Which community leaders helped you grow as a professional? Who in the industry do you study from or reference? On the last episode of Community Signal, our guest Mohamed Mohammed mentioned how his former manager, Joe Pishgar, helped him feel welcome in the industry. “You belong here” were Joe’s encouraging words to Mohamed, and this phrase signifies an ethos that Joe brings to his role as chief community officer for VerticalScope.
Managing an organization of 27 full-time community pros, 30 contracted admins, and over 10,000 volunteer moderators across 1,200 sites, Joe understands the necessity of scale and delegation, but also realizes that delegating is not always as simple as it sounds. “There’s competing thoughts in your head that surround the force of delegating. On the one hand, you don’t have enough time to do it all. The time you spend in operational or in tactical, you’re not spending at the strategic, and no one else is going to spend time at the strategic level.” (13:18) Joe also explains that by delegating and creating space, we give our team members the opportunity to grow and experience community management for themselves.
How have leaders made space for you to grow as a community professional and how can you create that space for others?
Joe and Patrick also discuss:
- The difference between having community volunteers and exploiting them
- The ebb and flow of hiring booms in the community industry
- Unifying strategy in an organization with multiple stakeholders and individual contributors
Our Podcast is Made Possible By…
If you enjoy our show, please know that it’s only possible with the generous support of our sponsor: Hivebrite, the community engagement platform.
Giving your team the space to grow (03:48): “Give [your team] as much space as possible within the quantity of trust that you can hand them, let them complete those tasks, learn the discipline, and develop in the discipline so that they develop that confidence. It comes with getting it right, having space to get it right, but also making sure that you as supervisor [are] around for when they bump into those really tricky questions.” –@Pishgar
Autonomy will help newer recruits to develop their confidence as community managers (14:45): “If your name, clout, expertise, background, and experience is required for every single decision, you’re in trouble. Then you’ve got a bunch of people who are basically your eyes and ears out there who aren’t really taking things off of your plate as much as they need to be or as much as you need them to. … Sometimes you have to go hands-off, even if it means embracing that fear that it’s not going to get done 100% to your spec.” –@Pishgar
What drives your sense of fulfillment as a community manager? (17:15): “When I know that communities under my wing are growing, that I’m helping to make the world a better place, one individual forum member at a time, because they got an answer to their question, or they felt like they belonged, or there was something that they were shopping for that they got word of mouth on through a post that they found on one of our forums and they were only able to do that because the place was kept civil, that to me is fulfilling. That is my life work.” –@Pishgar
About Joe Pishgar
Joe Pishgar joined VerticalScope as its chief community officer in 2020. Joe is an 18+ year veteran of online community management. Prior to joining VerticalScope, he served as vice president Global Communities at Future plc, where he launched communities for PC Gamer, Space.com, Live Science, What Hi-Fi, and more. Previously, he served as director of community for Purch Inc., where he built the communities for Tom’s Hardware, Tom’s Guide, and AnandTech.
- Sponsor: Hivebrite, the community engagement platform
- Joe Pishgar on Twitter
- Joe Pishgar on LinkedIn
- Joe Pishgar’s website
- Mohamed Mohammed on Community Signal
- Joe King on Community Signal
- Joe and Patrick shoutout the following community professionals: Rebecca Newton, Linda Carlson, Sanya Weathers, Valerie Massey, Troy Hewitt, and Gail Ann Williams
- Rebecca Newton on Community Signal
- Gail Ann Williams on Community Signal
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Hivebrite, the community engagement platform. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:25] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to episode 200 of Community Signal. As chief community officer for VerticalScope, Joe Pishgar leads a team of 27 full-time community pros, 30 contracted admins, and over 10,000 volunteer moderators across 1200 sites. How do you unify strategy with so many people involved? We also talk about mentoring newer pros who might be struggling with confidence and the ebb and flow of hiring booms in community.
This episode 200 really snuck up on me. I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone who routinely listens to the show and spreads the word about it. I see every tweet, every LinkedIn post, and most of the other mentions spread out across the web and they all mean a lot. Thank you.
Thank you as well to our Patreon supporters, including Maggie McGary, Jenny Weigle, Jules Standen, Heather Champ, Rachel Medanic, Carol Benovic-Bradley, Marjorie Anderson, Paul Bradley, and Serena Snoad for supporting our show. Please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle for more info.
Thank you to Carol, our editorial lead, and Karn Broad, our producer, for making the show better. Thank you to those who have appeared on the show and to all of our sponsors, including our current sponsor, Hivebrite. Thank you for listening.
Let’s get into it.
Joe Pishgar joined VerticalScope as its Chief Community Officer in 2020. Joe is an 18 plus year veteran of online community management. Prior to joining VerticalScope, he served as vice president Global Communities at Future plc, where he launched communities for PC Gamer, space.com, Live Science, What Hi-Fi, and more. Previously, he served as Director of Community for Purch Inc., where he built the communities for Tom’s Hardware, Tom’s Guide, and AnandTech. Joe, welcome to the show.
[00:01:18] Joe Pishgar: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be on.
[00:01:59] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s my pleasure. Last episode, I had Mohamed Mohammed on the show and he spoke glowingly of you and how you made him feel comfortable and confident after you hired him as an assistant community manager at Future. Not to say that I wouldn’t have had you on eventually or invited you at some point, but that conversation is a big reason of why I invited you when I did and why we’re talking right now. I’ve mentored my fair share of newer community pros, as I’m sure you have as well and one of the things that I find needs cultivating is confidence and I want to talk about that. So, how do you approach that? What’s worked for you?
[00:02:36] Joe Pishgar: Well, confidence is something that I believe comes with time and encouragement, with getting it right, but also having the opportunity like the latitude to get it right. Interesting, you mentioned the last episode, which I listened to completely, I wanted to hear where Mohammed was going on some of that stuff and he’s a full community manager now, which I believe he had a title boost which I’m super, super proud of that.
