How do you handle/moderate commercial members?

This isn’t an easy problem. I’m a fan of this paragraph the Stack Overflow/Exchange policy:

If a large percentage of your posts include a mention of your product or website, you’re probably here for the wrong reasons. Our advertising rates are quite reasonable; contact our ad sales team for details. We also offer free community promotion ads for open-source projects and non-profit organizations.

I cribbed that language for College Confidential’s guidelines and it works pretty well for most situations. Where things get complicated is when we sign partners who want to use the site to reach clients. The bane of our existence for a while was essay-help services. We have a forum for getting essay feedback and services would reply to a bunch of questions with thinly-veiled pitches that barely answered the question.

When we reached out and signed them as partners, they had to agree to a few stipulations such as actually answering the questions in the forum. In return, we gave them a custom signature that included a link to their service. The problem, however, was they would either:

  1. fail to live up to their end of the bargain or
  2. find the restrictions too onerous and give up participating.

In the first case, we’d drop them as clients, making our sales team unhappy. In the second case, they’d drop us, which was just as bad for sales. So the pressure on the community team was to loosen the rules. We went back to the drawing board and came up other solutions.

First, we gave up on essay services as partners and created our own community-driven service. It’s been very popular and brought more value (because of new registrations and participation) than the partnerships did. Essay services are happy to advertise with us using traditional ads, so it’s a win all around.

Second, we moved partners to AMA events. It works best with schools our community is already interested in. We set a time (an hour) and a single topic. (Here’s a sample: Exclusive ASK ME ANYTHING w/ U. Chicago) The topic includes a relevant poll so people can participate without writing a post and we start collecting questions a week before. In the context of an AMA, we found partners naturally answer questions to the satisfaction of the community.

AMAs also allowed us to give partners better leads than if they were randomly posting on the forum. Obviously we love when school representatives join the community organically! What doesn’t work is forcing partners to behave like regular users when they aren’t motivated. Limited events sets an honest tone: these partners are here to sell something and we are inviting them into our space as guests. It’s kinda like a Tupperware party. It’s no problem for your home to be used as a store as long as everyone knows the deal and the selling ends when the party ends.

At the risk of self-promotion, I clipped a bit of a talk I did a few years ago on the topic: