How you can avoid a community revolt like the one Reddit just experienced

These days I hesitate to dive in and criticize companies for their community-building missteps. Building community is hard, and we all fail at some point or another.

However, I can’t resist being about the 3023rd person to weigh in on the
Reddit protest
that occurred this weekend. Much of the analysis so far, while fine, has suggested a single action (the firing of Victoria Taylor) caused the event. Instead, it seems clear to me that this was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. There are much deeper problems over at Reddit, and I think it’s worth analyzing them because we could all learn from their mistakes. Here are my thoughts on what went wrong and how they could have avoided a blowup.

A single point-of-contact for community is a dumb move. (It’s also a common one.)

Having a single point of contact for a community means that you are one step from failure. If that person leaves, or is let go, or acts like a jerk, or does any number of things, your community is immediately in danger.

If you’re at a company with multiple community employees, make sure they all engage with the community on some level. Certainly some will have much more interaction than others, but being a recognized face is important.

Unfortunately, at many companies there’s only one community hire, so this is impossible. In this situation, try to have a non-community person (maybe a marketer or product manager, or even an office manager…someone with people skills) at least occasionally interact with your community. Build a sustainable community integrated with your company. Which leads to…

You need to be part of your community.

By all accounts—including her own—CEO Ellen Pao spends very little time talking to her community on Reddit. The employee they eventually asked to step into the moderator liaison role does not seem to be very active either, and often seems to get into tiffs with users regarding moderation actions. Meanwhile, the celebrated employee that’s leaving seemed incredibly active (she even had a whole subreddit for her two cats). Being part of your community engenders trust and helps you better understand them. I suspect the backlash would be far less severe if they had been a bigger part of their community.

If you let go an employee who is crucial to any major community projects, immediately fill that void.

Part of the major frustration from the Reddit community is the fact that Victoria was the coordinator for Ask Me Anything (AMA), the Reddit Q&A series (and often was the point person for verifying celebrity identities). With her departure, many of these sessions across multiple communities were suddenly in jeopardy. Reports vary, but it sounds like Reddit didn’t step up to temporarily fill this position and ensure these AMAs proceeded successfully. In fact, it sounds like some AMA moderators learned about Victoria’s departure through AMA subjects who couldn’t get ahold of her. This is just lazy on Reddit’s part; they should have immediately had an existing employee step in to facilitate this important part of the Reddit experience.

Monetizing a community is tough. Involve them, help them understand why it’s important, and know that there is a line past which you will alienate them.

I don’t know the magic trick to monetizing a community. It’s hard to make money off of something that’s explicitly designed around quality personal interactions rather than transaction. Steps towards monetization can cause community members to get very worried and upset…sometimes for legitimate reasons, sometimes imagined ones.

With that in mind, you must involve them. You must help them understand. Many times, the issue is simply your community picturing a huge company with insane profits and swimming pools full of gold trying to squeeze a few more bucks out of them…when the reality is that the company is rag-tag group of passionate people struggling to become profitable so they can keep the site afloat. Communicating this and being transparent about why and how you’re looking at monetization will greatly decrease the amount of frustration the community feels.

Involving community beyond that can be tricky; if you directly ask the group if you should do x or y, they’re likely to say “no” (and then you’re in a tough place if you do it anyway). But two options are a) doing user testing (the real kind, in a room rather than deployed live to a bunch of unsuspecting community members) and b) organizing a community advisory board. Both not only help the community feel that you took their concerns into account, they also should help you make a better decisions.

Finally, you need to know that there’s a line. There’s always a line. The communication and collaboration you do with the community can push that line further, but there’s a point (whole page take-over ads, popups, advertisers who clash with community values, etc) at which the community will say “no, that’s not ok”. Traverse further at your own risk.

Ad revenue is built on large numbers of visitors. When visitors are a direct result of the work a minority of volunteers provide, that vocal minority is, and should be treated as, very important.

At a SaaS company you’re likely to try to ignore the vocal minority asking for power-user features that won’t help you sell any more licenses to average users. But with a community, that vocal minority is often the reason the community is functioning and healthy, especially when they have significant responsibilities and projects. It seems that Reddit has been taking their moderators for granted, doing a bad job communicating with them and building much-needed features.

