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Community Management

Socrates Teaching in the Agora — sculpture, Harry Bates, 1883

Socrates Teaching in the Agora — sculpture, Harry Bates, 1883

“The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”  — Socrates

Recently, a user on Medium raised a concern about the popular discovery site Product Hunt. Co-founder Ryan Hoover responded to the controversy, but didn’t address the core concerns that sparked the controversy in the first place.

Today I want to talk about what he could have done instead and why from a community management perspective, what he did might have been worse than doing nothing at all.


On December 15, Ben Wheeler wrote a post titled “How Product Hunt really works”. In it, he addresses a concern he has about how Product Hunt works and their lack of transparency about their product.

I’m not going to dive too deeply into Ben’s posting, because this article is much more about Ryan Hoover’s response. As I see it, Ben’s post covers a few main concerns that a community manager might want to address.

First, the actual mechanics of Product Hunt, that is, how the service does what it does.

Second, how community members might wish to change how they interact with the service in light of this information.

Third, Product Hunt’s lack of transparency about a very important aspect of their service.

Product Hunt is a fantastic example of a quality product empowered by an active community management team. Community Manager and Co-Founder Ryan Hoover is an active and accessible part of the Product Hunt experience, so it was natural and necessary for him to respond to the posting.

His response, “Let’s continue to build Product Hunt, together” is positive, informational and highlights a lot of things that make Product Hunt a great product and a community.

Unfortunately, he deftly slides right past the three concerns we identified earlier. His failure to directly respond to the concerns raised was, to quote commenter Max Woolf, a PR move.

When a concern arises from within your community, if you’re going to address it, you need to actually speak to the heart of the concern.

In that moment, your members need re-assurance, and as the community manager, it’s your job to provide that reassurance.

You do this by displaying that you have listened to them, read their feedback and taken the time to really understand the issue as they see it.

Once you’ve done that, you then need to explain any discrepancies between their perception and reality. This could take a few forms, but here are some typical ones:

Your perception is incorrect. Here is how things actually work.
Your perception is correct, but it’s a feature, not a bug.
Your perception is correct, but it’s not actually a bad thing and here’s why.
Your perception is correct. You’re right that things are broken and here is how we intend on addressing the issue.

As you’ve probably noticed, the one thing all of these approaches have in common is that they start by addressing the community’s perception directly.

The “PR move” approach is to address the community’s perception indirectly. By offering peripheral explanations and information, you appear to be addressing the issue. This tactic provides new transparency, demonstrates commitment to the community and establishes a track record of responding to problems.

To an outsider or a casual member, it can look great. Like you really care — you’re engaging with constructive criticism, internalising it and using it to improve your product.

To the community members who cared enough about your product or service enough to bring a potential problem to light, for free, on their own time, in the interest of helping you improve, it’s maddening.

Not addressing the core of the issue is insulting to the intelligence of your power users. For casual users and outsiders, it’s ambiguous at best and deceptive at worst.


Whatever users believe about your product or service is reality. Multiple realities about a brand, product or community can exist simultaneously.

To users who perceive Product Hunt as transparent and equitable, it is.

To users who perceive Product Hunt as opaque and inequitable, it is.

A simplistic reduction of the situation might look like this:

Wheeler: I believe your product is inherently unfair for Reason A.

Hoover: I’m sorry you feel that way. I think our product is great and fair for Reasons B-C. We messed up, and we’re going to be more open from now on.

Can we honestly say that Mr. Wheeler or the other community members concerned about Reason A are going to have their perception shifted by a response like this?

By addressing the issue peripherally, Product Hunt ignores the perceptual reality where Reason A is a cause for concern.

When feedback like Ben Wheeler’s comes along, community managers are given the opportunity to bring conflicting realities into agreement. When deeply involved community members raise a concern, they are warning you about how you are being perceived.

They want to stay, they want your product to be great, and they’re willing to give you a free evaluation to help make that happen.


Duplicity is transparent. We live in the age of the public apology, and the more people are exposed to PR style deflection, the better they’re going to get at spotting it, calling it out and ultimately, leaving the interaction disappointed.

I believe that addressing issues peripherally and dancing around the heart of a concern isn’t the way to do things. It wastes your time, your users time and sets a precedent of being evasive in the face of criticism.

We can do better. Our members deserve it. We all deserve it.

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5859463945_2a815eed78Your users matter. New or old, give them your trust, your loyalty and they will return. This is a fundamental principle of community management. It informs everything I do as a community manager.

I believe member engagement is a spectrum, with dormancy at one end and deep engagement at the other.

It’s important for a community manager to have a hand shaping the experience of every type of user on this spectrum.

Responding to the ideas, feedback and criticism from users is a proven management strategy. Their input is invaluable in building vibrant and healthy communities.

