My AMA with Bassey Etim, Community Desk Editor at The New York Times

Last week I had the pleasure of hosting an AMA with the very smart, very pleasant Community Desk Editor at The New York Times, Bassey Etim. Taking questions from me and the crowd, Bassey mulled on building moderation teams, the future of journalism, and getting buy-in from coworkers.

(Feel free to skip the first minute, which is mostly me getting set up in Blab and waiting for Bassey to call in.)

Bassey is speaking alongside folks from Etsy, Spark Capital, Genius, and Pure House at CMX Summit East, which I’m organizing!

My interview on Community Signal

Last month I had the great pleasure of being on Patrick O’Keefe’s Community Signal podcast. I’ve been a big fan of Patrick’s excellent blogging on community for some time, and his podcast has maintained that high level of quality.

Patrick did excellent prep and obviously knows his stuff, so I think he really got one of the best interviews of my career out of me. We touch on retention, volunteer management, legality of community members doing free work, the reddit revolution, free speech, choosing the right company to work for, and more.

Listen to the podcast here.

I’m joining CMX!

Evan Hamilton speaking at CMX East 2015
Me speaking at CMX East 2015.

I’ve been consulting for the last couple of months, because I wanted to find the right fit for my next full-time position. I wanted to find a company that could be home, where I could feel supported but also challenged, where I could feel respected but be constantly learning, where I could care about the product, where the founders truly understood and valued community.

And so, I’m incredibly pleased to announce I’ll be joining the team over at CMX Media as Director of Community! I’ve been a huge fan of the work that David Spinks has been doing in the community space for years. I’ve been to all but one CMX Summit (and spoke in NYC last year), many of their meetups, and recently discovered I am the top contributor on their fantastic Facebook group.

Their mission of advancing the community industry is one that is very close to my heart (I’ve literally been hosting my community manager meetup for 5 years). So I was over the moon when David and Carrie asked me to join the team. I highly respect both of them and can’t wait to learn from them on an everyday basis (plus, they’re a ton of fun to be around). And I’m excited to take a break from larger startups and get my hands dirty at a small company once again.

I’ll be transitioning into this full-time role over the next few months as I wrap up my consulting contracts. My initial focus will be making CMX Summit East 2016 the best Summit yet (A tall order!), and gradually I’ll start focusing on the CMX Series events, the Facebook group, and any other way I can think of to connect those in our industry and push it forward. I’ll need your help! Either in the comments here, via email (evan at cmxhub dot com), or via Twitter/LinkedIn, let me know what you want to see from CMX. David and Carrie have created an amazing community, but all three of us have a lot more we want to do, and your voices are a crucial part of that process.

I look forward to interacting with you all even more than I do now! See you soon. 🙂


Community Manager Breakfast, my newsletter, and this blog will continue operating independent of CMX.

If you were interested in working with me on a consulting basis: I will still be available for consulting alongside the super-talented CMX team, so please do still drop me a line.

Looking back on 5 years of Community Manager Breakfast

According to my records, I’ve been hosting Community Manager Breakfast for five years. Wow. That’s a long time, especially in the world of startups! With that in mind, and in honor of today’s Community Manager Appreciation Day celebration, I decided to mull over the changes I’ve seen since I first launched this little meetup back in 2011.

1) We’re less focused on social media.

That’s huge. When I first started in community management, it was clear that social media was going to be “a thing”. And we all wanted to be part of it. But it wasn’t 100% clear how it fit in with community management. For a moment, we seemed to toy with being content creators, garnering likes and retweets. We had a lot of big discussions around social media during those early breakfasts. But gradually something became clear: social media was a great tool for engaging an audience, but not always a great tool for connecting people to each other. And as many of those channels become increasingly noisy and broadcast-focused, I am glad we didn’t hitch our success to them.

2) Individual specializations are starting to develop within community management.

Five years ago, community managers did a lot of things…but not in a good way. We often were the first marketer, the website copy writer, the office manager, the customer support rep, etc. These days we’re increasingly being actually hired to do what we do: bring people together. And this means we can start to specialize within that general focus. Now we see developer evangelists, event organizers, open source facilitators, support community managers, and more. This gives our discipline more depth and more directions for practitioners to grow in.

3) We’re formalizing our practice.

While five years ago we were merely seeking to bring some sense and definition to community management, now we’re focusing on formalizing, documenting, and improving it. While it’ll forever develop and change and improve, we now are starting to see things like the commitment curve providing repeatable structures that we can build off of, rather than always starting from scratch.

