This is a great way to communicate the business value of community. Rather than saying it’s about engagement or having a conversation, it’s about keeping our customers and increasing their lifetime value. Plus:
- How commitment curves help plot a course for user contributions
- Why free speech can be problematic for online communities
- The legality of online community volunteers
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Emoderation.
“If you have the choice between a company with a ton of money, that maybe doesn’t quite believe in what you’re doing, and a tiny struggling company that really does, you’re going to have more success at the tiny company because community really requires investment. It requires belief, and a large company is going to be waiting to see those returns. If they don’t see them quickly, you may not be around.” -@evanhamilton
“When I run across people who talk about allowing free speech on their community, I go: ‘Stop. Think about that for a second. Don’t just say that. Don’t just say that you’re going to allow free speech because it means something.” Free speech isn’t just what you want, it’s what you don’t.” -@patrickokeefe
“If you were a kid, and you’re out in your backyard, playing with fire everyday for a year and then, all of a sudden, your dad came out and said, ‘What are you doing playing with fire? I’m taking your lighter away.’ You’d be like, ‘What? I’ve been doing this, where were you?’ It’s a little bit of bad parenting, where the parent should say something enough that you, at the very least, don’t do it in public. reddit was never that parent and just said, ‘No, go ahead and do it until we say stop.'” -@evanhamilton
“Community is fantastic for retention. If you’re a member of a really fantastic, rewarding community that a company is running, you’re going to think more than twice before you leave. You’re not going to say, ‘Oh, you know what? This other guy has a better price.’ Because you’re going to feel this emotional connection to the company.” -@evanhamilton
About Evan Hamilton
Evan Hamilton has been in community building for nearly 10 years. He’s worked at a variety of companies – B2C, B2B, ecommerce, etc – and on a variety of community initiatives, from meetups to conferences to volunteer programs to online forums and beyond. Evan has also been the host of the San Francisco-based Community Manager Breakfast for 5 years. In his free time, Evan plays music as Kicking Tuesday and reads comic books.
- Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
- Evan’s CMX Summit talk on measuring ROI
- For-Profit Volunteers: The Fair Labor Standards Acts Limits on Volunteering in the Private Sector by Blake Bertagna
- Episode #2 of Community Signal with Rebecca Newton discussing the AOL Community Leader Program
- Nobody seems to own retention. Let’s take it on. by Evan
- Evan’s website
- Evan on Twitter
- Evan on LinkedIn
00:04: Welcome to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals, sponsored by Emoderation, smart social, globally. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:19 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for listening to Community Signal. I’m Patrick O’Keefe, recording from my home on the outer banks of North Carolina, where we are having a beautiful, rainy day, probably my favorite kind of weather, and we’re returning from a week off. So after eight episodes, we skipped last week and I really didn’t like doing it. It had to be done though. I was on the road visiting my grandparents and I tried to record a show with a good friend of mine. I thought I had everything together and the show had amazing content but there was one problem, the audio was literally garbage, it sounded awful. I just didn’t wanna put that out. I’m sorry for the absence, but I’m so glad to be back in full effect with this week’s guest, Evan Hamilton.
00:58 Patrick O’Keefe: Evan has been in community building for nearly 10 years. He’s worked at a variety of companies, B2C, B2B, ecommerce, etcetera, and on a variety of community initiatives, from meetups, to conferences, to volunteer programs, to online forums, and beyond. Evan has also been the host of the San Francisco-based Community Manager Breakfast for five years. In his free time, Evan plays music as Kicking Tuesday and reads comic books. You can find Evan at evanhamiltom.com. Evan, welcome.
01:25 Evan Hamilton: Thanks so much for having me. I’m a huge fan of the podcast, so it’s fun to be on.
01:29 Patrick O’Keefe: Awesome. Yeah. I’m a fan of your work and have appreciated you sharing the show through your network. So it always means a lot when I can engage with a professional like you, and you’re exactly the type of person that I hope to keep interested in the show, so we’ll see if I’m successful.
01:42 Patrick O’Keefe: So you have a Bachelors in Theatrical Lighting Design. Are you really into lighting?
01:47 Evan Hamilton: No. I think lighting is great, but I think for me, when I stumbled into tech and left theatre, I spent a long time thinking about like, “Am I betraying theatre? What does this mean?” I certainly felt that way at first, and I think what I settled on is I really love collaborating with people to make something that benefits multiple parties. Theatre is incredibly collaborative. It’s actually great training for being out in the business world because you have a director who is really in charge of the vision, but everyone’s contributing their own creative part. Every person is essential so you really have to figure out how to work together to create something the audience is gonna love. And I really think that translates to lots of things, but especially community because I think it’s really all about collaborating to make something that helps the company and helps the customer.
