Disney, Coca-Cola and NASA are good examples of organizations that are fortunate to have the second. There are many people who love NASA and the work they have done, and will gleefully talk about it with other NASA fans, while at the same time, they may never play in any NASA-managed sandboxes.
Marc Siegel, who has worked in community for tech startups and established players like IBM, Intuit and eBay, spent more than a decade at NASA, including a substantial portion in evangelism. Why do people love NASA? Plus:
- The challenge of privacy guidelines
- Why viral coefficient/K value is an important metric for startups
- Appreciating your community when it’s small
“When I worked at NASA, they had about 40 contractors that had a van stuffed with equipment, and their job was to drive around to schools all over the country and put on presentations, teacher workshops and other things. I’m sure that program’s been cut by now, but they really were, at a grassroots, building up a core of advocates.” -@marcsiegel
“People who contact me, people who ask me questions, they don’t find the joy in having two to five members and really focusing on that. Instead, they want to skip right ahead to the hundred or the 500 or to the 1,000, and I think that’s unfortunate.” -@patrickokeefe
“I believe that if you have two or three people that care, then you do have a community. Personally, it’s really satisfying to have those deep relationships with people that care. Because when you go from having 5 to 20, it’s hard to maintain that quality.” -@marcsiegel
About Marc Siegel
Marc Siegel lives in San Jose with one wife, two daughters and numerous pumpkins (in season). Professionally, he has been doing online community since before the web existed for NASA, IBM, eBay, Intuit and several startups. Marc has connected people together in consumer markets, gaming, B2B, education and developer relations. He recently left Townsquared, a community for local businesses like retail shops, bars, masseuses or makers.
Marc loves solar energy and wishes most homes in America (and everywhere) would install photovoltaic panels for electricity. He also uses solar thermal to keep his small pool deliciously warm.
- Marc on Twitter
- Townsquared, an online community platform for local businesses, which Marc just left
- The San Francisco Online Community Meetup, or OCTRIBE
- Susan Tenby, the leader of OCTRIBE
- Community Signal episode with Susan Tenby
- OCTRIBE on YouTube
- Libsyn, the service that we use to host our podcast
- Community Signal episode with Evan Hamilton
- Simraceway, an online racing simulation game, where Marc was previously manager of community and customer service
- Demandforce, a marketing automation company, where Marc was previously manager of content and community
- Townsquared’s member guidelines, which include a policy about keeping conversations private
- Community Signal episode with Brian Pontarelli of Inversoft
- MindJolt, an online gaming site, where Marc was previously community manager
- Wikipedia page for K-factor, also referred to as K value or viral coefficient, a metric that measures virality and how effectively your community is at inviting new members into the fold
- Khan Academy, a non-profit education site
- Specifications for the Mac Centris 610, Patrick’s first computer
- Wikipedia page for John Glenn, astronaut and U.S. senator, who was recently laid to rest
- Wikipedia page for COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act
- Caty Kobe, head of scalable support at Square
- NPS (Net Promoter Score), a measure of customer experience
00:04: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Tweet as you listen using #CommunitySignal. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:20 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for listening to Community Signal. This week, we’re talking with Marc Siegel about evangelizing the internet at NASA, building products with customers, and loving the community you have. Marc lives in San Jose with one wife, two daughters, and numerous pumpkins in season. Professionally, he has been doing online community since before the web existed for NASA, IBM, eBay, Intuit, and several startups. Marc has connected people together in consumer markets, gaming, B2B, education, and developer relations. He just recently left Townsquared, a community for local businesses like retail shops, bars, masseuses, or makers that combines online conversation with local events to help these businesses do better. Marc, welcome.
01:00 Marc Siegel: Hey, thanks. It’s great to be here, Patrick.
01:02 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure to have you. I know you are a member of OCTRIBE, a group I’ve never been to. I’ve been to San Francisco a couple times, but I’ve never had the pleasure of going to a group that seems very positive, very thoughtful. I had one of the current leaders of the group, Susan Tenby, on the show in the past for a great episode. But yeah, it’s great to have another member of OCTRIBE.
