Creative Commons License photo credit: .thana☃

One of the subjects I was good at, back when I was in school, was math. I liked it and I tested well at it. It serves me well in my life. But, when it comes to online community, I find that math can sometimes be destructive, especially when it is relied upon too deeply or held up as a precise standard. As cliche as it may sound, the majority of online community is about people.

One question I hear asked in online community spaces, with some regularity, is: “What is the ideal moderator:user ratio?” In other words, how many moderators should I have for every X active users. Is it 1 moderator for every 20 active users? 100? 500?

Determining Your Ratio

The question comes from the right place: people that want to make sure that their community is taken care of. But, at best, the answer that they will receive is a form of wild, if educated, guesswork. The fact is: nobody knows. Even if they say they know. There are a lot of variables.

Some variables might include the number of active users, the number of contributions that those users make, the average size of those contributions, your guidelines, the subject matter of your community, how easy it is for users to report potentially inappropriate content, how easy it is to remove and handle that content, the tools that you have in place to automatically prevent some inappropriate content from being posted and more.

But, even with all of those things considered, it’s still basically a wild guess. For this reason, I don’t believe in the idea of a moderator:user ratio and wouldn’t trust it in general. For both ends of the spectrum – having too many moderators or too few – it can be counterproductive.

Volunteer Moderators

I find that the vast majority of communities with moderators have volunteer moderators – including mine. Generally speaking, these are exemplary members invited from the community, who help out because they have taken value from the community and want it to continue. Usually, low time commitment restrictions are placed on them. Perhaps a couple of hours a week (and that is flexible).

When it comes to my staff, I build it out with qualified people. And that’s it. It is common for people to think that, when a moderator leaves your staff, that that means there is a vacancy.

That is not true with me because there is not a set number of spots. There are just good people. I’m very discerning when it comes to my team and so, we invite very few people. I never want to invite people just because there is some magical number I need to hit.

I would rather tough it out with less moderators than I’d like, rather then invite people I wouldn’t otherwise want, just to feel as though I was properly staffed. Inviting those less than exemplary people lowers the quality of the staff and will have it’s own repurcussions. I would forgo moderators altogether and have just myself, if that is what it took.

On the flip side, I also don’t want to have to skip someone who is great, just because I’ve already hit my ratio. I want as many great people as I can find, whether that is 2 or 10. Great people who have the right attitude and attention to detail are very rare.

Paid Moderators

Some communities hire paid moderators, moderation firms or have paid members of their staff moderate their community. These people log hours as part time or full time employees.

But, just as with volunteer moderators, you can get in trouble with a ratio. If you have full time, paid moderators, you can get over your head by hiring too quickly or hiring too much. When you hire people (and fire people), in any function, you are impacting their life and their ability to support those who rely on them. You should make a fair, extremely conservative estimate of your needs and hire slow. Call it a ratio if you want, but look at it as “what can we get by with?” more than “what do we need?”

It is much better to have to hire more people later, than it is to have to fire people because you hired too many. You also have to keep your budget in mind, as well. It’s better to have a few moderators who have to work really hard, then to have to close the community – or worse, go bankrupt – because you can’t afford it.

Yeah, in a perfect world, you’d have a huge budget and the opportunity to hire as many great people as you wanted. But, in the real world, that’s just not likely. You have to be keenly aware of your budgetary constraints so as to not jeopardize the future of your community. It doesn’t matter if you have the perfect moderator team today if your community will have to close next week.

Be Conservative and Focus on Quality

The solution is to be conservative and to focus on quality and not think too hard about a ratio. Make reasonable decisions and adjust. If you find you need more people, then adjust (when you can – when a quality person appears or you have the budget). Whether you work with volunteers or you have a full time, paid staff, the emphasis should always be placed on the quality of the people you bring in and the effect that it has on your entire operation.

(This post was inspired by a question on Quora).