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 tribe.net 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 tribe.net’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 tribe.net 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, tribe.net 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:
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:
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 tribe.net 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 tribe.net 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!