Confidence and developing the newbie community manager up to regular full CM, the CM up to senior CM, and so on and so forth, that’s a big part of delegating responsibilities to those folks, pointing them in the right direction. You have to hire the people that you know get it. A lot of times in the interview process, I actually have a fairly comprehensive interview process where I have a series of questions that I’m probing to ask to find out the process by which an individual thinks on the subject of community, whether or not they get community. There’s a couple of shibboleth in there that I look for on those responses. Mohammed had a number of them.
Once you’ve found the correct person, once you’ve found the right person for the job, you want to give them as much space as possible within the quantity of trust that you can hand them, let them complete those tasks, let them learn the discipline and develop in the discipline so that they develop that confidence. It comes with getting it right, it comes with having space to get it right, but also making sure that you as supervisor, as the person in charge of them, is around for when they bump into those really tricky questions or there’s challenges.
Right now in a lot of the meetings that we have at VerticalScope with the CM team, the questions that come up from the folks in my department are often these. It’s not low-level community management questions like, this person did this. Should I ban them or not? It’s high-end intense policy, threading the needle finely, on being able to accommodate the two extremes that could be potentially found at one end of the policy and the other end of the policy for a network that possesses more than 1200 individual forum community sites.
[00:02:23] Patrick O’Keefe: It sounds to me like when you’re identifying the right person for a role, before you reach that point when they’re confident, you’re looking for these things. Is it good judgment? Do they have good judgment that they’ll be able to step into this role where you need to make a lot of mostly small, sometimes large decisions in the context of a community? You’re looking for people who have the right direction and the right convictions and life experience, in some cases, that can then be mentored into this more confident community pro. What are the signals when you’re hiring? It’s like, “This might be the right person.” Obviously different for every person, lots of folks out there.
[00:05:29] Joe Pishgar: I look for attention to the user experience, the member experience. I look for a sense of empathy, a sense of every community member is important. Each of these are people rather than just annoyances that are piling up in a Salesforce queue. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be exceptional judgment, but it should be an ability to learn from judgments that were wrong. You made the right choice, but it went the wrong direction. What did you pick up from that? How did you learn? How did you develop?
Some of the best skills that I picked up, that I acquired were as a result of mistakes, problems, challenges that came up that weren’t either 100% tackled or there were extenuating circumstances on. I look for a lot of that when I’m hiring. Experience in community management is grand and exceptional. I do tend to look for folks from the games industry. On the same side, I refer to them as rescues. The game industry is brutal.
If I could pull them away, it’d be like, “Hey, come to me in media. It’s going to be nicer and gentler. There will be a higher level of self-care and personal mental fortitude not required as much in gaming,” but I also look for an eye towards customer service. Some of the best CMs that I’ve had have actually worked previously for Starbucks as baristas. That was their CM experience, was Starbucks is infamous for its third-place philosophy, which is all about making a place warm and inviting, a welcoming area.
You’d meet a colleague for drinks and to talk business or something at a Starbucks, but you wouldn’t do it at McDonald’s. The difference between those two venues is, Starbucks embodies and makes a deliberate attempt to build their stores, build their coffee shops as third places. We do that on the CM side. I look for people who have experience in developing those type of spaces, who have an eye for what makes a welcoming environment, what makes a place that you can linger. The term for a third-place is where lingering restores. I want somebody who knows how to build those, even if it’s at an amateur level. It’s a start.
[00:07:47] Patrick O’Keefe: I totally agree. Gaming is such a great repository of talent that is, stealable is not a nice word, but is available oftentimes because of how they’re taken for granted for the work that they’ve done in the space.
I was hiring at a role years ago and actually talk about this on the podcast when I had him on. I was trying to hire Joe King, who was a Gearbox or had been a Gearbox. He accepted the job. Then right as he accepted the job, GameStop offered him a job that he had been wanting.
He literally accepted for me. Then I said, “I can’t blame you Joe, if that’s what you want to do, you go for it.” It was like, I was trying. There’s just such a great translation of community knowledge that can exist from most quadrants but especially gaming. It’s something that I’ve exemplified myself, joining CNN with minimal news media experience and background. I know how to build communities. That’s how people know me. I have this opportunity.
[00:08:42] Joe Pishgar: It’s universally applicable. I come from the gaming industry. It’s where I got my start in community management back in the day with EA’s Ultima Online. I started out as a volunteer, basically the equivalent of a volunteer moderator in Ultima Online, and then moved my way up to contract event moderator, and then went to work for Sony Online Entertainment as a community manager, and so on and so forth, Disney, and Sulake and whatnot.
The reason I think that so many of the folks in the gaming industry that are in the CM discipline, why they have to develop skills, why they find that they have to develop skills and temperance and capability faster is because a lot of their users, a lot of their members are living in the game world. They’re not just visiting. This is where they live. This is the place that they exist. It’s not their third place. It’s one of their first places. The requirements are naturally much, much higher.
If you get something wrong on a release, then you will hear it for weeks, if not years, sometimes, on what went wrong and how it went wrong, and why you’re to blame, and everybody else is to blame. I look for that kind of experience that kind of, I don’t want to call it jadedness, but front load, the cynicism that sometimes comes with work in the field.
[00:10:00] Patrick O’Keefe: I’d like to pause for a moment to talk about our generous sponsor Hivebrite.
Hivebrite empowers organizations to manage, grow, and engage their communities through technology. Its community management platform has features designed to strengthen engagement and help achieve your community goals. Hivebrite supports over 500 communities around the world, including the American Heart Association, JA Worldwide, Earthwatch, the University of Notre Dame, Columbia Business School, and Princeton University Advancement. Visit hivebrite.com to learn more.
