Hi all! Well, I'll be around for a good bit longer than 40 minutes, and I've been a bit of a lurker here for a while anywho. But let's call that the official window of gestalt-style question peppering prime opportunity. 😉
By way of introduction, I'm Chief Community Officer of VerticalScope, where I oversee a staff of a couple dozen Community Managers who tend to quite a sizable portfolio of online forum communities around the world. I'm a 17ish year veteran of the discipline, having led communities for Disney, Sony, and Microsoft. I got my start in online gaming back with the granddaddy of MMOs, Ultima Online, as an event moderator / seer, and worked up into CMing for games until scooting over to digital publishing in the tech space. I built communities for Tom's Hardware (almost from scratch), Tom's Guide, AnandTech, founded forums for PC Gamer, Space.com, Live Science, WhatHi-Fi, Digital Camera World, and a pile of others I'm forgetting at the moment.
Happy to take your questions!
Javed - Hi Joe, how do you measure success for individual CMs as well as overall for your community?
Great question, Javed! It's going to vary based on the type of community we're talking about. So for instance, with a community where community is the product, like an online forum that features programmatic advertising, I might classify Average Active Members as the KPI. For a community built around providing supplemental support to an existing product or service, it'd make more sense to classify questions that were effectively solved as a ratio of those that went unsolved. Your mileage may vary. At VerticalScope, we use a series of metrics to assess community health, which include dimensions of toxicity, helpfulness, "lonely" ratings of threads, as well as member activity.
For individual CMs, I'd say it also varies based on the area of specialization. On my team, we have around 8 or so areas of specialization, from working with Platform Dev to serving as advocate on Vendor and Revenue relations.
I tend to play a little loose with setting exacting metrics of success for individual CMs, since effect of their approach is experienced in the way of impact. It's a bit like art, in that an experienced CM director or higher can tell whether or not CMs under their guidance are effective, because the impact will be seen in the communities they manage.
Joi - Hi Joe, What are some opportunities for growth that a mid-career community professional should be looking for, to keep themselves engaged in this field?
Hey there Joi! Let's see, opportunities for growth for mid-career. Beefing up communications techniques are always useful, as well as staying abreast of platform developments and taking the time to engage in networking. A lot of solutions exist out there for folks in CM and much of it is still word-of-mouth. Taking a dip into Marketing or Product can be incredibly instructive in-between roles in Community, especially since so much of what we do is hybrid approach between the two (and more) classic disciplines.
Alberto - Hi Joe, when building and nurturing a new-ish community, what would you say is the most important metric to account for?
Great question, Alberto. Building a new community is actually one of the most difficult things for a CM to do. Always reminds me of the quote from "Oh Brother Where Art Thou" where Pappy Daniels is sitting on his porch, and he's talking about getting the message out to people. He offers "We ain't one-at-a-timin' here, we're mass communicatin'!" Well, building a new community out of whole cloth means one-at-a-timin'. You have to take each new member who is giving you signals of activity and involvement, hold their hand, and help amplify their impacts. These are the folks around which community will coalesce as it increases in size and awareness.
In terms of KPI, I would say measure the conversion of your newly registered users in Active Members and keep a keen eye on that return rate. Those are the individual users you want to focus your efforts on. You'll get most of the bang for your buck on time going after and activating them. These are the mooring lines around which you can use to help build and cultivate your new community. They are the ones at the "core" who create the connections you need to drive community formation and foundation. It's tough work, and it feels often like you're pushing against the tide, but communities grow slowly.
Actually, on the subject of community growth, there was a study done that showed that new social networked communities grow, fundamentally, just like trees. The growth curve is referred to as allometric. It starts painfully slow, a little sapling you'd hardly notice. It takes time to become a cumulative thing that breathes a life of its own and builds into self-sustaining once you've got a critical core in place. But those first little bits and stewardship are so utterly important to getting it to that "big tree" state.
Cole - Thanks again for doing this AMA, Joe! Couple questions for you :)
Thanks Cole! In answer to your question, skills all CMs should have in their toolkit? Two biggie prerequisites I have for folks stepping into the role are actually included as tests on any hiring vacancy I've posted in the past. The first is a very, very short single-sentence writing test. I provide a cruelly, grotesquely formed sentence, and ask that the candidate re-write it to make sense, using proper grammar and structure. Believe it or not, this helps me catch whether or not a candidate is going to be able to engage with members in the primary way (text) that will allow them to persuade and steer the conversation. If you can't communicate, you can't do CM.
Building up the ability to persuade and convince people online of things is the foremost part of being an effective CM, I believe. The second question in my little test is critical thinking and understanding. To do our job, which mostly involves serving as mediatrix and conveyor of information to and from two different masters (the audience and the company), we need to implicitly get the reasons and motivations behind both.
