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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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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.

Photo Credit: Furryscaly via Compfight cc

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.

Photo Credit: Nrbelex via Compfight cc

Ruling a large country is like cooking a small fish” – Tao Te Ching, Verse 60

This line comes up a lot when you start looking into the concepts of Taoism as they relate to leadership, for obvious reasons. In very practical terms, when cooking small fish, it’s important to know when to touch it, move it, flip it and when to leave it alone. Lao Tzu is referring to a fundamental precept of Taoism, wu-wei, or knowing when to take action and when to allow things to unfold and progress as they will.

This concept translates well to Community Management, for a few reasons. The biggest being a truism of online communities – the noisiest, most vocal users in large communities are generally, a minority. There is great value in knowing which concerns are broad reaching and which affect only that vocal minority. It’s very difficult to keep this in mind sometimes, especially since that vocal minority values their perceived klout in official decisions.

However, they use the same products and services that the rest of the community does. There are many users who would love to tell you their concerns and give feedback, if they knew where to go or were given the chance. It’s important to reach out to those members, find them and tell them “Your opinion matters!”

What’s good for them may not be what the vocal minority wants. And if you start allowing radical changes based on the will of the loudest voices, you may alienate and lose that large part of your user base that you aren’t talking to.

The Taoist philosopher’s world was much slower and decidedly less connected than ours, but the truth remains the same. It’s likely that a large community has members who don’t follow you on Twitter, read the official blog or get the newsletter. I believe Community Managers need to imagine how far-reaching changes will affect those members and advocate for the community as a whole, including those users who they may never speak to directly.

photo by soilse on Flickr

Some thoughts on “Moderation”:

There are many varied and valid reasons to moderate. Moderation can polish a community’s image, give it purpose or create a nurturing environment that fosters discussion, constructive criticism and relationships between users.

Moderating a community gives it focus. What you remove from your community places emphasis on what you leave behind. Moderation is a tool in the community manager’s arsenal that works both behind the scenes and center stage.

For example, your policy on profanity and vulgar speech alters the suitable age range of your product or forum. A community build around a more “adult” topic or product won’t necessarily benefit from the removal of swear words. You could alienate and frustrate your users by censoring them, similarly, if your product or service attracts a broader age range or if the community is likely to include children, a stricter policy will benefit you, both by protecting children and instilling confidence in the adult members.

You can de-politicize a community, create an online “safe space” or foster an all-inclusive, “anything goes” space. The focus will be provided by your style and amount of moderation. When you moderate, you are helping to define that vision and emphasize what kind of content is allowed.

A properly moderated community reflects the desires and needs of the community, but stays within the guidelines set by the company. A good, focused community can absolutely develop with no moderation but isn’t sustainable without it

Photo by Celeste Hutchins