Nicholas Tolstoshev is talking programs. Brand representative programs, where brands pay you for access to your community. Ambassador programs, where you reward your best contributors. And empathy programs, where you help your coworkers see things from the eyes of your members and customers.
This discussion also ends on a note that we probably all need to hear right now, and that’s the importance of leaning on and being honest with each other about our shared challenges of navigating life and work during the pandemic. Nicholas shares how he has worked to start these honest and difficult conversations at Automox. Here’s to workplaces that are being encouraging and understanding during these difficult times.
Patrick and Nicholas also discuss:
- Building ambassador programs and empathy programs to strengthen communities
- Empowering community members to create and moderate conversations of their own
- How Nicolas cultivates the internal employee community at Automox
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If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Discourse.
Balancing your brand ambassador program (11:33): “[When creating a brand ambassador program], you’ve got to balance the rewards versus what [the ambassadors are] doing. You don’t want to either over or under reward and then have to course-correct later because much like having something be free and then charging for it, that’s always a hard thing to overcome.” –@tolstoshev
Empowering your users to build their own communities (27:50): “If you don’t make room for people to have [unofficial] conversations on your own site, it’s not going to stop them from having those conversations. They’re just going to go have them somewhere else. That was the lesson that an early mentor of mine drummed into me. Be part of the conversation and the best way to do that is to make a place for it. If somebody has already made a place for it, then go meet them where they are.” –@tolstoshev
The positive effects of community during the pandemic (40:10): “Since the pandemic hit … I was finding myself stuck at home and feeling isolated and depressed and not having much motivation to work. I had the idea to do this program where a small group of us get together and just share what’s going on and what’s frustrating in their lives. … It was a huge benefit for me. I rolled this out to the rest of the company and fortunately, the execs saw the benefit in doing it. It’s been rewarding to build community internally within the company and help people get through such a difficult time.” –@tolstoshev
About Nicholas Tolstoshev
Nicholas Tolstoshev is a sysadmin turned community manager having worked on technical communities for Intuit, Spiceworks, Webroot, LogRhythm, and currently Automox. He also launched Growers Network, a community in the cannabis space.
- Sponsor: Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities
- Nicholas Tolstoshev on LinkedIn
- Nicholas has managed communities for Intuit, Spiceworks, Webroot, LogRhythm, and currently Automox
- Growers Network, a community in the cannabis space
- Sean Dahlberg on Community Signal
- The Spiceworks brand representative program
- The unofficial Spiceworks Discord
- Meetup wants to charge users $2 just to RSVP for events — and some are furious (via The Verge)
[0:00] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, a podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Discourse, civilized discussion for teams, customers, fans, and communities. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[0:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thanks for listening to Community Signal. On this episode, we’re talking programs; customer empathy programs, ambassador programs, and brand representative programs.
Our guest is Nicholas Tolstoshev, senior community manager for Automox. A big thanks to Luke Zimmer, Heather Champ, and Marjorie Anderson for supporting our show via Patreon. If you’d like to join them, visit communitysignal.com/innercircle. It’s always a happy day when we get a new supporter backing the show.
Nicholas Tolstoshev is a sysadmin turned community manager having worked on technical communities for Intuit, Spiceworks, Webroot, LogRhythm, and currently Automox. He also launched Growers Network, a community in the cannabis space. Nick, welcome to the show.
[00:01:06] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Thanks for having me, Patrick.
[00:01:07] Patrick O’Keefe: My pleasure. It’s funny how you come to be a guest on the show, at least to me. For our last episode, I talked with Sean Dahlberg from Spiceworks and as I was conducting my research for that episode, I was reading posts in the Spiceworks forums and, by chance, the most recent thread or one of the threads that I clicked into, which was among the most recent, you were on and I happened to read a forum post you had made and saw that your username was green. You were denoted as a brand representative. I decided that I wanted to talk about that on this show. I actually referenced you and that post on our last episode to ask Sean about the Spiceworks brand representative program and come to find out as he said on the show, you were the one who hired him more than eight years ago and now here you are.
[00:01:52] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes, it’s funny getting to be on both sides of the fence like that. I was the community manager when we designed and built the brand representative program and grew that from early test pilot into a full feature and now I get to be one. It’s interesting to see things from multiple perspectives like that.
[00:02:10] Patrick O’Keefe: You hit on exactly, perfectly where I wanted to go next because I’m always interested in programs where companies pay independent online communities in order to have a presence on that community. Sean talked about the Spiceworks partner program from the Spiceworks side, so I thought I’d ask you to talk about it from the vendor side, programs like this in general really, but the Spiceworks partner program is certainly a good example. I don’t know if you participate in more than one. Looking at Spiceworks, like what does it cost you time-wise, money-wise, and what do you get out of it?