02:39 Patrick O’Keefe: We could probably grab some low-hanging fruit here and say that good communities are well lit.
02:44 Evan Hamilton: That’s fair. Yeah. Yeah. No broken windows and well lit.
02:47 Patrick O’Keefe: And you have this music side as I talked about, Kicking Tuesday, and you’ve been in bands for many years. A long time ago, your band mate forwards you a Craigslist ad in search of someone to revamp a Myspace page, and off you go down this social media road.
03:01 Evan Hamilton: Yeah. I think that dates me very perfectly. It turns out it’s really hard to find theatre jobs even if you’re not an actor. He forwarded me this job, and being in a band back in that area, you had to know how to customize your Myspace page, you had to bling it up, and I sort of knew how to do that. I wasn’t actually a good designer. I knew how to edit it. I didn’t really know how to make it good, but I replied to this ad and ended up working for a company called Flock. I think I eventually revamped their Myspace page. I’m pretty sure it looked terrible. But I was kind of their target audience, so they started bringing me in more and more, and then really I got very lucky. Their community manager, Will Pate, had to leave and he said, “You know, you should have Evan take over my role.” And I think, to be honest, they said, “Hey, yeah, he’s a young person. He gets the Internet. And also, we can really, really low ball him ’cause he’s a theatre major coming out of UC Santa Cruz.” So they got me, and thankfully they did.
04:01 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I mean, it allowed you to build up that experience to become the community professional you are today. So it’s funny how… I think probably this is episode nine, and I’m pretty sure three to four of our nine guests have creative backgrounds in their degrees, fine arts majors. I know that’s the case for Bill Johnston and Vanessa Paech. They have that kind of fine arts background, and I don’t know if there’s something to that and how it matches up with community, or if this is just a great coincidence.
04:27 Evan Hamilton: No, I think there is. I think although we should all strive to become as scientific as we can about how we go about building communities, it’s much less of a one-to-one, like I put the input in and I get the output. And I think folks in marketing are very talented but very used to, “I put the money in ads spent and then I get clicks back.” And they experiment to do that to various degrees, but it has an oversimplification, but I think that’s a lot of that experience. And I think that’s why marketing people often struggle with community because although there are some things that are tried and true, there’s a lot of just understanding people and talking to them and keeping them happy, and figuring out how to turn a situation where someone’s being very illogical and unreasonable into a win. And that’s very different from figuring out how to get the most out of the mathematical equation.
05:23 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah. I mean, it feels like without… I don’t consider myself a marketer, just a person who knows a little bit of marketing, and it almost feels like the internet and how people have been able to track certain metrics; referrers, clicks, things like that, have made some folks a little lazy, I think, in how to measure really important things because it wasn’t always like that in marketing. You didn’t always have browser referral, a direct path to the website. When you advertised on the radio, or television, or newspapers, or you handed out flyers, or whatever it was, it wasn’t always that clean, and I don’t even know if the internet is that clean, even though we want it to be.
06:02 Evan Hamilton: Yeah. Yeah, I agree. As soon as you get out of the building to paraphrase, I think, Steve Blank, you realize that a lot of your assumptions are wrong, and humans are very complex and very illogical. For any of your readers who have not read Predictably Irrational, I cannot recommend that book highly enough because it really makes you realize how often we do things that don’t make any sense. So, I think you’re right. I think that the internet and the analytical tools we have, have made us want to think that everything is just a numbers game. But most of the massively successful companies over the last couple of years, I don’t think you can actually trace that to simple, someone did an equation in a spreadsheet and launched something based on that, and that was the success. There’s always some X factor.
06:47 Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s stay with this topic. When talking about ROI, you told me, “I really try to associate myself with companies that see community as core to what they do.” What does that mean to you?
07:00 Evan Hamilton: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have a good answer, but I do think there are a lot of companies who have this inkling that they probably should be doing community but they don’t quite believe in it, and that becomes very tough. You turn into Tinker Bell and you’re like “Please clap. Say you believe in community managers.” Because you wanna survive, and I think they’re used to this, “Great, we bring someone in.” Again, they put something in the input slot and they pull something out of the output. And with community, it’s almost always a longer process and it’s almost always, there’s twists and turns and so I think there’s two things. One is, we absolutely should be pushing to measure ROI. I think that’s incredibly important. I think even if you don’t tell your company about this.