I believe you need to find, engage and reward your super users. I’ve had many positive experiences building communities with an active cohort of super users. I’ve seen the positive impact they can have.

To an extent, online communities grow and support themselves. Even without community management, certain users will feel more engaged and committed than others.  This will happen on its own.

A strong relationship between the organization and the users? That won’t appear without some help.

This is where a “super user” program shines. By identifying and reaching out to your most engaged users, you create culture. In communities with strong cultures, users feel connected. Not just to each other, but to the organization as a whole. This creates longevity in an online community.

Engaged and excited super users spread their enthusiasm.  They foster the growth of the community and contribute more. They act as brand evangelists and often volunteer their time and talent for the good of the community. They’re also great candidates when a community team needs to grow. Many successful community managers started out as passionate super users.

How do we find super users and what can we do to engage with them?

Your community policies should seek out and reward engaged, active users and incentivize participation. Often, super users find ways to make their presence known. Help this process by opening communication channels. When you identify super users, reach out. Offering rewards, responsibility and visibility strengthens connections and the community as a whole.

First, let’s talk about steps for finding super users.


Encourage users to contact you

You want to create a space where users can get in touch with the Community Team in private. This could be:

  • Periodic surveys that have text fields users can fill out
  • A category for “Feedback” in your user-submitted bug tracking software
  • An email address members can write to

or anything that else suits your community. Watch these channels, keeping an eye on both the quantity of submissions and the quality.

For example, Feature Requests are a great way of identifying super users. Consider receiving many feature requests over a sustained period from a single user. Contrast this with infrequent, yet detailed, comprehensive requests from a different user.

Both are clear signs of deep engagement. Quantity and quality both matter.

Look for thoughtful commentary in feedback. Super users are often interested in the community as a whole. They can be a valuable source of information about the health of the community. Often, super users understand the nuances of the community in a way staff cannot.

Look in the external channels

Super users may also reveal themselves in spaces surrounding the community. Fan sites, Facebook groups and external forums are often created by super users. You may also find super users in spaces outside the community that belong to your brand. Observe your social media pages, looking for the most active users. They often give help, answer questions or evangelize in postings and comments.

Measure interactions and contributions

Engagement metrics can also reveal super users.  Either on your own or with the help of a product manager, look for users that visit often and stay a long time. Measure the quantity and quality of interactions like posts and contributions. Not every user that makes extensive use of your product is a super user. Observe a variety of users and learn to categorize them by their engagement metrics.


Once you’ve identified your super users, develop a plan for interacting with them.

It’s wise to develop your program after you’ve had some conversations with likely candidates. The goal is to identify motivations and broad archetypes. Understanding your users helps your program features suits their needs and interests.

Make sure your program is sustainable. I suggest you under-promise and over deliver. Half baked programs that fall apart can discourage users and hurt future efforts.

Here are a few features you can use in a super user program:


Give them editorial control

Super users often have a deep understanding of your community’s strengths and weaknesses. They’re also often representative of member archetypes. This helps them gain the trust of other users.

Giving super users limited editorial control makes use of this understanding and trust. Super users feel more engaged, and other community members feel that they’re represented.

Save editorial control for your super users who are natural stewards. Establish guidelines and limits to avoid the perception of super users having un-checked power.

Give them curatorial responsibility

If your community generates any kind of content, allow super users to curate and share it. Curatorial responsibility can take the form of lists, “picks” or collaborative voting systems.

You can also give super users the power to reward, elevate or recognize content on your platform. Establish clear guidelines for this type of feature, and reserve some level of governance. It’s important that the larger community perceives the program as having a positive impact.

Use visual differentiation

Visual differentiation is a classic strategy for rewarding super users. A visual reward can serve both as a reward in and of itself and as a publicity tool. Visual rewards also signal the community team’s commitment to active engagement.

Interface elements for super users can take many forms. Some examples:

  • Badges
  • Customizable profiles
  • Special interface features like borders or stickers

Whatever you use, it should be well-designed. Interface features need to have pleasing aesthetics to be effective. Bad design will diminish the perceived value of the reward. Above all, they must not have a negative affect on the experience of other user classes.

Make communication commitments

If possible, make a communication commitment to your super users and honor it. Some forms of communication:

  • A special newsletter
  • A feedback form only for super users
  • Periodic Google Hangouts or Twitter chats

…or whatever communication channel suits your community best. Whatever commitment you make, it’s important that super users see consistency. If you need to skip a newsletter or cancel a chat, always notify users. No user should ever wonder why you aren’t where they thought you would be and not be able to find an answer.

This kind of high-touch service sends a clear signal to users that you care. The dialogue between users and staff matters, and super users especially value this connection.