4) Community managers were and are great people.

I’m so lucky to have met every single person who has come to breakfast and for all the support you’ve given me over the years. I’ve met so many of you that, to my great embarrassment, I can’t always remember everyone’s name! But please know next time you see me: I think you’re great, I thank you for coming, and remind me of your name and we’ll have an awesome conversation. 🙂

Here’s to another five years of breakfasts! Hope to see you at one if you’re in SF or NYC!

Nobody seems to own retention. Let’s take it on.

The other day I ran across Bill Johnston’s analysis of a report on customer lifecycle marketing. Next time I see Bill, I’m going to have to buy him a drink, because he’s spot on.

Here are the basic punchlines:

  • Customer lifecycle marketing is one of the hot new things. It’s simple: Instead of thinking about customers just when you’re trying to woo them, think about customers throughout their whole lifecycle with your company.
  • Retention is a HUGE part of that.
  • …but nobody seems to own retention.

This is where community professionals come in.

I’ve long argued that community-building is uniquely suited to focus on retention. What other practice emphasizes long-term gains, engagement, satisfaction, and return business as heavily? None I can think of. There are oodles of professionals focused on acquiring customers, but very few focused on retaining them.

Community professionals should own retention.

Not help out. Not advise. Own. We are the best people to do this, and it gives us a seat at the table that “helping with acquisition” or “decreasing support costs” or “making people happy” doesn’t.

Ask around. Who owns retention at your company? Likely, nobody. Take it on. Do cohort retention analysis. Ask people why they unsubscribe. Plaster “retention” on your cubicle, because this is your chance to make a huge difference, get the attention you deserve, and build some wins for company and customers.

It’s not the big stuff that destroys trust

We like to highlight the big screwups companies make. Perhaps it’s so we can learn from their mistakes. Perhaps it’s relief that it wasn’t us. Perhaps we just can’t imagine how such a big foul-up could happen.

But honestly? Most of the time it’s the little stuff adding up that hurts a company the most.

The bad customer support interactions, the interrupted service with no communication, the extra charge that takes you 30 minutes on the phone to resolve, the advertisements the company sends you even though you’re already signed up for their service. It all builds, creating a consistently negative perception of the company much deeper than that created by a one-off faux pas.

Then the new guy comes along. He has lower rates, looks great, and when you talk to him on the phone he’s incredibly helpful.

Even if the experience once you sign up might be just as bad as with the old guy, you’re comparing the so-far great new guy to the mental list of all the lame things the old guy did. And then: “What? 50% off my first month? And it’s really easy to switch?” It’s all over at that point.

Sure, have crisis plans and avoid massive screwups. But worry less about the giant disasters. Worry more about death by a thousand papercuts.

Tactic Tuesday: Year-end best-of lists (with a twist)

The end of the year offers ample opportunities for rituals in your community. One of the most effective? Best-of lists.

Whether it’s a poll, a bracket, a forum thread, or something else, asking people what their favorite things were for the year creates great energy. Everyone has an opinion and, if carefully managed*, the disagreements can create in-depth debates that deepen connections between community members. Communities thrive through emotional connections, so don’t forget that fighting can be good.

But I love the twist r/comicbooks is giving it over on Reddit. Instead of just nominating top comic books, artists, writers, and the like they’re also nominating top community members of the year. This strengthens emotional connections, validates community members’ time spent on the subreddit, and shows new members that this is a lively group that values their members. It’s a home run.

*The beauty of disagreement in best-of threads is that you can say “ok, make your own list”. Check out how just such a comment simultaneously empowers the angry community member while stopping a potential slugfest:

Reddit thread fighting about comic books

The themes from Feverbee SPRINT 2015

Last week I had the pleasure of attending Feverbee’s SPRINT conference for the second time. While the fantastic CMX Summit focused more on high-level community thinking and strategic implementation, SPRINT was a much more details-oriented event, focusing on tactics, studies, and how community should interact with the rest of the company it resides in.

A few themes stood out to me.

1. The era of community frameworks is upon is

At least two speakers produced individual frameworks they use when building community. Which is to say nothing of Douglas Atkin’s commitment curve or David Spinks’ concentric circles of community. The bad news? It’s hard to know which to use (or whether to create your own). The good news? We’re moving beyond loose strategies and soft buzzwords to a more standardized and repeatable set of frameworks and processes.

2. Community management is great, but community architecture can be far more effective

One of the advantages community professionals have is that we understand people and how to talk to them and earn their trust. So it’s not surprising that much of community management focuses on interpersonal interactions. And while I love this work and think it will forever be a huge part of what we do, several speakers at SPRINT showed the beauty and power of community architecture.