01:22 Marc Siegel: I’ll share with you that I had worked for IBM at one point in my career, like, seven or nine years. And when I left, people thought it was crazy to have worked for somewhere that long, and then looking for a job, I didn’t know anybody. So, I started going to the OCTRIBE monthly and met Susan. She is the leader. And I’ll just share for people that aren’t in San Francisco, the sessions are live streamed. They’re with world class community people, and sometimes related to community, like storytelling, or lean content strategy is one that really resonated. They’re streamed online. You can interact, and there’s at least a dozen online to look at. So, I encourage people, in the same way they’re getting smarter with you, Patrick, go to OCTRIBE. It’s youtube.com/octribe, and you’ll get smarter.
02:08 Patrick O’Keefe: I’ve only heard good things about OCTRIBE. I obviously think highly of Susan, and numerous people I know go there. So, if I ever make it out there, I look forward to participating. And you can find more about OCTRIBE at meetup.com/octribe. In the pre-show questionnaire, you told me that you’re passionate about using customers to help build products, “using community to tap into the wants and needs of customers, help members feel like a co-collaborator, that their desires matter. Don’t announce changes, but engage in conversation about the change, even if you already know what will happen. Have customers be partners, not pawns.” What’s the difference between building products with customers and just asking for feedback?
02:48 Marc Siegel: Let’s start with some companies don’t even ask for feedback. So, if you’re asking for feedback, you’re doing the right thing. But you know, there’s ways to embed people deeper in the process. Early on, when I was at IBM, we were making software for software developers. So, the people that worked with the software, it was for them, very important and professional. So, for the best contributors in the community, we got them to have regular meetings with the product managers that made the products they cared about, and in that way, they were much more embedded. And that worked on so many levels, because it really gave them a reason to want to contribute to community and all that. But the product managers, I think, were initially reluctant to do that. They had their own ways at IBM of gathering your feedback. But I wound up doing it in a way that worked for them.
03:37 Marc Siegel: So, that’s one example. I think that, you know, another example is just closing the feedback. When I was at a game company, you got a simple idea from a customer, we did it, and then we let them know and we let other people know, “Let us know similar things.” So, I think that’s one way to do it in the system.
03:52 Patrick O’Keefe: I mean, I totally get it, because, you know, I’m just going to say this, and I’m not afraid to be critical in public of people in this industry or out or whoever I work with, but we host our podcast with Libsyn, Liberated Syndication, and they are well known in this space, been around for a long time. I’ve never felt like my feedback really hits anything. You know, I’ve been there for a little while now. We’ve hosted this podcast since December. We’ve been with them for probably six months now. You know, there are things about their platform that are great. There are things that I find archaic. I find the analytics to be poor. Like, I can’t tell the most popular episodes of this show from January 1st to March 31st, the first quarter. We literally have to go through the episodes one by one and write down the number for how many times it’s been download.
04:31 Marc Siegel: I hear your passion.
04:33 Patrick O’Keefe: They already have the data. They already have those numbers. I can go and find it. I just have to do it episode by episode. It’s, like, five clicks per episode, 65 episodes. It’s hundreds of clicks. I have to spend a half hour to an hour writing down the data, and they have a simple filter they could install, and I’ve told them, and it’s almost like it doesn’t even matter.
04:50 Marc Siegel: So, there’s two parts to that. So, you absolutely should be heard and people should respond. Like, at Townsquared, the noisiest guy I encountered, I made a really strong relationship with him, because he had so much to give and it was kind of hard to keep up with him, and he was very critical. But before I left, we actually delivered a lot of the things he wanted. So, it was really rewarding in that sense. It’s not that easy to do stuff in a startup. Like, yes, you want that, and there are 15 other things, and where it was on the road map. So, I am sympathetic to not doing it, but then as a community manager, and I practice this a lot, I’d say, “Oh, thank you for that idea. We’re not going to do it,” or, “We’re not going to do it until then … ” or something. But not to hear anything, so you should be mad about that.
05:37 Patrick O’Keefe: No, no. I mean, they do respond. It just feels like it’s one more in the pile out in the backyard, like it’s a big pile of dirt back there.
