Cohort-Based Online Communities: Exploitation or Real Connection?
If you threw a random group of people together, united primarily by a shared educational goal that they can accomplish with or without the group, and had two weeks to build a sense of community among them, what would you do?
That’s what Alex Witkowski spends time thinking about. He’s the community lead for Section4, which offers business courses they call sprints. These sprints are typically around two weeks long and then the experience is over – if you want it to be. If you don’t want it to be, you can continue to benefit from and collaborate with the students that took the same course.
Alex oversees a team of four community managers that guides this growing number or cohorts and hopes to bring then together through an upcoming alumni membership program. He also believes that cohort-based communities often exploit community rather than build it. We chat about that, plus:
- Alex’s transition from English teacher to community pro and the condescension he felt when making the move
- How he determines when a community manager simply has too many cohorts
- Why Slack may not be the right tool for their alumni product
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Checking your assumptions when interviewing job candidates (05:02): “I’m doing a lot of interviewing, I’m doing a lot of hiring, and I’m trying to be hyper cognizant of everything in an interview process [that] is an assumption. … I’ve been trying to be really aware of making assumptions and holding people back from opportunities, just because I’m assuming they won’t be able to make [a specific] change.” –@HeyLifeboat
The Section4 community helps students apply course knowledge in the real world (10:55): “I’m really hoping to build the continuing community around this idea of application. We all have this shared language, we all have these concepts, and I often think about it as the marriage of: We can offer the book smarts, the community is where the street smarts comes in. … We can’t give you every answer for what this looks like in a B2B SaaS context in our two-week course, but we can connect you to people who can engage in discussion with how they’re thinking about applying it to a B2B SaaS context.” –@HeyLifeboat
Section4’s community managers focus on bringing humanness to the community (17:11): “I’ve taken other online courses before, [and] I couldn’t name one person at the company. I’ve never interacted with anyone. I didn’t feel a connection to them. I felt the connection to the course, but [at Section4], I feel like there’s a connection to our ethos, which has been really exciting.” –@HeyLifeboat
Section4’s community managers focus on bringing humanness to the community (31:14): “Oftentimes the self-promoters are some of the loudest, nastiest people that you have in professional groups. They are the ones who respond most offensively when challenged on it. They will attack the community manager, or they will say, ‘Of course, I’m not doing that. This is relevant! You’re going to kill the community! The community’s never been the same since Patrick took over!’ This is all stuff that you have to hear and deal with. Those are some of the worst folks in professional circles, but yet, if you let them do it because it’s easier in the moment to not take their abuse, it is its own insidious thing that infects the space.” –@patrickokeefe
What does community-based learning actually mean? (54:57): “As someone who taught for six years, there’s an art to education, and throwing out a bunch of articles or a handful of videos and then dumping people in the space together and hoping that something happens, that’s not education. I think that’s where the word ‘community,’ to me, feels exploitative. … Just because there are other people here doesn’t mean it’s a community.” –@HeyLifeboat
About Alex Witkowski
Alex Witkowski is a former high school English teacher who left the profession when he found out that he could take the best part of his job – nurturing community – and do it full time. Since leaving teaching, he has worked in the non-profit and educational technology space, helping a variety of communities including global volunteers, college students, college professors, and business professionals make valuable connections and memories. He is currently the community lead at Section4, which aims to make MBA-quality education more affordable and accessible through interactive, community-based courses led by the world’s top business professors. In his spare time, he watches countless independent movies, makes themed mixtapes, and walks everywhere.
- Sponsor: Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community
- Alex on Twitter
- Section4, the business education provider where Alex is community lead
- Prof. Scott Galloway, the founder of Section4
- Patrick’s new job: Community lead at CNN+
- Bassey Etim‘s previous appearances on Community Signal: #4, #123, #145, and #160
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Vanilla, a one-stop-shop for online community. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and thank you for joining me. We’ll be chatting with Alex Witkowski who heads community for Section4, which offers business education and cohort-based community and was founded by Professor Scott Galloway. Alex believes that cohort-based programs often exploit community rather than build it. We’ll get into that, plus how do you build community when you only have two weeks?
Thank you to our Patreon supporters, including Maggie McGary, Aaron H., and Jenny Weigle for their generous support of our show. If you’d like to join them, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for more info.
Before we get started, I just wanted to share some personal news. After consulting for CNN for well over a year, I have joined them full-time as the first community lead for CNN+, the new streaming service launching in 2022. In the summer of 2020, my friend, Bassey Etim, a multiple-time guest of the show, reached out to me regarding a potential short-term opportunity. I have a lot of respect for Bassey, so it was fun to get to work together on something.
Consulting allowed me this golden opportunity to get to know the wider team at CNN, and it’s been a pleasure to work with them. When this full-time offer came around, that familiarity made her an even more exciting guest. As always, I will disclose any relevant conflicts of interest that come to mind. There is a very loose one actually for today’s show. It has been announced that Professor Galloway, again, the founder of the company that our guest works for, will have a show on CNN+, but this conversation came together naturally as I’ve been talking to Alex for long before that was a thing. Let’s get into it.
Alex Witkowski is a former high school English teacher who left the profession when he found out that he could take the best part of his job, nurturing a community and do it full-time. Since leaving teaching, he has worked in the nonprofit and educational technology space, helping a variety of communities, including global volunteers, college students, college professors, and business professionals make valuable connections and memories. He’s currently the community lead at Section4, which aims to make MBA quality education more affordable and accessible through interactive community-based courses led by the world’s top business professors. In his spare time, he watches countless independent movies, makes themed mixtapes, and walks everywhere.
Alex, welcome to the show.
[00:02:27] Alex Witkowski: Patrick, I’ve been really looking forward to this. Thank you so much for inviting me.
[00:02:31] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s my pleasure. You transitioned to the community profession over six years ago after having been an English and creative writing teacher for almost as long as that. When you were talking to potential employers, you told me that you “felt a very real condescension in those conversations”. Talk about that.
[00:02:49] Alex Witkowski: Yes. I’ll preface all this with the fact that this could just be my own complex, but I felt like when I was trying to break out of teaching and move on to something else, the phrase I often heard from people is, “Oh, teaching kids, I could never do that,” and it seemed more like, “Wow, you babysit kids all day. That sounds exhausting.” It didn’t really seem like this acknowledgment of there is a lot of intellectual challenge, there’s a lot of creativity involved.
I think what was interesting is I spoke to so few people, and in fact, I might even say I didn’t speak to a single person when I was interviewing places and I’m applying places that considered anything I was doing as a teacher to be transferable in any way, shape, or form. Everything was like, “We don’t think you’d be able to match our pace, we don’t think you’d be able to get up to speed with something as simple as the way an office works.”
I understand that the space is very different, but I basically did learning my whole life. I had a degree in how to learn. My sense was it was very defeating for a while, but I didn’t know what I was missing, and what I could say to people to actually convince them that I was ready for this shift. It was hard. It was really, really difficult to feel like no one valued my skillset and then something that I had invested so much time and energy into or four years in college and six years at work after that, so it was challenging. I sometimes have flashbacks to it, and it was an unpleasant memory for sure.