07:43 Evan Hamilton: I actually said this at my CMX talk in New York. You start measuring ROI now and don’t tell them you are. Just start working on it, because I do think it’s an important thing to measure and it’s something that we’ve copped out of in the past. That said, I think if you have the choice between a company with a ton of money that maybe doesn’t quite believe in what you’re doing and a tiny struggling company that really does, you’re gonna have more success at the tiny company because community really requires investment, it requires belief, and a large company is gonna be waiting to see those returns, and if they don’t see them quickly, you may not be around.
08:19 Patrick O’Keefe: You’ve been consulting recently, working on community strategy for companies. You can’t build a strategy without understanding your audience, you told me. How do we understand our audience, before we set out that strategy?
08:31 Evan Hamilton: I think again, the first step is getting out of the building, every single…
08:35 Patrick O’Keefe: Just leave buildings. All the time, leave buildings and you’ll be more likely to be successful.
08:39 Evan Hamilton: If you can work outside, you’re gonna succeed. No, I think every single gig I have had as a consultant, I’ve started with user research and going out and talking to people because we all have assumptions, and there’s this concept called ‘the curse of knowledge’ which is, “I know so much about something that I assume other people do too.” And it’s incredibly common in everything. And I think companies often have this, which is part of why consultants are useful just to get that outside set of eyes. But even consultants, I come in, I go, “Oh, I bet I know what the community’s gonna want.” And then once I start talking to them, I realize something completely different. So I’m working for one company, which I’ll leave unnamed but they have volunteers, and I started talking to the volunteers and they said, “I didn’t really realize I was a volunteer.”
09:25 Evan Hamilton: And that was a revelation and not something you could get from looking at numbers. So for me, that’s the first step, now you can’t really scale talking to people that well, so I often follow up on that with some sort of survey. But you may not know the right questions to ask in your survey until you talk to people. So for me, it’s always about starting there, and asking those questions, and figuring out what purses of knowledge that you have.
09:50 Patrick O’Keefe: I like that thought. I think people might be sometimes too quick to throw a survey out there to find the answers and maybe think they know the questions to ask but I like how you said it, to speak to some people first to really understand the questions, which will get you more helpful and more productive answers. Well said.
10:05 Evan Hamilton: Thanks.
10:07 Patrick O’Keefe: I’d like to pause here to recognize our wonderful sponsor, Emoderation.
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10:39 Patrick O’Keefe: I ask all of my guests to tell me what community-related topics they are really thinking about at the moment. You mentioned reddit and the challenges of, in your words, “More mature in years, not attitude community.” Like you, I closely followed the “revolt” that reddit experienced last summer. What caught your eye about that situation?
11:00 Evan Hamilton: I think it’s exciting because it’s, again, issues of a more mature community. A lot of the issues we hear about with communities are, they didn’t get enough investments, or the company shut them down too soon, or the community manager quit, or even more common is the company was just not nice to their community members, or didn’t ask them before they made a big change. And I tire of those, ’cause those are kind of amateur moves, and I think a lot of us in this space have moved beyond those and are facing more complex difficulties. And I think while there were some things that were really obvious that reddit should have done, it was also a more complex situation. It makes us think about what happens when your community grows to this massive size, where it’s clearly a success but it’s not where you want it to be and where you want it to be might be different from where the community wants it to be.
11:51 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, It’s interesting. When I looked at the reddit situation, I don’t know, I always think of communities in a foundational way, so the foundation we lay at the start of the community that we build if we’re fortunate enough to start the community, right? Many of us aren’t. Many of us come in after the fact and either someone did a great job or a mediocre job or in probably some cases, a terrible job. And so, we have to fix that or capitalize on their excellence, but so many problems I see that develop down the road are a consequence of maybe a poor decision, maybe a choice that didn’t scale properly and they didn’t adjust fast enough but it’s so much of a foundational, long-term sort of game to me.
12:30 Evan Hamilton: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think companies often fail at this, so I think that’s such a great point. In addition to going out and understanding your customers, you have to understand, “What am I trying to do with this community? And it’s amazing how many companies I talk to who say, “Yeah, we wanna hire a community manager.” And I say, “Great! Why?” And they kind of pause and they’re like, “Well, you know, you tell us why. It seems like it’s a thing we need.” Or, “We wanna create a forum.” “Well, why?” “Well, you know, the other people are doing it.”