Whether it was Richard Millington himself talking about registration CTA locations and examining the community growth funnel or Jeff Atwood impressing (as always) with the depth of thought put into Discourse’s architecture to ensure productive interactions, the most impressive stories at SPRINT weren’t about blog posts or events, they were about building community spaces. We have the interpersonal skills. Now we need to stop being supplemental to the product and insert ourselves and our expertise into the product and design process.

3. It’s time to get professional

“Winter is coming for community professionals.” Richard’s keynote wasn’t meant to depress us, but rather impress upon us that the popularity this role currently holds in tech may fade quickly unless we become more professional, consistent, and scientific. This was the first year there were fewer people joining the community profession, he said. My take? That’s great. There have been far too many social media marketers with the title “community manager” and far too many people asking me how to get into community because “it’s so hot right now”. I’m looking forward to a smaller, leaner, smarter, and more passionate group of community professionals in the future.

Interested in being part of that group? Why not join us at Community Manager Breakfast?

People usually have a motivation

I’m late to the party, but ever since I discovered Alex Blumberg’s StartUp podcast, I’ve been devouring it nonstop. I recommend it to anyone who works in startups, owns their own business, or might do one of those two things at some point.

But I specifically need to recommend episode 9, We Made A Mistake, to community management professionals, PR professionals, and anyone who deals with crises and customer feedback.

The story is simple: Alex and his team are doing documentary-style interviews with Squarespace users to splice into their Squarespace ad spots. It’s unique, it’s powerful, and it’s real. But out of all the people they interview, Alex’s assistant drops the ball with just one. She forgets to clarify that this will be used for an advertisement for Squarespace. Oh, by the way: they’re interviewing a small child. Yeah, that’s a big oversight. And the mother of the child, Linda Sharps, gets very upset when she discovers this is an advertisement for Squarespace, not an interview for This American Life. She makes a big deal on the internet, and a crisis begins.

Alex and his team watch as the anger spreads through Twitter. They communicate with and apologize to the woman on the back-end, but they don’t make a public announcement until some time into the crisis, apologizing for the mistake. The story threatens to grow bigger, but finally dies down.

Now, sure, there are some logistical lessons to learn here. Pretty obvious ones:

  1. Always tell someone what their interview will be used for
  2. For very important bits of communication, create formal language and a checklist to ensure you’ve communicated these elements
  3. Get out in front of a story like this

I’m pretty sure Alex knew at least number one, and had they followed the second it’s unlikely we’d be talking about this.

But we get a rare chance to really understand the motivations of a rabble-rouser because something very unique happens: After the crisis, Alex actually interviews the person who created it.

As the interview began, I couldn’t help but feel some disdain. Linda was a freelance writer and marketer. Of COURSE she was. She probably couldn’t WAIT to make a big deal out of this.

But as the interview went on, I realized that was far from the case. When she got the email, which one could easily misread as an opportunity to be on This American Life, Linda was excited for her son. So excited, in fact, that she Instagrammed a screenshot of the email before even responding. You can imagine her crushing disappointment when she found out it was for an advertisement…from a friend who had heard the ad.

But why did she stay upset, even after the team apologized to her? Why was she so aggressive on Twitter? “I think the reason also I was upset is…I was a little embarrassed!” she says. “You know what I mean? In retrospect, I kind of felt like the part of me that is prone to self-doubt was like ‘of COURSE it wasn’t a This American Life story’.”

This is a key insight, and something we often overlook…especially when we’re alarmed and frustrated by someone complaining about us. The main source of Linda’s anger was not actually the miscommunication and misuse. It was that SHE looked and felt dumb. Gullible. Excitable. And private apologies don’t address how you look publicly.

Every crisis and blowup is different. We often assume, from our defensive perspective, that the person causing it is mean, or stupid, or unreasonable. We often fail to understand WHY they’re so upset and WHAT would make them less upset.

There’s no perfect formula for this, but what StartUp might have done is:

  1. Get Linda on the phone (which they did) and spend most of the call understanding why she was so upset (it seemed like they were more focused on explaining themselves).
  2. Examined how they could address her specific source of anger. In this case, how could they make her look good online? An early public post saying “oh my god, we totally screwed up and can see how this was absolutely misleading” could have helped.

Humans are rarely just plain mean or evil. Usually, there’s something driving their behavior. Taking the time to understand it pays dividends when trying to clean up a mess like this.

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.