[00:02:38] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes, so the base program, I think it’s about a thousand dollars a month per account. If you want to have two brand reps on there to cover multiple time zones, that’s $2,000 a month. Then they also have some add ons. Each of the brand reps gets their own company page, much like a LinkedIn or a Facebook company page, and you can post stuff on there and if you pay extra, you can do additional customizations to that page and such. The main benefit is just getting to go in there and talk to our users; answering questions if they come up about our products or if people are shopping for a particular type of solution for a market that we’re in, then we can go in there and be like, “Hey, make sure you check us out. Here’s what we do better than our competitors,” and things like that. Then it’s also just a great way to be in there and represent the brand as a human being, have a personality and have fun and goof around. Once you make those relationships, then people will naturally just reach out to you. When there is someone shopping for patch management, they’ll think, “Oh, Nick Automox, he’s a cool guy, he hangs out in the community. Let me go talk to him about my patch management needs.”
[00:03:44] Patrick O’Keefe: How much time do you spend in the community, would you estimate?
[00:03:47] Nicholas Tolstoshev: That is a good question because it’s spread out so much throughout the day. Actually, posting on the Spiceworks community is probably less than an hour, but I also spend a lot of time hanging out in various chat rooms. There’s a lot of ad hoc chat rooms that have sprung up around various communities that I’ve managed and they can be anywhere. They can be an IRC or Discord or Google Hangouts, and there is an unofficial Spiceworks Discord. I hang out over there and chit chat with people on a day to day basis. Probably I spend more time doing that honestly than on the community. Pro-tip, if you are a new startup without a thousand bucks a month to drop on a green guy account on Spiceworks, you can just hang out in the Spiceworks Discord and get to know the Spiceworks community that way.
[00:04:31] Patrick O’Keefe: In Spiceworks, that’s really the only way for you to participate representing a brand. You have to sign up for this partner program.
[00:04:37] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes. If you’re going to go in there and talk about your brands and want to promote things, then you do have to be part of that program, otherwise, it will get deleted as unsolicited spam. If you’re just in there to do research and read and have conversations, but you’re not pitching your brand, then they’re not going to care about that.
[00:04:55] Patrick O’Keefe: There are certainly community professionals listening to this show that have communities where a program like this could make sense.
[00:05:01] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes.
[00:05:02] Patrick O’Keefe: They might hear $1,000 a month and think, “That’d be a great revenue plus,” but, obviously, it’s a specific type of community that’s generating a specific type of value. How do you justify that on the Automox side? I’m going to spend this amount of money every month and I’m going to spend my time for which you pay me in this community, X amount of hours every month, and this is the value we get out of it? How do you talk about that and break that down?
[00:05:26] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Well, obviously, there’s the cold hard numbers around leads that you might get from that community, either people who’ve clicked on an ad, so you may be running an ad campaign in Spiceworks in addition to having a vendor rep in there. You can see the benefit of people who’ve clicked through to get to your website and potentially end up making a purchase. Then there are some other areas that are useful. They have a local user meetup group so you can sponsor those and talk to people and do giveaways or raffles and collect leads that way. Then see what potential sales volume you’re getting out of it. I would also classify it in the same spending bucket as any other social media program. If you’re spending money on Twitter, or, Facebook, or LinkedIn, it goes into the same bucket. It’s gotten to the point these days where I don’t get asked to justify the spend on these very often because people get it now-
[00:06:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes.
[00:06:18] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Rather than 10 years ago where they’re like, “What’s the ROI?”
[00:06:22] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting because our initial position might be to look at it as its own spend within, I don’t know, community or outreach or something like that. Really, you could spend $1,000 in ads on Spiceworks, right?
[00:06:36] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes.
[00:06:36] Patrick O’Keefe: You could do that. You could certainly do it that way. You could spend that money. You could give someone $1,000 for ads or you could give someone $1,000 to participate in the community. Some would argue that’s a better relationship, possibly better ROI. I guess it goes without saying that the Spiceworks community is right in the wheelhouse of the type of people that Automox wants to talk to.
[00:06:57] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes, exactly. They’re all sysadmins and IT professionals and they have a very big audience, which is what makes that value worthwhile for vendors to go in there and do that. They also have a program where, say you don’t have someone in-house who can represent the brand on Spiceworks, they have folks that can represent you on your behalf. That’s another aspect to the green guy program on Spiceworks is if you don’t have a rep, they can provide one for you who will work with you to get the message out.
[00:07:28] Patrick O’Keefe: I believe you said at this top of the show that you were part of the team that helped to design the partner program, right?
