Community Management Hub Sparking Engagement Dealing with negative engagement (trolls/abusive members, critics, or spammers).

Dealing with negative engagement (trolls/abusive members, critics, or spammers).

So far, it’s all been sunshine and rainbows in here.

Now we’re going to tackle the dark side of online community. Yes, there will be people who come to your community for the sole purpose of ruining your day.

But more likely, the challenge will come from a disgruntled customer, a member having a bad day, or a random spammer.

It’s extra painful because that is exactly what your boss feared when you suggested setting up an online community.

Avoid the urge to just screen all incoming posts. Save pre-moderation for serious situations that require a temporary lockdown. If your community is a commented blog and you need to pre-moderate, be sure you are on top of it at all times and approving legitimate posts, or you’ll drive away your community.

Here’s your game plan for dealing with some of the most common negative engagement situations.

What to do with the Unhappy/Critical Customer

First of all, wouldn’t you rather know what they’re saying about you?

If they’re posting it on your community, it means they care enough to tell you to your face, in hopes that you’ll make a change. It’s far worse to have an unhappy customer spreading the word all over social media, where it’s much harder to respond effectively.

The best response here is to be honest and direct. If an apology is warranted (if you made a mistake or someone messed up), then apologize, without the royal “we.”

If it’s not necessarily something you did wrong, but instead just something the customer doesn’t like, then make sure they know you’ve heard them out.

You’ll need to have an escalation path in place too, for a business community. Whoever is responsible for the community needs to know when and how to share a complaint “up the chain.”

One of the key benefits of a business community is getting feedback directly from customers, so establish clear ties between the community team and the product/service team.

What to do with a Community Spammer

Most modern community platforms include technology that will help you keep the spammers out, including:

  • Tracking/banning IP addresses
  • Tracking/banning email domains (whitelisting or blacklisting)
  • Screening new member registrations (either temporarily or permanently)
  • Screening new content (set up a trigger word screener that kicks in when someone posts a comment that says, for example, “Cialis.”)
  • Profanity filters

If a spammer manages to get past the automatic triggers, make sure you have the ability to ban abusive posters, and/or delete their content.

What to do with a Troll

They say you haven’t really made the community bigtime until you have your first troll. But let’s define it first...a troll isn’t just someone who’s being mean. It’s a special breed of Internet citizen who is consistently disruptive, abusive, or unruly in an intentional way.

But before we can talk about how to handle a troll, we need to establish what NOT to say to a troll.

  • "You’re wrong, and here’s why..."
    Logic and reason do not work on a troll. In the same way you don’t argue with a two year old child, you should not try to explain to a troll why they are wrong. I guarantee they aren't listening. In fact they're probably copy/pasting your carefully reasoned arguments into their own community so their troll friends can laugh at you.
  • "We don’t allow (profanity, abusive behavior, repetitive posts, spam)."
    The troll knows the rules, he or she doesn’t care about them. Publicly calling out a troll to remind them of the guidelines will only result in further attacks. Remember we're only talking about trolls here, not just a member who messed up once.
  • "You’re a troll."
    This is like handing out an Academy Award to a troll. Bestowing the label is exactly what the troll wants, and your community is just another notch on his belt.
  • "I’m going to ban you."
    Here’s where dealing with a troll is different from dealing with children. You generally want to tell a child what the consequence will be if she violates the rules. However, with a troll, you don’t want to reveal your arsenal. Don’t tell him/her that you have a way to see their IP address, or that you know about their other identities; that just gives him time to combat your tactics.

So what SHOULD you do?

It’s simple, once you’ve established that they are a troll, the only way to deal with them is to ban them immediately and without warning.

Don’t sink to the troll’s level. If you get upset, and start to deal with a troll in a troll-like manner, you’re giving them what they want, and setting a bad example for the rest of your community. Better to grab a pillow and scream into it for a while, then come back and deal rationally.

What to do with a Member Having a Bad Moment

In a community of any size, eventually you’re going to have an otherwise valuable member go “off the rails.” Everyone has a bad day once in a while.

You’ll be prepared for this scenario well if you are:

  • Predictable
  • Transparent
  • Accessible
  • Using empathy and common sense

The community behavior guidelines should be clear and visible, especially during new member onboarding. Clear expectations are key.

Here are some progressive discipline tips.

  • When to issue a warning: first offense, new member, or minor infraction. Also if it appears unintentional.

    Steer them gently toward the rules, and keep your eye on them for a bit. Make the first warning private if possible (of course, in some situations you don’t have a backchannel way of contacting the user).

    General reminders can be effective if an entire thread or comment stream has gotten out of control among several users. Just a gentle “hey, guys...remember to be respectful...” can be very effective.

  • When to edit or delete: you might choose to put a member’s content in a moderation queue for approval, either before it goes live or afterward.

    Another moderation technique is to edit the post; if you have this admin power, use it sparingly. One example of when it might be necessary is if an otherwise good post/comment contains personal information that might be a security risk. In that case, you might just remove the personal information and put a comment as to why it was edited. This is very useful in a community that has younger members.

  • When to ban: for third strikes, outrageous or flagrant guideline violations, spammers, or dangerous elements (i.e., threatening other members).

    In certain cases, for example, someone who is a constant irritant but not actually evil, a temporary ban (like a timeout) can sometimes work to bring them in line with the community’s values.

    Immediately following a permanent ban, it’s a good practice to keep an eye on new registrations to ensure that the person isn’t trying to return under a different identity (use your location, email, or IP tracking tools to enforce this effectively).


There’s no such thing as a perfect community, and being composed of human beings, the group is sometimes going to feel like a herd of cats.

With this lesson, you now have some ideas for dealing with different situations, and how to remain calm, cool, and collected.

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