[00:04:09] Patrick O’Keefe: Boy, you don’t know how an office works. Alex, when you used to just wear t-shirts with holes and walk around barefoot in your class, screeching, what a statement. It reminds me of when I was interviewing for this job, and I had done a lot of consulting and work for myself, certainly, but Sony used my community guidelines. I had built a playbook for FedEx. This company was not as big as those companies, and one of the notes I got was that they didn’t think I could sell community to the executives. I couldn’t present in a board room. I had spoken at big conferences, major universities, et cetera, but I hadn’t had a title at the company side that they were sufficiently impressed by. I don’t know. I understand this work at a high level and I don’t have that on my resume, but yes, I don’t know what to tell you. I understand that frustration for sure.
[00:04:59] Alex Witkowski: Yes. What’s interesting too is, obviously, since I’m managing a team currently, I’m doing a lot of interviewing, I’m doing a lot of hiring, and I think I’m trying to be hyper cognizant of obviously everything in an interview process is an assumption. You’re going based on assumption. There’s an assumption where it’s like, “Okay, I assume you’re telling the truth here. I assume the story- you’re not leaving out details and things like that.” Then there’s another assumption where I don’t actually have a basis that you won’t be able to be up to speed or whatever it might be. It’s entirely me musing that, “Well, you’ve never done this pace before. You are therefore likely incapable of doing this pace,” which of course doesn’t make sense because some time has to be your first time. It can’t just be happenstance that you fall backwards into a particular type of community or something like that. I think I’ve been trying to be really aware of making assumptions and holding people back from opportunities, just because I’m assuming they won’t be able to make X, Y, or Z change.
[00:05:53] Patrick O’Keefe: One would argue that parents of students are maybe the worst stakeholders to have to deal with [laughter] on a routine basis. There’s a big stakeholder experience right there. The way that people come together through Section4 is they sign up for a course where they can talk with their fellow students who are taking the same course at the same time. They talk to them through Slack. Section4 courses are called sprints and they are very quick, usually two weeks. What hope do you have to build community in two weeks?
[00:06:24] Alex Witkowski: What’s really interesting is that most people who sign up for a course are aware that there’s a community element, but the thing is that they sign up first and foremost for a course, they want to learn a concept. I know that one of the key community principles that I’ve internalized is this notion that in order to really have a true community, there has to be a choice there. You can’t just be dropped into a space. It’s hard to build a community around people who didn’t choose to be there. There are people who take our courses, who- maybe that’s not why they signed up, they signed up because they wanted this information. I think that’s totally fine.
I came to this realization. I think what I can do in two weeks is maybe not build community, but build a sense of community. I make the distinction that you’re doing this with other people, you see in this group the potential for getting to meet thought partners and getting to meet potential employers. Especially in a course when you’re learning, you don’t know what you don’t know. Once you start applying the concepts down the road, you may have questions or needs that didn’t even occur to you in the initial two weeks.
For me, my hope is to create a spark and a sense of trust in the people who are also signing up for a course like this, and then hopefully, carry that over into, “I have this group of people, they’re going to be my number one go-to when I need something.” Not in a transactional way, but like, “I want to vet this. The first people I’m going to go to are people I took this course with because I remember being inspired by the way they were talking about the content.” I had to reconcile the length of time of the sprints which is not ideal for building community with this outcome that I want and come to terms with the fact that yes, you can’t really build community in two weeks, or at least in my opinion, you can’t.
[00:08:08] Patrick O’Keefe: You and your team have now witnessed the end of many sprints. You’ve had the opportunity to watch this play out many times. People come into a sprint, they learn, the sprint ends, and then they go back to their lives or they stick around or something in between. One of our Patreon supporters, Jenny Weigle was particularly interested in what happens after the two weeks is over. What do you see people doing, and really, what do you want them to do?
[00:08:35] Alex Witkowski: It’s so funny you bring that up because this has been a question that we’ve been discussing since I started at Section4. It’s funny we jokingly describe the end of the sprint as a hangover. It’s like you’re going, going, going for two weeks, and then it’s like, “Okay, bye.” There’s this moment of like, “Whoa, wait, what’s happening here? What’s next?” I think that we felt that excitement.
It wasn’t just an external thing. It wasn’t just that our community members were wanting more. It was also us on the community team where there are more relationships to build, there’s conversations that I want to continue, and we don’t want to just move right on to the next sprint. I think what’s interesting is it’s a question we’re still answering. It’s one that I’m very transparent about.
When I’m talking to the community, I’m not going to lie and tell them, “Oh, that’s on purpose,” because it’s not the case. We want to be really thoughtful about what we’re building as opposed to experience. It’s not just more of the same. After you graduate from college, the conversations change, you’re not sitting in a room talking about a book that you got.
[00:09:33] Patrick O’Keefe: You get letters in the mail asking you for money for the alumni association.
[00:09:37] Alex Witkowski: Exactly. Naturally, yes, which is funny because my college managed to track me down. USPS still hasn’t figured out my new address, but my college figured it out in about three days. They clearly know what they’re doing exactly. What’s interesting is that I can definitely sense this hunger and this excitement, especially after they submit their projects at the end of the course, and there’s this like, “Okay, we all accomplished something. We all did this thing. We feel proud of it,” and this burst of, “I want to do something with this,” and we haven’t had that answer for them to date, and to be perfectly frank, it’s in part a bandwidth issue. Like I mentioned, when I joined the team I was employee number 17 and we were working around the clock to make the sprints work. As a team, we couldn’t even dream of what it would look like to continue engaging 10,000 people at the end of the sprint.
I think now we have the bandwidth, the focus, and the personnel to be able to do that, not just from a numbers perspective, but also an experience perspective, but I think for me, I think of it the way I think of after graduating college, where that’s where the application comes in. Theory is great, you need the theoretical foundation to be able to do these things, but once you finish a course, it’s like when you open a math textbook. The example problems are always very straightforward. It makes total sense when you look at the example problems, but then you get into the real world and there are all these variables that you didn’t anticipate.
For me, I’m really hoping to build the continuing community around this idea of application. We all have this shared language, we all have these concepts, and I often think about it as the marriage of, “We can offer the book smarts, the community is where the street smarts come in.” That’s where it’s like, “We can’t give you every answer for what this looks like in a B2B SaaS context in our two-week course, but we can connect you to people who can engage in discussion with how they’re thinking about applying it to a B2B SaaS context.” That, for me, is the big excitement that I have around what alumni looks like.
[00:11:28] Patrick O’Keefe: I know you’re working on a membership alumni program, put that aside for a second. What does it actually look like when a sprint ends for someone? I’ll tell you what I think it looks like from reading the website, and you can tell me how wrong it is. What I imagine, especially if you use Slack, is that there’s this 2-week period, like you said, they turn in their project, the learning’s done, and then that cohort still has a home on that Slack, maybe in a channel where they can continue to talk, and there isn’t an extra payment for that access. It’s of part of the course.