I want to go back to something you said –
[00:10:33] Joe Pishgar: Sure.
[00:10:33] Patrick O’Keefe: -about delegation, because you’re right. On the other hand though, there is this competing feeling on those sorts of things. I think on one hand, you have…I don’t even want to get into the idea of continuing to feel useful, because I think that’s its own thing that we have to deal with sometimes at more senior levels as, feeling like we’re actually useful and needed.
I think there is this want and desire to keep a foot in the spaces that you’re ultimately responsible for, so that you’re aware of what’s going on in those spaces, especially if you have your company with a single community. It’s large, but it’s still the community for your organization, or it’s a small network of communities. You have this other side which is getting comfortable with being more hands-off, I guess.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was thinking about what I do right now, and even with a smaller team, two folks, growing to four in a week or so. I was like, “It’s amazing how much of my day is spent on phone calls and on helping other people make decisions.” I was like, “That’s where I’m at, and I’m completely at peace with that.” I’m here for help on some things as it comes up, but mostly I am on phone calls, guiding strategy, educating on these things, advocating for our objectives, advocating for the people who report in to me, and helping them and other folks make decisions. I am making less of the decisions myself. I feel like those can be competing feelings at times.
[00:11:53] Joe Pishgar: Doesn’t it hurt? From my end, that was actually one of the more jarring experiences in the transition between director for me and vice president of global communities at Future, and then to chief community officer with VerticalScope. Going from a place where I’m the person on the ground with the community, talking daily with moderators and making sure that the threads are being monitored closely, that the initiatives are well underway, and the contests are being fulfilled.
It’s the tactical level stuff to transitioning, where my entire day is spent in back to back meetings where I’m just involved in these wisdom of Solomon style, split the baby decisions that require intensive thought and deliberation, within which usually they’re all gray moral choices, most often. It’s which one are we doing that is going to be the least harmful or have the most potential positive beneficial outcome.
It’s the friction that one can experience when transitioning from the tactical, all the way up to the operational, and then the strategic, where you find yourself stepping outside of that day to day handling and you have to set the long-term goal. This translates directly into a lot of the fear of letting go when it comes to delegating.
There’s competing thoughts in your head that surround the force of delegating. On the one hand, you don’t have enough time to do it all. The time you spend in operational or in tactical, you’re not spending at the strategic, and no one else is going to spend at the strategic level to do the sort of things, make the decisions, push at the organizational level, that you have to. Any time you spend doing that tactical and operational stuff is to the exclusion of that.
However, you know that the things that you do at the tactical and operational level will be correct and will be accurate and will work, because you’ve done it before, it’s a matter of expertise in that area. It’s this balancing act that’s played between, “I hired these folks and I trust them and I need to delegate to them to get the thing done, and then to check with me if it goes wrong.” That management by exception approach versus, “If I want it done right, I’ll do it myself.”
If you err too much on the side of I’ll do it myself, you never end up focusing on the strategic desires, the strategic outcomes that you have to if you’re leading a team of a couple dozen people, or one or two, versus a couple dozen, you’ve got to hang out in that strategic area. There’s also another factor to this is, if you don’t go hands-off, you’re never going to teach the rank and file, you’re never going to teach your CMs, your assistant CMs how to do it.
Then there’s the danger of them becoming over reliant on your intervention, on your involvement. If your name or your clout or your expertise and background and experience is required for every single decision, you’re in trouble. Then you’ve got a bunch of people who are basically your eyes and ears out there who aren’t really taking things off of your plate as much as they need to be or as much as you need them to. Instead, just inculcating an overreliance on your intervention. Sometimes you have to go hands-off, even if it means embracing that fear that it’s not going to get done 100% to your spec.
That’s the thing I try to do a lot, is, I will convey with my department, I’ll convey the why. Let me tell you why we’re doing this. Then you tell me how we’ll get there. I’ll give you the outcome that I’m looking for. Surprise me on the means by which to get there. You’ll figure something out. I’m confident in your abilities to do that. Then just run it management by exception at that level. If you bump into a hurdle or you hit a challenge that you don’t know how to resolve with your peers, then bring me in on it. I’ll point to what worked for me in the past.
[00:15:46] Patrick O’Keefe: When I think about ways, just to wrap up this topic on confidence, that I’ve seen results that are good, easy starting points for leaders who are figuring it out, you touched on one of them, which I will just term, the internet, FUD. Just eliminating uncertainty and doubt is a very powerful thing. Filling in the why there is very good. Ideally, I don’t want anyone who reports in to me or anyone on my team to be wondering what Patrick is thinking or why Patrick is doing something. I want them to have the context. I want them to know why. I’m overcommunicative, oftentimes.
[00:16:21] Joe Pishgar: Same. I will have CMs who will tell me, “Thank you, Joe. We get it. Just move on, we understand what you’re saying.” I do overcommunicate. I do beat a dead horse on the subject of trying to explain what I’m trying to explain because I come from a place of– I’m not a subtle guy, so I need to make sure that my intents are well understood so they’re not miss interpreted.
One of the things that you touched on in the last podcast as well was with the folks that I hire on, I make sure that I touch base with them throughout their development. This is the thing you want to do. This is the calling of your heart. You’re not doing community management because it’s a job that pays, but rather because it’s a career that– I get a little shot of serotonin and dopamine in my head when I see monthly active user growth take place at the 2%– I know it’s nerdy.
When I know that communities under my wing are growing, that I’m helping to make the world a better place, one individual forum member at a time because they got an answer to their question, or they felt like they belonged, or there was something that they were shopping for that they got word of mouth on through a post that they found on one of our forums and they were only able to do that because the place was kept civil, that to me is fulfilling. That is my life work. That’s why I wake up in the morning and I have my coffee and I sit down and I check emails, that’s why I put in the late hours. I make sure that the folks who are on my team feel at least similar, if not fully in that same headspace.
