Monthly Archives: November 2011

The experience, Part 1

Here’s a snippet of a comment friend and former colleague Brian Lawler left on my last post about the marginal nature of community management:

Here is my question though, regarding the experience. There, you had the level of trust that you needed to serve as Voice of the User, which is exactly what is needed, but it’s not clear from reading how that actually turned out. Was the team able to take full advantage of the arrangement or did something else go wrong? Who was the right person to actually report to?

Also, I would think there are some product managers out there who feel like it is THEIR role to be the Voice of the User. What do you think about that?

My initial response was to send an email to several past co-workers to ask them for their input, and I hope I can share their answers here. Memory is so subjective that this story would be better told Rashomon-like by several different actors, each with a unique perspective. I’ll cop to the fact that part of my desire for multiple POVs is born from a reluctance to speak publicly about a past employment situation, but this was several years ago, and we’ve all gone on to bigger and better things. It’s all good.

The reasons for’s decline were manifold. What started as a more robust alternative to Craigslist quickly took on a life of its own when our members decided that they’d prefer to be a social network. Our founders and staff were nimble enough to pivot and create a dynamic product that grew to accommodate the community, but after we matured, we brought in corporate decision-makers who had traditional ways of thinking about marketing and management. Let me draw you a picture:

For a time, had the largest unlicensed outdoor billboard in San Francisco. The banner displayed our logo and took up the better part of one side of our building, a former warehouse on Potrero Hill, so it was clearly visible to northbound commuters. Here are two logo shirts; the first features our original branding created by Elliot Loh:

Tribe T-shirt, original logo by staff designer T-shirt, original, in-house logo

This logo — the one that appeared on that giant billboard — was created by an outside agency. I don’t know exactly how much they got for delivering their creative brief, but office scuttlebutt had it pegged north of $150K:

New logo by agency logo designed by an agency for a giant pile of money

The one on the bottom is in excellent shape for a 6-year-old T-shirt. Because I never wear it.

The second logo had different treatments; on the billboard, the blobs and dots transformed into smiling faces of presumably happy members. A PR person worked to make sure that we had a sufficiently diverse range of people represented, but because there was no demographic data to draw from, they did what Marketing folks do and made a representative multicultural constellation. I was asked — no, pressured — to be photographed for the mosaic, but I declined politely each time. In retrospect, it was 50% because I was opposed to the branding and 50% because saying “no” was the only power I had to exercise.

When they were wrapping up the photo shoot, someone realized that they came up short; they didn’t have enough African-American men for the poster. The Marketing VP explained the situation to me, and I could tell he sincerely wanted my help; for the first time in memory, he wasn’t addressing me with his feet up on his desk, arms folded behind his head.

“Come on, Walter. We need some color.”

I let him know I wasn’t available and went back to my desk. They ended up drafting the building’s genial security guard to round out the rainbow.

I share this story to illustrate how corporate thinking and management style calcified a dynamic organization.

Another example: I submitted repeated data-driven requests to prioritize the development of better administrative tools. We were adding new members at a brisk clip, but we were extremely light on the tools we needed to scale up support operations. Unfortunately, the work ethic I inherited from my father (30 years at IBM) wouldn’t permit me to let things slip too far.

As a result, I screwed myself; because the work was getting done (manually), there was no strong business case to prioritize the admin tools. (I just typed and then deleted a reference to a cotton gin. OK, Moving on.) With a different manager, I probably would have stayed with longer.

Reporting to the VP Operations would have provided the greatest benefit to me and to our community. Operations is tasked with ensuring that regularly-occurring activities are carried out efficiently, so putting CM under that umbrella would have kept me relatively dry. If you manage server infrastructure and equipment purchases, a request for an interface that permits someone to search member accounts by date created gets consideration.

In Part 2, I’ll answer Brian’s question, “…I would think there are some product managers out there who feel like it is THEIR role to be the Voice of the User. What do you think about that?

Thanks for reading, comments are encouraged!


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The Community Manager’s credo

Each week, the radio program Gunsmoke opened with this somber reflection by the main character, Marshal Matt Dillon:

“It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful… and a little lonely.”

William Conrad as Marshal Matt Dillon

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The Cassandra Problem: why community management is marginal work.

