Zack Sheppard has spent time in community at Flickr, Pinterest and Kickstarter, helping them to develop guidelines, enforce them and train staff members how to do so. This episode features a loose discussion around internal and external community guidelines. Plus:
- The value of a strong mentor in the community space
- How enforcement guidelines help create consistency between staff members
- What it’s like to update the guidelines of a community like Flickr
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: Higher Logic.
“Enforcement guidelines are something that’s really helpful when you get to, ‘If someone broke the rules, what do we do about it?’ You want to make sure everyone’s on the same page when they take action, so everyone is treated the same, and no one feels like they’re treated unfairly.” -@zackshp
“I really do think it’s important for the [startup] founder [to work in the community] for awhile, to really understand that community. … But how early should they hire [a community] person? If community is an integral part of their site, then you need to hire them very quickly, and it probably should not be a dual role where it’s customer service and community manager. It should be someone really focused on that.” -@zackshp
About Zack Sheppard
Zack Sheppard spent 7 years working in customer support before accepting a community manager role at Flickr. He subsequently worked in community at Pinterest and Kickstarter. His focus has been on helping companies understand their community through customer support channels. Zack currently consults on customer support and community policy. Two years ago, he decided to learn to code, so he went to a coding boot camp and is now also working as a web developer at the Brooklyn Museum.
In order of reference:
- Contact me if you’d like a Community Signal sticker
- Do you have a question you’d like me to answer on the air?
- Flickr, where Zack worked in tech support and as a community manager and senior community manager
- Heather Champ, who mentored Zack at Flickr
- George Oates, who helped create the original Flickr community guidelines
- Flickr’s current community guidelines
- Wayback Machine, where you can view older versions of online communities and their guidelines
- Community Manager in Residence by Patrick
- Techstars, where Zack worked as a mentor-in-residence for community management and customer support
- Yahoo’s Sale to Verizon Ends an Era for a Web Pioneer by Vindu Goel and Michael J. de la Merced
- Zack’s website
00:04: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals, sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet as you listen using #communitysignal. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:25 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and welcome to the 34th episode of Community Signal. A while back I had some great Community Signal stickers printed up, and if you’d like one, please send me your address via the contact form at communitysignal.com/contact. On last week’s show, I mentioned that we were going to try to do a Q&A episode where I answer questions submitted by listeners. If you have a question you’d like me to answer on the air, please submit it at communitysignal.com/qa. Our guest this week is Zack Sheppard. Zack spent seven years working in customer support before accepting a community manager role at Flickr. He subsequently worked in community at Pinterest and Kickstarter. His focus has been on helping companies understand their community through customer support channels. Zack currently consults on customer support and community policy. Two years ago, he decide to learn to code so he went to a coding bootcamp, and is now also working as a web developer at the Brooklyn Museum. Zack welcome to the program!
01:13 Zack Sheppard: Great to be here, Patrick.
01:14 Patrick O’Keefe: It is a pleasure to have you, and I wanna mention here that you have been a patient man today with me and this program. We were supposed to record at about 2:00 PM in the afternoon, and I got on here and something happened for the first time that has never happened. The Skype recording app I have used for a decade that I have recorded 500, 700 podcasts with plus guests in on others, it did something it has never done, it refused to record. And I tested it across different versions of Windows, different devices and it would not do anything so Skype changed something and not only did Zack spend a half hour wasted away from work, but then he agreed to come on about five hours later braving a torrential thunderstorm… [chuckle] Lightning storm in New York City to make it home to come on the program and try a different way. So Zack thank you for your patience.
02:02 Zack Sheppard: Absolutely. As a long tech support person, it’s easy to understand things happen sometimes.
02:08 Patrick O’Keefe: I appreciate that. So speaking of accidents you got into community by accident. How did that happen?
02:14 Zack Sheppard: Actually I did. So after I did customer support for a long, long time. I worked for Yahoo! for five years and did some customer support after that for awhile, I managed a bunch of teams and then I wanted to work at Flickr real bad. So I got this job because I was a lover of the Flickr community and just a kind of photographer on the side and I was doing tech support kind of stuff. There’s a senior community manager, Heather, there was a opening for a job under her and a friend of mine was like, “Hey, I want that job.” And I thought and was like, “Hey, Heather I wanted to ask you out to this job.” And she said, “Are you interested?” And I was like, “Well, I am but that’s not why I was asking.” I didn’t know if I’d be right for it, but she said she thought I’d be really great at it and I said, “I better try this out.” And I went for it. And it’s been going ever since. And a lot of my career has been like that where some opportunity came up like, “Well, I think I could try this out.” And it’s really lots of fun because of that.
03:06 Patrick O’Keefe: So you had a friend you were asking for. Do you still have that friend?
03:11 Zack Sheppard: I do. I told her… I had to tell her what happened and she was like, “No, I understand. I get it.” And I subsequently really helped her when she said, “I’m into this other job.” I would really, really go for it and help her and she got one of those other jobs. So she is still happy.
03:24 Patrick O’Keefe: Well, that’s good, ’cause you don’t wanna be Zack the job stealer.
03:27 Zack Sheppard: I know. Exactly.
03:29 Patrick O’Keefe: When you say Heather, you mean Heather Champ.
03:31 Zack Sheppard: Sorry, yes.