05:45 Marc Siegel: I listened to a podcast you did with Evan Hamilton, and he talked about, “You’ve got to walk outside the building,” right? Like, we think we know what people want, but you have to really engage your customers to really know where the pain points are. And in all sorts of ways, you know. Like, when I was at Simraceway, which was a game company, we organized this thing which was just a hangout with some product people and some game players, and it was amazing to get those people together, because sometimes it happens … Evan talked about calling and talking to people. Usually, in online companies, my experience is surveys and emails. So, to actually meet on a hangout is really, really powerful. It changes the thinking, too. So, I’m not sure if that’s a great answer, but I think the more customers are participating …
06:32 Marc Siegel: And conversely, I think it’s also when you’re ready to make changes, communicate those ahead of time. Don’t let it be that they come and they see something totally different. You know, at Demandforce, we did a big redesign of a UI, and we really engaged. We asked people what they wanted way ahead of time, and it totally complicated the process, but otherwise it would have been, what, better for us to simply forge through with our dumb-headed ideas? Not really.
07:00 Patrick O’Keefe: No. Townsquared is a private community for businesses in a specific geographic area, and the member guidelines of the community make it clear that what is discussed in these spaces should be kept private. “Authenticity matters. You’re part of a private network for the people who run local businesses, created as a place to share honest thoughts, problems, and opinions. Respect the privacy of all the members of your community. Don’t share any information without the permission of the person who shared it.” Privacy guidelines like this are tough, because unless they breach that trust in written form, like a tweet or a post on another site, or do it in a way that’s recorded, you are often going to rely on someone saying, “Hey, John repeated this private conversation to me.” What happens when someone fails to respect the privacy of Townsquared, for example, when you were there?
07:48 Marc Siegel: So, the truth is that hasn’t happened. I was there for a year and a half, and it’s like a lot of B2B communities – they’re professional, and you don’t get a lot of the lurkers and problems. And I listened to a great episode with [Inversoft], I think it was, on how do you really worry about all the bad stuff. It didn’t happen. I think that, as Townsquared scales, that may become a bigger deal. But if you read something in a community and then you talk about it to somebody else, I think that’s legitimate. I think if they were giving names and dates and serial numbers, that might be another thing.
08:25 Marc Siegel: But just for example, here’s the flip side of that privacy: This wonderful social media person in Oakland named Lauren wrote a post about how her firm totally screwed up getting a new accounting system in place. The wasted three or four or five thousand dollars. It was a beautiful story, and it made her very vulnerable, but people really resonated, because the whole point is to have small business people help one another. She has competitors in the Oakland area. None of them said, “Oh, look. Lauren screwed up the accounting, so you should use me.” Instead, it was a really nice “bring people together” moment. So, I don’t think I did a really good job of answering your question.
09:02 Patrick O’Keefe: No, no. I mean, you did. It hasn’t happened. [Laughs] So, it hasn’t happened, but let’s say it did.
09:06 Marc Siegel: Yeah.
09:07 Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s say someone … So, you can talk in the abstract, and as you said, you can talk in specifics, right? There are some things that are sort of general knowledge. Someone says, you know, when you’re putting together a menu, you should have five appetizers, eight entrees, and three desserts. If someone posted on Townsquared, then that’s not really anything too private. But if they told a story that was personal and then that story was talked about somewhere else, or someone posted about it on a blog, and maybe they didn’t even say who it came from, but that’s that person’s story. If you found out, what would you have done.
09:36 Marc Siegel: Oh, we’d talk to the members. I mean, at Townsquared, it was not about marketing your business. So, people would come right on and start talking about their sales and stuff, and I had various conversations with various people about appropriate behavior. And interestingly, I serve all the markets, so we were both in San Francisco and New York City. And what’s appropriate in New York City is not what’s appropriate in San Francisco. Like, people are just way more aggressive and, “It’s my right to say, ‘And I’ll give you the lowest price at the end.'” So, I feel like it’s the same in all the communities, that you have to just be honest and talk to people. And one thing that I’ve come to more recently in my career is that you can actually pick up the phone and call them, and it’s so powerful. So, to answer your question, if it happened, we would talk to the person. If it continued to be an issue, we would not have them in the community.
10:27 Patrick O’Keefe: Makes sense. I mean, that makes sense. It reminds me, on the martial arts community I’ve managed for 16 years, KarateForums.com, just the aggressiveness between New York City and San Francisco. We once had a world champion kickboxer come into the community, and he thought he could do a lot of things that we just didn’t allow, and sooner or later, the world champion kickboxer found himself no longer welcome on that particular community. It’s funny, because in martial arts, you have certainly a lot of ego, and it’s fighting. But you know, it’s fighting, and so, it engenders a certain amount of ego. But there’s also just wonderful, beautiful people who are there to share. So, the same is true for the world of business.
