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.

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.