[00:07:33] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes, we were. It was an interesting experiment at the time because we didn’t really know of anybody else that was doing this and there was a lot of fear that we could screw something up. Right. You let a bunch of annoying salespeople and marketers in there and they’re just going to spam left and right and rile people up and get on everyone’s nerves. We had a lot of worries about that in the beginning, which is why we tested it out with just a handful of hand-selected brand reps who really understood how to represent a company in there and how not to be too salesy and overly pushy and not be PM-ing people left and right offering demos. Once we’d got through that and it was successful and we could see what was going on, then we open the program wider.
We did have some interesting learnings along the way. For instance, the brand rep for HP at the time, well I think she still is on Spiceworks, her name is Priscilla. She came in and it was very clear that she was not at all technical, which I was worried about from a user point of view because these are sysadmins, they’re highly technical. They want answers to their questions. They don’t want to talk to someone who doesn’t know what they’re talking about but she ended up proving me wrong and doing a great job and won the awards they give out to the best vendor reps on the community at their annual user conference and is just upheld as one of the examples of doing things right.
The reason she got there is because she is extremely helpful. If you have any questions or problem related to HP, you can post it on there and she will get a solution for you. She doesn’t have to know the answers, but she’s fantastic at getting them.
[00:09:11] Patrick O’Keefe: When you launched that program, did you previously allow people to participate from brands in the community and then kind of said, “Okay, you have to stop this,” or “Here’s a line,” or were they never allowed and this was a new thing?
[00:09:24] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes, they were never allowed previously. This was a new thing when we launched it with this vision of it being useful and not just another ad in the middle of your feed instead of on the sidebar.
[00:09:35] Patrick O’Keefe: I think that might’ve made it easier for you. I don’t know. I think on some level, because if you had had all these brand reps already in the forum for free, and people in the community knew them and they were used to that, valuing that at zero to participate, then you flip that switch and say, “Hey, give us money now.” It seems like that guideline or whatever that policy was prescient to the future plans for keeping Spiceworks profitable online.
[00:09:59] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes. That was definitely the way to go because you know when you take a free service and try and monetize it, it generally goes extremely poorly as evidenced by Meetup trying to charge $2 per attendee and there was so much outcry because it was previously free that they had to go back on their decision.
[00:10:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s take a moment to talk about our excellent sponsor, Discourse, who by coincidence Automox uses for their community.
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When I was reading your pre-show questionnaire, there was a pretty clear trend to me that I wanted to jump on, which was community programs, programs within communities because you talked about three big ones in that questionnaire and that’s what I want to talk about today. The first is brand representatives, the last one will be customer empathy, and the second one is going to be an ambassador program. You’re now at the point with Automox where you are beginning to plan out your ambassador program. What will make the Automox program unique?
[00:11:25] Nicholas Tolstoshev: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’m shooting for unique or just avoiding making some of the mistakes that you can make when you make a brand ambassador program. You’ve got to balance the rewards versus what they’re doing. You don’t want to either over or under reward and then have to course-correct later because, you know, much like having something to be free and then charging for it, that’s always a hard thing to overcome.
The other thing you want to do is you want to make sure that the people that are out there being ambassadors for the company will represent you well. In some regards, there’s some hand-selection to it where it’s like if this is someone who loves your product but tends to get into fights online with people and arguments, in the end, they’re not doing you any favors. If they’re out there having fights as the Automox fan boy or fan girl, then in the end, that’s going to do more harm than good. I think those are the main two things I’m focusing on is just the right balance to start with and always go more conservatively. It’s always easier to up the rewards, then cut them back and then just making sure that what we’re getting out of it does represent us well.
[00:12:31] Patrick O’Keefe: I think there’s two things that jump out to me and probably most people when they think about an ambassador program, technical space, nontechnical space, ambassador programs, in general, one is what you highlighted there, which is that these are people who like you or love you in some way or use your product or something along those lines, but they’re also representative of you. There’s this push and pull between having people out there who are, you say fanboy, like big fans of your product. Sometimes these are people with big followings. It could be somebody who’s like super into the community, helps a lot of people, goes to techie conferences and doesn’t really have much of a presence online. Oftentimes, it’s people who are out there talking about their trade on YouTube or on Twitter or whatever and they have a large following and there’s this risk that you enter into when you have someone as an ambassador with a big following because there might come a time where maybe they go and argue with people and they embarrass you in some way or maybe they do something worse. The idea is that you might cut them off and you might burn that bridge at some point and then they use their falling against you. What that really leads to, I think the problem when you break it down is that it leads to people letting people get away with things and not enforcing the program or being afraid, managing afraid, which is always a dangerous thing to do. I talk about that a little bit. How do you create a program? Because you’re in a good space right now. Automox seems like it’s got some momentum. That’s why you’re creating this program. You have the fortune of not cleaning up someone else’s mistake. You have a ton of experience yourself on all sides of the table. How are you laying the foundation to sort of limit that risk?
