Funny Internet Spam for eMail and Websites is Spicy
Creative Commons License photo credit:

I received an email recently from someone who manages a large online community, looking for some input regarding the “struggle” that they were having with member self-promotion within their forums. We’ll call her Laura.

It wasn’t so much a problem with recognized businesses, who were doing a pretty good job of confining themselves to a dedicated area for members to promote their businesses. It is more an issue with members asking people to visit their blog, like their Facebook page, etc. They have allowed random one-offs, but now it is getting more problematic.

In particular, there is a moderator, who happens to be one of the most popular members, who has been pushing the boundaries and exceeding them. Of course, that situation is delicate, but beyond that, member self-promotion is popping up more and more. In particular, the struggle between differentiating posts such as “like this on Facebook so I can win free stuff” and “check out my blog.” Some requests they don’t mind, other requests they don’t want and Laura is looking at adjusting policy or handling these matters in a different way, in order to improve the situation. What should she do?

I wanted to share the email that I sent her with you.

People Tell Me I’m Strict

Hey Laura,

Thanks for the note. My pleasure to offer what I can.

In general, with my communities, I maintain a strict line with this sort of thing. That line is that advertising is when you create a thread to mention a website, product, service or work that you are associated with. So, for example, these are all posts that we remove:

  1. Check out my blog post! Even if they include the full blog post in the forum post. If there is a link to their blog or they even reference their blog (“I thought you might like this post from my blog…”).
  2. I have this business idea and I was wondering, would you use it?
  3. I was thinking of starting this website, but I’m looking for writers. Can you help?
  4. I am trying to get my Facebook page to grow. Can you like my page?
  5. I’m trying to win a contest, so do this…

We even remove posts that are less suspect, when they are posted by brand new members.

It helps that we maintain a very consistent line. Practically, we’ve never allowed these things. And being so plain with it helps us to be very consistent. Now we do make some exceptions here and there, usually for veteran members and usually approved personally by me. Even charitable efforts, ideally, need to go through me. I don’t want my members being taken advantage of. Generally speaking, anything that diverts their attention to an organization or work you are affiliated with is advertising, unless I approve it. Personal, Fortune 500, non-profit, charity, doesn’t matter. This also helps us to be consistent and avoid “but it’s just my blog/small business…”

But You Don’t Have to Be Like Me

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way to handle this. If you want to allow those sorts of posts, then that is fine, as well. It just doesn’t work for me with my communities as I feel like people are taking advantage of the community and my members and it distracts from our purpose.

It is natural that in the course of human interaction on your community, alliances may form, blogs may form, even businesses may form. Very natural. I’ve seen it happen. That’s good. It means that people are connecting. But there is a line between enabling connections and allowing the community to be taken advantage of.

The problem is that you’ve been allowing people to self-promote to a certain level, which you are now uncomfortable with. This sets you back. When members tell me they don’t like my policies in this area, I respect their opinion, but they can’t act like I changed on them. It was like this before they got here, it’ll be like this after they are gone. But in your case, you have members who are now accustomed to it and to being able to utilize your community for lead/list generation in this manner.

What You Can Do

Is this something that some members are complaining about? That shouldn’t necessarily be a prompt for action, I’m just curious. There are a few courses of general action:

  1. Eradicate it. This will involve you developing new policies that specifically bar these types of posts. You will need to then ensure that you consistently moderate them, removing them and notifying people as you normally would.
  2. Facilitate it. You talked about having an advertising forum, but the person went around it by asking a friend. (In which case, I’d just go on my intuition and probably move the thread to the proper forum and have a word with the member who posted it). But the possibility is there to have an ad forum or multiple ad forums (as you do now, I know) and just become more forceful in ensuring that these posts are made there. Don’t make exceptions.
  3. Charge for it. If people want to advertise so bad, you could always make it a paid classified ad type of deal. Charge $10-$20 a thread at the start and grow from there. If you read Monetizing Online Forums, you will have a good idea of what I mean. If not, check out the story of 99designs and Flippa, two profitable businesses that started as classified type forums within a larger community.


Whatever you are thinking of doing, it probably happens in this way:

  1. Start a thread in your staff forums and discuss the issue, talk about what you are wanting to accomplish and how you think you can get there. Ask for feedback as far as your plans, what types of posts should be excluded from this effort, etc. I assume, in this suggestion, that you have a competent staff that is also loyal to you. Get everyone on the same page. Unity is key with these sorts of things.
  2. Finalize your plans, as far as specific policies and how members will be contacted. Update staff documents or public guidelines as they pertain to this issue and what threads are allowed/not allowed, if appropriate. Be wary of all-inclusive lists. People will always invent a new profanity or a new way to advertise.
  3. Announce it to the community. Explain the steps you are taking and why. You could decide to leave any thread already posted and only subject this to new threads or retroactively go back and remove old threads. Expect that some people will be very unhappy. That happens with any change. If you truly believe the change is for the better, you will never make any change for the better without making some people unhappy.
  4. Execute and be consistent.

As people question you about how they can still get attention to their website, it may be helpful to show them my quick and easy guide to company and brand engagement on communities you don’t own.

I hope that these thoughts help you. Best of luck.