13:00 Evan Hamilton: And I think, reddit had two specific foundational things that they did not address well or didn’t think through. One is, they didn’t decide if they were going to truly be this sort of haven for free speech and anyone can say anything no matter how horrible it is. They sort of said they were, but they flip-flopped on that quite a bit. Obviously, some of the administration changed which didn’t help but again, if they had at the beginning said, “Okay, when push comes to shove, are we a haven for free speech or not?” And I don’t think there’s a right answer there. There’s just an answer and they had led the community to believe and the community had really wanted to believe that it was and when they started shutting down these very highly offensive subreddits community said, “Well, wait a second, what happened to the mission?”
13:47 Evan Hamilton: And so, again, if you figure out what your mission is in the first place then you won’t run into that issue as much. I think the second thing which is a really tough one is monetization. And I think, traditionally for communities and for social networks, which I do think are different things, we’ve seen…
14:04 Patrick O’Keefe: No. You lunatic.
14:08 Evan Hamilton: Oh god, I’ve gotten into some long arguments about that. We’ve seen companies say, “Let’s get the users and then let’s figure it out.” And that was sort of the refrain for quite awhile. And that was Twitter, to a certain extent Facebook but much more Twitter, Foursquare, etcetera. They were like, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure it out later.” And reddit was somewhat similar. They had some advertising, but they weren’t really focusing on, “Okay, what is our plan here?” And I remember with Twitter the classic thing was like, “Don’t worry. We’ve got a plan. It’s great. It’s not advertising, and it’s gonna be awesome.” And then like five years later they said, “Okay, so it’s advertising and it’s not awesome.”
14:45 Evan Hamilton: It was just this like, “Oh okay, you didn’t have a plan in the first place.” And so I think reddit had this issue in that they had never really talked about, “How far are we gonna go with monetization? Where is the line?” And I think the line is really important. It goes back to that mission. It’s, “Okay, are we a haven for free speech and how far are we gonna go in terms of monetizing these communities?” And you might set a line that’s like, “Hopefully, we don’t get there but we’re willing to do that, but we’re never gonna sell everyone’s email addresses.” Just probably, hopefully, something they’ll stick to.
15:17 Evan Hamilton: So, I think that was really problematic because the more they pushed, the more people said, “Well wait, where this stop? You’ve never told us where the line is, so it could be anywhere. It could be selling our email addresses. That’s scary.” And I also think there’s this friction there which is, monetization comes from having lots and lots of people viewing these pages, but the reason lots and lots of people are viewing these pages is because of the volunteer work of a very small number of moderators and sub-reddit voters. And so, there’s this vocal minority, but the vocal minority is creating a lot of the value.
15:52 Evan Hamilton: And so there’s a really intense tension there because in some ways, they are not providing the value in that they are not the eyeballs but they are also creating this content that brings the eyeballs. And so, reddit should have really had a line in the sand, been clear about that and then worked with these people and said, “Listen, keep this thing going and to build it up bigger and bigger, we do need to make money but we wanna work with you because, obviously, you’re putting your hearts and souls into this for no money and we need to respect what you’re thinking.”
16:22 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I think you hit on the two important issues and the one that really… I was thinking about a lot was the free speech issue because when you talk about more simple issues that we’ve moved beyond, obviously, from the outside it looks like reddit didn’t communicate terribly well with the volunteers, which is such a massive issue, but it’s also a beginner issue. It’s like an amateur move, like you said. But the free speech thing, when I run across people who talk about allowing free speech on their community I go, “Stop. Think about that for a second, right? Don’t just say that. Like, don’t just say that you’re gonna allow free speech because it means something.” Free speech isn’t just what you want, it’s probably what you don’t. So, think about that because, even reddit I found to be inconsistent in this area because they always had that attitude, that mindset where yes, in public and in announcements and when leadership spoke, that we are this haven for free speech and it didn’t take someone long to find a quote that contradicted what Steve Huffman said when this whole thing broke out.
17:22 Patrick O’Keefe: He said that “neither Alexis nor I created reddit to be a bastion of free speech, but rather as a place where open and honest discussion can happen. These are very complicated issues and we are putting a lot of thought into it.” And then a reddit user almost immediately found an interview he did with Forbes in 2012, which at this point was about three years ago and he referred to reddit as “a bastion of free speech on the web? I bet they would like it” when asked what the founding fathers might think of reddit. I mean, you just can’t make that stuff up, right? Reality is too good. So, I think it’s something where people wanna throw around free speech because it might gain you an audience, but it means something. And when you have to deal with highly offensive content, it’s not a line, it’s not a standard that you can adhere to.
