not uncommon for a member to back off. Often they will vanish for a couple of weeks and return under their own steam. You may get a form of reply, you may not. In most cases a little time away from the community has offered some perspective and any anger has had a chance to dissipate.

Don’t worry if they don’t reply. Acknowledging our mistakes is hard. Embarrassment is, again, a factor and they’re not comfortable dealing with it head one.

We’re looking to improve behaviour so as long as the contributions to the community improve the message was received.

Scenario 3

They will go on the offensive.

It’s important that you are primed if this happens as it will almost certainly happen publicly. Track what the user account does over the next 48 hours and be prepared to instantly stop or ban the account.

Ban the account

Never ever be afraid to ban or stop an account if you’ve given them every chance and they’ve ignored you. Your ultimate responsibility is to all members and the integrity of the community.

Don’t be swayed by their profile or length of time in the community. Members might comment that “that user has been here so long they deserved more”. The counter stance to that is “they’ve been here so long they know better than anyone what the rules are”.

Whilst banning is our last option, many communities still shy away from doing it for fear of creating the wrong message to members. In the long run this never helps. We all have laws and ethical standards to maintain in our lives and an online community is no different.

The fallout

There are two main things to deal with if you’ve removed a user from a community.

Firstly, the community reaction. Friends of the user will almost certainly start some sort of thread, often a campaign or poll, stating that the user has been unfairly treated and should be reinstated.

You have two real choices here. You can either ignore it or make a statement. What you should never do is get involved in the debate. They will either get bored of shouting, or they can read your neutral statement, make a few more sarcastic comments, and move on.

I’ve seen the latter work better, followed by closing the thread. You’re saying to them you’ve heard them, let them know what the policy is, and are moving on.

Whilst some will carry that sense of grievance around for a bit, mostly people will accept (although not necessarily like) your action. But you’ve been seen to be fair.

Secondly, the internal reaction.

You’ve just lost a member (maybe more if a group left) and there’s been some negative comments in the community for all to see. Perhaps a senior stakeholder has noticed and is concerned that both membership has dropped and/or the members shouldn’t be banned.

Be very clear in your responses and ensure your papertrail of fair escalation actions are highly visible. Your response may include these reasons:

  • We were fair at every step. Our tactics offered every opportunity for member to be heard and/or change behaviour.
  • We listened to the grievance or statement and discussed if it was valid.
  • Every community will lose a small % of members over time.
  • We should be focussing on members that add value to the community, not noise.
  • Let’s convert this to a positive and revisit our new member onboarding plan
  • The integrity of our community is paramount.

Find a positive

You might also consider highlighting a couple of recent actions or comments given by other members that really helped the community. Our aim here is to push positive outcomes, not wallow in negative necessities.

Be sure to review your tactics regularly. Be share to capture team input (both within your community team and across other teams and stakeholders). Tactics are only effective if they are consistently delivered and are supported by your organisation or group.

That’s It! I’m going!

Lastly, if you see this, let them! It’s the easiest tactic of the lot!

99% of the time it will be an empty threat and whilst they might go quiet for a few days, they’ll return. The value of the community to them means that action only really affects them.

Once they realise that, actually, you aren’t quite as bad as they remembered, they’ll be up and running again!

To all those community managers doing great work and occasionally overwhelmed by these scenarios I hope these tactics help. Therefore, here’s a virtual coffee from me to you.

Please contact me on darren@island23.co.uk for an informal chat about community management or digital strategy support.