Roundtable washup

Well, the first ever Roundtable gathering of Australian Community Managers in Melbourne is done and dusted. Thanks to everyone who attended and gave of their time and wisdom. What a treat to huddle with a group of smart, talented, passionate people and swap war stories (we knew from the outset we wanted to support some venting!)

The event was held @ Lonely Planet on Friday March 13th (thanks also to my colleagues for surrendering my favourite meeting room for a full day).

Our attendees included Community Managers representing Essential Baby.com.au [Fairfax Digital], Pool.org.au [ABC], Red Bubble.com, Habbo Hotel, Network Ten, EMC, South East Water, Lonely Planet and more. Other attendees were about to begin the work of building communities and were keen to learn about the people that make them tick. Big applause! Too many are tapping consultants instead of practitioners (or practitioner/consultants).

The work of Bill Johnston, of the Online Community Report, inspired the event and Bill made a cameo appearance to introduce the concept and explain how it can be valuable. If you’re a CM practitioner or just interested in this stuff, I highly recommend exploring Bill’s site and resources.

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You’re what?

I asked our attendees to capture what they do every day. At the end of the Roundtable, we’d see what we had. The responses were wildly variant (no surprise to anyone in the online community space).

They include: writing code, writing reports, keeping insurers happy, dispensing chocolate, drafting FAQs, liaising with lawyers, summarising legislation, trend and competitor analysis, shaping policy, customer service (in public and via email or phone), mediating virtual disputes across country borders, designing community platforms, educating everyone around us, talking to the media, hosting live events, arranging events (on and offline), introducing users to one another, managing content, blogging, mentoring, training, bug testing and QA, mitigating risk across varying UGC, articulating and agitating for user/member POV, setting tonality, recruiting ambassadors, responding to cease & desist notices… all in a days work.

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A few themes were captured repeatedly: education (our users, our organisations, ourselves); oversight (moderation, governance, risk management, making sure the relevant legalities are deployed to protect users and community hosts); and communication (we use highly sophisticated communication to meet member and organisational needs, ducking and weaving around volatile environments, minimal resources and duelling stakeholder priorities).

I found it interesting (and refreshing), that marketing didn’t appear anywhere on our four large sheets of paper. Is this a shortfall between how our managers/organisers see us and how we see ourselves? One CM reported having to clean up after colleagues who market within her community and create havoc.

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Many of us were both Community Manager and Product Manager (for community platforms and ‘Community’ as a philosophical strain of our organisations). While this is the perfect way to fold community needs directly into a product iteration loop, it’s also tough. Product development, even at its most agile, is time-consuming work, which takes us away from our core business – our people. This can diminish our voice and standing. If you’re the only one tending community, it’s even worse.

Boundaries

We need them, and we struggle with them. Whether we’re obliged to clock in 24/7 or not, we often feel the need, particularly if we’re under-resourced, and/or our communities are experiencing distress, serial pests, or any other incendiary scenarios. For many of us, our users are most active in opposing time-zones. Few of us are adequately resourced to manage this.

Capturing community ideas

Permitting negative feedback is essential. Shut it out and perish. But be careful not to create a space for ‘complaints’. That’s what you’ll get.

One attendee reported success in transforming a conventional ‘feedback’ forum into an ‘ideas forum’ where users contributed meaningful suggestions anchored around particular needs of the organisation (as well as throwing some spaghetti to the wall and seeing what stuck). Other attendees reported an existing desire to move to a similar model.

The ideal system also lets members help each other more than you help them.

There was recognition that expectations need to be managed very carefully around this sort of platform so users are clear about what their contribution means; will it result in an action or outcome? How, if at all, will they be involved if it does? What is the time frame?

An ideas lab can be a poweful talisman for engagement and collaboration,but if users see their ideas piling up with no consequence or response, they’ll switch off or bite back. You can’t realistically act on all ideas. But be respectful and transparent about how you intend to review them.

Moderation

A hot topic, if ever there was one. It’s the underbelly of community, where ethical, legal, privacy and personal concerns intersect. While the legislation (child protection, safe harbor, privacy, defamation etc) we must craft our policy around is largely binary, people are nothing but ‘gray’. If you run a truly global community you’re managing a massive cocktail of cultural, social and political mores each day. They won’t always mix, and it won’t always be fair.