If they don’t, I will 100% empower them to fly little bird. I will write you the best damn reference you can imagine. I will find you something, somewhere else or even within the company to make sure that you are happy and being fulfilled in the job that you are doing. That it is a long-term thing for you because I have to have the people in community believing in what they’re doing. It needs to be more than just a lever that you pull as part of a cognitive machine, it needs to be a calling for you. It’s in my benefit to do that too, because if I have– as for instance, there’s a guy I hired back with Future. He did community management for about a year and a half or so.
He said, “I think I prefer editorial,” or, “I think the calling in my heart is more content.” Awesome. Let me have you sit down with a couple of the editors in chief and you can pick which IP you want to go to, because for me, that means, great, you know everything you need to know about community management now. Now I will have somebody who’s community management trained on the editorial side.
No great loss to me. I get what I want. It’s actually better for me in the long run, because now I’ve got somebody working in content who knows to include calls to action, who knows to monitor the comments, who knows to put in a little kicker for community when and where they can, to keep things in comments and whatnot civil. A lengthy answer to your question about delegation, hiring, and calling and stuff, but I wanted to mention that as a call out because that’s one of those important things to me, it’s to make sure people want to do this.
[00:19:34] Patrick O’Keefe: Totally, 100%. There’s a lot of ways to make money in this world. This isn’t always the most advantageous or really isn’t.
[00:19:40] Joe Pishgar: No, this isn’t the one you want to do for money-making.
[00:19:42] Patrick O’Keefe: No, no. Two other things I’ll throw out there that I’ve seen helpful when it comes to building confidence in folks is just creating space for people. It’s a very simple act, but if you have the opportunity, for example, as we all do once in a while, to bring some of the folks who report with you to meetings with more senior folks, or with other folks who are equal across the organization to you and you create space for them specifically and just kick it over to them and say, “Hey, do you have anything to add?”
At first, it might be a little awkward or weird, but as time goes by, they become more comfortable speaking up and to the point where they actually become more comfortable challenging authority and challenging things that they see that aren’t appropriate or don’t fit within the community ethos that they know that our work is about. That helps in all sorts of ways when it comes to promoting them, advocating for them. When you’re out, when you’re on leave, having that voice in the room cultivating that confidence in other spaces beyond the community team is super helpful.
[00:20:32] Joe Pishgar: Prevents disasters from occurring as well. Not only just having the space in meetings that help to cultivate that kind of backup, that kind of, not necessarily a challenge to authority, but speaking truth to power, speaking truth to other departments that is required for being an advocate on behalf of the community, but also, one practice that I’ve been lax on it lately, but I have for the most part adopted is no matter who it is on my team or how many there are, setting aside 15-minute one-on-ones periodically with them to make sure that they have a space to discuss career development or talk to me about any issues that don’t come up in standup or just discuss the latest stupid TV show or, “Have you seen that movie?”
Because I come from a corporate background where if you wanted time with the boss, it was like scheduling surgery. It was, “Hey, all right, we’ve got time sometime in early September. We’re going to schedule an hour, and you’ll get 30 minutes at the end.” Then the boss will be late by 10 minutes to the meeting. I make sure to set aside time for that, either as needed or on a recurring basis to ensure that my people are heard and we can be personal, because in a remote setting, which most people are right now, there’s no watercooler to talk to, and I’m not a guy who plays golf.
[00:21:58] Patrick O’Keefe: I think it’s important to advocate for people in ways they see. I think sometimes we advocate for people and we know we’re doing it, and they don’t necessarily know unless we tell them. It’s part of some of my one-on-ones where I just give people updates on things I’m pushing for that support their work because I think that if they can see you do it, that’s the best, but if they can at least hear that you’re doing it, that’s helpful as well because it helps to have them see, if I trust Patrick and I believe in what he’s doing and what he’s told me, I’m seeing that manifest in actions.
If he has that faith in me that he’s pushing for things internally that help our work, then obviously, the work I’m doing is important, whether it’s securing additional hires or securing resources in some way or changing the schedule or whatever might come up that needs to be advocated for in some way. If they know it came from their needs and they see you pushing for it, I think there’s this background effect of, “Yes, we’re doing important stuff here. Yes, this matters. Yes, I’m trusted and believed in because I can see this advocacy happening.”
[00:23:02] Joe Pishgar: I agree with that 100,000%. There is the caveat to that, that in any community, especially even a community of community managers, managing expectations is absolutely necessary. Yes, let them see what you’re doing. I’m probably too transparent with my guys. This is a minor fault of mine that I fully admit, sometimes a bit of that over-transparency translates into frustration because the elements which would normally be opaque are more visible for them, so they may hear from or feel some of the frustrations that I might be experiencing. Managing expectations is key towards making that approach of visible and behind-the-scenes advocacy for your department and for your people to work.
[00:23:53] Patrick O’Keefe: Advocacy isn’t always success.
[00:23:55] Joe Pishgar: Right. Yes, that’s true. As long as they feel like you’re fighting for them and you’re fighting for the department and the discipline and you are a servant to the interest of your community itself and also to the company, as you increase in your responsibilities, you move up the food chain from senior to director to VP to chief community officer, the number of stakeholders, the number of forces that you are servant of increases substantially.
You find yourself at a crossroads of service to your community, service to a community of community managers, service to the company, service to the investors, service to a series of balances, and they all have their own version of interests that need to be considered and understood and balanced so that they’re all getting what they need. That was interesting, what you said about the transparency element and how advocacy isn’t necessarily success, because sometimes success for one of those stakeholders is contrary to the other stakeholders in that equation. You try to do what you can to make them, as many of those factions, as happy as possible.