As with most community management techniques, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution for super users. The best thing you can do for the health of your community is to understand the types of users that it’s made up of. Super user programs can be an invaluable resource and I encourage you to try out these tactics.

I love to know what’s worked for other community managers. If you have implemented superuser programs, what have you learned? What worked and what didn’t?

Leave me a comment or hit me up on Twitter, I’m @TomMaybrier.

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2137294324_d0d17a4178Community management is a developing field and as such, there’s no one set of rules on how to interact with your community members. Every community will need a unique approach, but that’s what makes it such an exciting and rewarding career. When you’re experimenting with how you will communicate with members, I’ve found there are two core goals you’ll want to meet:

Keep everyone happy and satisfied and reduce the amount of back and forth messaging you do with each member.

Here are 5 tips that can help you to design the best practices for communicating with your community.

1. Be pleasant, but not too conversational.

It’s unlikely you’re available 24/7 to respond to members. Acknowledge this by structuring your answers as letters, and not conversational messages. Time management is an essential skill of a successful community manager and using too relaxed a tone can encourage a casual, conversational interaction. Getting into a drawn out back and forth wastes time and can prevent you from responding promptly to all of your inquiries.

2. Be clear that you are there to help, but you’re not tech support

Vague, general answers often result in “bounce back” – a community member asking a series of follow-up questions that wastes time for both of you. If you’re asked a technical question that’s beyond your ability to answer succinctly, rather than being vague, re-direct the user to a where they can find a solution on their own. Community Managers aren’t technical support – we are the information desk, the signpost to help orient members, and it’s important to help your community members find answers to their issues, so don’t be afraid to say “I don’t know, but if you go here, you’ll be able to get the help you’re looking for.”

3. Write a Knowledge Base or FAQ to help you direct members to self-service solutions

You don’t always need to answer every question you’re asked – even if you know the answer. You can empower a community to be self-sufficient by creating resources to help members solve their current issue and anything that could come up in the future. For extremely specific questions, it’s totally OK to answer in your communication, but your larger goal should be to decrease your communities need to write in looking for an answer – a well designed Knowledge Base can help your community run smoothly with minimal messaging.

4. Only give good answers

When you offer them, your solutions need to be rock solid. It’s frustrating for users to talk to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about, so don’t offer answers that you’re not sure about. Avoid getting into a “trial and error” message thread with your users – if you can’t help them, redirect them to someone who can right away.

5. Keep it cute or put it on mute

Which is to say, check your messages for attitude, snark or condescension. It’s easier than you think to accidentally be curt or short with your users. We write a ton of messages and sometimes you can forget that you’re in a 1-on-1 interaction with another human being. You’re not a robot serving up pre-crafted responses, you’re the human face of your business or organization, so double-check your messages and do your best to empathize with your users. Maintain professionalism and don’t be overly casual but don’t sterilize your messages. Be human, be helpful and be real.

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3081512009_2ecaf4e3eaUsed effectively, testimonials are an effective tool to encourage conversions from visitors to active members. When you offer visitors compelling stories and endorsements from active, engaged and enthusiastic community members, you create a welcoming and encouraging environment that will help you recruit new members.

As your community grows, you’ll likely receive unsolicited testimonials. Be sure to create a space for existing users to reach out and contact you with their thoughts and ideas. Be explicit about your openness to receiving feedback from your users by clearly stating that you welcome any and all feedback. Of course, not all the unsolicited communication that you receive from users will be of use to you, so be ready to sift through to find the good stuff.

Here are some things to look out for when choosing which testimonials to use:

  • Statements that illustrate what the member gets out of the community
  • Ways they have gotten involved in the community
  • Statements about the resolution of uncertainty about joining
  • Endorsements on the value of any paid perks your community offers
  • Anything that sheds a favorable light on the community, your business  practices or the quality of support offered

When choosing testimonials to display, remember that a good testimonial answers the “What’s in it for me?” question that potential members will be mulling over when they consider joining your community.

You may want to explicitly display the questions that your testimonials can answer – for example:

  • Why join X community?
  • What does membership offer?
  • What do members like about paid feature X?

Testimonials are one of the most powerful ways to demonstrate the value a community offers a visitor. Together with the right advertising strategies and promotional incentives, testimonials can greatly increase your conversion rate and strengthen the positive feelings existing members have about their role in the community and the communities value in their lives.

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312210315_f2b941f339Something I find interesting about Community Management is that while the situations and circumstances of your work can vary wildly, there are a few productivity tricks and tools that apply to nearly everyone. While I’m still rather old-fashioned about hand-writing my notes (I like to take advantage of the many cognitive benefits of analog note taking) there are a few browser extensions I use daily in my work as a Community Manager. I find that they improve my workflow and cut the stress that can come with the job. I think almost every CM could find a way to make these apps and tools work for them and recommend them whole-heartedly.