[00:14:06] Nicholas Tolstoshev: I think the foundation of that starts with the relationships you have with the people on your community. When I talk about power users or people, like you said, with big followings and big voices, it’s a double-edged sword because if these people love you, they’ll tell everyone. If you piss them off and they hate you, they’ll tell everyone. A lot of that is maintaining that relationship, checking in with them. In any relationship, there’s going to be missteps and stumbles and potentially hurt feelings about something. When those come up, it’s important to not to just let them fester. If there is an issue, I will reach out to people and talk with them. If it’s a difficult conversation, I’m going to jump on the phone and do that or a video chat versus in writing because it’s such a richer communication mechanism. The other flip side of the coin is if you can have a conversation with a detractor and talk with them and get around your issues, they could become a huge promoter for you.
For instance, we had someone join the Spiceworks community who clearly was an ex-employee of a vendor that was on the community and he was going around asking pointed questions of them, clearly had insider knowledge and had worked there. He was being very disruptive on the community. I had to reach out to him and I could have just hit the ban button and got rid of him. I was like, “What’s this guy’s deal? What’s going on?” I talked to him, I said, “Hey, would you be open to a phone conversation?” I got him on the phone, and it was pretty clear that he probably had some untreated mental health issues going on. I suspect maybe bipolar. Basically, he talked my ear off for about two hours straight, which can happen when somebody’s in that manic phase.
After me just listening to him, ran for two hours, I all of a sudden became his best friend and he was like, “You know what? You’re a good guy. You listened to me,” et cetera, et cetera. Then at the end of the call, I was like, “Well, hey, since we’re buddies now, can you do me the favor of not coming on and disrupting our community?” It ended up being a much more positive interaction than if I just banned him and then he created a bunch of more sockpuppet accounts and then I’d spend my week playing whack-a-mole.
It’s that thing you got to be willing to do because a lot of these big personalities are very unique and they have their quirks and idiosyncrasies and you’ve got to learn to work with that and what help they may need if they’re in a bad spot on any given day.
[00:16:28] Patrick O’Keefe: The short version is just that you have to be willing to do the work and spend the time and not shy away from those tough conversations. There are times when you obviously have to cut people off. I’m sure there’s people that wanted to be in the Spiceworks partner program, that’s a drawback to that that you wouldn’t take $1,000 from even if they offered it to you just wouldn’t want in the community because of something that happened somewhere at a developer conference, at an event, online, something they did, something they violated a license. Maybe they took some open source code, used it in a bad way, something, right, anything that would damage their credibility in that community. It’s just not worth the money and it’s just not worth this person’s audience in the case of an ambassador program.
[00:17:05] Nicholas Tolstoshev: We’ve even caught at Spiceworks a handful of scammers. There was one on there who was promising all these amazing computing results and they were suspicious and it was actually one of our top power users on the community who figured out that they were actually scammers and like they did things like pull up the street view for their address and found out it was like some house with graffiti all over it and what looked like a prime neighborhood to go buy drugs. It was like, these are not real people with a real business. This is just a scam they’re trying to run. We ended up having to fire them and give them their money back and tell them to get lost.
[00:17:43] Patrick O’Keefe: I mentioned the one side of it is power users and telling people no and building those people up. The other thing that I think is pretty common of a concern for people who start an ambassador program is creating a tiered community, creating a community that feels excluded in some way where you have this great program, ambassador program, you have the great people in it. Not everyone can be in it just by the definition of the program. People apply and maybe you see something that’s like, “Uhhh,” like you said, maybe they are a liar or maybe they just aren’t there yet. Maybe they just haven’t done enough in the community. You tell some people no and then they wonder why. Or even if you explain it to them, they feel like they’re excluded from that community. People worry about turning people away or alienating people. How do you manage around that?
[00:18:26] Nicholas Tolstoshev: A lot of it is giving them a path forward so if they’re not there yet, make sure they understand what there looks like and what their path is to get there. Giving them a way forwards if they’re really set on becoming an ambassador and also if they’re that gung ho, that says a lot as well. Maybe if they’re initially rejected and then they’re like, “Why? I’m a real fan of your product and I really want to be in.” You have a conversation with them. Maybe there’s a different decision and you do let them in because this is something that means so much to them.
It is tricky sometimes. For instance, on the Spiceworks community, we want to make sure it’s IT professionals talking to each other and not home users with home user questions.
We had someone on there who was asking a lot of questions that looked like someone who didn’t know what they’re talking about. I ended up chatting with him. It turns out he was going to community college and working at the local radio station and they were giving him all the equipment that was so old, not even a community college radio station could do anything with it. He would take it home, tinker with it and come ask questions on the community. It turns out he was actually somebody who was in the IT space. He just wasn’t quite there yet. We’d let him on there as long as he agreed not to ask questions about stuff that was like 20 years old and stick to something more recent. He’s stuck around for a while. In the end, I think after I left, they ended up kicking him off just because he wasn’t ever actually getting there and asking real IT-type questions.