I do want to mention really quick before we move away from– you mentioned Mohamed from the last episode which I enjoyed so thoroughly since Mohamed made reference to me. I want to make reference to two heroes of my own that you should absolutely have on, if you can. These are both OG directors of community, Linda Carlson from back in the day with Sony Online Entertainment. She was one of the very first community directors in the world. She got her start in online gaming with Sony Online Entertainment, EverQuest, EverQuest 2. Her and Sanya Weathers, Sanya from background at EA Mythic, also one of the very first community directors, both pioneered their own schools of community management and even some techniques that are still in practice today that folks may be doing and not know the origin of, but it’s just a concluded best practice. They are both my heroes, so I want to pass that along as a potential.
[00:26:07] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, very nice. You lead a department of 27 full-time community pros that oversee 30 contracted administrators and around 10,000 volunteer moderators across 1200 or so sites. If I’m doing the math correctly, that’s 27 plus 30 is 57 paid folks and contractors. That’s 21 sites per paid person-ish. So many communities, so many volunteers, obviously differences in each community, local rules, cultural norms, what have you.
I’m sure there are also areas where you try to unify the strategy or simply be looped in on what’s happening in each and every community at least through the chain, through the channels to understand the challenges they’re facing and where the current status is. What’s your approach to getting that information, unifying that both top-down, down-top, making sure all those chains of communications are working?
[00:27:03] Joe Pishgar: When you put it that way with the number of CMs and contractors and moderators and sites and all that, makes me want to lie down for a little while.
[00:27:13] Patrick O’Keefe: Sounds overwhelming.
[00:27:14] Joe Pishgar: I am not in over my head, I will say. I don’t know that anybody wouldn’t be, but it sometimes is often right at eye level. That’s just because of the sheer volume of it, the vast number of sites that we have in our network. That number that I gave, the 10,000 moderators, that’s the actives. There’s actually over 25,000 who vary between activity based on what season it happens to be across a multitude of verticals. It’s an enormous challenge. It’s one of the reasons that brought me to VerticalScope in the first place.
At Future, I grew the Tom’s Hardware Community from an early stage of around, I don’t know, it was like 100,000 people. By the time I had finished with it, it was three million. I founded the communities for Tom’s Guide, for PC Gamer, Space.com, Live Science, What Hi-fi, and a pile of others. I introduced a couple of new community initiatives. I was in charge of the Mobile Nation’s communities, Android Central, Windows Central, iMore, CrackBerry, AnandTech, and so on. I had a sizable legion of community managers there. It was around 8 to 12 or so and for two dozen sites, thereabouts, two dozen AAA titles, not a problem. You’d divvy folks up between those.
At VerticalScope, just the sheer magnitude, the number of sites to be looked over, presented a massive challenge. My first conversations with the CEO were around, how could you even think to scale? How is this even possible without collapsing? What’s the trick here because I don’t see it. I felt the urgent need to jump over and start codifying a universal policy framework and to wrangle the moderators and make sure they were all of the same mind and to start fixing some of the pockets of toxicity that can crop up.
There’s a point where you try to gravitate in community management between benign neglect and direct intervention. You try to chart a course in between, I’m overcorrecting, the classic Futurama quote, where the Stellar Galaxy that interacts with Bender, I forget what it says sometimes. When you do it right, people won’t notice you’ve done anything at all. That’s a great approach to take with community management. I try to gravitate towards the light touch, intervene when necessary, show up when you’re asked for input and gradually guide the ship by degrees rather than these abrupt revolutionary style shifts in policy or direction.
That can be very harsh on a community that might be brittle or longer lived. One of the things that I did when I began shortly after showing up, I said, “Let me get a grip on just the sheer scope, the magnitude of communities that are being presented, and then I stumbled on to a potential solution. Since I was not going to be able to send every community manager out every day to every site. Fundamentally, you did the math earlier and that’s just too much for a human being to deal with. Scaling at that level doesn’t work because some of those communities are not break even, especially a longer-lived community or a legacy community on an older platform that’s not properly monetized or doesn’t have the right mix of content in it, wouldn’t justify that kind of directed attention from a CM. Classically, you wouldn’t hire somebody in a typical company for that sort of thing. It would just be part of another person’s job.
The solution I stumbled on here was to, rather than sending all the community managers out to try pulling teeth to get feedback and, “Hey, here’s what we’re doing, here’s the features that are coming up,” and so on and so forth, let’s build a capital city, a community of communities where we set and each of the sites has anywhere between three to five delegates that they send to our capital city, which we call OneFora, to discuss, to deliberate, to reach consensus on policy, to raise their own special concerns, whether they’re related to their individual verticality.
I built it as a centralized hub to prioritize and channel feedback for a product, to give our members a heads up. They’re all gathered in one spot and then they can turn around and communicate as moderators, as administrators to their own individual forums. It’s not a dispatch. There’s not an emissary of community management traveling itinerantly to each individual site trying to inform them all before a thing comes because that wouldn’t be on the schedule side. It’s basically a gathering space for our moderators, for administrators, for staff to coordinate and have those discussions and share best practices and resources on engagement, issues, features.
It’s invite-only and restricted to a very, very set number of folks from each site. It’s not for non-constructive criticism. Again, we classify it as a workspace but it’s been very effective so far in helping to reach some of those policy conclusions where we’ve got extremely nuanced requirements as an example on this and I’m going on and on about this but this is what I want to talk about a little bit because it’s fun. We had a recent discussion on the subject of paying vendors, sponsored vendors appearing in classifieds sections on forums. You’ve got across 1200 sites, it’s more like 1600 now, but who’s counting? You’ve got a multitude of different approaches because you’ve got very site-specific rules. There are some sites which say, whatever, perfectly fine to have a vendor in a classified section. All of our vendors are members who started their own business selling auto parts and we know them and they’ve been with us forever. It would be dumb not to allow them to have the same rights that they had when they were a member versus now they’re paying us. You have fewer rights, and you can’t post in classifieds.