As long as they keep that going, there’s some light oversight from your team. We have other sprints that your team needs to move on to, but they’re still there to make sure that things don’t go wrong, that there’s not any bad behavior happening. How wrong was I?
[00:12:07] Alex Witkowski: No, you’re spot on. What’s funny is my Slack workspace looks like these weeds that I have to pull because I have all these different workspaces on the left side that I’m scrolling back, a year’s worth of workspaces. There are some logistical things that we’re working through. There are times where I’ll get a message from a community member who took our course, let’s say last November, and I’m going back to those workspaces and answering questions, and it’s great.
What’s interesting, what I’ve seen in practice is it makes a lot of sense, and it’s actually been a really wonderful unexpected tool for us to connect with community members, and more easily, again, from past friends. I think email always has this transactional feel, there’s this electricity to having some real-time chat whether it’s Slack or somewhere else, but that’s been the main way it’s been leveraged.
What’s interesting is we’ve gotten feedback from community members who were like, we’re pretty methodical creating triggers for engagement during the sprint, whether that’s in the form of discussion questions, whether that’s in the form of sharing an article, and saying, “What does everyone think?” Obviously, we don’t have the bandwidth to do that for every past sprint. What’s interesting is when you sign on, people are clearly online. What’s funny is when someone is brave enough to post something in this community that’s been pretty quiet for a few weeks, they’ll get responses pretty swiftly which is exciting, but I think there’s a lot of this like, “Well, am I allowed to post something in here? It’s still active? Is there an opening for that? Is that fair game?”
I think that’s been- I don’t want to say a missed opportunity because like I mentioned, it’s been intentional that we haven’t really built that out, but they do still have access to this space. They’re always excited to still have access to the space, but I do think, for me, it’s been this really clear learning and testament to the power of- you need to build rituals. If the rituals aren’t there, then people don’t really know what to do in this space, and they’re waiting for direction or waiting for inspiration.
[00:13:56] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s pause for a moment to talk about our generous sponsor, Vanilla.
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I remember when you were hiring your first community manager, and now in well under a year, you lead a team of 4 community managers, and each sprint has a community manager that is responsible for building community within that sprint’s cohort. Theoretically, each new sprint is an additional load onto someone else’s plate, even though there is probably a natural degree of drop-off that occurs with each sprint after it has concluded or at least the educational portion has concluded, so each community manager has- we all have a limit to what we’re able to handle responsibly without sacrificing another part of our work, or our life. How do you go about identifying when a community manager simply has enough already?
[00:15:10] Alex Witkowski: I think that’s a really great question. I think one of the challenges that we’ve run into is that we really want to engender intimacy. One of the reasons that I really advocated for having a face to each sprint, not this bi-committee thing, where it’s like the whole community team is available, but a face to each sprint is- lately I’ve really been attached to this idea of community building as a spiderweb, where there’s a really strong core and you have a community manager in the middle.
Rather than obsessively trying to connect people to each other, I’ve been really interested in this idea of, can we build a lot of one-to-one relationships? Then can we naturally start connecting people outside of that? Something that I’ve noticed, even if I host an event and ask people to unmute and say hello, it’s interesting. They’ll start talking to me because they know me, then they start talking to each other because they’re all unmuted, and then I back up. For me, it started with that strong core.
None of this is an answer to your question. I’m just talking about this structure that we’ve been going. I’ve been really into this idea of one face for each sprint, so they have a go-to person. They get to know them really well. The flip side of that to your question is that idea that people know us really well. We’re really grateful that they reach out to us to let us know, like, “Hey, this awesome thing happened,” or, “I got this job,” or,” I watched this project,” and, “Thanks for this sprint,” or, “Hey, can you connect me to someone who’s done this before?”
We also are challenged with the fact that it’s happening on a lot of different communication channels. It’s happening through email. It’s happening through Slack. Sometimes it’s in response to a message that we wrote and sent out to the whole sprint. It’s undoubtedly a lot. I will say that fortunately, I think we haven’t hit the point where it’s unmanageable yet. I think that one thing that we’re really thinking about is this idea of staffing and realizing that we do actually need a fair bit of time between sprints because even though it seems like, “Well, what are they really doing between sprints,” what they’re really doing is answering a lot of questions from community members that are organically coming in and nurturing these relationships. That’s just so key to the experience.
I often think- I’ve taken other online courses before, I couldn’t name one person at the company, I’ve never interacted with anyone. I didn’t feel a connection to them. I felt the connection to the course, but here, I feel like there’s a connection to our ethos, which has been really exciting. I think part of that is, we’re just very human about it. To be perfectly frank, I think it’s something that we haven’t hit yet. It’s something that we’re thinking really carefully about, especially from a staffing point of view and being really realistic about- I think I need to do more work around what is the literal number, one community manager to X people, so it’s not just infinity because that would obviously be a recipe for disaster.
I do think that it’s something that I’m really committed to is just staying in open contact with my community managers, and there are times where they’ll send a follow-up email to a cohort, and they’ll include their Calendly link. Just recently, I was talking to one of my awesome direct reports, who was going to include her Calendly link, and I was like, “Maybe we hold off on that because we have a lot coming down the pike, and people are going to want to talk to you because you’re wonderful. I don’t want you to get overwhelmed.” There are times where we need to be protective of our time. We need to be realistic about, “How available can we be?” It’s an imperfect solution, but it’s where we are right now. Then ideally, we’re staffing up sufficiently.
[00:18:19] Patrick O’Keefe: You’ve got data now. You’re starting to build out data around the amount of capacity that people have when you need to hire. There’s a reason you’re at four. You can also look at other teams too in a sense and see the level at which they’ve had to scale to support this number of courses. Obviously, it’s a different sort of work. I don’t know if Section4- but for anyone who has that customer support apparatus, the level of which those folks are scaling as a percentage basis. If they got a 10 headcount, and now they have 15, they’ve grown 50%, so it’s not weird for you to propose that you would grow also by 50%. Theoretically, it’s part of making the case.
I’m not saying you have issues with Section4, but I can hear- even it might just be you wrestling through it in your mind, this idea, like, “What are they doing between the sprint? What are they doing?” Well, there’s a ton of stuff they’re doing, tons of things going on. Do we need to read their inboxes and we can take away their autonomy in the inbox, just get the number of emails that come in? There’s so much there.
I think in general, it’s smart to have a face for an individual sprint in a personal way, a company way because I’ve been in a position to manage portfolios of communities before for one brand, where we had several partners for bizjournals.com, and so on, and I had a team of folks, eventually, eight people, and you can make a case for multiple things of how that can be broken up.
What I settled on is sort of pod-ish structures that place a singular community manager responsible for a singular community or group of communities because I think it helps when you set metrics when you measure things, when you can say to that community manager, “Look at how your community has performed,” and yes, we’re all the product of everyone who contributes to our success, and it’s a team effort and all those things are true, but at the end of the day, individuals want to be able to see that they’ve had this impact, and it helps them advocate for raises.