18:06 Patrick O’Keefe: And there have been points where reddit could have led on issues. Like the sexualization of children, that’s a real simple issue, right? For most of us. No matter where you stand, no matter what side of the political aisle you’re on, no matter how much you hate or love Justin Bieber, one thing we can all pretty much agree on, reasonable minds can agree on, is that the sexualization of children is bad. I mean, one would think. But, on that issue, they even kind of punted until the media was banging down their door, and even when they announced that they were stepping back on it, it was kind of like, “Well, the media made us do it and we’re still this haven for free speech.” Free speech means something, and I guess I’ve said that a few times, and that’s just my overriding point here is, you can’t just say it and then expect people to be okay with you removing things, no matter how offensive you may personally deem them.
18:51 Evan Hamilton: Right, exactly. I completely agree, and I think you alluded to this. The issue was that instead of them saying, “You know, we’re gonna start shifting our moderation guidelines and really start cracking down on things.” It was, they let these various incredibly offensive subreddits get incredibly popular and active. And then, finally, after they got a lot of external pressure said, “Yeah, I guess we’re taking those down.” And it shouldn’t have gotten that far. Sure, you’re always gonna be adjusting your moderation and your guidelines based on new things that come up or new ways people find to be offensive, but it’s back to that foundational thing and saying what is acceptable within our community and then emphasizing that as much as you can.
19:31 Evan Hamilton: I was talking to a company the other day and I was saying, “You know, your first five to 100 users are crucial.” And you can extend that and say, “reddit’s first million users were crucial because they’re setting the tone.” And reddit never stepped in and said, “Hey guys, just to let you know, here’s the tone and we’re noticing a couple infractions and we wanna let you know.” They just let it grow, unabated, and then cracked down. And I think the subreddits they shut down were horrible and I 100% support shutting them down, but I can understand how, if you were a kid and you’re out in your backyard and you were playing with fire everyday for a year and then all of a sudden your dad came out and said, “What are you doing playing with fire? I’m taking your lighter away.” You’d be like, “What? Okay, I’ve been doing this, where were you then?” And so it’s a little bit of bad parenting, where the parent should say something enough that you, at the very least, don’t do it in public. And reddit was never that parent and just said, “No, go ahead and do it until we say stop.”
20:33 Patrick O’Keefe: And it kinda becomes the story in a way, right? If you’re that kid in the backyard, you become known as ‘the kid who plays with fire’ in the backyard. Like, Smokey the Bear should do something about that kid. And if you’re reddit allowing these subreddits, it becomes a part of your story. When the media talks about you, when people write about you, no matter how much good you do, the media obviously is often not fair, but it becomes a cautionary tale. On a far worse scale, you think of something like 4chan. I’m sure there’s some nice discussions on 4chan. I’m sure 4chan gets together and does something positive sometimes, but no one says, “You know, that 4chan, boy, what a nice place.”
21:05 Evan Hamilton: Right.
21:07 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s just not the reality ’cause of how our perception is influenced by the substantially awful part of that community.
21:13 Evan Hamilton: Absolutely. And to be fair, and I am incredibly impressed with what reddit has built. I don’t wanna dig on that at all, but I think a big part of it is when you get acquired by a company that doesn’t get community. And back to my point about companies that get community, letting somebody that you don’t fully agree with buy your company is going to change things. And I’m sure that’s what they were dealing with, but, again, I think you both need to align yourself with people who get community and also provide enough value that you don’t have to sell your company in order to make a profit.
21:47 Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve both been fortunate to manage volunteers over the years. They have given me some of the most rewarding moments of my career. I know you have recently been thinking about how volunteers should be utilized by for-profits. What have you concluded?
22:00 Evan Hamilton: Yeah, so I worked with volunteers before, but recently I undertook a pretty serious volunteer community and the first thing I realized I wanted to figure out is, what is kosher here in terms of volunteers? Because generally, I’d work with volunteers who had been doing very small amounts occasionally, and this was the first time it had been volunteers working a lot and doing a lot. And I looked into the legality of it, and it was really interesting because there’s no one position. You can find various competing quotes from the Justice Department, but it certainly sounds like the Justice Department is not 100% comfortable with volunteers at for-profits, but it’s not illegal as long as they’re not employees. And that point is actually trickier than it sounds. You’d think, “Well, okay, if I’m calling you an employee then you’re an employee. If I’m not, you’re not.” But it’s trickier.