As Drew Olanoff put it: “Moral of the story? Making bucks off of the backs of a community is possible, until they take their backs somewhere else. It’s a tightrope. Reddit fell off.” Reddit should be prioritizing moderators above almost all else aside from revenue, because without them the site will collapse. The fact that Reddit apparently promised new tools and features for moderators and then never delivered is proof that their priorities are in the wrong place. They should have dedicated developers working on tools for moderators and dedicated staff communicating regularly with moderators (and, post-crisis, they now seem to).

Every company should have a crisis plan that involves communicating immediately (even if your communication is “we can’t talk about this yet”).

Crises happen. You can’t help that. But you can have a plan. And the first part of that plan needs to be communication. When community members hear about drama from other community members, it often gets exaggerated. This is true in most contexts. When a coworker tells you that Jenny from marketing was let go, it usually includes gossip or drives you to speculate, often leading to worst-case scenarios (“I bet they’re shutting down the whole department!”). But if the company communicates quickly and honestly, much of this will be squelched.

Reddit did a terrible job of this, with very little public communication about the issue. Worse, Pao went on to talk to the press about the incident before talking to the community. (She did post a single, unimpressive comment in one of the public threads. She later complained that she was being “downvoted” so her message could not get through…despite obviously having access to the company blog and announcements subreddit.)

Letting go of an employee that’s extremely connected to your community should be done very carefully. Ideally, you should work with that employee to ensure a smooth transition. Most employees would prefer this; it reflects badly on them, too, if a community collapses after they leave, proving they didn’t build a sustainable community. Sometimes this isn’t possible. We still don’t know what happened with Victoria. Sometimes departures are not amicable, or there are legal reasons you can’t discuss them. But just like I said in one of my favorite posts for UserVoice, saying nothing is far worse than saying no. So if you can’t actually talk about the situation, just acknowledge that it exists and is important. “Hey all—we hear that you’re upset about this and hope to discuss it with you soon, but for legal reasons we can’t just yet. Stay tuned, and thanks for your concern and passion.” That simple move would have alleviated a lot of the anger.

Community is hard. People are fickle (especially on Reddit). Balancing mission and revenue is tricky. There’s no silver bullet. But there’s also no excuse for neglecting your community and then on top of that not executing a good crisis and transition plan. I hope we can all take a moment this week to review the above and make sure our own communities are not set up for failure like Reddit was.

Footnote #1: What should Reddit do next? I think Sam Houston has some great thoughts.

Footnote #2: Before anyone brings it up for me—yes, I absolutely think the misogyny that is rampant on Reddit had something to do with this. Their disdain with CEO Ellen Pao seems half rooted in legitimate frustrations, half in their disgust over her lawsuit. That is unpleasant and inexcusable, but I still think it was a minor part of the equation. The points I’ve made above are far more relevant.

Footnote #3: Thanks to Jennifer Sable Lopez, the Community Building
Stack Exchange
, various articles, and everyone on the CMX community for helping me polish my opinions here.

A debt of gratitude

I hope I made it clear when I spoke at CMX East on the subject of ROI that I made it clear I was standing on the shoulders of others. That’s generally the way math, science, and tech work; we’re all learning from each other, sharing, and moving things forward. I made it clear I wasn’t a math whiz, and you didn’t need to be either; instead, it’s about finding the existing ways of measuring value and applying them to your community.

That said, I wish I had taken a moment for shout-outs. Thank yous to Jenn Lopez and Erica Kuhl for letting me use their case studies. Shout-outs to Jesse Avshalomov, Justin Isaf, Loree Draude, Annemarie Dooling, Bill Johnston, Mark Williams, Aurelien Poma, and anyone I’ve forgotten who gave me tips and stories to draw on for my presentation. Major thanks to David Spinks for asking me to speak and helping me focus my presentation.

But a very special shout-out needs to go to one man: Richard Millington of Feverbee.

Richard has been pushing for community ROI since before most of us (psst—check out his amazing Feverbee blog). He’s been finding reliable, scientific ways to measure it since before most of us (psst—check out his underrated book, Buzzing Communities). He’s been helping move our field forward before most of us were even part of it (psst—check out his consulting services). While there were a few parts of my presentation where he was specifically cited, this and any presentation on community management ROI owe a huge debt of thanks to Richard’s work. He’s a pioneer in the field, and we wouldn’t be the same without him. Thank you, Rich!