As a business discipline, community management is less than a decade old; as a result, it still hasn’t been effectively integrated into the organization like Marketing, Business Development, Product or Engineering functions. When I managed content and community for in 2003 – 2004, I reported to the following managers:

  • SVP, Engineering
  • SVP, Business Development
  • VP, Marketing
  • VP, Operations
  • CEO

The nature of my work never changed; I was always a conduit between the company and the members who used our social network. I announced product releases, described bug fixes, solicited feedback on new features, held focus groups in coffeeshops and conference rooms, wrote FAQs for questions that hadn’t yet been asked, enforced our Terms of Use, etc. I became adept at predicting how members (not “users,” I kept telling my colleagues) would interact with our product, and I also learned a little about how to convince large groups of people to do familiar things, but in new ways.

Christopher Lloyd as Dr. Emmett Brown, Back to the Future

Community managers are the key link between customers and the organization.

It was an incredible opportunity; I worked with brilliant people with high integrity, and because they viewed me as a reliable proxy for our end-users, I was asked to observe or participate in engineering meetings, product development discussions and QA testing. We grew from zero to hundreds of thousands of members quickly; not because I was whispering sweet nothings into the ears of our Product Managers, but because we baked community management into’s recipe.

Back then, I was extremely hopeful about the future of community management as an area of business expertise; once everyone understood the inherent value of having someone in the room who could channel the customer, this insight would be embraced and promoted in startup culture. Eventually, I believed community management would even make the leap to transforming traditional, hidebound corporate structures into something more human.

I was overly optimistic. Even though many companies have Community Managers on their org charts, they’re layers removed from any decision-making capability. CM isn’t part of the product development process — our roles and responsibilities are still associated with reactive, “how can I help you?” customer service/support models that haven’t evolved in years. Even the best Customer Service is like spraying Febreze in an old camper van —  Meadows & Rain® scent is nice, but you still need to find the dead mouse.

Febreze products

"You've reached the customer service department. How can I help you today?"

As a result, customers are discouraged from even asking for help, and organizations are deprived of opportunities to appear responsive. GetSatisfaction and ZenDesk are great tools, and it’s a good practice to hire paid professionals to maintain your social media presence. But that’s not the same thing as having some skin in the game.

Until community management becomes a part of the decision chain, the way it is is the way it MUST be. Reasonable people accept that airlines will always lose or damage a percentage of checked baggage. But when a YouTube video called United Breaks Guitars surpasses 11 million views — this exposes the tremendous disconnect between the value passengers place on this problem and how seriously the airline takes it.

Retailers lose billions each year to shoplifters, but does anyone at Best Buy actually know the ROI on their compulsory receipt-check policy when leaving their stores? If CM data revealed that the policy made some customers less likely to make in-store purchases, would it be revisited or scrapped? We’ll probably never know.

Until CM is part of developing growth strategies, even red-hot, can’t-lose companies like Netflix must alienate long-term customers by rolling out policy changes in an extremely ham-handed fashion.


How are your customers’ needs (including their emotional ones) considered in the product development process? Outside of your engineering team, who sees the final product before it’s released? Do your customers know what level of service they can expect, or do they only find out the first time they contact your company with a problem?

Community management is poorly integrated and understood because it disrupts traditional ways of doing business. If you permit CM to inform the Sales process, there are some advertisers you won’t work with because you’ll know your community’s not open to hearing from them. Allow CM to influence your Business Development operations, and you may have to hold partners more accountable than before. Sprinkle a little CM seasoning in your product development process, and your product/engineering may feel threatened or undercut. It’s much easier to hire community managers, show them off, and marginalize them completely.

I call this the Cassandra Problem; a beautiful woman spent a night in one of Apollo’s temples; as she slept, the temple’s snakes licked her ears clean. When she awoke, she had the ability to hear the future, but when she rejected Apollo’s love, he cursed her; she’d keep the gift of prophecy, but no one would ever believe her predictions.

I wasn’t there, but I’m sure someone at Facebook suggested that Beacon — the feature that tracked and reported user behavior completely unrelated to Facebook — would be perceived as a privacy violation. After a lot of bad press, lawsuits and a multimillion dollar settlement, Facebook killed Beacon, but the idea that they Hoover up user data about members’ online purchases and Internet habits is out there.

Similarly, imagine your annoyance if you’d tried to convince people that a giant wooden horse offered as a gift was actually brimming with feisty Greek soldiers.

You can’t eliminate risk, but it can be reduced if you’re willing to pay attention.

Next time: how can we integrate community management into the organization?



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