On the one side, we have those. Then on the other side, we have sites where high-end luxury goods are exchanged in the classifieds section between private sellers. WatchUSeek is a perfect example of that, where it’s all about luxury watches. The requirements there for being able to post in the classifieds section include, you have to have been on-site for at least 90 days and you have to have a minimum of 100 posts before you can even step foot and post in the classifieds section. The reason is because a scam that happens in that classifieds section, could run you up to $10,000. That could be the equivalent of grand theft that occurs if you’ve gotten scammed as a result of something that goes on in that section.
We had to parse, what is the policy considerations here for setting a rule that can be applicable minimally to all of our sites, but that also accommodates those one-offs where there are heightened site-specific rules because if we impose the minimum on those ones that have that additional, this is for the protection of our members and we have a very vertical sensitive ruleset here, the results would be disastrous.
OneFora is where items like that get page after page of discussion on and we’re able to thread the needle a little bit and figure out, all right, let’s add a clause here and make it, okay, you have to have a minimum of five posts and the vendor can only post once every 72 hours. They’re allowed in classifieds or the subcategory of classifieds specifically for vendors. Stuff where you get really into the weeds but you let the moderators and the administrators, the people who are responsible for implementing these help to work it out, so they have involvement and sense of ownership in it.
It’s not some command from on high, from ivory tower CM, or even legal to that extent to come down and say, “Here’s exactly what you have to do,” because that can be very disruptive to a way that a community works.
[00:35:22] Patrick O’Keefe: Where do you think the balance is between a healthy relationship with online community volunteers and essentially taking advantage of free labor?
[00:35:31] Joe Pishgar: That’s a good one. I mentioned that actually, I did get my start back in the Ultima Online days as a volunteer. I was a volunteer, not only as an interest program member, the little green-robed folks who run around the game creating quests and events and things to make things interesting, to amp up the activity, basically events, volunteering my labor in that regard, but also I volunteered as a reporter for Ultima Online Stratics. The origin of my participation, the origin of my career is on the side of volunteering.
The reason that I volunteered is the same reason that the 10,000 or so of our moderators volunteer, it’s because I valued the community that I was a part of. I felt if I can contribute to that community and make it better, that I’m making my own life better because this is where I’m spending my time, this is what I care about. It’s my hobby, my enthusiasm, my passion, that I’m putting into what I’m doing. The time that I’m investing, I’m getting back because the thing that I love is better. I view the way that moderators and administrators, to a less extent, volunteer, when they do volunteer, just the same as if somebody is showing up to a Red Cross bake sale.
You’re here of your own accord. We can ask you to do stuff, but we’re not going to tell you to do stuff. I make sure to emphasize whenever language is used with the subject of moderators, I will, most of the time, if not always, refer to the OG AOL guide program and the lawsuit that took place between the guides of the AOL guide program and AOL itself. This was where the volunteers were being given free AOL access back when it was, you get a certain number of hours in exchange for their activities as “volunteers” helping to moderate and keep the service clean and serve as a welcoming committee style folks. The problem was, AOL and some of the other companies who were, by law, exploiting volunteer labor, would give them quotas, would give them– you have to accomplish a certain number of this by so and so, treating them as unpaid employees with timelines and level progression and that sort of thing. When it comes to our volunteers, when it comes to any volunteers of any communities that I’ve ever been a part of, there’s always a strong emphasis on, this is your community. You are doing this because you want to. If at any second in time you feel like this becomes a job or this becomes something you’re not enjoying, get out of here.
There are other folks who would want to do this. It should not become a job for you. We’re not going to impose anything on you. If we ever communicate anything, it’s along the lines of an ask. We can point in the right direction, but we can’t make you do something because you’re a volunteer, you’re here because you want to help your communities. I feel very strongly about that. I get very animated when the subject comes up because it’s my own background. I began as a volunteer and I feel volunteers, they should not be used in lieu of professional staff. That’s what I have a contractor budget, it’s what I have a staff budget for.
[00:38:47] Patrick O’Keefe: I came up as a volunteer to manage communities with volunteers, hundreds of volunteers globally, not thousands, but many volunteers over the years. I think a lot of folks who have been doing this as long as we have, more often than not, their origin story starts in volunteering of some form or another, is what I’ve found. I wanted to ask you about it just because it is a sensitive subject for some folks because I think there are organizations who have pushed it too far in many cases and would be very high profile.
With VerticalScope, you want a bunch of communities, you have staff, publicly traded in Canada for profit company. I think it’s interesting to talk about where that line is and where it crosses and where it’s responsible versus exploitative and where those lines are. That’s really why I think I wanted to ask you about it specifically, because you bring together a unique bunch of experience.
[00:39:35] Joe Pishgar: It’s absolutely critical to keep a sharp eye on that line and to ensure that, this is applicable to any community manager who’s got volunteers in their community, that you’re not exploiting or taking advantage of them. You’re not treating them like contractors either. I’ve seen that before, where a volunteer corps will be corralled or dragooned into doing things that otherwise should be preserved to a corps of contractors. That’s why I have contractors doing what they do.
To that end, also on the staffing side, because we’ve all read horror stories of contractors on the social media site. There’s these New York Times articles that talk about content moderation contractors who just sit in a room all day long and it sizzles their brain from what they’re reading. One of the things I make sure to do at the staffing level with my folks in my department a little bit on this, but there’s a matrix of different specializations that are available to anybody in the community management profession within our department. You’ve got warranty, you’ve got support, you’ve got contract management, and you’ve got volunteer management, you’ve got metrics and engagement, growth and initiatives and things.