It helps them get other jobs. It helps you push their value at the company to say, “Well, look here, Sally’s community, Sally’s communities have had this rate over the last 12 months. Those members have paid us an additional X amount of revenue. They bought X percent more courses than the average person. They’re more likely to join our membership alumni program by 37.5%. That gives us an extra $12.7 million in revenue next year. Please, obviously, we’re justifying this.”
Also, it’s good, that sense of pride that people have because there’s pride in the team. Then it’s also silly or unrealistic to ignore pride of the individual. When I left my last job, I sent a message to my team. I said, “Hey, I’m out of here. This didn’t go exactly as we wanted to, but here’s the things that I hang my hat on, that I believe we did so well on. When I say that we did so well, these are my accomplishments, but they’re also yours. Just like these are going on my resume, these can go on yours.”
It’s just important to have those things so that even though yes, they’ll be covered for days off, or people will need to pitch in and help out, at the end of the day, this community is Sally’s, and Sally is at core responsible for it, and the success that it achieves can be attributed in large part, not 100%, to Sally and her efforts. That means something to people.
[00:21:18] Alex Witkowski: Absolutely. Everything you said completely resonates, and it’s things that I’ve talked about with my team directly. It’s funny that you mentioned that because I say all this with the caveat that you have done community in a few different places, and this is really a place where I’m really encouraged by the fact that I’ve never heard anyone question the value of community, which is, for me, certainly not the case.
For places I’ve worked in the past, I’ve had to really fight it and articulate it a little more. I think what was really interesting is I proposed this idea for our courses recently where I noticed this trend of people from sprint communities that I was managing when I first joined the team emailing me and saying, “Hey, I really want to take this new course that you’re releasing, but I want to make sure that it’s going to hit what I’m looking for. Can we hop on a call? Can we talk about what’s going to be covered by this course?” I’m like, “Sure.”
I was noticing this happening increasingly and I was like, “Well, why don’t we start doing this?” I’m sure there are people who are maybe too embarrassed or nervous to ask where they’re like, “I don’t want to bother them.” I said, “Why don’t we reach out from the community side and say, ‘Hey, if you want to hop on a 15-minute call? If you’re thinking of taking another course, just put some time, I’ll talk you through what’s going to happen.'”
I was very lucky, one of my direct reports was fearless enough to be like, “Yes, let me wade into uncharted territory. Let’s give it a shot.” When I was pitching this, everyone was like, “This sounds cool, but the one thing that I would say is who’s going to want to get on the phone with you?” Just have a chatbot or something, no one’s going to want to get on a call with you.” Not in any pejorative way, really just- no one wants to talk on the phone. We had so many people booking these calls and it was because they knew the community manager. It was this like, “Oh, wow, people actually want to be on these calls.” I think that’s a testament to the fact that they knew this person. It wasn’t just, “Hey, here’s a community manager from Section4 reaching out to you.” It’s, “Hey, here’s Kim from Section4.”
[00:22:58] Patrick O’Keefe: Or worse yet, “Here’s the sales guy from Section4,” because you got Alex the sales guy on those calls, and he’s not selling you. He’s just answering your questions. I have to assume that Alex the sales guy’s conversion rate was pretty solid.
[00:23:09] Alex Witkowski: Yes, it was. What was cool too is I think there was this trust and this authenticity where I was talking to a sprinter early on who was saying, like, “I’m thinking of taking this course for these reasons.” I knew this person well enough to be like, “Oh, no, no, no. It’s not going to cover those things that you’re looking for. I think what you’re looking for may be better covered in this sprint. We’re not offering that soon, but I’ll definitely reach out to you when we are.”
For me, it’s like- there was, again, this trust where I wasn’t just trying to get the sale through. “Oh, yes, definitely, our course is going to cover that.” Not that we would do that general, but again, I’ve had so many conversations with this person that it didn’t feel like I’m booking a call with a Section4 representative. It felt like, “Let me catch up with Alex, see how things are going, ask him about this course.”
[00:23:50] Patrick O’Keefe: Totally, very smart. It reminds me of a situation at a company I’ve worked for where I had one person, and I’m very happy actually about this one person, and maybe I’ll have him on the show at some point because I just helped him get a job away from this terrible company, at a much better company at an income raise that is substantial and I love it. I could not be happier. This individual was very- I don’t think he listens to the show, but this individual was very creative in ways.
One of the things that he would do as he was trying to get people to use our communities and this was a paid membership program, he would offer to hop on the phone with them. I did not suggest this to him. I did not come up with this idea. He just felt like it was better for him to do it that way, and if he got people on the phone, he could get them into the community. Once he got him into the community, we knew they were 18.46% more likely to retain another year. We knew what that meant to the business.
I told him once, I said, “I like this. As the person you directly report into, I like this. I appreciate this. I think you can do it. Go for it. One thing I will tell you, knowing the company as I did, they will not credit you for this. You will not be promoted for this. You will not receive praise for this from anyone but me.” Of course, my time there was not long for this work, but I’m honest with my direct reports about things.
I’ll say, “Here’s the reality. Here’s what I’m dealing with. Here’s what I’m guarding against. Here’s how you should interpret that.” I told him, “There’s just not going to be value here, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good work. That doesn’t mean I don’t value it.” That doesn’t mean I won’t advocate for it as much as I can, but just the reality of this situation, much like you telling someone in a totally different context not to put their Calendly link in an email, maybe we should talk about that, it’s good that you work at a place that sees the opportunity there because the opportunity there when properly measured and viewed is substantial. Given the number of people, I assume, you have in sprint sending in an email or even- oh, man, 1% to 3% book a call with you, moves numbers, and it moves numbers that salespeople will be envious of. That’s good stuff.
[00:25:43] Alex Witkowski: Yes. There were times where I think we even overestimated people’s ability to know where to start. It’s not that they wouldn’t necessarily reach out to one of our salespeople, but our salespeople maybe didn’t know that this person was interested in buying future sprints, maybe for their team, but they knew one of our community managers. One thing that I really advocated for, one thing that I feel like I’ve come a long way within my community experience is writing emails that really feel authentic. I’m really genuinely asking, “How are you?”
This isn’t just a, “How are you? Now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to the real deal here.” I genuinely want to know. Respond to this, I’d love to hear how you’re doing. It has nothing to do with the content or the ask or the CTA in this email. I think that that goes a long way, and I think we’re able to then create this feedback loop a little bit where we can funnel people like, “Maybe I don’t know the answer to what this particular sprint will cover, or if it’s great for this whole team, but I can get you in touch with someone from our sales team.”
Then it’s an introduction to a person. It’s not like, “Well, let me funnel you to the sales team.” It’s like, “Oh, you should talk to John. John will have an answer to this. You’re going to love talking to John.” All of it feels more human. I know that that’s a cliche in the community space, but it’s so true. I always ask myself and encourage the team to do so like, “How can we make this whole experience more human?”