For example: a member posts content that’s offensive or prohibited in one country (let’s say it could get you thrown in jail), but not in most and not where your server box lives. How do you responsibly manage reports and concerns about that content? Everyone involved is a member of your community, and you don’t want to alienate anyone, or worse still, create the possibility of risk to person.

What about a review written by someone in broken English that reads like spam but you think it’s more likely a genuine offering. Do you remove it if the rest of your commnuity cries ‘spam’ and reports that content – recognising that doing so horribly sabotages that posters user experience (the one you’re protecting and enriching?) Even spam detection isn’t foolproof.

Let’s say you run a photography community featuring artful nudes of yourself but you’re forced to ban a user for posting pornography? How do you manage the perceived conflict of interest – and the fact it might be thrown back at you as ammunition?

Employ smart, robust policies and the rest boils down to in-the-moment judegement calls based on expertise and community intelligence. Draconian protocols are untenable in reality (and they’ll kill your community colour).

We need to look after our moderation professionals – ensure their roles are understood and respected; make sure they’re exposed to good, healthy content as well as the dark stuff (reviewing racist, pornographic or worse content for many hours a day impacts your wellbeing). Find ways you can enrich and branch their role as resources permit (working on highlighting community editorial for example, ‘panning for gold’).

Profanity filters work if it fits the community, but they’re best if creative and fun, i.e. turning a list of assigned swearwords into gibberish. ‘Frak you, get frakked’ can turn a problem into an amusing feature – but it can backfire and prompt more foul language if it’s too glib.

Avoid editing user content – there are complex interpersonal consequences that take up valuable time to manage. Changing posts on a forum might also corrupt internal linking systems from users. The preferred option is to delete – and it’s a serious decision. Some communities accomodate discussion with the user about why their content was deleted, but for others, size and workload make it an impossible luxury.

Moderation is a misunderstood, undervalued career. Moderators are expert risk mitigators – policy wonks with sterling communication and diplomacy skills. Cynicism is their big stick, a sense of humour their airbag.

No, this isn’t high school.

Our organisations don’t understand us. We’re a teenager (Emo, punk?) We’re the ignored child, except when there’s candy (user content, website traffic) to be snatched. Our members are also seen as ‘children’, not flesh and blood adults. We can fan this problem if we slip into school teacher mode too readily.

When we explain community concerns to our organisations we feel like we’re recounting a drama from high school: “then he said… and she flounced and did…”

Credibility is a battle, even if you’re trotting out kick ass business cases, products, metrics and policies.

Users suffer from this. Feedback on a forum isn’t weighted like feedback from a letter or phone call. While this might sound logical at first, it invokes risky assumptions about barriers to entry and brand loyalty. Our job is to educate and achieve reasonable balance. The movements of media and participatory business models demand that organisations invest in flexible resourcing around community now, to win big in coming years. A strong relationship with Innovation/R & D in your organisation is a strategic galvaniser. You desperately need each other. Your other best friend is your legal department (if you’re lucky enough to have one).

Bribing people with chocolate is sometimes necessary.

What motivates?

Why do your members join, stay, and contribute? Why do you have a community to begin with? What keeps you showing up to wrangle the bad, the ugly, and the great?

The table agreed there’s a nebulous, mobile relationship between motivation and reward. Many times those contributing the most valuable responses are users/customers with problems [questions|needs|explicit goals] versus staff, or ‘community performers’.

Take up of sophisticated reputational systems depends on the community and its members. There’s no right way.

Some seize on an endless array of badges, gold stars, points, rankings and rewards, donning them and divving them ‘like posters on a bedroom wall’. Others reject virtual flair and express desire for simple, ‘real‘ reward (praise from a peer, or a useful gift from the organisation).

Gaming theory will always come into play, consciously or reflexively. Sub-groups of members (regulars, trouble-makers and provocateurs, trolls, ambassadors, newbies, etc) will game the system to their ends. You can’t avoid it, so be smarter and let it work for you. Community history is a potent force – tinker with “old trophies” as a last resort (like post count), preferably never. If you’re introducing rewards, reflect historical efforts.