If any point in time, one of the folks on my team says, “I want to jump over to that. Let me learn how to do engagement and giveaways, and I’ll jump out of queues for a while, instead of doing contact or support queues, I’ll do something else,” they have the opportunity to switch around what they’re doing every quarter or so, so that it varies up their experience and they can get a more generalist background than somebody who might be locked in a room doing content management, reviews of the most heinous crap that you could see on the internet all day long.
Burnout is a problem, and self-care and personal mental hygiene are very, very critical items for community management. We all go through the shattering, I call it the shattering, which is where you just have that fun, little, catastrophic mental break that makes you feel like you’re channeling Atlas, you’re responsible for the weight of the world on your shoulders. If you don’t have a good coping mechanism in place, and you don’t have management who acknowledges that that will, from time to time, occur within community management, you’re going to bump into some problems of health with staff. That’s a form of mistreatment to not care if your employees are experiencing mental hardship as a result of what they have to deal with every day, handling 72 million and some odd users.
I’m actually working on, right now, a study. I call it Finding the Line. It’s charting out the differences between various community platforms and even, to some extent, social media platforms, the proportion of community management oversight and things like revenue or perceived post quality, average revenue per user, monthly active users as a proportion.
My hypothesis is that there’s some function to that, how valuable is 4chan with zero community managers versus Quora with a pile of community managers, or Instagram with a massive pile of content moderators. I think there’s something to be said for that and seeing if there’s a conclusion to be derived. You mentioned the item on determining the line for moderation, where does moderation cross over, where does it start to gravitate into exploitation?
I think codifying something around those lines would probably be super useful to the discipline at large, because I haven’t seen anybody put out a resource on the subject of the dutiful care and treatment of your volunteers on how not to make it so that this becomes painful, because when you hemorrhage volunteers, when you start to get to a place where they are having problems, most of the time, those are the churning core of your community. They’re the ones who are doing all the influencing. I’m just removing spam.
That’s not really what they’re there for, those are your leaders of that community. They serve as top-tier influencers. They’re the ones around which community coalesces. If they start going away because they’re being abused or they’re being exploited, your community is going to die.
[00:43:45] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s go back to that community development point for a second, career development point, jobs in the space, specialization, and so on. We haven’t really been in contact directly until recently, but we’ve hung around some of the same online spaces. There is a legendary, in my opinion, community management email list, e-mint, that I’ve been a member of for a long time. I went back in my email archives and I found an email that was sent by you on November 14th, 2009, titled Illusory Job Glut.
In this email, you say, “As many of you know, employment opportunities in the community discipline seem to be a case of feast or famine with either a slow trickle of job openings being posted over a few months or a big slew of them with everyone and their dog hiring. I’ve been noticing a rather odd trend as of late, and I’m curious if other colleagues have seen it too.” You talk about how there had been a lot of layoffs recently at that time, but at the same time, you see this large number of jobs for community management pros.
You continue, “Has anyone noticed this? Is the prevalence of new job postings just a natural response to the grueling need for our discipline, or are these mostly unstable, illusory positions set up for the next economic adjustment? The companies in question seem to have an earnest need for community professionals, it just rings as somewhat odd that such a need would manifest during a recession.”
I mention this story because I feel like you could teleport people from different parts of the last 25 years, maybe even including now, we’re in a boom, I think a lot of people would say. That’s what I’m hearing from a lot of folks, is that there’s a lot of jobs out there right now for community pros, which is great. This is a story that by now we’ve both heard several times, we’ve lived it. We’ve lived the up, we’ve lived the down, we’ve lived it all, 20 years.
It’s probably a story that will resonate with newer pros listening to this show, who perhaps now feel they are in the middle of a boom or they’re being told that this is the year of the community pro, which someone has said every year for the last 20 years. It’s always the year of the community pro, but there are ebbs and flows to this work. That email was a fun look back at that truth.
[00:45:44] Joe Pishgar: I’m reading the email. I went back in my email.
[00:45:47] Patrick O’Keefe: Okay.
[00:45:48] Joe Pishgar: November 14th, 2009. You pulled up something from 13 years ago. It is creepy how–
[00:45:55] Patrick O’Keefe: You could have written that today.
[00:45:56] Joe Pishgar: I could have, yes. I absolutely could have. I have noticed it does appear to be cyclical with the interest in community. I forget who I was talking with about this, but community management as a discipline, I feel has suffered under a lack of perception of intense need. The needs that we have, that companies have for community management cannot be emphasized enough, yet despite being a profession that’s older than the product management profession, it is significantly less valued though tends to produce greater return on investment.
Our ROI, something hovering in the area of what it was, at 1800%, there about. Various studies range from 700% to 1800%, yet community management is subject to this boom and bust cycle where there’s a long stretch of hiring glut, like I said, where everybody is looking for a community critter that they can. Then the bust time comes around, and the first folks that are often let go after it’s belt tightening time, at least in the games industry side, it was QA goodbye. We’ve shipped. Sayonara. They’re gone. Then community management takes the hit. It’s always reflected strange to me because it’s like, you still have a community. Communities often will outlast the individual company.
In my questionnaire to you originally, I mentioned I built a thing 15 years ago, the galactic Senate for Star Wars Galaxies, that still is operational to date in the player-run community emulator space for the game, where the company itself died. This community construct outlasted the company. How could you not perceive the efforts of what community management can do and deliver, at least in the construction of these structures that can support your brand, your model, your revenue? How can you not ascribe significant value to that?