22:55 Evan Hamilton: So, a couple of things I had found, the first one is obviously no compensation, and that includes paying them money, but that also includes any sort of benefits. So there had been some example of a company that we’re working with homeless people, and the homeless people were volunteering, and in exchange they got food and shelter, but they weren’t treated as employees. And so that was problematic. And so, you have to be really careful about how you’re compensating people, and frankly I think that’s great, because what I found with community and with volunteers is that as soon as their motivation becomes extrinsic and based on any sort of value in terms of compensation you’re giving them, their attitudes are gonna change.
23:36 Evan Hamilton: And going back to Predictably Irrational, there’s several experiments in there that show that as soon as it goes from giving someone a gift, or just asking them for a favor to paying them, they actually work less hard. So, there’s that, there’s volunteers can’t fill an employee’s role, and that’s one where it gets really tricky and if you think about Lyft’s or Uber saying, “These aren’t employees, these are independent contractors, but the company would not exist without these roles.” So that’s why there’s so much drama there. And it’s an important thing to think about if you are having a volunteer take on a pretty meaty task is, is this displacing an employee essentially? And then there’s some obvious things like they shouldn’t be forced to work, although they’re not getting paid they should reap some sort of intrinsic reward, they should be treated very well, but it’s a tricky area.
24:26 Evan Hamilton: I spoke to some legal folks who they may have been a little doom and gloom, but they had suggested that within 10 years this would be illegal. I don’t know if that’s true, but I do think as community professionals working with volunteers we do have to be really careful to make sure that we’re not abusing them, [A] For these legal reasons but [B], just because that’s not a nice thing to do.
24:44 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, and you mentioned working with a volunteer program or inheriting a volunteer program where volunteers were doing a lot. Can you give some context for that? Like, what constitutes a lot to you?
24:56 Evan Hamilton: I don’t wanna go into any specifics about a specific employer, but what I’ll say is when I’ve seen volunteers doing a lot, they’re expected to show up weekly for some sort of meeting, they are the only person in charge of an area, so the only person in charge of a sub-reddit, that’s such a fuzzy area because for a sub-reddit it’s like, “Well, you could just not really do much.” So maybe that’s not working them really hard, but if it’s a really popular sub-reddit and they’re working really hard and they don’t have any help, and they know that if they stopped working hard it would collapse. Then you’re getting back into that fuzzy territory.
25:32 Evan Hamilton: The good news is I think that basically maps to take care of your volunteers and listen to them, and ask them what they need, and what’s frustrating them, and for the most part you’ll be able to avoid overworking them. But you do have to watch out for the fact that they’re volunteers, they care, so they may work really hard without even complaining or telling you about it, and so you need to really understand how hard are they working and where do we need to get them more help?
25:57 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, it’s an interesting topic because a lot of online communities are partially powered by volunteers. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, but I think there are circumstances that make me cautious. Whenever someone is a volunteer admin or has primary responsibility for managing a team of volunteers themselves, it verges into an area where it makes me uncomfortable because the big thing I always tell people to sort through the volunteer question because it is an area where you can run afoul legally, is to think about time. Because you don’t schedule people, don’t give people schedules, don’t expect them to be there at specific times, it’s all very minimum, and it’s of their own volition. And if they want to do it and it’s something that they show up to do, that’s great, but you can’t tell people they have to be here everyday or they have to be here five hours of the week or 10 hours a week, whatever.
26:45 Patrick O’Keefe: When you start placing the requirements that you would place on an employee, a job where you’re required to show up, it just becomes a lot more difficult. A while back you linked me to a really helpful document titled, For-Profit Volunteers, The Fair Labor Standards Act’s Limits on Volunteering in the Private Sector by Blake Bertagna, and I will include a link to this into the show notes but it’s a nice quick relatively breezy, as those sorts of documents go, read on the Fair Labor Standards Act and it should be helpful. So thanks again for pointing that out to me.
27:16 Evan Hamilton: Yeah, and I would definitely recommend anyone who’s concerned about these things look at the big AOL legal case because I think that’s a great example of this issue, which was they were demanding a lot of their volunteers and volunteers were doing a lot of work and they were getting compensated in AOL hours. The reason the lawsuit came up is because all of a sudden, AOL became a flat fee, and so people who had been essentially compensated $300 a month or more in hours were essentially just getting the whatever, $50 a month flat fee compensated. And they said, “Well, wait a second. You owe us more.” That was a bad relationship just in general for getting people to contribute their time but led to the legal case. So that one’s definitely worth a read.