11:00 Marc Siegel: Well, and like, when I worked at a flash game company, Mindjolt, back in the day, and gamers are all about trash talking and leaderboards and all that kind of stuff. And so, in that community, that was encouraged and fine, and you know, but not so much in Townsquared, which is collaborative, and a lot of communities.
11:19 Patrick O’Keefe: Before the show, you told me that the most important community metrics at Townsquared were the invite cycle and viral coefficient/K value. Just kind of walk me through that metric and why it was important in that situation.
11:31 Marc Siegel: Right. Because Townsquared’s small, you know, we’re in a nascient stage where we need to find product market fit in order to be able to grow. It’s the classic hockey stick curve, and we’re not on that up ramp. And so, how do you get on that up ramp? We had community managers in all our cities, and me and a few other people, we’d plan events, we’d go out, we’d recruit people. We have email marketing campaigns that would drag people in. But what really makes networks grow is when you tell a friend and they tell a friend and they tell a friend. I mean, I was there in the Zynga days, when that’s how those games were growing, where you’d invite people and challenge people. So, Townsquared has not yet mastered that cycle. We need to provide enough value so that people that are there will invite their friends. Because business owners know other business owners. Maybe not many. I mean, that’s the problem Townsquared is solving, is getting you to know a lot more to help.
12:29 Marc Siegel: And then Townsquared’s great about transparency. So, I had a lot of insight into what the struggles of the product key market is. Essentially, that was a product team function, not me. But you know, you’d look at the funnel and where do people drop off, and in there, you can find eight or nine different places where you can possibly affect the K factor through better wording or a frictionless experience, stuff like that. By the way, I’ll say you can do the same thing in community, right? When people come in and they drop off the funnel. So, I don’t think it’s a K factor, because I think K factor’s specific to social and virality. But why did Facebook go? Because everybody started sharing it with their friends. So, that’s an essential problem with, I think, social networks that need to be solved.
13:15 Patrick O’Keefe: And K factor, K value, is, what, average number of invites per member multiplied by the conversion rate, or …?
13:21 Marc Siegel: I don’t have the math, but I think it’s that if you’re at one, then that means every one of your members brings at least one other member in. So, you’d think, oh, you need to be at 1.01 in order to grow, but there’s something about … I can’t remember the math, that as long as you were down at 0.6 or 0.7, we were okay because of other factors that were going to help. I think it’s really a measure of how well is the product organically growing. Because there’s lots of ways inorganically you can drive growth.
13:55 Patrick O’Keefe: And if you Google K value, that’s one definition I’ve seen, and you can probably see others. But just kind of the overarching theme is people inviting people, how successful they are, how much are people sharing it.
14:04 Marc Siegel: Yeah. In this context, I think it’s very much about programmatic and automatic things that the software does. But you know, I think it’s valuable for community managers thinking in terms of what are you doing to get your community members to invite other community members. I think that’s something we all look at, if you goal is to continue to grow.
14:22 Patrick O’Keefe: While people in this field obviously can do a lot of work offline, the basis of our profession was the internet and digital community, and still is. And while at NASA, part of the work that you did was to essentially evangelize the internet and try to get teachers and students to use it to talk to people they wouldn’t otherwise know and kind of extend their sense of community online. In your words, you “schemed to get hundreds of K-12 teachers in mainly rural areas connected online as a way to allow local innovative teachers the time and space to demonstrate the real value of the internet in the classroom.” And with so many years of community building experience under your belt and just the distance between then and now, what do you think about when you look back at that time?
15:11 Marc Siegel: So, a couple things. And I have a teenage daughter, so I have experiences of the system through my eyes. I did that work at NASA in between, and then I had children and I saw the school system, and I don’t think it’s changed in 20 or 25 years. Like, I was using words like “let’s use the internet to get outside, break down the walls in the classroom, and talk to people in Antarctica,” da-da-da. Nobody’s doing that. I mean, maybe they are. So, we were way ahead of our time. I mean, we literally empowered hundreds of teachers through a free, long-distance account for … You know, because then, it was dial-up, and if you were in a faraway place, not only did you have to pay $10 for an hour for AOL, you had to pay long distance charges. So, we took that away and enabled teachers to demonstrate some stuff. The teachers we were working with were self-selected, and they were the best of the best.