[00:26:57] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, the rush of scale. There are only some areas that can be scaled successfully. Humans are still needed. Before the show, you said that breaches of your community guidelines that are escalated to you are rare. Rare means they do occur. What do those look like?
[00:27:11] Alex Witkowski: One of the big ones that I’ve seen in our community, and I think that we’re pretty clear about this, not too many people are willing to walk this line, but one of the things that we see is there’s a stark difference between, “I want to share with you what I do at my company or what my company does,” and “I’m trying to get you to buy our services.” There are moments where I have to bring the hammer down on people who are really clearly saying, “You should hire me for this, this, and this.” It’s like I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt the first time for something like that, but it could just be a difference in communication, just letting you know you’re not allowed to promote your services here.
That’s the one I see most often. We have this benefit of– I think because this is a professional community, a community of people learning, developing professionally, and things like that, I think that there’s this– I don’t want to say filter because it’s not that anyone here isn’t authentic, but I think they understand what’s okay in the sphere, what could potentially endanger them professionally if they were to say something completely off the wall. I think the main thing we have is promotion. We have had maybe one instance of someone who just makes an inappropriate joke.
I think an interesting setting where we found this is, it doesn’t really happen in Slack. It doesn’t really happen in live group discussions, but for some reason, the only time we saw anything that was hovering was we’d have a live event where the professor was lecturing and the chat is just going fast and furious. I think there’s something about a Zoom chat or a live event chat that feels ephemeral, and I think in a way that Slack doesn’t really, in a way that LinkedIn doesn’t really, there’s something about the Zoom chat that’s moving so quickly that you think like, “Oh, okay, maybe this doesn’t matter.”
I think we had one instance of someone there who said something, and what was great is I think we’re so aligned as a company that it was very much like, “Remove them. There’s no question about it. It was an insensitive comment, remove them.” I think that, again, we have such a values-driven community. I know everyone says this, but I genuinely have experienced it that I don’t think there’s any question of we know why that person isn’t here anymore.
[00:29:14] Patrick O’Keefe: What are you empowered to do in those cases? It sounds like in that case, you were empowered, and you may have had to go by committee somewhat, I don’t know, empowered to remove that person from the program, maybe give them their money back. What are you empowered to do in these cases?
[00:29:26] Alex Witkowski: I was in maybe my first month at Section4, or I guess it was my second month because that’s when I really started managing the community, and something that I was really grateful for that my manager said is, “Hey, if someone’s acting inappropriately, you don’t need to escalate this to me. Just remove them. Just refund them and remove them.”
I think part of that was this implicit understanding that we’ve seen so few instances of breaches of our community guidelines. We trust our people, I think. We have so many alums who come back and take our program that I think there’s this- you walk into the space that’s clearly operating a certain way. I think few people are willing to mess with that, but I was really grateful to feel– I was reporting to someone who trusted my judgment, who was in my corner, and who also understood the urgency of, “We’re not going to sit here and spin our wheels and review every word. I trust you know the community guidelines. I trust that if you see someone who you think is breaching those community guidelines, you’ll handle it appropriately.” I think for me, I really valued having that trust and being empowered to do that without having to run it up the flagpole and do all this checking and things like that.
[00:30:30] Patrick O’Keefe: Having worked in professional communities, you hit on the two things I think that I’ve seen as well, which number one is some inappropriate comments. Some of the communities I stepped into were boys clubs and the CEO/COO just didn’t want any part of being direct in those cases. I remember one of the first things I removed was someone posted a “Bros before hoes, Hillary and Donald Trump” t-shirt picture and thought that was a funny thing. “Yes, I don’t know. We’re not doing this here. Sorry, I don’t care what was here before, what the established norms are here. I am here, we don’t do that stuff.” We took care of that and our COO would respond to messages where someone joked about “just the tip,” those sorts of jokes.
It’s like, “Oh, man, come on. These are professional communities,” but overwhelmingly the self-promotion was the thing because people think that is a harmless thing. Oftentimes the self-promoters are some of the loudest nastiest people that you have in professional groups. They are the ones who respond most offensively when challenged on it. They will attack the community manager or they will say, “Of course, I’m not doing that. This is relevant. You’re going to kill the community. The community’s never been the same since Patrick took over.” This is all stuff that you have to hear and deal with.
Those are some of the worst folks in professional circles, but yet, if you let them do it because it’s easier in the moment to not take their abuse, it is its own insidious thing that infects the space, and sooner or later, and this is what they had when I joined, you get a community that’s nothing but self-promotion because everyone else just ducked out. They don’t want to mess with that. It’s one more messy inbox in their life. If they don’t want to see it in their email, they don’t want to see it in an online community they’re choosing to go to.
All you end up with is a bunch of people talking to each other about how the service is, whatever the services are that they offer. I think it’s the number one killer of professional communities, but it’s also the thing that people are maybe most likely to allow to happen, to grow, and to get more people in there. When you’re building this membership community where you want people to pay, you’re like, “We’ve got these people paying. Obviously, we don’t want to get rid of these people. We only have 57. Why would I remove his posts? They’re talking about his business. It’s a business community,” but then by the time you get to 500 paying members, you have this culture and you have these old-timers now who are used to doing this thing, and that was such a problem at this company because we had people who were grandfathered in under cheap rates, more than half off that were the biggest babies in the world. They would throw a tantrum. They were the type of people who would respond to a community guideline violation by adding the CEO as a CC on the email. These are the worst. Anyway, self-promotion is its own insidious thing that in professional communities that you really need to have- whatever the standard is, I’m sure you have one, have a standard, understand where the line is, and don’t let anyone cross it.
[00:33:09] Alex Witkowski: Absolutely. Oh, man, the CC-ing the CEO is giving me nightmares and flashbacks from past places. I think what’s interesting with regards to the inappropriate comments is that I think that our professors are so public and really at a part in their career where their values are their brand in many cases, so I think that part of the reason we haven’t run into too many instances of inappropriate comments is that they know what they’re signing up for here. They understand the values because the professors are pretty clear about the values from the outset.
What’s interesting, and I haven’t heard this happen in our community yet, and I speak pretty frequently to community members, but in other communities that I’m a part of, professional communities, you have the people who are blatant about like, “Hey, I’m just going to keep spamming every channel with this link to whatever,” but then I’m noticing people who are going this sneaking route which I think is probably a little harder to moderate where someone DMs you and it’s like, “Hey, I see we’re both in this industry. Why don’t we hop on a call?” I’m like, “Sure, I’d love to talk,” and then halfway through the call, I’m like, “Oh, this is a sales call.” Obviously, I’m not going to buy from you in this situation because you coerced me into this call, but that to me, I really started losing trust in communities.
I’m less likely to accept requests from people who I think are asking for the right reasons. If someone’s DM-ing me like, “Hey, I’d love to learn about your experience at this company,” then I’m like, “Well, can I really trust this person, or is it going to be a sales call?” Then people are like, “I’m not going to respond to this DM.” That’s something that I want to be really aware of. Like I said, I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m trying to figure out the best way to find out that that’s happening because that to me strikes me as very toxic.
