Volunteer/Paid Moderators For Forums/Discussion Boards – What’s better?

Let’s take a look at something that all community managers have to do at least once in their career… finding suitable, stable, and above all else, supportive users for your game company and/or game title(s) – on a volunteer basis to be a moderator of your community. Most of the time, finding the right folks for the task is rather tedious, as their posting habits and history may preempt them from even being considered in the first place. This is even more apparent when you have a mature community.

Over the past decade, I’ve managed, built up, and lead numerous moderation teams for various companies. Below are my reflections to such.

What’s the difference between a paid/salaried and volunteer moderator?

Let’s break it down into a (mostly) simple three column table for this one.

Paid ModeratorVolunteer Moderator
Hours/time CommitmentSet work hours, no paid over time.No set work hours, no pay. Moderation-at-will.
Expected Work HoursFour to Six Hours daily.One to Three Hours daily.
Pay/Salary?Yes – Primarily part-time salary.No.
How much salary?Varies – Part Time: 9-15$/hr (USD)0 – It’s volunteer.
Freebies?Sometimes – depending on company policy.Sometimes – depending on company policy.
Work From HomeSometimes – most moderation can be done remote!Yes – no need to be in-office.
Strict Moderation Policy?Yes – moderators will be required to adhere to a policy.Sometimes – volunteer mods will need some leeway.
Freely Able to Post?No – most paid moderators will be restricted from such.Yes & No – not paid, but need to be reserved on what is posted.
Strict Enforcement?Yes – moderation will be expected to uphold rules to a T – no matter the point of view.Somewhat – Volunteer mods will all have different POV’s on how to enforce a violation.
Personable?Generally No – moderators will tend to be “robot like” and “in the shadows”, which doesn’t make them very personable.Sometimes – if mods are permitted to post their opinion or banter, people can take a liking (or disliking) to them.

So why are these unsung heroes needed on discussion boards?

Let’s be honest with this one. What is the point of having rules and guidelines, no less a Terms of Service on your company site/forums when you have no one to enforce said rules, policies, whatever-it-so-may-be? You end up with something along the lines of 4chan’s /b/ board. Which is highly unmoderated, you get the worst of the worst. No only a rotten community, but a small minority of users who will brigade the discussion boards, be it one section or many sections. Such actions to new users (future customers even!) can be seen as distasteful and unwelcoming.

What of paid/contracted-out moderators over volunteer moderators?

Tricky one to answer. Both avenue of moderatorship legitimately have positive and negative connotations on which other has the better benefits.

Let’s focus on the bad before we go to the good side of things. When you go the route of a paid(salary) or contracted moderator hire, the following items should be kept in mind.

  • Each paid moderator will likely be paid by part-time salary. If a forum community grows rapidly, you’ll need to tack-in more salaried moderators – fast. Every paid moderator means that your monthly or quarterly budget for your Community Team will further shrink, which can impede into budgeting of travel, in-person events, and online events. Running costs in due time can become a vertical wall, especially when you begin to surpassed 10 salaried moderators.
  • Each salaried moderator will be operating on strict-operating-times – the need for moderating is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week! Part-time and full-time moderators will likely end up with restricted moderation hours. Part-time I wouldn’t put past any more than three hours per day, full-time no more than eight hours per day – not night hours, mind you. This can be a problem as moderation enforcement needs to happen at all times of the day and night. When you have a moderation lull, and if users figure this out, especially your more toxic users, they will take advantage of the lack of moderation.
  • The paid/salaried moderators will either be contracted out or hired within the company umbrella. Bringing on moderators to the company forum or game forum can be a double-edged sword. Paid moderators represent the company even more so than a volunteer moderator. Anything that they say could cause unrequited hype and unneeded problems for marketing/publishing teams.
  • Paid moderators and allowing them to post freely outside of moderation duties. Allowing a salaried/paid moderator to post their opinion on the moderator account is generally disastrous, and will generally result in an interesting swayed/suppressed opinion from the community on any given subject on the forums, including moderation practice-questioning.
  • There can be a disconnect from Moderator to Company to Community. Moderators need to be aware of company policies and changes, along with updates to their product and how it could affect the community. Negatively impacting changes can cause an uproar on a discussion board, discussions should always be welcoming to have, not squandered.