[00:19:57] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s funny cause there’s a community as big as Spiceworks is, especially in IT. We talk about stories, whether it’s with you or with Sean, it’s always about individuals. It’s like there was this one guy who needed help installing Windows and you know what? We spend time with it. We tried, we didn’t just kick them out. It’s like that one story, it’s that one guy, it’s about the individuals. It’s just funny to see that just as a trend because it’s true for pretty much everyone that works in this space.
[00:20:21] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes, and as part of that story, we ended up creating a space for people who are maybe not in IT yet, but have aspirations to be so they’re in school, they’re studying or maybe they have a really elaborate home lab, and they’re really endeavoring to up their game to an IT pro level. Here, we’ll set a space aside where IT pros can go and help you if they have the time for that so as not to mess it in with all the more general IT pro questions.
[00:20:49] Patrick O’Keefe: I want to go back to something you talked about a little bit before and also you mentioned in your questionnaire. You mentioned how there’s an unofficial Discord for Spiceworks and before the show, you told me that you “like having a chat room as an adjunct to a forum for a community” and you’ve used everything from IRC to Slack to Discord to Google Hangouts for those and you like having the community run the chat platform themselves so that it’s not managed by the parent company. The chat room is more for daily chitchat and quick answers and the forum is more for in-depth conversations that need to be more permanent, more easily searchable.
Is this something you have in place at Automox?
[00:21:22 Nicholas Tolstoshev: Not yet, mainly because the community hasn’t asked for it yet. That’s generally my threshold is once we’ve gotten big enough and somebody said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we have a Slack channel?” Then I can be like, “Hey, that’s a great idea. Would you like to run it?” Usually, they’ll say yes and set it up and I let them be the admin of it. It’s a natural thing that happens once you’ve reached a certain size. That was the same story at Spiceworks. After being there a couple of years, people are like, “Hey I made an unofficial Spiceworks IRC channel and here’s the link.”
[00:21:52] Patrick O’Keefe: Break it down a little bit. Why do you like that and why do you not want to have oversight over it?
[00:21:58] Nicholas Tolstoshev: “With oversight comes responsibility,” to misquote Uncle Ben from Spiderman. If you have a chat room, just like a community, there’s a certain expectation that you’re going to keep an eye on everything that goes in there and make sure that people aren’t posting torrent links or sharing illegal stuff. Part of it is to make the parent company comfortable with the chat room being out there.
The other thing besides just the legal aspect is it gives the community a great sense of ownership over the chat room. They’re the ones who are running it and coming it up with their own rules. It really encourages that self-organizing structure that the best communities end up having where it’s the users who run the show and you’re just there to facilitate and host the party.
[00:22:44] Patrick O’Keefe: Do you think that’s something that maybe is unique to a technical community? Would you take a similar approach say if you were running, I don’t know what I want to throw out there, consumer goods maybe or even a hobbyist community? Is there something about technical communities that makes them better for allowing to self organize something like a chatroom?
[00:23:04] Nicholas Tolstoshev: I might make the distinction between B2B versus B2C versus just purely on the technical level. I’ve noticed that in B2B type communities, people tend to have their professional hat on, which cuts down on the amount of unprofessional behavior. Obviously, it doesn’t ever go away completely, but there’s less of it. In a consumer-focused product, it might be harder to run the chat room and you might see more people coming in and grieving. If it’s a video game chat room, for instance, if you go on Twitch and look at a popular streamer and look at the chat room, it’s just a massive emojis and people posting stupid links, swearing, stuff like that. I think a lot of it depends on your audience, whether it’s the technicality or whether they’re there as a professional versus a consumer or is it something that’s appealing to 13-year-old kids who haven’t fully grown up yet.
[00:23:58] Patrick O’Keefe: When I think about this idea, I see explosions. I’ll just be honest but what I also am a big-time believer in is that there is no one path to good community building and that there is a lot of good approaches out there. This is certainly possible to be one of them. What I’m interested in also is sort of the line between when you have something that’s unofficial, you have something that’s official, there’s a difference there obviously how it’s seen internally. There can be a difference in the line through which you allow an unofficial channel access to official channels I guess would be one way to put it. When you sit out to do that thing, when you say, “Here’s a great idea.” “Okay, great. Go do it. Go set it up. That’s awesome. We don’t have the resources but let’s do it.” How much are you willing to support that? How much are you willing to allow them to promote it in the community? Where does the support end do you think?