[00:34:44] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, it’s sneaky. Part of the functionality was making introductions which is pretty common, and if someone says like, “I want to talk to people who work in this industry,” that’s a reasonable networking request, I’m in a professional community. It’s also a cheap way to get to leads. It’s a tough insidious thing because people are sneaky. I feel like on those sorts of things the best thing you can do is make sure you have a standard, make sure people know it, and make sure they can report people anonymously.
Just get those emails, get those reports and just take action because one thing that would happen at this other company, I’d be fighting against the desire to keep everyone, and it’d be such a slog. [laughter] It’s such a slog. It’s like, “This person gives us 500 a year. I know they know 100 people in the community. Just do us all a favor and get rid of him,” because I wasn’t empowered at that level to get rid of people on an individual level and say, “This person’s toxic, this person’s awful. Can we get rid of them?” No.
So, it’s incredibly frustrating, but it’s like we were always held back. I cleaned up the inappropriate comments. I fixed a lot of self-promotion in spite of people not liking it, but we were always held back by the people that we allowed to come back and continue to do it over and over again, who will continue to do it to us or undermine us privately with other members because they’re mad about it.
[00:36:03] Alex Witkowski: Yes. One last thing I was going to mention too is, one of the community conundrums that we’ve run into sporadically, but it’s something that I want to keep an eye on is, we haven’t run into it too much in Slack which is where a lot of the conversation’s happening, but every once in a while we do run into it when we run a live discussion, when we all hop into a video chat together. I think there’s times where it’s like you’re not explicitly self-promoting, but you’re dominating the conversation, and you’re not saying anything wrong. You’re not being offensive. You’re not necessarily talking over people. You’re just going on a little too long, hoping in a little too frequently, whatever it might be.
I think that one thing that I found has helped somewhat with that, like a form of person moderating, maybe not post moderating, but person moderating is that when I noticed that happening, I’m like, “Oh, yes, I forgot to mention, use the Raise Hand feature and I’m going to call on you to make sure that there’s diverse voices. You can’t unmute yourself anymore.” Sometimes that slows the conversation down but in a purposeful way, now people are like, “I didn’t want to interrupt anyone, but I’ll raise my hand and get called on by the moderator,” which has been very helpful for our discussions.
[00:37:08] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. It’s a good call-out. There’s a martial arts community that I’ve run for over 20 years. It’s just an independent side project, KarateForums.com. If you look at the guidelines, they’re a bit long. They need some adjustment, but it’s just not my priority. There’s a guideline in there that says, “Don’t be an opinion judge.” I wrote that 15, 16, 17 years ago when we found people responding to every reply and just jumping in after someone replied and be like, “Oh, this is why this is this,” and then someone else would reply, “This is why this is this,” and it’s like, “If we see you responding after each reply, expect to hear from us [laughter] to tell you not to do that and to let the thread breathe.”
A lot of people, again, especially in any context, business conduct, professional context, personal context would be like, “More replies? They’re engaged. [laughter] That’s an engaged user,” and I’m like, “No, no, it’s not. It’s an annoying user. Okay?” Anyone can make the number go from one to two. It’s what is happening in that one to two. The fact is they’re driving people away because no one wants to respond to this thread because that person keeps responding to every reply. Every reply has to defend themselves. No one wants to do that. They want to share their thoughts. Yes, if you post it, you’re open to be challenged. This isn’t some personal blog. It’s an open conversation, so yes, but that doesn’t mean that this one person has to be the one who does it after every reply. In my mind, I thought that person’s an opinion judge, this is an opinion-based community. We don’t want any opinion judges. Share your opinion. Respond, but give it a breath. Yes, same motivation, just different contexts.
[00:38:37] Alex Witkowski: Yes. It’s tricky because I know there are times where I really can genuinely sense it’s just overeagerness; the heart is in the right place. It’s at times heartbreaking talking to these individuals that it’s like, “I don’t want you to not talk. I don’t want you to be afraid of talking, but I do want you to be cognizant of the larger community.” It’s a tough conversation to have.
[00:38:58] Patrick O’Keefe: I want you to have a little bit of fear. I want to put a little fear into you, just a little bit. [laughter] “This is Alex, this is my baseball bat.” Maybe it’s a small one. It’s not a big baseball bat, but I want a little bit of fear that something might happen. No baseball bats in the community. You’ve made some adjustments to your team mission for 2022 and you’re updating your community guidelines to reflect that mission. How are they changing?
[00:39:19] Alex Witkowski: Yes. There are certain things in our community guidelines that go without saying, not in the sense that we shouldn’t say them, I think it’s important to put them on paper, so everyone is aware of them, but I do think there’s a larger question of, “Okay, yes. We’ve covered that. That’s what any community should be. We have those guidelines, but what does it mean to be a part of this particular community?”
I want to be a little more forward-thinking with not just what shouldn’t you do here, but what do we do here, and outline a little more clearly how can you really leverage this space? I think that without the risk of making it too long, I don’t want it to just be, “Here’s a list of things that will get you in trouble, but also here’s what this is for, here’s how you can be recognized here. Here’s how you can leverage this.”
I was literally months of wrestling with and grappling with this community mission, so many things clicked for me once I finally articulated it, and it made sense and I realized like, “Okay, the community guidelines, they’re not representative of our community. They’re representative of communities more broadly.” I think for me, I want to be a little clearer about what does it mean to be a part of a professional community.
One thing, for example, that’s come up for me is, again, very rarely, but we have people who are entry-level social media managers, all the way up to CEOs of companies in our community. One of the values that I’ve landed on based on conversations with community members and then just a lot of thought is that in our community, we engaged without ego. The people who come to us and they’re like, “The only two opinions that matter here are mine and the professors.” It’s not going to fly.
That’s an attitude that really just poisons the community. For me, there’s always things to learn. You need to be comfortable with sharing a space with someone who may be less experienced, but it’s bringing a very different perspective. That’s something where I want to make sure that no one is like, “Oh, I’m not going to answer your message because you’re beneath me,” which again, we don’t see often, but I want to make sure that that’s embedded in the community guidelines and people understand, “Hey, they’re agreeing to be here. Part of it is we’re not asking you to overextend yourself, but respect everyone that’s here regardless of their role, regardless of their industry.”
[00:41:23] Patrick O’Keefe: Your mission was to make people respect each other. Why wasn’t that your mission before? I’m just kidding. The answer I hear there is more details. You’re going to add some context and some details to your guidelines so that people can better understand them.
[00:41:37] Alex Witkowski: Yes. I think it’s more detailed and I think it’s guardrails. This is an analogy I use a lot and I may have shared this with you in the past, but I taught creative writing for six years. What was really interesting is that if I told my students write a story, they had no idea what to do. If I told them write a story with a pair of scissors, a broken radio and a plane ticket, suddenly, they can create all these things. I actually think there are certain ways in which parameters are freeing. “Here’s what you can’t do here. Here’s what you can.”