I love calculating ROI in community - though again it depends so much on what you're doing as to how that is calculated. One thing I like to do when I grab a CM from the games industry (I sometimes refer to them as "rescues", you'll forgive, I'm from there), is show them a sequence of weekly revenue that a given forum can make if properly civil and monetized unobtrusively. There's always a moment of "OMG" when the dollar signs of the actual value of community's content shows, and it connects the dots between the actual, literal value of community management and an amount of revenue. A massive number of CM pros have no idea that what it is we do is deeply, deeply valuable to our organizations, and establishing ROI is an ongoing effort.
As for KPIs for CM, I prefer to think of these as guidelines and steering, rather than as clear indicators of nuanced movements in the community ecosystem. Community Management is art and science, and it's also incredibly long-game. Great analogy I use to describe Community is comparing Editorial to CM by the farming way. Editorial is like a cash crop, planted in the spring, harvested in the fall. It's a short term proposition, create this thing, put it out there, reap the benefit, repeat. Community is more like an orchard. Plant it, water it, feed it, wait. Wait. Keep waiting. Keep it clean and clear of disease and trolls and spammers. Wait. Wait a little more. And then, after some time, you've got this thing that has a life of its own, like a sprawling orchard that requires minimal upkeep and continues to produce in volume for you over a lifetime of the brand.
As for do I find my fellow executives finding the value being produced by my team, a resounding yes. Community Management holds the line between victory and the abyss. Those of you who dealt with the sharp spikes in toxicity relating to the January 6th attack on the US Capitol saw what a huge difference CM can make in keeping our online communities safe and civil. CM is retention, growth, maintenance. My fellow execs see Community as core to what we do, and it is imperative that CM continue its work because that's the very thing we make.
Katrine - Hi Joe, after transitioning into the Chief Community Officer role (a role I know a lot of folks here aspire to become one day) what are some of the biggest changes you saw in your day-to-day responsibilities? And what advice do you have for those that are looking to pave the way at their current companies in becoming the first Chief Community Officer?
Thanks Kat for the question. As for the biggest changes in the day-to-day responsibilities since becoming CCO, I'd say it's actually more of a matter of being a community manager for community managers, and ensuring fellow executive stakeholder buy-in. There's a heck of a lot more power to effect change in the role of CCO, and this had been a struggle most of my career. In the past, no lie, it took me a solid 5 years to reconstitute a former community for one of the sites under the company due to issues getting buy-in, investment, and more. Now, I am empowered to raise a community at a moment's notice. A change in policy or an adjustment can be done swiftly, and securing buy-in is quicker when you've got that "executive" part of your title to corral stakeholders. It's liberating, but it also comes with a massive pile more responsibility.
Advice I have for those looking to pave the way at their current companies to becoming the first Chief Community Officer? Do everything you can to draw direct, hard lines between the amount invested in community management and a fundamental benefit to the company itself. Point to damage control and mitigation strategies in place, the presence at some companies of privacy and people and safety officers at the executive level. Do what you can to secure time with EVERY member of the executive leadership team to make sure they see what you are doing, and how it is impactful to the company. Community Management is almost universal in it's applications within a company, so find an in with them. I refer to community often times as similar to certain types of fungus or the human emotion of love - in that the more of it you share, the more of it you have. Amp that up with stakeholders in your company, and carve a space for CM at the leadership level. They'll be thankful you did.
Mac - Hey Joe, thanks for doing this AMA! What's one negative and one positive change you see happening to the community industry over the next 5 years?
Thanks Mac! What teams do I find myself internally working closest with as CCO? Overwhelmingly, Product. This is often the case in companies where there is a CM team and Product, since Product's stated aims as a discipline is not overly dissimilar from ours. Their goals are to take feedback and needs and channel them into cohesive requirements for dev, situating resources as required. I'd say CM and Product are kind of like step-siblings in this regard, and I've worn the Product hat a dozen times building out feature requirements for community engagement platforms and new features and needs the members have had. To a lesser extent, Dev/Engineering, Editorial/Content, and Sales. Editorial/Content or those who do the public facing beefier content stuff (vs. UGC which is our world) can have a great impact. I count two means by which community grows at the forum level - you've got your organic searchers who drive in based on a granular search they've done, and you've got people who arrive as a result of something Editorial wrote and want to chime in with their opinion. Don't discount the power of large groups of people with strong opinions to fuel your community growth. And lastly of course, Sales, because if you can get sponsorships and funding from companies to boost your community initiatives, contests, and otherwise, why the heck not?
One negative and positive change I see happening in the community industry over the next 5 years. Good question. A negative change I see coming is the further dip into social media style ephemera as basis for community growth and foundation, rather than expert, enthusiast content. Not to be "old man yelling at cloud" here, but the multi-second nonsense bursts of Tiktok that sensationalize or marginalize tend to rank higher on the platform than do the deeper dives into nuance, detail, and matters of passion and interest. One of my concerns is that communities might be further watered down and that thin content will drive out of control to a point that devalues engagement, and then produces a cottage economy of bots whose only purpose is to generate self-fulfilling clout. This is the dystopian community hellscape scenario that keeps me up at night.As for the positive change I see happening, well, there's a huge crop of aspiring CMs who really get community management. What used to be a very niche profession has grown by leaps and bounds, and is making waves in really impressive ways. I think further refining the discipline and improving best practices, having a collective of resources in place like The Community Club is a great thing and that can only improve with time.