16:04 Marc Siegel: And so, they totally blew it out of the door, and their classrooms talked to astronauts and learned what it was like to be a scientist studying moon rocks and all sorts of cool stuff. But most people didn’t, and they’re still not. I mean, Khan Academy has changed a lot of stuff, and I’m not saying education’s the same, but in the public schools of San Jose, this doesn’t exist. So, I don’t know if that’s a good answer.
16:28 Patrick O’Keefe: So, you’re saying you’re disappointed? [Laughs]
16:30 Marc Siegel: Do you have a connection to the school systems? Do you see that the internet is playing a factor? Other than my daughter uses Google Docs. So, she shares stuff that way, but she’s not meeting people in faraway lands and connecting.
16:44 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, it’s funny. So, the funny thing about me is I was homeschooled, and I was homeschooled K-12, graduated a year early, and was already working in online community, and just continued. So, for me, we got our first computer in 1993 and we got on the internet in 1995, when I would have been in grade school, elementary school. We had an Apple Mac Centris 610. I just remember we had the quad speed CD-ROM and it was a big, big deal, I think. And so, yeah, so we had it fairly early, because my mom said we need this, it’s part of education. I had computer software around math, around learning, around reading. So, for me, I don’t really have that strong connection. In fact, I’m the oldest of three, and all of us were homeschooled for high school. I didn’t go to college. My middle brother did, graduated from UNC Chapel Hill. My youngest brother is 18. He’s probably going to go to college. I just took a different path. We all were encouraged to kind of find our path. But yeah, I don’t necessarily have a huge connection to it.
17:37 Patrick O’Keefe: The one thing I will say, though, I don’t know if I have seen it happen in a while, but it happens where you have a principal at a school who tells parents to just keep their kid offline. Like, don’t let them use the internet, as if they’re never going to use the internet one day, as if you’re not equipping them for what’s out there. The thing about my parents is they didn’t know much about the internet, but they taught me things as a kid of how you deal with strangers, of what you do to remain safe, that, for me, translated very, very well to the internet. I knew not to tell people where I lived and my home address, or to send people pictures of myself, or these sorts of things. So, they didn’t monitor my internet traffic. I was in chat rooms. I was in Yahoo! Chat, you know. I had all the IM clients, right, and I never really got into any trouble because they laid that foundation to me.
18:23 Patrick O’Keefe: Now, unfortunately, a lot of people are not able to have that sort of backup from their parents, and so it stinks when public education, private school, whatever, does not provide some basic tools for success in what is essential communication literacy at this stage.
18:38 Marc Siegel: Yeah. I’ll share a quick story. My daughters got a chance to travel, I think when they were 12, and they met kids from, like, 12 different countries. So, the next year, it was when Facebook was around, and in school, my daughter was supposed to do a report on Colombia or something. And she’s like, “Awesome. I know somebody in Colombia. I’m going to get her on Facebook. I’m going to da-da-da.” And the teacher was like, “No, you can’t do that. That’s cheating.” What? Like, are you …? What is wrong with this picture? So, I feel like parents also have a big role in getting their kids out and using it. I’m just saying, I don’t think that schools are taking advantage of internet technology to break down walls, and that’s what it was all about back in the day.
19:22 Patrick O’Keefe: Do you think on some level, it’s the way it is … Like, you mentioned your daughter, “I know someone in Colombia.” So, it already happens. We have a president who is big on borders, but the way the internet works, it’s kind of borderless. Kids these days already make friends online. I mean, my brother, the youngest one again, he does a lot of digital art and he posts things online, and he knows all these artists from wherever. He might not even know their location, but they connect around the interests. So, it’s almost like they have a borderless interest.
19:49 Marc Siegel: Yeah. Well, back in the day, when I was working with schools to get them online, I was also doing the same thing locally with local people, because nobody knew about the internet. And even then, it wasn’t the web. It was read news. But it was so powerful. You could meet people, crazy people. I was part of a group, and we were trying to bring internet access to Silicon Valley, and there was a group in Cupertino that was, like, closed. “Oh, no. It’s really important it just be the town. We don’t want to be connecting to all that other stuff.” And 25 years later, I feel like I won that battle. Just the idea … Yeah, I agree with you. The internet’s everywhere, and what’s super powerful and what got me into community was the idea of connecting with people I really wanted to and needed to and weren’t necessarily right next door.