I think that will actually lead to more purposeful and extensive conversation than this like, “Well, I’m going to wait and see what other people post because I’m afraid of violating the guidelines,” or, “Here, I get the things that I can’t do, but okay, can I post a joke in here? Am I allowed to do that? Or can I share an article?” Even with the self-promotion thing, am I allowed to share this project that my company is doing? Is that self-promotion? I want to really delineate that a little bit so that no one’s coming from this place of, “I’m afraid of being called out or not positioning myself sufficiently or properly in this space.”
[00:42:41] Patrick O’Keefe: I’m a fan of longer guideline documents. I know that’s not necessarily something people say routinely out loud once. Upon a time, there was a movement to make guidelines cutesy or make them five sentences and bold and bulleted lists. Some of them are like, “Don’t be a jerk.” It always means absolutely nothing, like how someone might think you’re a jerk or I’m a jerk or this person’s a jerk, very, very subjective.
We think we know. We don’t, it’s the phrase “common sense”. Anyone says to me, “That’s common sense.” I think, “I don’t know what that means, and I don’t trust you really,” because everyone I see saying, “It’s just common sense,” is someone that I wouldn’t trust with $5. Those things don’t make sense. We need to talk about what is disrespectful, what do we want from the community, what sort of language can we use, how do these things work? That makes a ton of sense.
Now, you host your cohort communities on Slack, and you are readying an alumni membership community for a wider collective of cohorts. I know you’re testing it out, early stages, all that stuff, but will it also be on Slack?
[00:43:41] Alex Witkowski: It’s something we’re wrestling with, and my hunch is that Slack is not the right tool for it. We have, I think, at this point 12,000 alumni in our network.
[00:43:52] Patrick O’Keefe: Can I ask you how many channels you have on your Slack? Your personal Slack, when you open it up, you mentioned your left menu, how many are there in that left menu, hundreds?
[00:44:01] Alex Witkowski: No. I’m probably up to 30 or 40. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but there are just times where I’m like, “I heard the notification go off. I have no idea where it’s coming from. I have to find where it’s coming from.”
[00:44:12] Patrick O’Keefe: Are you in all the channels for all the cohorts that have happened?
[00:44:16] Alex Witkowski: Part of it is I just want to have access in the event that something happens and I need to be there quickly.
[00:44:22] Patrick O’Keefe: That makes sense. I don’t want to take you off of the main question there, so you were thinking about it, it might not be on Slack.
[00:44:27] Alex Witkowski: Yes. It doesn’t feel right to dump 12,000 people in Slack, but I will say, what’s interesting to me, why I haven’t completely written it off yet is that we have a lot of community members who are in startups that are working in companies who use Slack. I really like the ease of, “Hey, I’m dealing with a challenge at work.” All I have to do is one click, toggle over, ask a question. I think there’s something about feeling we’re present at work with you, not in a Big Brother sort of way, but in a, “Hey, you always have this angel hovering over you and able to help in a pinch.”
That’s why I haven’t completely written it off. I think that the analogy that I often hear for Slack is drinking from a fire hose. I think that at 12,000, there’s going to be people who are just thinking, “This is way too much. The notifications are annoying to me. I’m going to get off of this.” I don’t want to create that feeling. I really want to make sure that there’s a separation between the sprint experience and the membership experience. I don’t want it to be confusing as to, “Okay, what can I do in which space?”
I think one of the ways to do that is to actually have a separate tool. This is where the members meet and then you blast off and have this pod that’s working together on a two-week sprint, and Slack makes sense because a two-week experience is ephemeral, and Slack is pretty ephemeral where it’s like the messages are moving quickly, we’re collaborating really intensely for two weeks. Then it’s like, “Okay, great. We did what we need to do. Let’s move back to the slower pace.”
We’ve gotten feedback from members in the past because we’ve considered testing a forum during a sprint. What’s interesting is that, the feedback I’ve gotten is that they like a live feeling of Slack where it’s like, “Oh, there’s people online. I’m getting real-time reactions,” but they also say the problem is a forum lends itself in a lot of cases to a longer form of writing which is great for a slow community. It’s tougher for like, “We’re here for two weeks.” I think that’s something that I’m absolutely not opposed to testing it. It’s something on my radar, but I think it makes sense for a two-week experience, Slack is a little quicker. A membership experience is something that’s a little more methodical.
[00:46:25] Patrick O’Keefe: That makes sense. I feel like we’ve talked about this privately. The two-week use case for Slack makes a ton of sense to me because two weeks is like, “Grandma’s planning a trip to Albuquerque. Let’s spin up a Facebook group.” I’m not comparing your product to that, but you get the sense. You hope people stick around, and that people come back and they do, you see it, but actually, it’s your marketing.
Section4’s marketing is like, “Get the heck to your computer for two weeks and focus. Lock in. We’re going to do this intense thing for two weeks, MBA level, two weeks.” You’re intense and focused, excited, “Get here and do it, learn the thing, and go back to your job.” That’s the marketing. It makes a ton of sense for Slack, but then you have this thing where you’re hoping people stick around. Obviously, it’ll probably be an additional revenue stream too for the company where we have this alumni product because now we’re at the point where we have so many alumni. Makes a ton of sense. How do we value those contributions over a longer period of time? How do we build a 10-year, 50-year, 100-year community that you can stay into for a long time? So that Alex looks back in 20 years and says, “I did this thing for 20 years of my life. Will I make it to 30?” How do you do that on Slack?
It’s very possible, but it is that whole chatroom mentality. As much as Slack wants to be async, async only happens if everyone agrees that it’s async. If not everyone is in agreement on Slack, “We’re async over here,” then it’s a chatroom from the nineties. I always go back to Yahoo Chat which isn’t totally fair to Slack. It has a ton of things going on. Threading, there’s so much they’ve done with it. Yes, I use it. I use it at work. I have a new appreciation for it actually after leaving my last job, I don’t hate anything. I disliked it, but it was because of the people I was using it with.
If you’re going to build something that’s going to have this long mentality, and you’re going to have people who are going to come and ask the same questions over and over again, over a decade, then how do you better position the contributions that people make to be valued over a longer period of time, to be more searchable, to be more discoverable, to going to other resources? Maybe the community has become its own sprint because of the knowledge that’s shared in there.
When you join the community, you get your one-week sprint on the best business knowledge from the community. Slack permalinks are still weird. They want me to open the app. They want me to open the thing. I don’t want to use the app. I want to stay in the browser always. There’s just so many things that happen with that experience where if it’s your own community, your own data, your own member information, there’s just something about that that you can do.
To your point, people have to make a commitment to show up and to go there and to go to this other thing. If they’re paying you for it and they know what it is and they’re opting into it, it makes your job easier. I’ll be interested to see what you come up with, not that I’ll have access to it.