[00:24:46] Nicholas Tolstoshev: I’m all about them promoting the community. For instance, when a community does launch their own chat room to go along with the community, I’ll promote it. I’ll put a widget on the homepage with the link to get there and how to log in and stuff like that. I’m generally in favor of that. Again, that being said, yes, you are putting a lot of the power in the hands of your users but that’s the power they innately have anyway. If your product starts sucking, the customer experience starts being bad, they’re going to go back and change their glowing reviews to bad ones and tell their friends to avoid you. I see this power they already have, I’m just enabling them to use it in a way that hopefully benefits both of us.
[00:25:27] Patrick O’Keefe: That’s obviously true because they can start their own unofficial community now.
[00:25:33] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes, I can’t stop them.
[00:25:34] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, exactly. They could always do that and I think the flip side of that is I’ve managed a lot of different types of communities and one type of community I’ve managed several times as an unofficial fan community. Just because I was interested in that thing whether it was, I had the largest unofficial resource for phpBB once upon a time, phpBBhacks.com. I ran that for 11 years and it had more add-ons for phpBB than the official site did. I ran a site for Bad Boy Records. I’m a big fan of Puff Daddy, always will be. Photoshopforums.com was a community I ran for a long time and I’ve always found it interesting how different brands react differently. It’s like one brand will take just a militant approach and it’s not always what you think. Like it’s not like- we’re not talking about the spirit and liquor industry, we’re not talking about regulated industry. I’m not creating a fan site for Johnny Walker Red or something. It’s a video game. It’s a sports figure. It’s this. Some people are just like you could have this community of 50,000 people who love them and give them money probably generate millions of dollars in revenue and they’ll just come down the hardest possible way they can and send us the worst boilerplate threatening letter that they can come up with.
Then you have people who on the other side of things like years ago, I had a domain name with the word Flickr in it. I was going to do a Flickr site for people who use Flickr. I think it was head counsel for Yahoo because, obviously, they were owned by Yahoo then and he sent me a message that said, “Hey, we want this name. Would you be willing to give it to us?” I said, “Yes, I could do that. I would like to start a site though because I like Flickr. If I registered another name, would you give me a letter that says that I can use that?” He said, “Yes, sure.” I have this letter on file. I don’t even have the domain name anymore I don’t think but I have this letter on file from the head of counsel Yahoo once upon a time that said, “Patrick O’Keefe can use this name for this Flickr fan site.”
There’s this whole way of saying, “Okay, this thing is okay.” That’s trademark law. You can protect your trademark without threatening people. There’s a lot of ways to do that too. You can license it, you can give up an expiring license that you renew every year to the fansite for free and say, “You can use it. We could take it away.” It’s just such a crazy thing. I got off the rails there but I think that the bottom line is that they can do it anyway. You can either be a part of that conversation or you can not and I think that’s really where you’re going.
[00:27:49] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes, exactly. Like you said, if you don’t make room for people to have conversations like that on your own site, it’s not going to stop them from having those conversations. They’re just going to go have them somewhere else. That was the lesson that an early mentor of mine drummed into me. Be part of the conversation and the best way to do that is to make a place for it. If somebody has already made a place for it, then go meet them where they are.
There’s a fantastic tool I use called boardreader.com which is a search engine just for online communities. If I want to go out and see what people are saying about me or about Automox online, I can search Twitter, I can search Facebook, but then I can search BoardReader and find all the mentions that may be on a Microsoft tech community or somewhere else and go and meet those people and be like, “I work for Automox. Here’s the answer to your question,” or “If you need help or something, here’s how you can reach me.” Just those kinds of outreaches and like you said, making friends with the super fans and cooperating with them is way better than a cease and desist letter. You’ve got companies like Nintendo who are so protective of their IP that there’s very few people streaming Nintendo games because there’s so likely to get sued and they’re just hurting themselves with losing all of that free publicity and marketing.
[00:29:05] Patrick O’Keefe: Boardreader, that’s a name I haven’t heard in a minute but I searched for Automox on there just now. I’m seeing a lot of positive stuff. “Just got a trial of Automox, I like it.” “We use Automox. It’s good stuff.” Someone would like to see Automax succeed, blah, blah, blah. Super positive stuff over there.
Continuing the theme of conversation, I think we talked about power users and I found it interesting of the metrics that you value before the show, you told me that you play specific emphasis on the participation rate of the power users. “That’s a mine canary that will tell you if things are going off the rails.” How so?
[00:29:38] Nicholas Tolstoshev: It’s a bit of a if you build it, they will come philosophy. If you have good content, the lurkers and the readers will show up. To generate that content, you really have to cultivate and find those power users who are going to be on your community day in and day out and they’re loyal. They’ll forgive you missteps and mistakes as long as you own up to it and apologize and be like, “Oops, we goofed. You’re right. I’m sorry. Here’s something to make up for it.”