20:35 Patrick O’Keefe: There are two definitions of community that I use: community that exists on a specific platform—Townsquared could be one, for example—and then community that exists between people who support or connect around a specific thing, like the community of people who love Disney or Coca-Cola or NASA. You know, NASA, for example, enjoys a large community of people who love NASA and don’t have to play in any sandbox NASA creates online. The internet is full of passionate proponents and defenders of NASA. When funding is cut, there are plenty of people in my timelines and feeds ready to speak up in support of the agency. There are certain things that are so, I don’t know, culturally important, NASA being one, that you spend a lot of time on. It doesn’t matter what … I mean, NASA could … I don’t know anyone necessarily who’s talking to NASA or tweeting with NASA or in a NASA community, but they still love NASA. Why do you think that is?
21:22 Marc Siegel: Right. But you know, back in the day, why I’m so proud is that we made that personal, and people did feel like they emailed NASA and got an answer. You know, I’ve walked in classrooms where I have a NASA flight jacket, just because I’m kind of a nerd when I work there.
21:35 Patrick O’Keefe: Right. Why wouldn’t you have one? [Laughs]
21:38 Marc Siegel: [Laughs] I mean, I’ve flown weightless. Anyway, I would walk into a classroom with the NASA jacket and people care. And that’s why I feel like NASA’s really missed a great opportunity to change education in this country, because people would pay attention, they would get into it, and we do need more people that care about science and technology and not just, like, Britney Spears. But I think NASA’s done a lot of great things. People relate. Like, there’s great characters like John Glenn. I mean, there’s heroes, who are real heroes. One thing when I was at NASA, it was really easy to get people engaged and get people volunteering and to get people active, and that’s kind of where I cut my teeth in community, was doing it at NASA. And so, it was the best of worlds, because you had all that energy and all that positive … I still love NASA. I haven’t worked there for a long time, but I still have plenty of friends that do, and I think we need fun things like that. Like, I guess people think of sports like that, too, but …
22:37 Patrick O’Keefe: Right. Yeah, that’s fair. And you know, as I thought about this, I was thinking, you know, maybe one reason is that NASA has been a fixture in the classroom. Even if they haven’t done everything they could in education, the fact that some kids, many kids grow up excited by science or planets or space exploration, and because that’s NASA, as adults, I suspect there is this continued excitement, fondness, and in some cases, probably nostalgia that wins out for NASA. I don’t know what we can learn from that as community pros, like how we can build that sort of nostalgia. Obviously, NASA’s been at it for a long time. They can make that investment over a long period of time. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that is part of it.
23:12 Marc Siegel: I will tell you that, when I worked at NASA, they had about 40 contractors that had a van stuffed with equipment, and their job was to drive around to schools all over the country and put on presentations and teacher workshops and other things. And so, I’m sure that program’s been cut by now, but they really were at a grassroots building up a core of advocates. So, that’s also true. Like, people may love your community if you have a great product and they’re really into it. Like, at the CMX conference, I sat next to a community manager from a wireless router company, but they’re beloved, and so he can build a community from that. If you do the work, if you go visit classrooms or you have a great product, then you can build stuff from that. Maybe, I don’t know if that’s a stretch in drawing a lesson.
24:02 Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve got send people to daycare. If I’m Zuckerberg, that’s the growth market, right? We need to get people there and work on getting COPPA, the Child’s Online Privacy Protection Act, changed so that they can join in right now. I’m just kidding.
24:12 Marc Siegel: [Laughs]
24:13 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah. You know, before the show, you told me that your “hardest community challenges have come when there is a lack of interest in activity.” And one of the things that you have done to handle this situation is that you have really nurtured the few good people, find what they really want, and give it to them. I think people often skip this step. You know, people who contact me, people who ask me questions, they don’t find the joy in having two to five members and really focusing on that. And instead, they want to skip right ahead to the hundred or the 500 or to the 1,000, and I think that’s unfortunate.