The State of Community Management 2015

The Community Roundtable‘s 2015 “State of Community Management” report is out.

I’ve watched this report mature from some fun facts and salaries to an incredibly insightful and useful report. This year’s is worth devoting significant time to.

What I find most exciting is that what I’m reading here mirrors what we saw onstage and discussed offstage at CMX East 2015.

Community building is no longer begging for serious consideration. Companies are starting to truly understand that community is valuable (and isn’t social media marketing) and are investing in it.

Instead, our focus is on making sure the money is spent well (community managers and development over tools), the work required is not glossed over (advocate programs require real effort), and that we’re measuring our value and ROI.

This is so incredibly exciting to me! It’s the signs of a maturing practice that is taken seriously and striving to improve and show real value. Let’s all take this report as a call-to-action: This is where our practice is headed, and we all need to step up and strive for the same high points that are in this report.

Why I think Lyft will win


First and foremost: Don’t get me wrong—Uber has a ton of money and may just drown Lyft with it. But I think, barring drowning, Lyft will win the race. And in using and talking to Lyft drivers in SF and NYC the last few weeks, it’s become clear that things are changing.

Here’s why.

Arguably, neither app currently has brand loyalty from its drivers. Almost every driver seems to be using both apps. But I’ve noticed a trend slowly developing: Drivers are starting to complain about Uber. Not about payment or logistics; there are plenty of riders and the drivers get paid well. Instead, it’s Uber and it’s riders’ attitude & culture.

Complaints I’ve heard:

  • “Uber riders are unpleasant; I’d rather drive Lyft passengers”
  • “Uber punishes me when riders complain, even if I didn’t do anything wrong”
  • “Uber sends me aggressive automated messages when I go off-course, even though I’m doing it for the customer”

Meanwhile, Uber riders are developing a growing distaste for the service. This isn’t surprising considering the violent acts* as a result of potentially questionable driver screening**, bragging about their creepy spying on users, aggressive acts towards press, lack of empathy about deaths caused by their drivers, a ham-fisted initial rollout of surge pricing, etc.

Lyft has made a positive culture and engagement with its communities—both drivers and riders—a huge part of the brand. I’ve been arguing from the start that this will be their differentiator, and now it’s starting to shake out. IF the prices of the services remain relatively comparable (which, to my first point, Uber might win through the sheer volume of their funding), I think people will continue to shift their loyalty to a company they trust and respect. I waited 12 minutes in Manhattan last week for a Lyft because I don’t like the culture at Uber. The driver went 10 minutes out of her way to pick me up because she’d prefer to work with Lyft, even though there were Uber riders closer to her.

As Justin Isaf highlighted in his CMX workshop last week: Community, done well or badly, has a long-term return on investment. You can use the muscle of money and marketing to get short-term results, but long-term the market will shift towards the brand that makes people feel welcome, trusted, protected, and empowered instead of insulted, attacked, and threatened.

*Full Disclosure: The rider in this story is a friend of a friend. However, he’s far from the only person claiming harassment from an Uber driver.

**It’s unclear what the differences (if any) between Uber and Lyft drivers are, aside from the fact that Lyft requires new drivers to go on “mentor rides” with an experienced Lyft driver who must approve them…again, putting community best practices to work.

Photo courtesy of Jason Guerilla Tester Futures.

The next challenge

In community management, we often reference Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.


First and foremost, it states, humans focus on the need for food, shelter, safety, etc. (Not much of a surprise there.) It’s only once these are met that they can—and will—move up the hierarchy. We’re never content, us humans. It’s what makes us great, and leads to moon landings and the Mona Lisa and Third Eye Blind’s self-titled album.

I’m lucky enough that I frequently have achieved the “esteem” level of the hierarchy. I feel my work is valuable—I help people connect and accomplish things.

But like many of the lucky people in the first world, I’m always chasing self-actualization. I want my actions to mean something more than a good day’s work, or a promotion, or an award. I want to be changing the world for the better.