If you’ve pissed them off to the point where they’re either just not showing up anymore, which is the most concerning thing. If they tell you you’re screwing up, that’s the good option. Some people just are like, “You’re screwing up. I’m just going to leave quietly and walk out of the party.” When that happens, you’ve got to go be like, “Did I say something that pissed you off? Did we make a mistake or are you just going through some difficult period of life or you’re very busy at work and you just don’t have time anymore?” That’s the stat I keep an eye on and we’ll do individual outreach if I see a bigger than average decline in power user participation during a certain period.
[00:30:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Power users are typically defined by you as–?
[00:30:44] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Generally, it’s frequency. The people that come in pretty much every day and post a lot, it’s the old 99-1 rule. The 1% of your users who talk a lot and, in my experience, people generally tend to be that way innately. I’ve not had great success turning lurkers into posters. It’s more the people that are likely to post and be outspoken like that, they’re just 1% of the population and that’s just how it is. You have to find those people, reach out to them, cultivate them, identify them early when they join your community so you can make sure to reinforce what they’re doing.
Again, they’re some of your greatest feedback in terms of what’s going well and what’s not going well.
[00:31:28] Patrick O’Keefe: I think the beautiful thing about a lot of company-run B2B communities is that the number of people in the community is not so large that you can’t notice and contact one person. The scale of most B2B communities, most company, most developer communities, there are some exceptions to that, obviously, like Microsoft has a massive developer community, but a lot of companies tend to operate in that small to mid-range where their community is maybe dozens, hundreds of active users every week, every day, every month. When you’re in that scale, and sometimes, it’s just because your product is expensive. I don’t know much about Automox and how that factors in but sometimes with a B2B product, obviously, the cost is in the forum space, for example, there are platforms that you’re not going to run for less than mid-five figures or six figures just because of how they’re set up as a product. The audience there, of course, is substantially smaller because of the gate to enter. You can say, “Hey, oh, yes, Joe stopped posting. He was active for months and then he disappeared last month. We know that’s an active person. We know they use our product, we know they give us X dollars a month, what the heck happened?” You can actually contact him and move that needle on a one-to-one basis. That does drive revenue.
[00:32:40] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Yes, exactly. If you’re at a company large enough to have a customer success team, they’re a fantastic resource to work very closely with because they’ve got the pulse on what your biggest and most important customers are feeling and they talk to a lot of those folks on the phone, day in and day out. It’s important to share notes and be like, this is my list of power users and they have their list of important clients and you want to see where the overlap is and make sure you’re using all of that info and data to keep a good pulse on the most important people that are your clients and customers.
[00:33:10] Patrick O’Keefe: I teased this earlier, we’re near the end of the show, the third program I want to talk about is you mentioned. I don’t know if I’ve heard this phrasing exactly before, that customer empathy initiative that you’re running at Automox. Tell us about that.
[00:33:22] Nicholas Tolstoshev: This is something I’ve thought a lot about over the years working at different companies and it’s been my experience that there’s two things that are really critical to have when you’re in the smaller startup phase is you want as many people in your company as possible talking directly. We’ve got lots of job functions that have no reason to talk to customers, but it is a huge motivator if you can do that. Even if someone works in finance and you can get them to monitor the community and talking with your customers, then that has benefit because they get to understand and have empathy for your customers and know them as people so that when they’re making decisions about what to do, whether it’s a new feature or a pricing change or change to the support experience, you’re not just being like, “Oh, well, 5% of people might hate this, but it’s just 5%, it’s a small number,” versus going, “If we make this change, Bob’s really going to be pissed at me.”
It has a different weight to it and I think it encourages a lot better and more human decisions versus thinking of people as numbers and statistics and just a big amorphous blob without a face to it. To that end, at Spiceworks, we even started a pen pal program where every employee of the company was paired up with someone on the community as a pen pal and they would direct message each other on the community and just check in and develop a relationship like that.
The other benefit is when you develop those relationships then when an engineer is building something and has a quick question that’s not worth spinning up a focus group to answer, they can just go ping that one person and be like, “What do you think? I could go down path A or path B. Which one would work better for you or which one do you think is the right decision?” Shortening that feedback loop, I think is critical to continue to innovate as your company grows to the size where 90% of your employees don’t talk to customers. The other prong is making sure that you’re familiar with your own product. It would be very hard to be a bicycle salesperson if you’d never ridden a bicycle. I try and make sure as much as possible, obviously, some products, it doesn’t make sense because they are too intricate or too high level for a lot of people in the company to really get into.
I think there’s huge benefit in making sure everybody at your company has had some hands-on time with the product. Again, makes this so you understand better what you’re doing. Even your thirty-second elevator pitches are going to be better because you’ve done it firsthand. The whole phrase of eating your own dog food or drinking your own champagne means that they will feel the pain firsthand. If there is a crappy UI element or something that’s confusing, there’s nothing better than to run into that firsthand yourself and really see it. Anytime you can get someone seeing or experiencing that pain within the company, then that empathy directly with the customer leads to better decisions and better designs.