1.  Wunderlist

Wunderlist is certainly not an innovative type of service but what it lacks in “originality” it makes up for in polish, build quality and an intuitive user interface design. It’s also capable of assigning multiple people to a task. I haven’t yet used this feature but I can see it’s utility for collaborative Community teams.

Wunderlist also has a very nice iOS app and OS X app that I also recommend.

2. PopChrom

PopChrom allows you to create expanding text snippets in nearly any text field in Chrome. I find it tremendously useful for things like signatures, form email replies and light HTML coding.

For example, I use the shortcut “anc” to expand to <a href=”, cutting down on the time it takes me to post anchor links in comments and forum postings.

3. Skitch

Skitch, now heavily integrated with Evernote, allows for easy editing and sharing of screenshots with well thought out “doodling” tools that can really help when you need to get your point across visually.

One thing I really love about Skitch is the re-sizable elements like arrows and the smoothing it applies to free-hand doodles.

4. Lazarus

Lazarus, the cleverly named “life saver” for text fields will resurrect what you’ve typed in nearly any field in Chrome. Useful for unexpected crashes, accidental “Backs” in your browser or any of the other irritating unforeseen events that leave you ready to put a fist through your screen.

Never lose your work again!

5. User-Agent Switcher

Finally, easy to use, effective browser spoofing! Immensely useful for troubleshooting when your community members report issues and then tell you that they are using Opera, a legacy version of Firefox or *shudder* Internet Explorer.

6. StrictWorkflow

Here’s a fun bonus for you – working online can be difficult, especially if you find your attention easily diverted. If you’re not ready for full-blown access restriction ala StayFocusd (which I love, incidentally) you can try this extension to set you working in “Pomodoro Technique” style.

Tell Strict Workflow what sites you want to be able to browse and start the timer. For 25 minutes you will only be able to visit whitelisted sites. When the timer’s up, it resets for a 5 minute break. I find it very useful and more intuitive than having an analog timer or a standalone app or widget.

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471661031_7a5183d863From time to time, all communities lose members to death and online communities are no exception. As dissemination of information becomes a common post-mortem ritual for surviving friends and family, the more we will see the effects of a death on the living members of online communities.

When an online community loses a member to death, it’s important to understand the different ways the loss of a member can affect a community and the best ways to support and manage that community as they recover from the trauma of loss.

It’s important to allow community members space to grieve, post memorials, make tributes and share memories of their lost friend. Never remove a profile because a member has died – you may decide to grant access to living members but do so at your own risk. Most of the time, living relatives can be trusted with access to a dead member’s account, and this may be especially appropriate if the community you work with is composed of real-life acquaintances of the deceased.

The profiles we leave behind when we die often become important sources of information for the living, especially in the immediate time after a death. Funeral arrangements, instructions for gifts and ways to help survivors of the deceased can all be spread, posted and shared through communities through the accounts of deceased members.

Depending on your community, it’s very often appropriate to publicly acknowledge the loss of a member. A brief social media post is generally right, but for highly visible community members, often a longer tribute is more appropriate.

A death in an online community is always sad, but handled well, it can strengthen the bonds between members and engender a company or platform to its users. Death affects us all in our lives and as life is increasingly lived online, we need to learn to accept, understand and deal with death in a new way.

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"Like oil and water"

“Like oil and water”

If you want to build a healthy online community, having a skilled, knowledgeable Community Manager or team on board is essential. Having an employee working on the frontlines with users, building, strengthening and maintaining relationships accelerates the growth of communities and makes for a healthy, vibrant space.

A thriving community is also an invaluable source of feedback on what a business is doing right and where they have room for improvement.

 

So why does is seem that so many businesses hire Community Managers only to have them do social media marketing? In this emerging field, I think there’s still a fair bit of confusion about what exactly community management is and isn’t.

Sure, a good Community Manager can juggle community building work alongside growing likes, tracking “clicks” and other social media marketing metrics, but I’m of the opinion that’s a waste of valuable talent.

In many situations, the community manager is asked to wear a lot of hats, especially when staff is small, but for many CM’s (myself included) marketing and advertising duties are not where our interests lie. Good community managers are concerned with things like the behavioral economics of online interaction and the psychology of decision-making, but in a fundamentally different way than someone coming from a marketing perspective.

Have your interns delete spam from the blog. Ask the marketing department to “craft tweets”. Facebook likes can be easily bought, Twitter followers too – these are increasingly meaningless numbers and having your community manager focus on these things is at the expense of your community’s potential – and probably your community manager’s morale too.

Use your community team where they have the most real impact: in community facing spaces, building relationships 1-on-1 with your users. Leave marketing to the marketers.

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