I chased this with UserVoice, helping companies treat customers better. I chased this with ZOZI, helping people live more active lives. And I’m very excited about my next attempt: Starting in June, I will be taking the role of Community Lead at Coursera, helping them achieve their lofty goal of providing universal access to the world’s best education. They—soon to be “we”—are truly trying to change the world for the better.

As always, this transition is not without sadness. I’ve learned an incredibly amount at ZOZI from my manager, my coworkers, and my employees. We created some great things—moving our customer satisfaction from sub-80% to 100%, launching the ZOZI Journal—and we’ve helped many people get out in the world. Leaving was not an easy decision, but I believe it was the right one. Regardless, as with UserVoice, I wish the ZOZI team all the best and will be closely following their progress (and using their product).

At Coursera, I am going to be working with some of the most brilliant people of my career on some very juicy challenges. Community is an integral part of Coursera, and they already have some great community programs. I won’t lie; my excitement sits right next to a very talkative fear, sure I won’t accomplish my goals. But truly, isn’t fear the path to self-actualization?

Thank you to everyone who has ever helped me, from my bosses to coworkers to many community managers I’ve interacted with. I’ll need you now more than ever—expect some emails and coffee dates. :) And yes, I will continue to see you at Community Manager Breakfast.

Wish me luck!


Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

I’m speaking at CMX Summit East!

Audience at CMX Summit
CMX San Francisco 2014 – I’m in that audience somewhere!

I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be speaking at the fantastic CMX Summit in NYC this month!

This will be the third CMX Summit I’ve attended. I can’t recommend the event enough: This is one of the few places where you can actually learn insightful, proven community management strategies and tactics from the pros. And the smattering of speakers from other fields—like this year’s former nuclear submarine captain—bring useful tools and experiences that make them a perfectly compliment to the community professionals.

I’ll be speaking about the massive importance of measuring the ROI of community management efforts efforts. No matter how scary or difficult you find it, it’s time to make ROI a priority. I’ll walk through the things you need to accomplish this mighty goal, provide some examples, and hopefully leave you with some useful info and a good chunk of courage.

I’ll also be hosting my Community Manager Breakfast in the morning before the official talks start…which should be very different with hundreds of attendees instead of a dozen. :)

Hope to see you there!


Events drive retention

The effect that user groups has on sales and retention is undeniable. Over the past five years at Brainshark, we have carefully watched the effects of meeting our customers for these in-person events.

Here are the results:

  1. Within 90 days of the meeting, our customers use the product an average of 15% more.
  2. Renewal rates are 10-15% far higher for customers that participate in the user group program.

From CMX Hub

I am so ecstatic that community professionals are beginning to measure and share numbers like this. I will keep yelling until I go hoarse: Community management is about retention! It’s a hard thing to measure, but it is measurable, as demonstrated here. CEOs are not great at understanding this, and you’ll often get pushed to focus on lead-gen or upselling. These are not the jobs of community, and if you try to build a community while pushing your product, you will face significant challenges. Community management is about retention.

Community Manager Breakfast March Notes – Ambassador Programs

At last month’s Community Manager Breakfast, the group chose to focus on a juicy discussion topic: Ambassador Programs. The fantastic Meredith Black (Who is looking for a community role, FYI!) took notes. Check out the high-level bullet points below, and join us at the next breakfast to get the full experience!

What is an ambassador?

Users who are active, engaged, show up offline, spread the word (evangelists).

How do you build an ambassador program?


  • Have a strategy and plan
    • (Do you want ambassadors to be pre-beta-testers? Are you looking to recruit? Etc.)
  • ID the ambassadors, then reach out with money/resources/support
  • Show tons of love to early participants
  • Have barriers to entry for selecting ambassadors (see NextDoor)


  • Make too many rules – instead, let the users have some say
  • Build the relationship around money – instead, make it authentic
  • Ramp it up too early – instead, determine ambassador milestones before the call-to-action

How do you develop a sticky ambassador program for a product/service with a 1-time use case? (Example: a site where you research which grad school you want to go to)

Top issues:

  1. Users have unequal experience (novice vs. expert)
  2. Users aren’t motivated/interested to stay engaged
  3. Product/service is hedged by legal/compliance issues