24:42 Marc Siegel: Totally. I believe that if you have two or three people that care, then you do have a community. And personally, it’s just really satisfying to have those deep relationships with people that care. Because when you go from having five to 20, it’s hard to maintain that quality. And when you go to 200, I mean … I haven’t managed when that sort of part of the web became that large. But in the early days of IBM, I worked with a guy named Frank from the Netherlands, and he was one of our leaders. He did so much great stuff. You know, I like to joke that I sent him a t-shirt and I got $10,000 worth of consulting out of him. But he was somewhere in the U.S., and I invited him to come visit and stay with me, because his company wasn’t going to pay and you couldn’t afford hotels, so he just came for two days. And oh my God, when he left, we had a much better relationship. He was way more engaged. I still think of Frank, and it’s been 15 years, you know. But you can’t do that with 100 people. So, I think it’s … Right.
25:43 Patrick O’Keefe: And we aren’t saying you should bring every community member to your house necessarily. I just think your mileage may vary.
25:50 Marc Siegel: [Laughs] That’s funny. No, that was a long time ago. That was a different era. But no, I think that a small number of people … And then, getting back to what we talked about earlier, community isn’t yours; it’s theirs. So, find out what they want to do, what’s interesting to them. One of the things that we did at Simraceway, a game company, was auto racing gamers are super passionate, as passionate as NASA. Like, for me, again, I was back in a place where people just wanted to be there. And the fact that you would talk to them as NASA or as Simraceway, which was a game company, was magical to them. So, we would just let them do stuff. Like, they’d have an idea and they would do it. After one weekend, we ran a series of races. It was people racing in certain cars on certain tracks against each other. And some guy had written an Android app that would let people track our races. I’m like, “Wow, you wrote an Android app for our game? That’s so kind!” So, people had all sorts of ideas. So, I think it’s important when you have that energy to let people do stuff.
26:54 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, and it’s kind of like you said. They may not like the answer. I don’t know if it’s the answer they want to hear, but when people say “I only have a few members,” I say, “Well, then your mission’s pretty simple.” Right? I mean, it’s pretty straightforward. It’s right in front of you. Like, those two, three, four people, that’s everything. That’s the whole game. Because I know you want to be at 100 or 500 now or whatever, but that’s how you get there. Communities grow one, two, three, four, not 20, 100, 150. That’s everything. That’s the whole community. So, you have the luxury of being able to really, really focus on those two to three people. And if you do that, well, you’ll get 50 people, you’ll get 100, you’ll get 200. You’ll get there, and you might even miss the day when you only had a couple people that you could really connect with.
27:36 Marc Siegel: I agree with that. I will add to that, though, there are definitely tricks you can do to get your community bigger quicker, right? Like, at Townsquared, we brought on partner organizations. Hey, your organization’s here. You need to communicate. Bring everybody on board. And unless you do that really, really, really well, almost none of them will engage. And so, you know, you’re not going to bring in quality members.
28:00 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s always amazing when someone wants to start a community and they say, like, “I don’t know where to find people.” You’re not the right person to start this community, then! You should already know the first possibly 20, 30, 40 people you can invite. Otherwise, what are you doing here? People want shortcuts or they want something easy, but really, community is hard work. The day-to-day grind, behind the scenes stuff, you know, we don’t always get the credit we deserve necessarily. But when it comes to bringing people in and inviting people, you can find people. You’re not drowning in quicksand, right? There’s no one that’s letting you drown in quicksand. You can go out there and find people, invite people, bring people onto the platform, invite experts, whatever, partner with people. I remember when I started that martial arts community, I found a website that wrote content but didn’t have a community and I said, “Hey, we’ll be your community and we’ll promote your content,” and they said, “Yeah, we’ll do that.” That helped us get that boost at the start. Of course, I also knew some martial artists.
28:50 Patrick O’Keefe: The reason I started it is because my friend dared me, essentially. He said, “If you don’t start it, I will.” I said, “Then I’m going to.” And obviously been in this for a long time, not quite as long as yourself, but I love the high-level strategic stuff. But also, I mean, there are days when I just would love to go back to the simple one-to-one community stuff, the kind of pure, old school community building, that is still important today.
