Today’s guest post is written by Jelena Woehr.

Part cat-herder, part social butterfly, part psychotherapist, and part janitor, the online community manager has a unique and rapidly evolving job.

How can a person navigate the choppy, uncharted waters of online community management without losing her cool?

Moderator Maria Niles, along with panelists Eden Kennedy, Elisa Batista, Julia Roberts, and Marie “Riese” Lyn Bernard, explored this question at BlogHer 2011, as part of a panel on “Sustaining an Online Community Without Losing Your Own Sanity.”

The panel’s open forum format invited attendees to expound upon the panelists’ conversation.

That’s what I’d like to do here, by sharing three of the most important lessons the panelists made, along with my own additions and questions for discussion.

1.  Rituals Create Community Culture

All communities depend upon rituals to instill and sustain group culture. The panelists proudly shared their own online communities’ rituals with the room, including “comment awards” for eloquent comments in one community, and “no peeking” threads planning surprises for new parents in another. For communities, these rituals and routines create consistency; for community managers, watching positive rituals take place generates a sense of purpose.

I’d add… Rituals and routines don’t have to go hand in hand with insularity. If you’re struggling with a community that intimidates new members, ask a few trusted leaders of the “old guard” to establish a welcoming ritual.

2.  You Can’t Do It Alone.

The panel agreed that a social support system is essential to “talk you down from the ledge” when online community management threatens your sanity. Panelists related stories of confiding in colleagues and even their online communities, pointing out that even a cantankerous community often rallies around a leader strong enough to admit challenges and ask for help.

I’d add… There’s a fine line between “strength in vulnerability” and “helplessness.” Do: Ask for help from your community when the going gets tough. Don’t: Play that card too soon and risk unnecessary drama. Start with colleagues, and move to confiding in the community at large if you won’t be able to continue without their help.

3.  “We Hear You”

Complaints can be frustrating, but often the loudest voices have the simplest needs: They just want to be heard. According to the panel, taking community suggestions builds the trust you’ll need to call on when a problem can’t be immediately addressed. Even small suggestions should be taken seriously. A grateful user is a vocal ally when the going gets tough. Show with actions, not only words, that you hear what your community is telling you.

I’d add… Look for “low hanging fruit.” One of my favorite sites once customized a site feature just for me. It probably took a programmer five minutes, but I’ll never forget it! Pick out some of the easiest community requests and address them when you find a pocket of spare time in your schedule.

Now it’s your turn. Do you have any lessons to share or add?

Jelena Woehr is community and social communications manager for Yahoo! Contributor Network, where more than half a million writers share their knowledge on some of the world’s most visited websites, including Yahoo! Finance, Yahoo! News, Yahoo! Shine, and more. In her spare time, she herds cats, feeds carrots to ponies, reads management theory textbooks, and works toward her goal of becoming a professional CEO/Senator/Cowgirl/Eccentric Novelist hybrid.

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