  • Have tools in place: community blog, great platform, user profiles, following capability
  • Prioritize motivating and retaining key segments that disengage
  • Bucket and grow different segments BEFORE merging them
  • Customize attention to build real relationships
    • Get 1-on-1 = Hangouts, 15-min phone calls scheduled by users, etc
  • Source content from users
  • Research successes in similar programs


  • Expect your community to solve its own problems
  • Force different segments to merge too early
  • Ask for company resources without a plan for ROI, milestones, or metrics
  • Forget to advocate with users for your/company’s needs
  • Hesitate to use exclusivity, if it adds value
  • Use an ambassador program if there are legal/compliance issues – instead, find other ways

February Community Manager Breakfast Notes – Metrics, Offline Community, and more

At February’s San Francisco Community Manager Breakfast, we eschewed the pre-set topic and chose topics as a group. The result was a fantastic, varied conversation with folks from all different experience levels, business types, and focuses. Although you won’t get the full context from the notes – you’ll have to come to breakfast for that – there are some great observations and suggestions below.

A huge thank-you to Meredith Black for taking the notes! If you’re looking to hire someone very intelligent with events skills, check out her LinkedIn!

1. Launching a community from scratch

  • Choosing community focus
    • Test with Minimum Viable Communities – do things as simply as possible (Facebook groups are easy) and see what sticks. Less risk.
    • Consider that you may have more than one community – especially if you’re a two-sided marketplace. Don’t treat them the same.
  • Research
    • Go to Twitter chats, forums where market exists.
    • Hang out, follow, engage in conversations.
    • Note what engages people, where gaps are.
    • Once your community has started, these places can be perfect for sharing about your CMTY organically.

2. Engagement

  • What is a real, loyal CMTY member? Sticky, engaging, and offering value.
  • Do user testing for ways to push interaction.
  • ID the evangelists (Customer Support can be a great source):
    • Figure out how you can help them.
    • Give them responsibility – they want it, and it’ll help you.
  • Personalize:
    • Be the face of the brand: sign social media posts with your name, be the face/voice of the brand.
    • Use a personal email (ie – if you can’t handle the volume, have the rest of your team help with it.
    • Do the things that aren’t scalable (a la Paul Graham)
      • Phone calls, emails, friendships, 1-on-1 asks

3. Platform

  • Hard to launch a CMTY without a platform/ways for members to communicate.
  • Facebook Groups definitely work – but FB has a tendency to interrupt/pull functionalities. Move off it as soon as you can.
  • Platform suggestions:
    • Mobilize (built by former CMTY mgrs.)
    • Jive (can segment, has gamification)
    • Mighty Bell
    • Discourse
  • Mobile community platforms still pretty rare.
  • When moving a CMTY from one platform to another: do it in buckets, introduce users to forum, measure activity.
  • Moving has risks, challenges, so it’s necessary to get the CMTY more engaged.
  • Platform architecture can be overwhelming – don’t underestimate.

4. Offline CMTY-building

  • Offline is a trend (vs. 4 years ago).
  • Development is the same (set the tone/rules, power-user program, scale it).
  • How do you find your initial members?
    • Relationships are built face-to-face: get out there, tailor, make it personal.
  • Collaborate/empower users so they initiate events for the brand.

5. Offline Metrics

  • Know what the actual company goals are (often, management isn’t sure):
    • Brand recognition/association
    • Member-to-member interaction
    • Retention
    • Goodwill
    • Etc
  • Don’t have ROI measured yet? Provide management/C-suite with tons of general data:
    • Activity level
    • # signups
    • Engagement volume
    • Etc
  • Tell both stories – metrics and personal:
    • Emotional: interviews, feedback, Yelp reviews, etc.
  • Share successes pre-emptively:
    • Data
    • Learnings (shows you’re not just flailing)
    • Roadmap that can be quantified
  • These are the same challenges as for other soft departments (like PR).
  • Tools:
    • Google Analytics
    • Sprout Social
    • CRM
    • Good ol’ spreadsheets

6. CMTY+ (cross-functional integration)

  • Make friends internally and externally – get buy-in of tech team, C-level, support, finance, etc.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel – partner instead.
  • CMTY+Sales:
    • Community can help retain, make repeat sales more likely.
    • Leads are more qualified/shared.
    • Deals close faster.
    • Benefits maybe aren’t apparent through regular CRM data.
  • CMTY+Marketing
    • Leverage current customers for leads to new growth.
    • Track evangelist movements, put in a bucket, use for PR/marketing (collateral, landing page quote, great story, reference for potential investors, etc).