Now the good side of things to having salaried/paid moderators…

  1. If the moderators are ‘in-house’ – generally on a customer services team/branch, you generally will have everyone on the same page.
  2. Enforcement of policy doesn’t vary radically ‘moderator to moderator’.
  3. Near full accountability which can be audited not only at the forum level, but at the user on a computer level if needed/required.
  4. Again, if all is in-house, staff (the moderators) can talk to other staff about X user and their actions or seeking clarification without delay.
  5. Moderation responsibility can be easily doled out during times of high traffic.

…and the good and bad of volunteer moderators are?

Simply put, a lot of good and a lot of bad. If managed correctly, you can achieve an incredible, well-oiled machine, stashed into your pockets. With the proper grooming on the selection of users and a proper training layout to said volunteer moderators, a volunteer moderation team is going to be much more efficient than a paid moderation team. The negative side of this? Time. It takes a lot of time to make it work.

Let’s break down the good side to having volunteer moderators.

  • Each volunteer moderator will likely have their own unique time zone that they’ll be up and active with. This will allow you to have, in due time, blanket saturation of your community forums.
  • You can add volunteer moderators to achieve 24-hour blanket coverage. If the game or community grows rapidly, adding volunteer moderators can provide more blanket coverage over salaried moderators.
  • The volunteer moderators will likely be avid customers of your brand/company. This is great, good, and sometimes bad. When you find ideal candidates to be a volunteer moderator, you need to take into the fact of their “fanboy level”. If they’re beyond zealous of your product(s), there’s a chance that their moderation will become lopsided and unfair with time, or biases becoming a thing. On the flipside, such users could be seen as a plausible choice as an ambassador for your brand.
  • Volunteer Mods are “add-as-needed”. Early on when the community is growing, you can add volunteer moderators on an as-need basis to segments of a discussion board, or globally.
  • Volunteer moderators can help! Sometimes volunteer mods can proactively assist new users/customers of a game/product, guiding them in the correct direction. Not only does this help steer the direction of the community, but it also paints a positive light on multiple avenues of the company. Ultimately, you get a feedback loop.
  • Volunteer Moderators can roam-to/assist with other platforms! The great part of volunteer mods is that you can have them assist other communities on an as-needed basis along with assisting on moderation duties for live-chat and streaming systems.
  • Volunteer Moderators aren’t exposed to inner/intra-office babble, banter, and discussion. What does that mean? There’s likely to be next to no exposure of potential leaks or other unannounced/unknown content being made public, let alone any drama that may be ongoing “in the office”.
  • Depending on company policy, you can leverage them as ambassadors for your product(s). This can help bolster your community as a whole when you have enthusiastic and supportive members of your volunteer moderation team.

And the negative side to volunteer moderators…

First and foremost: Risk. When you add in a volunteer moderator, there is always a risk as they’re “an outsider” to the company/game being produced. You can vet a potential user as much as you can, but at the end of the day – you can never be sure. A common method of gaining insight into a potential volunteer moderator is by a simple word or two: understanding and communication.

  1. You need to understand
    1. their history,
    2. where they come from,
    3. their age group (incredibly important),
    4. who they associate with,
    5. who they do not associate with,
    6. have they been a stable person in the community,
    7. are they highly well known,
    8. are they an unknown(?),
    9. do they know the game that they play/anticipate,
    10. are they a blind follower (this can be a bad thing),
    11. are they a yes-man/no-man,
    12. are they just trying to get a leg up and boast about it?

I’ll touch more on those on another article.