29:11 Marc Siegel: Yeah. When I was at Inuit, I managed a team of four people, and so I did not go into the community every day. I mean, we had another community manager who half his team was content, and I could go a week and not even go in there and not know … And it’s so weird to think about. So, at times, that happened to me at Townsquared, too. So, for me, a really happy thing to do is just go in and write in the community. I like to write. I am a little sassy. I think it’s fun to engage with people in that way, and I think I’m good at it. And so, I think there’s always a trade-off. I’ve heard you talk a lot about career path, and there’s a lot of ways to go, but for me, it’s really nice to still write in the community. I’ve heard you say the same thing about the karate thing. You’re there, so it keeps you grounded, right?
29:59 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah. I love to maintain sort of one foot. I think no matter what, it’s tough, because you want to delegate. Like, I: want people to grow community departments and teams. That’s what I advocate for. It’s what I push for. It’s why I tell people, “You have a big enough community. You should have more than the one person, right, it’s that big.” But, you know, I think everyone should have a grounding in the community where they stop by from time to time. Everyone in community, from the executive to the moderator, whatever your bottom-tier level is, should visit the community once in a while, should stop by, should post, should read, just to be a little bit grounded so you always know or have a sense of what that is life. Because if you stop, I don’t know, I think you risk becoming too far disconnected from the thing that you really exist to serve.
30:39 Marc Siegel: There’s a great community manager in San Francisco for Square named Caty Kobe, and she does a really wonderful job of getting engineers to participate and getting other people. And she gave a talk at one of the conferences on just that, you know. But I’m not sure that everybody has to be in there, but it’s always nice when there’s multiple people and they lend authority. And I do think there’s things that we as community managers can do to make it way easier for them. Like, when I was at Simraceway, there was only one product manager, and he basically thought community was crap, and he knew what they were going to do, blah blah blah. I’m like, what?
31:11 Patrick O’Keefe: And I should say, I mean everyone in community, not necessarily everyone in the whole company, just to be clear on that. But I like where you’re going.
31:18 Marc Siegel: Yeah. So, I would package up … Like, I had a half-hour meeting with him, I think, every week, and I would just talk through everything. He’d respond and I’d write it down, and so it wasn’t a lot of work for the members to get real feedback from the product team without a lot of work on his part. I wanted to say one other thing, too, because you talked about being in quicksand and you can always get more people. I think that’s true unless the underlying reason for the community is not worthy. You know, like, you see people talking about that, like, “I have an aluminum company. Should I have a community?”
31:50 Patrick O’Keefe: I mean, really, I was talking about, like, a startup. You can find people to invite, but you’re totally right. I’d like to believe in my most confident moments, give me anything, bring it on! I can build a community. Toilet paper? We’re on it. But you’re right; the reality is, what is that aluminum company going to do?
32:04 Marc Siegel: Or a good example was, at Demandforce, we had a product that was not very good. It had low NPS and it wasn’t beloved. And the point of a community was, like, product-to-product support. Well, so, nobody cared enough to help anybody else. So, it was interesting, in that role, we switched a lot more to providing help content through articles than through articles than through community, because the community wasn’t going to happen. And we could push, and we tried, and we did contests and we did other things, and we could drag people in, but if there’s not a compelling reason to stay … And there wasn’t for just about a handful of wonderful people.
32:39 Patrick O’Keefe: I love the reality check, because I tell people—and you sound like you tell people the same thing—is that, you know, not everyone needs to have a community platform or host their own community. I think an important part of this is understanding that sometimes, that’s not the move. You need to stay on other platforms or be in someone else’s community, or be on some other platform. You don’t always have to start your own.
32:57 Marc Siegel: I mean, there’s a lot to be said for going, finding where your customers are already talking, and then talking to them there. Especially when you’re a brand, you know, if you do it in the right way, not in a scummy, sales-y way, but in a “I’m here to help” way.
33:10 Patrick O’Keefe: Well, Marc, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you for spending some time with us.
33:15 Marc Siegel: Wow, Patrick, I had so much fun. I’m really glad to be here. Thanks so much for what you do. It’s wonderful.
33:21 Patrick O’Keefe: My pleasure. Thank you so much. We’ve been talking with Marc Siegel, formerly of NASA, IBM, and eBay. Marc is a longtime member and contributor to the San Francisco Online Community Meetup, or OCTRIBE. For more info on that group, visit meetup.com/octribe, and youtube.com/octribe for past talks. Finally, you can find Marc on Twitter @marcsiegel and on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/marcsiegel. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community signal is produced by Karn Broad, and we will see you next time.
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