28:03 Patrick O’Keefe: And on that note, on episode two of Community Signal I had Rebecca Newton on and she was there for that at least partially and had some interesting things to share. So if you’re curious for like an insider perspective on it definitely check that out as well. You’ve described commitment curves as “at once both obvious and revolutionary”. Explain that.
28:22 Evan Hamilton: Honestly, I think most of the good ideas in the world are like that, aside from I suppose, like science. Most of the things that I read that kind of blow my mind aren’t like this idea out of nowhere that never would have occurred to anyone, they’re just kind of framing things for you. There’s a great quote I wanna say from Seth Godin, I could be totally wrong. I’ll have to dig it up. It might have been Malcolm Gladwell. I don’t know. I get them confused. Saying that, “Advantage that people like them have is not that they’re smarter. It’s that they have more time to sort of look at everything and frame it and put it together in a way that makes sense, and we all have the same amount of knowledge but we don’t have time to put that into context.” So, one part of that is just we should all make time to do that because I think we will come up with these smart things, but the other is just that you hear these things and you’re like, “I probably could have figured that out if I had just stopped doing things for a second and thought.” Anyway.
29:23 Patrick O’Keefe: Right.
29:24 Evan Hamilton: Side note. But yeah, I think the commitment curve which was invented by Douglas Atkins over at Airbnb just really blew my mind because it was so obviously something we needed, but we hadn’t been doing. To refresh your listeners, the idea of the commitment curve is that rather than just kind of throwing volunteer tasks or engagement tasks, whatever you want people to do at them willy nilly, you actually think through how can you very slowly ramp up the amount of commitment and activity they do and ideally ramp up intrinsic rewards along with that so that people never say, “Oh, that’s too big of an ask because it’s such a tiny leap from the last one.” And so, all of a sudden, they’re going to talk to their congressman or congresswoman about Airbnb. And that’s like a crazy thing to ask someone, but they’ve done so many other little things prior to that, but it doesn’t seem weird to them.
30:19 Patrick O’Keefe: So, it’s really about creating sort of a visualization of ladder of the stages of participation in a community. And it might be not even volunteers, but as a member like, “What’s the start? What do people do? What’s the first thing we want them to do, or the first smallest contribution they made to our community? And then it escalates from there to more higher level tasks, right?
30:37 Evan Hamilton: Absolutely, yeah. And how to implement that has been a big question, and I’ve been talking with a lot of my peers who have said, “Oh, we’d love the commitment curve, how do we do it, ’cause Douglas didn’t really give us that?” I’ve had some success recently working with clients where right out, sort of everything that numbers could potentially do and then ask them, survey them, try to understand how difficult they perceive that task to be, which again, talking to people is amazing. Sometimes, you’re really surprised and you’re like, “Wait, this is really easy.” And they say, “Oh, well, it’s not easy ’cause I don’t have that person’s email address.” Or, “I don’t know where to start.” Or for one person it was like, “I don’t wanna fill up my profile, ’cause I don’t believe in putting my personal info online.” And you’re like, “Oh, I thought that was the easiest task. Wow, okay.”
31:26 Evan Hamilton: And then once you have that difficulty, you organize these tasks based on difficulty, and you look for where there are gaps. And you see, “Oh, wait a second, this task was pretty easy but the next task up is very hard.” So, what can we put in there? Or either what can we move in there that’s a good bridged task? Or even maybe you create one. Maybe you ask someone to do something just as a way to sort of ramp up their commitment and to see if you can get them to bigger things. But I think also looking at how can you create a narrative that make sense so you don’t wanna leap from an easy task to the next easiest task if it doesn’t make any sense. And you also have to think through alternatives because you are gonna run into that person who says, “I don’t believe in filling out profiles.” And there’s nothing you can do about that.
32:14 Evan Hamilton: So, part of the curve is figuring out. It’s not entirely linear. You’re not gonna get everyone to do every step, so there needs to be a way that people can even skip steps to do something else. But it’s been an incredible useful way to visualize these things as you said, and figure out where do we need to insert some activities, which previously, it felt very ad hoc to me. Even in my own work, even when I really try to be thoughtful about it, it was kind of like, “Oh, yeah, let’s post this, let’s ask people to do this.” And when you write it all out and rank it, you realize that there are big gaps in there.
32:47 Patrick O’Keefe: And when you say asking people, I think that takes a lot of forms. There can be the onboarding process, there can be a software-based prompts based on how many times someone has done something. There can be calls in the community. Perhaps there can be direct contact with the high level of users who will contact their congressman. And it’s software, it’s automation, and it’s people, right?