Introduce like minded members (and build tools to make this happen without you). This allows community members to share their expertise as your proxy and motivate each other (unsolicited peer praise is golden). Automate for sanity, but still keep the humans!

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Lifecycles

Our members have them and always will. People become a member of a community and this relationship never stops moving. Sometimes it evolves into stasis, and ultimately, departure.

Though our organisations might be crying for growth at any cost, accepting this natural churn is responsible community management. Growth can be stimulated by catering to more – and different – life cycles, provided your resources can sustain this.

When community leaders impose their own life cycle changes on the community, it can breed conflict (i.e. a group administrator might abandon their group without transferring ownership, a resident expert might lose passion or interest in the subject matter, etc).

Managing changes in your community (new software, new staff, new features, new rules) can butt heads with these cycles, enraging members who feel the rug has been pulled out from under them. If your change is asynchronous to theirs, you’ll hear about it. Several attendees had witnessed an explosion of ‘spin off ‘ communities created by members who rejected organisational changes.

Life cycles also apply to moderators and community custodians. One CM who has engaged user moderators proposed a ‘retired moderators’ forum to give former volunteers sustained recognition for their efforts and allow relationships with fellow moderators to continue on familiar ground. The private forum takes them out of the public space and prevents moderator stasis or roguery.

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Community Manager is one of those roles you have to be a sucker to sign up for.

The job demands a subtle and intricate set of literacies, extreme elasticity, and a passion for protecting and enriching people’s experiences and relationships online (and off). The blinder the passion the better, because the work is frequently exhausting, always stressful, and occasionally caustic.

(Cue the sucker) This makes it one of the most fascinating, dynamic and important roles of 21st century participatory industry.

Businesses and marketers keen to ‘add community’ – these are the people you need.

It was obvious we needed to do this again – and again. Next stop, a couple of months, probably in Sydney.

Watch this space, and our Australian Community Manager Facebook group, for details. Way to get the ball rolling!

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Mick Leyden says:

    Hey Venessa,

    Awesome summary, I’ll be putting my (much shorter) post about the day up soon.

    It is amazing how much stuff we managed to cover!! Great stuff. 🙂

  2. Ross Hill says:

    Thanks again for organising the day – it was awesome!

  3. vivek says:

    Thanks for the recap, Venessa – very elucidating.

    Would be great to hear opinions from folks whose organizations exist solely for communities, as opposed to those who seek to use community as a means.

  4. Alison says:

    Brilliant summary and event Venessa. You’re fast becoming the best advocate for the community manager role in Australia.

    I’m looking forward to the next meet in Sydney!

  5. Venessa: What an AMAZING post. I feel like i was there. You guys were really getting into the nitty-gritty and discussing some of the most important aspects of community management and what so many of us are facing on a daily basis. So much of this resonates with me. And let me tell you, I absolutely need to establish some boundaries because I am always checking on the community. I can come downstairs at 2am to get one of my children a drink of water and i can’t help but look to see if anyone is trolling or what’s going on. It feels like an obsession. But as you mentioned…if you have a skeletal staff, you feel inclined to do all of this. Oh, what a life we lead…Thanks again for all of the rich details. This post is a real keeper.

  6. John Jacobs says:

    Hey Vanessa,

    Once again thank you so much for facilitating a great forum for what is such an important but under-documented aspect of the fostering of collaborative culture creation – that of the moderator.

    This is a key emergent role as we work together to build new civic ways to grow ideas in public.

    I really learnt a lot and would like to share a few key URLS gained on that day.

    A book
    http://www.managingonlineforums.com/

    A site
    http://www.theadminzone.com/

    A person
    Julie Gibson
    https://community.emc.com/people/julieg%3Bjsessionid=F289672D46CEE05ABD37795BA78F6105

    Cheers John

    pool.org.au

  7. Jenni Beattie says:

    Hi great summary of the first meeting
    I have now posted a short summary on our second meeting in Sydney available http://www.digitaldemocracy.com.au/?p=281
    cheers Jenni Beattie

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