Hope to see you at the next breakfast!

Happy Community Manager Appreciation Day 2015! Let’s grow up.

Happy Community Manager Appreciation Day 2015!

they grow up so fast

It’s amazing to me to be celebrating this for the 6th year. It feels like just yesterday that Jeremiah Owyang created it (Who, incidentally, was my mentor when I stumbled into community management – thank you Jeremiah!).

Anniversaries are always a nice time to look back and look forward, so let’s take stock of our situation.

So far we’ve seen the industry go from nascent to the-hottest-thing-nobody-understands to near-takeover by social media marketers to, finally, an emerging set of values, frameworks, and resources.

The problem is that we still don’t quite know what we are.

Every CM struggles with this. Our jobs are focused on the user – we know that much – whomever that may be. But they can involve forums, events, social media, customer feedback, customer support, user testing, product design, communications, and more.

I’ve talked to talented folks lately who have gotten out of community management partially because they’re unsure what it is and where they fit in it…and it’s a lot easier to have a job where the lines are clear, and it’s a lot easier to tell your boss you’re succeeding when you’ve got one clear goal.

I think there’s a couple steps we need to take to move past this fourth-act crisis.

1. Start showing ROI.

Stop complaining. Stop grumbling. Yes, it’s HARD. (We’re not unique in this, by the way – PR feels the same way.) But ultimately, if we can’t show that there’s inherent value in making customers happy, we can’t advocate for our jobs.

How do we do this? However the hell we can. We need to stop imagining there’s one perfect formula for community ROI – especially since community takes so many forms.

Maybe for you it’s the fact that your cost-efficient meet ups can be paid for if they convert just ONE attendee a year to your platform (as was the case when I was at UserVoice). Maybe it’s calculating whether the lifetime value of people who participate in your community is higher – like Salesforce, which proved that community participants spend more. Maybe it’s showing that NetPromoter score is higher (which should indicate referrals, which means more money) for those who participate in your community efforts. Maybe it’s showing that your community efforts increased open rates, which increased impressions on your product. Maybe it’s showing that feature uptake was more likely when someone participated in the community, like Google AdWords has shown.

There’s something you can measure. It may not be possible for you to have a daily or weekly dollars-spent-to-dollars-earned, but you can prove that you are generating value. (And for the record, it’s not like Marketing really has direct ROI – ever heard the phrase “I know half of my marketing is working; I just don’t know which half”?)

Everything else is gravy. Yes, it’s great to create a good impression of the brand and to have advocates and to have happy customers, but consider that all bonus. Show your ROI, then talk about all that…don’t show the bonus results and assume there is ROI.

2. Build the Community department.

I’ve been arguing this for years, and I will continue to. If there’s a department focused on sales, a department focused on marketing, a department focused on finance…why the hell wouldn’t there be a department focused on customers, arguably our most important asset?

What does this get us? Sure, respect, and pay raises…but also leverage within the company and room to specialize. The conundrum above, where we can’t define our jobs because we all do so many things? To me, that’s indicative of a burgeoning industry and a trade, not a problem. When you look at those many tasks alone, it seems a bit manic. Look at them together? Events, communications, forums, user testing, customer support, social media, product design, and more? Why, that’s a team of community specialists!

Stepping up to lead departments will grow the number of community-focused jobs and allow people to specialize in what they’re good at and interested in, rather than struggle to do everything. That’s a bright future.

Don’t think you can do it? Sure you can. Companies are waking up to the need for this. There’s plenty of ammo (start here) to send to your boss. (Sign up for that mailing list on the right side of this page and I’ll keep your inbox full of that stuff.) And if we lock down a basic version of the ROI component, we can stand our own next to Marketing and Sales.

Forging a community department will be hard, and it won’t happen right away…but it can’t be any harder than event planning or motivating people to participate or dealing with trolls!

Go forth and find ROI and build the community department. Long live Community Manager Appreciation Day!