[00:48:56] Alex Witkowski: [laughs] We’ll work on that. We’ll talk about that. What’s interesting is that I had this realization that our community identity is that we’re business nerds. This is coming directly from conversations with community members. This isn’t like a thing that I came up with. This is a phrase that kept coming up. I think what was interesting is that LinkedIn has this– I have so many feelings about LinkedIn that I won’t go into, but it definitely- when you post on LinkedIn, it feels very performative in many cases. I think it feels like you’re trying to elicit a reaction out of people.
What I love is I think I understand the impetus to express myself, I want to react to something that’s going on in the world or share a story, but on LinkedIn, it has this feeling of like, “This is content,” where I think in a forum, again, I want to put this out to the community, not out to the world. This isn’t me brand-building. This is me wanting to start a conversation. I think that’s where the forum comes into place too because people might join the community a month, two months, six months after someone else, in a forum, you can join that conversation. In Slack, you can’t. That conversation is long buried. You’re never going to find it again.
I’m not opposed to people asking the same questions over and over, but I do think that there’s more value to continuing a really robust conversation than just having the same perfunctory- you ask a question, three people respond, then two weeks later, same thing. I’m really excited for the forum where when people are putting a message out into the world, you’re triangulating and finding your people, you’re like, “Oh, hey, I really like what Suzy said here. I’m going to reach out to Suzy because this is really resonating with me and I’m going through something similar.” Maybe she got an answer six months ago and maybe I’d like to hear about it like, “How did you solve that problem?” My hope is that the forum where- exactly you mentioned, the content is a little longer-lasting, can actually lead to connection and empower people to reach out to each other.
[00:50:43] Patrick O’Keefe: In our pre-show chat, you said, “I think cohort-based communities often exploit community rather than build it.” How so?
[00:50:52] Alex Witkowski: This is the cynic in me, but there are times where I wonder, what are you giving me besides a Slack workspace? You’ve set up a Slack workspace, but I could have done that. I don’t really know what you’re selling me in this. It’s just, like, “Oh, the community is coming together and they’re learning from each other.” I think it’s the sense of- you’re not doing anything, you’re not offering anything as a company. Responsibility is mine to make this a meaningful experience and it’s tough.
When it comes to learning, there has to be some hub of expertise, that it has to come from somewhere. I think, organically people will learn from each other, but there needs to be something to react to first. For me, the idea of cohort-based communities I don’t think is fleshed out yet. I think it’s this notion of- it feels like that if you build it, they will come kind of thing, “I’m just going to open up, I’m going to charge people a bunch of money, put them in a room together and let them take off.”
I don’t know that- the ones that I’ve seen at least put far too much responsibility on the community members to connect with each other and don’t really think about the architecture of the community they’re building, like, “What is the arrangement? What channels do we have if we’re on Slack? What’s going on in the forum? What posts am I putting out there to get replies and spark ideas?” Yes, I think it’s this light lift, like, “Yes, sure, I’m just going to get a bunch of people to pay me money, and then they’ll teach each other and I’ll take a step back.” The exploitation there bothers me.
The other thing too is it’s not community- not that it’s in the name, it’s a cohort that we’re talking about, not communities. For me, it’s not community. Here’s a group of people who are trying to learn something together. Maybe they become a community, but this feeling of, “Oh, it’s community-based learning.” It’s community-based learning and that you haven’t given me any content, you’re just relying on other people to teach each other and I think then you’re charging people for something they don’t know the value that they’re getting.
[00:52:39] Patrick O’Keefe: It feels like people will put the word “community” on their course and then they’ll create a space where people can talk with one another, but it is very much like the space that they make it out of which can be- I’m sure can be useful sometimes and also can be destructive sometimes. It’s also something you see with a lot of these course building tools that are out there, which I know is a world that you come from and are well-versed in, but just the idea that it’s expected almost that courses have a “community component” in 2021.
For those people who are selling course software or perhaps worse– I get emails about- “Turn your book into a course.” I’m like, “I mean, I love money, I could use an extra– I don’t know how much we can get out of this sucker course, frankly, 5K, 10K, 25K, how much can we get out of this sucker course?” We could take my book that’s 13 years old, and I would say a lot of it isn’t up to speed, but probably about 50% at this point is up to speed with current and useful. We’re going to sell people that, and then number one, they’re going to hate me, but number two, there’s not going to be any community there, it’s just going to be these people that we throw together, and they can just talk about how much they hate me. Won’t that be great?
It does feel like whenever I bump into some core software site that it’s like, “And community,” and it’s like, “And the most basic forum you’ve ever seen, and here you go, and it’s free,” that’s why people use it. It’s just not the way to go, and you get what you put in, which isn’t about the price of the software at all. It’s about the amount of people resources that you spend to getting the most out of that. That said, bad software obviously holds you back, I don’t mean to imply otherwise, but there’s a great free option out there for community software that you can use, but if you don’t put someone at it full-time involved in building that community with those course customers, then you’re not going to get anything out of it. That’s just the way it is.
[00:54:32] Alex Witkowski: That’s the thing. If I’m a parent and I pay for daycare, I’m not paying for a pen in which to drop off my child and walk away. We need to create a space. I’m a little skeptical of– I know a lot of people are saying like, “Oh, cohort-based courses are the next big thing.” I think that may be true. We’re obviously already in the process, but I am a little weary of this- we’re making it too easy. [laughter] As someone who taught for six years, there’s an art to education, and just throwing out a bunch of articles or a handful of videos and then dumping people in the space together and hoping that something happens, that’s not education. I think that’s where the word “community”, to me, feels exploitative because it seems like this almost guilt trip. It’s like just because there are other people here doesn’t mean it’s a community. When you turn it into this, “Oh, you get to learn with the community,” these aren’t their people yet. You have to take steps to help them find their people in this group. That, to me, is where it feels a little exploitative, where it’s not a community, it’s very presumptuous to say it is. I do think it’s a little insulting that, again, there’s a whole art to this.
The same way there’s an art to teaching, there’s an art to community building, as I’m sure you know as you’ve spoken about in the past. To think that, again, just dumping people into a space, some magic is going to happen– I think it takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of attention. It takes a lot of relationship-building and trust-building.
That, to me, is where– I never wanted to be used as a replacement for a subject matter expert, this like, “Well, I created a little bit of content,” and then everyone else would fill in the blanks. For me, it’s a community as a supplement to a strong curriculum. That is where it’s really valuable, not a replacement for a curriculum because the whole point of a community is that it’s serendipitous and it’s unstructured. It can’t just be like, “Well, hopefully, you help each other out, and maybe you’ll learn something. If not, it’s not my problem.”
[00:56:19] Patrick O’Keefe: Alex, it has been a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you for joining us and having this candid conversation.
[00:56:25] Alex Witkowski: This was awesome, Patrick. I really appreciate it, and thank you for having me.
[00:56:29] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Alex Witkowski, community lead at Section4. That’s section4.com, Section and the number 4. Follow him on Twitter @heylifeboat.
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 Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Thank you for listening.
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