  1. You need to communicate.

If you do not communicate, what are you doing as a community manager? Communication is a two-way road. You cannot expect for the volunteer moderators to be open to your comments, coaching, guidance, and moderation policies if all you do is be the ‘finger-pointer do this do that’ rather the person who guides, leads, and ultimately builds out and shapes a moderation team – which also shapes your community! When communication doesn’t happen, primarily on a daily basis, and it begins to interfere with your volunteer moderators’ ability to moderate, it will create a rift between the company, the moderators, and ultimately the community.

And the list of negatives of why volunteer moderators are not the right choice for your community…

  1. Unpredictability. Volunteer Moderators tend to all have their own quirks and qualms, sometimes this can lead to unpredictable behavior and incorrect moderation application/practices. The same issue of unpredictability also can be tacked on to unavailability, where said moderator(s) only show up when they “felt like it”. This can be quite dangerous for community growth, and it can generate a lack of moderation coverage and community guidance.
  2. Availability. As mentioned above, while volunteer moderators are not paid by any means, and moderate out of their own free will and free time that they have. This can produce extended periods where the volunteer moderator isn’t available due to peak, off-peak, or graveyard “shifts”.
  3. Legal Bindings. Since volunteer moderators aren’t paid employees of your company, you’re rather limited in the number of legal bindings that can be applied to said users. Generally, the most restriction that can be applied is something known as a Non-Disclosure Agreement. NDA’s are generally of use to enforce the basis that there are hidden moderator-only forums, along with user credential tools for moderation purposes.
  4. Potential for leaks. Let’s face it, sometimes people just cannot control their excitement and get carried away, ultimately spilling a bean… or two. There’s the polar opposite where the moderators feel duressed or in such disdain of company leadership/game-updates going poorly. That is where you would hope the NDA makes them think twice about posting anything potentially sensitive.
  5. Moderator “buddy-buddy”. With time, there’s always the chance your moderators will begin to become quite acquainted with one another. While this can be a rather good thing in terms of rapid-communication on an as need basis, it can become an avenue that can be used against the CM team, or the community, or the company. This can also become an issue where when you look for new volunteer moderators to your community forums,
  6. “Rabid Fanboyism”. This is a problem when a game is being developed, not released and you have a growing community. This can also be a problem with moderator mind-clarity. Fanboyism – yeah, that’s a thing, and it can clout a moderator’s judgment and ultimately put them in the mindset of “X dev team knows what they’re doing, your argument of Y is dumb and is bad”. Setting expectations is the best way to fight against this issue. However, vetting out users of this particular issue and then to be a volunteer moderator should be happening at all stages of recruitment.
  7. Interpretation of the rules/TOS. Unfortunately, volunteer moderators will enforce board rules and company Terms of Service to their own interpretation. As the same can be said to paid employees, but paid employees have two things against them on allowing this to happen:
  8. Posting limitations. Volunteer moderators and limitations to what they can and cannot post. As they aren’t paid by your company, and operate purely on an NDA basis, the utmost you can do with limiting what they can post is of the following…
    1. No “official postings”. Meaning, they cannot speak officially on behalf of the company unless they’re quoting what a representative of the company stated publicly previously.
    2. No brigading posted content. Moderators aren’t permitted to brigade a thread. This is fairly self-explanatory, as this generates a rift between community, company, and the moderation team as a whole.
  9. Posting Restrictions – not to be confused with limitations. If you promote users from their main account to a moderator on the same account, then restrict your moderators from posting anything as a volunteer moderator, you can say goodbye to a fluid moderation team. Not only have you jaded their free will to post their opinion, but you’ve also given normal users justification to use the now volunteer moderator old post history against them when the users suspect X volunteer moderator did the moderation action.

So there you have it – a mostly quick rundown of paid vs volunteer moderators.

All in all, if your company is overflowing with money from whatever source, and your team / pod can allocate paid moderators into the budget, consider that route before going the volunteer moderator route. While volunteer moderators are an amazing asset to have, there’s a lot of stress involved when you begin to manage more than 20 of them at any given time. For me, I was managing 50+ volunteer mods on a daily basis, across multiple forum sections.