33:08 Evan Hamilton: Absolutely, yeah. I think the easiest way to implement this is an email-driven campaign, sort of onboarding process. But I think in an ideal world, this does take a lot of different forms, and it’s the experience they get when they sign up on their own, the hand-holding that you do personally, the things you’re posting in the community, it can be a pretty complex piece.
33:28 Patrick O’Keefe: I would have to think that for a lot of people who utilize the commitment curve, part of getting the most of that curve is understanding, again, to go back to my ladder comment, is understanding that some people are just comfortable on the middle rung. Not everyone progresses to be in a more traditional setting, a volunteer moderator. Not everyone progresses to this high place. Ideally, we love them to be there, but if people get halfway up, that’s not something to be ashamed of.
33:50 Evan Hamilton: Yeah, I also think the curve is like a nice visualization, but I think there are different directions it splits in. And you might find someone who really likes moderation, but doesn’t really like talking to people, or someone who really likes organizing events but hates moderation. And so I do think, especially when you’re dealing with a smaller number of volunteers, you really wanna take the time to figure out where do they wanna go and how can I help them get there? Because you force them into this box. Like you said, lots of them may not be happy there. And so, playing to their unique strengths just like you would with an employee, though.
34:30 Patrick O’Keefe: Careful there.
34:31 Evan Hamilton: You be careful, yeah.
34:32 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah.
34:33 Evan Hamilton: You wanna figure out where can I use them best and where are they gonna be most happy? And so you can actually get a lot more out of people and they can get a lot more out of it if you pay attention to that rather than telling them, “Here’s the path, stay on it.”
34:46 Patrick O’Keefe: You beat the retention drum a lot, the idea that one of the biggest business type benefits of community is retention, and I believe in that. You wrote a blogpost recently titled, Nobody seems to own retention. Let’s take it on, referring to community professionals. For those outside of the choir, why is retention, in your words, the new hotness?
35:05 Evan Hamilton: Well, we spent a lot of the last decade focused on acquisition and there were so many cool tools for that, and we had the era of the growth hacker, and not to discount those things, those things are all great, but we’ve also seen the cost of those things increasing. Advertising has increased immensely, it’s much more expensive. And a lot of the fun, growth hackie way is to get attention, don’t work anymore, and people are having to try to find new ones. And at the same time we’ve seen a shift of companies starting to say, “Wait a second, when we actually look at the data, bringing people in doesn’t really work if they just leave.” And in fact, there are stats out there, I don’t have the source handy, that it’s much more cost effective to keep someone than to acquire someone, which makes sense. If you’re trying to keep a friend versus make a friend, it’s much easier to keep a friend. So, that has started to sort of creep into the conversation and you see growth factors even.
36:04 Evan Hamilton: One of my best friends is a growth hacker and he’s really starting to think about retention, but nobody owns it. Growth teams and marketing teams are focused very, very much on acquisition even if they’re starting to think about retention. And product teams arguably are focused on retention, but they’re generally focused on what is our product need in order to make people happy. Sales teams are focused on acquisition. You’re starting to see success teams that are sort of like account managers and arguably focused on retention but in a very one-to-one way and those tend to be at B2B companies. So retention is becoming this really hot thing that companies say they wanna focus on, but they don’t really have anyone who’s entirely focused on that. And even customer support teams which are obviously very focused on retention don’t really have a home. I’ve seen them in basically every single organization within a company.
37:00 Evan Hamilton: So I think there’s a huge opportunity for community to step in, because community is fantastic for retention. If you’re a member of a really fantastic rewarding community that a company is running, you’re gonna think more than twice before you leave. You’re not gonna say, “Oh, you know what? This other guy has a better price.” Because you’re gonna feel this emotional connection to the company. So I really think it’s our time to step in and say, “You know what? We’re making a new department. This department is focused on retention. It includes customer support, it includes community, maybe it includes customer success, it could include things like analytics but it is focused on that major goal.” And without any other superfluous goals distracting us, we can do a really great job with that. And I just think community is really uniquely suited to that because as I alluded to at the beginning, we’re all about making people happy and if they’re happy, they’re gonna stick around.
38:00 Patrick O’Keefe: Evan, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you for joining me today.
38:01 Evan Hamilton: Thanks so much for having me.
38:02 Patrick O’Keefe: Where can people find you online?
38:16 Patrick O’Keefe: This has been Community Signal. Visit our website at communitysignal.com for subscription options and more. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad, and I’m Patrick O’Keefe. We’ll see you next week.
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