I see this throughout the industry where there’s an intense emphasis placed on every other discipline apart from CM. It’s just inexplicable to me. This was actually one of the things that was very eye-opening to a number of CMs that I brought over from the games industry when I started them in media at Future. I’d take them aside I’d walk them through, “Here’s the numbers, here’s the money. The revenue that’s being produced from these individual communities on a line item basis. Here’s the programmatic revenue. Here’s the affiliate revenue. Here’s the video revenue. Here’s how much this made this week, which is equivalent to our salary.”
Those sorts of things always would lift the veil from the eyes of folks on either the sports CM side or the gaming CM side, where they’re just acclimated towards the only thing that CM had been dedicated to was the support function as an indirect brand management style thing. There was no direct line between what I’m doing today and the money that’s being made also today.
[00:48:59] Patrick O’Keefe: Celebrated when it launches, celebrated when good news comes in, but given individual credit for none of it.
[00:49:05] Joe Pishgar: Very true. I am heartened by, at least this time, I don’t want to speak too optimistically here, but I do see some hope in this latest influx of CM jobs. It seems like every other company, startup or not, is looking for a community management professional to come on board because the pandemic certainly demonstrated the intense value of being able to congregate online. The amount of money and even sense of belonging that can be conveyed through effective community management, I think is helpful to look at. I think a lot of companies are now looking at that in a different light than they did in 2009 when I wrote this.
I don’t know, I don’t have a good explanation for the boom and bust cycle that seems to occur with CM and the desires of the market to do hiring for it. I think there is something to be said for the advocacy of the discipline at a macro level across the industries that exist. We’ve done a relatively poor job with that just as professionals because much of it has been either the surviving in the bust part of the cycle or vicious hunting in the boom. That’s an interesting insight there about how cyclical it is.
[00:50:22] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, when I went to invite you to come on the show, I sent you a DM on LinkedIn, we weren’t connected. I didn’t get a response. I searched my inbox. I was like, “What have I got for Pishgar?” At this point, I have a 25-year-old community management email history between various e-mints and things of the world. It’s like, if I find someone who’s been around for a long time, chances are if I search my inbox, I’ll have an email from like 2000 to 2010. I was like, “Hey, I got this email. Let me try it. Let me see if he’s still here. It worked.”
[00:50:50] Joe Pishgar: It worked perfectly and you got me because of the reference to e-mint and anybody who knows Becks, who runs that.
[00:50:57] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, more example of folks doing some great work behind the scenes that you [crosstalk]
[00:51:00] Joe Pishgar: Oh my goodness, yes. I’m a huge fan of hers. She helped me originally when I started with Sulake. I hired one of her proteges at Future. Everybody knows everybody else, at least in the OG community management space. That’s actually how I ended up with that pile of folks that I used to vet the PC Gamer policies and rules on, that I told you. I did the Avenger’s assemble of about a dozen community director-level folks from the gaming industry to vet the PC Gaming rules to make sure I wasn’t about to launch a thing that was going to become a–
[00:51:34] Patrick O’Keefe: One of the many great stories that wasn’t going to make it into this show but maybe another one, it’s funny you mentioned when you were listing off people who were people that you look up to in the space earlier in the show, honestly, Rebecca Newton, if you told me my favorite community professionals in the world, if I had to list out a top, she might be number one, but top two, top three in the history, she’s definitely one of the people that has done so much amazing work, been around for so long, connected so many people. Most folks these days probably wouldn’t recognize the name, but in the history of the profession, just a giant, just a legend. Her and Gail Ann Williams are two people that I really think highly of myself. Gail Ann Williams. Williams was from The WELL and then worked at Salon for a long time. Just very kind, generous, thoughtful people, experienced sharers of knowledge. Just two great folks.
[00:52:21] Joe Pishgar: I do what I can, at least with my department and my staff. I tend to cultivate at least a sense of legacy with the discipline because there exists no great history of community management. It’s difficult to refer to–
[00:52:35] Patrick O’Keefe: When people write it, they try to insert themselves into it.
[00:52:38] Joe Pishgar: They do. That’s not helpful. Let your approach speak for itself and let other people advocate and champion for what you’ve done for the discipline rather than try to self ascribe. I ascribe things like using your real name instead of a pseudonym as a best practice. I ascribe that stuff to Sanya Weathers, who pioneered that as part of her role as director of EA Mythic community management, because there was a long line of almost three-card monte or the shell game with developers who would interact with users, gamers, and then get something terribly wrong and then be like, “Okay, we have to change this person’s nickname.” It’s a little switcheroo and you never knew who you were dealing with as a result.
She at one point in time just said, “We’re not doing that anymore. You will be known as your full name.” Now we have to reverse course because there’s doxing and other terrible stuff online. I tend to do what I can to ascribe those practices, those pioneering, those elements of the discipline to individuals, to historical greats like Linda Carlson, Sanya Weathers, Valerie Massey, Becks, Rebecca Newton, like you mentioned, Troy Hewitt, who was a great mentor for me early on. He was one of not second-generation but first and a half CM. That was a blast from the past that you dug up. I didn’t respond because I was busy. What do you want from me?
[00:54:08] Patrick O’Keefe: No, I noticed that. There’s no response from you on the thread, but there were some fun names popped up in that thread. Hey, you know what? You could respond today. People are still there.
Joe, I feel like we have another show in us around community history and some fun stories. Maybe we’ll have to convene something in the future
[00:54:26] Joe Pishgar: We do. I didn’t get a chance to trash talk DAOs or crypto or NFTs or any of that. I didn’t have an opportunity to talk cult of personality versus silent workhorse style. There was a bunch of stuff that we definitely could probably have a good go on.
[00:54:45] Patrick O’Keefe: It was a pleasure to have you on. Thanks for making time.
[00:54:48] Joe Pishgar: Absolutely. It was a distinct pleasure for me. I appreciate it.
[00:54:51] Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Joe Pishgar, chief community officer at VerticalScope. 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. Until next time. Thanks for listening.
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