[00:36:16] Patrick O’Keefe: I would think for a program like this to be successful, you have to have structure and routine where people are scheduled, I guess is another way to put it. They’re scheduled to do these things. Like you know that Tuesday at that time you’re going to go to the forum or you’re going to get on a call with a customer or you’re going to take this demo, or you’re going to do something because otherwise, it’s just one more thing to find a way to make time for. Talk about that structure a little bit and how you schedule people in and make sure that they do take the time to build this empathy.
[00:36:46] Nicholas Tolstoshev: On that front, it’s important to have buy-in with your execs, so they’re willing to back you up and tell people to go to these things you set up.
[00:36:52] Patrick O’Keefe: I tried to get our people at a previous job into our communities. I was just, “No.” I wanted to do it, but I will go to my grave believing that it was a good idea. At the end of the day, they were not willing to commit an hour from, let’s say, one of the technical executives to come into the community and talk to people every month or they were not willing to bank in that time at all. It’s worth noting.
[00:37:15] Nicholas Tolstoshev: I have the luxury of working for a place that really gets it. Onboarding and creating a community count is part of every new hire’s process. In the training, I don’t just show them what to do, I make them create their account, upload a picture and make their first post in the introduce yourself thread so that they’ve jumped in the pool. I’m not just going to give them a swimsuit and send them home and be like, “Well, try and go for swim sometime when you think about it.”
For the customer empathy exercise, the first thing I started doing was setting up site visits with local customers. I identified all our local customers and I reached out to them and be like, “Hey, can we bring a couple of engineers and maybe a product person and someone from marketing to come tour your site and watch you use the product and talk to you about what you like and don’t like?” I started doing that and it was very successful and then the pandemic hits.
That was the end of site visits for a while. I had to transition that into something else. We’re looking at what we’re going to do now. Probably, the easiest one to do is get people shadowing and sitting in on customer success calls and also potentially some sales calls or support calls just so they can get that experience. I definitely want them talking and interacting with the customer, not just listening because I feel like that’s richer. I want engineers to come in and be like, “Hey, here’s something we’re struggling with to design or here’s a feature that we’re trying to figure out the best way to do it, what do you think? What would you like us to do?” They come prepared with that kind of stuff. For the…using the product, that one I’ve basically had to take on myself. I created a training program and set up some VMs and I’m taking our employees through that four at a time because it’s very hands-on and I’m having to interact a lot with them and help them. They’re going in, they’re installing our agent on a VM and making sure it shows up in the console and then we’re setting some patch policies and installing some software through our software using the software deployment capabilities so that they can see it happen and they can click on the buttons and they can really get what we’re doing.
I’ve gotten a huge amount of positive feedback from the people who have gone through that class. They’re like, “Oh, my God, everything makes a lot more sense to me now.” They’re not just writing marketing materials or documentation based on a theoretical understanding of the product.
One of the things I focus on a lot is not just external community building with customers, it’s also internal community building. That’s also key at a startup that’s growing rapidly. Ninety percent of the people at Automox have been there a year or less. We’re all still getting to know each other and geling as teams. I started a program called Random Coffee, which is random employees get paired up with each other to meet and just chit chat and get to know each other. Since the pandemic hit, I transitioned that into more of a support group program. I was finding myself stuck at home and really feeling isolated and depressed and not having much motivation to work. I had the idea to do this program where like a small group of us get together and just share what’s going on and what’s frustrating in their lives and how the kids are driving us nuts. The dog won’t leave me alone while I’m trying to work.
It was a huge benefit for me. I rolled this out to the rest of the company and fortunately, the execs saw the benefit in doing it. It’s been really rewarding to build community internally within the company and help people get through such a difficult time and share some of the tough stuff they’re going through whether it’s…We have one person who has his significant others from China and she went back home for the New Year and she’s been stuck there for the last three months. What’s that like to go through and how can we support him and be understanding of where his priorities are. This sharing even within the company and community building I see is just as important as the external community building.
[00:41:07] Patrick O’Keefe: It sounds like you work at a good place.
[00:41:09] Nicholas Tolstoshev: I do.
[00:41:11] Patrick O’Keefe: I’ve heard a fair amount of stories and they, that’s a positive one, so I appreciate you sharing it and I appreciate you spending time with us today. Thanks for coming on, Nick.
[00:41:20] Nicholas Tolstoshev: Thanks for having me. Looking forward to coming back and chatting with you sometime in the future and telling you how various programs I’ve been working on are going.
[00:41:28] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Nicholas Tolstoshev, senior community manager at Automox. Check out their community at community.automox.com. Automox is A-U-T-O-M-O-X. 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. Thanks for listening.
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