It's interesting, actually, the parts of CM that are science. In conversations I've had with other CMs, especially those who have been kicking around the role for a decade or longer, I've noticed that so many of us have arrived at the same conclusions about certain practices and techniques. I've held for a while now that you could take a hundred experienced CMs, put them all in separate rooms (monkeys with typewriters style) and give them the same challenge. 95% would emerge after musing it over and experimenting with it and have arrived at the exact same conclusions. Different schools of thought about how to get there, but everyone getting to roughly the same place.
One thing I like to discuss, especially with potential candidates for CM, is the "Why" of Community Management. Why do we do what it is we do? The obvious one is to create value to members, vendors, partners, and the company. But there's more to it than that, right? For a lot of us in the industry, it's part of our core essence that we're community people. We were at one point a member of a community that saved us, or that kept us up and gave us a sense of belonging when we were missing it. I've found CMs often explain that they do what they do as a kind of way of giving back. We get a little shot of endorphin in the brain when a community starts to grow, or we have a story of community operating in service to members in a way that positively impacts their lives.
I'll explain to staff from time to time, why we do what we do. A nurse or doctor, they see people one at a time, practicing the profession of medicine to vastly improve the life of a person on a one-on-one level, immensely. Community Managers, well, we deal in matter of scale, improving the lives of millions of people by perhaps just a little bit. A question answered that saves trouble, a kindness in response, a fun engagement in a contest run, a civil place to share what you did today. These are small matters that add up to an ocean of our impact on the world around us, making everyone's lives and existences better by sometimes an undetected fraction of a bit.
Community Managers build out what's referred to as the "Third Place". Named for the area between work and home where you can rest, reset, reflect. It's where lingering restores. Starbucks famously uses the approach to make their cafes warm and inviting, a spot to meet a colleague, or a friend. Compare and contrast with McDonalds - would you have a business meeting with someone at Mickey D's? Probably not. But Starbucks? Sure. I liken the Third Place to Norm's barstool at Cheers. He isn't there for the beer, not really. He's there for the warm, safe, open environment where he is well known, part of the furniture himself. We build those places in what we do. All the more critical in times like these, as well.
Joi - With the term “community” being so broadly used is there a need for us to redefine what the work we are doing really is? New term maybe. (edited)
Great question, Joi. There's a need for that, most assuredly. Though I've held off on doing the gatekeeper thing, since our profession by very nature strives to be inclusive. There is a glut of "social media ninjas" in possession of 12 people in a Facebook group that bill themselves as Community Managers, but again, would I have been so bold as a guild leader of a handful of players in Ultima Online? We've all noticed other community management industry associations and groups where the essence of what is CM gets a little diluted, but even these I think will find their way and serve a purpose to vet and refine from a different spectrum of community professionals. I think there's enough room for both broader and specific definitions, and we can maybe adopt the pluralist approach. Though, I will say, those cranky real estate folks who go around the neighborhood in an HOA and make sure your fence isn't a certain color or height are definitely not part of "community management".
Patience, tolerance, inclusion, patience. Did I say patience twice? CM pros are built, not born. Just like experts in any regard. And we remember the kindness or cruelty shown to us at those early stages. I think like recognizes like, a lot, in our industry. There are signals of level and acumen in managing communities that emerge in conversations and in the work product of a CM that can be seen. Maybe some work on identifying what those are, and a set of standards to hold our profession to, if such a thing could be arrived at through consensus.
I'm reluctant to share, because it just happens to be my own brand of the CM Kool-Aid and I keep it close to the chest for the most part. But I'll leave it in parting, since I'm on the kick from before on the "Why's" of CM. I wrote a thing a while back when I was trying to condense down what it is we do into a way that makes the most sense. I refer to it from time to time when I need a reminder what it is we do.
In Provision of Community
A critical necessity
The compulsion to form a tribe
To sit around the fire, real or digital
Community fulfils this most urgent and fundamental of needs.
We bring people together across time and space
To sculpt societies from earnest intent
In our virtual halls echo the voices of millions of people
Each individual deserving of a place to gather.
Each person bettering us and themselves in the act of joining together to share.
We are dissent and agreement that enlightens and elates
Exchange in civil concord with one another across the span of seven continents.
We strive to build a place where lingering restores
To lift up individuals that form the greater part of the whole
To enable the vehicle of expression in its many forms.
To cast light on the brilliance of each unique spark of greatness.
To empower and celebrate in the mutual exploration of our passions
To build. To refine. To temper.
To enjoin a great dialogue that will endure, engage, and uplift.
We are Community.
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