03:32 Patrick O’Keefe: And she’s a well regarded professional in our space that I have a lot of respect for. And when I talk to people who wanna start in community and be great at it, one of the things I recommend, I think one of the absolute best things you can do is find an amazing community professional and work under them. You were fortunate enough to have an amazing teacher in Heather. I’d love to hear about the impact that working under her had on you and your career.
03:56 Zack Sheppard: Everything about working with Heather was really wonderful. It’s hard to even describe, because I learned so much on a day-to-day basis and even just have it think of community overall. Heather was integral in even writing the initial Flickr guidelines, Heather and George Oates, who was the first designer of Flickr, this took place before my time but it’s an important part of how Flickr came to be and that one of those early communities. Flickr initially they would try to reach out to as many people as possible when they came on the site, really high touch, like a lot of communities when they first start. After awhile it was not possible to really reach out to everyone, it was really getting in the hundred thousands, millions of people. And then the story goes, that George and Heather, they’d have this train ride everyday from San Francisco down to where the offices were at the time, Sunnyvale, California and they started writing these guidelines which became the Flickr guidelines. Flickr guidelines are still on the site today, they still have out of that same spirit and I think some of the same words that they wrote so long ago. So all those ideas are infused in that you start to take from Heather a lot, and just so many phrases from her.
05:04 Patrick O’Keefe: I would like to take a moment to recognize our excellent sponsor, Higher Logic.
Higher Logic is the community platform for community managers. With over 25 million engaged users in more than 200,000 communities, organizations worldwide use Higher Logic to bring like-minded people together, by giving their community a home where they can meet, share ideas and stay connected. The platform’s granular permissions and powerful tools, including automated workflows and consolidated email digests, empower users to create their own interest-based communities, schedule and manage events, and participate in volunteer and mentoring programs. Tap into the power your community can generate for you. Higher Logic – all together.
05:40 Patrick O’Keefe: I was looking at your consulting page and was really interested to see that you specialize in community policy, an area that I am very deeply invested in and love to discuss. You specifically mentioned enforcement guidelines and that’s an interesting term that I think a lot of people will not be familiar with. So I’d love to hear about enforcement guidelines and what elements exist in a successful enforcement framework.
06:44 Zack Sheppard: If that’s something that’s gonna happen every once in a while, it’s good to maybe have it somewhere. Does it really need to be out on the site? Maybe not. But you can have it internally to help people kind of… Again, deal with the… Everybody’s on the same page. And then there’s like, “What do you do about it?” And that’s an enforcement kind of guideline. And that’s, “Do we respond? Do we warn? Do we take some action against the account?” And using those three together, now you really have something that you can feel good about every step, you’re making sure you’re doing all the right things. That’s kind of what it is. So in that sense let’s say, first time you have some nudity, and as I say, nudity is not allowed on the site. You take one action, it’s a warning. Next time maybe it’s something more severe. Then we’re all on the same page and we all have confidence when we have to defend our actions, like that’s a really important of it, I don’t think people always think about.
07:34 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s really about creating a consistent application of the guidelines between the difference of staff members. So no matter who’s looking at it, it gets handled in a consistent way.
07:43 Zack Sheppard: Right. Exactly. When we think about the parts working together, maybe a newer company doesn’t need it right away. There’s less people are talking… I actually really believe they’re always great to have even from day one. But when you talk to some teams, you listen to a team, maybe they’re just kind of not ready to enact that yet and so, when I wanna do talk to a company, I try to think about where they are, what are they’re really ready for, not trying to push something that I think is necessary even if they’re not ready. Move with them in all those different areas.
08:14 Patrick O’Keefe: That makes sense. I mean, it’s one of those things where it doesn’t hurt to have it. It doesn’t hurt to have it early, it doesn’t hurt to have that stuff in place. You want guidelines before you need them, you want moderation standards and policies before you need them. Maybe you don’t need to get that level in detail, but yeah, I mean it’s so important to have these things, and they’re not public things, they’re not flashy things, so we don’t tend to think about them or talk about them as much as other things, but they are so important and I really believe in those sorts of internal documents. I have something I call a situations guide, which is, maybe a less fancy name for it.
08:46 Zack Sheppard: Yeah.
08:48 Patrick O’Keefe: So what it is, is it details common situations that we see and says how we handle them. So what is profanity in the context of the guidelines? Okay, it’s these things. It’s this standard. What is each definition, how do we handle it, what’s the consistent application of it, and so, it’s just so helpful and I think it’s one of those areas where if you work in moderation, and you’re achieving any level of moderate activity, it’s something that for the little bit of effort… Not to say that these aren’t easy to come up with, but for the effort you put into it, for those numbers of hours you invest, you’ll get those hours back tenfold.
09:20 Zack Sheppard: Exactly, and especially in an area like moderation, there are hard to handle situations sometimes and they can be hard on you. So to have something to help lead you and help you know you’re with the rest of your team is really, really helpful with it as well. It’s interesting I think, that you have a different name for it. It’s one of those things that there seems like there are many things in community where we all have something kind of similar too, but because it’s not always out there and not talked about it, I think we all kind of have different names for it. So in talking to the community managers same thing, did I just… In the world that I’ve been in, have been called something differently. It’s really funny.
09:56 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, I mean, some might just say it’s part of the moderator handbook, right? That’s a term that I’ve heard.
10:02 Zack Sheppard: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
10:03 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s like even for guidelines, some people say rules, I say guidelines. [chuckle] And yeah, it’s a funny thing we call it different things.
10:11 Zack Sheppard: You made one other point you said about how some people don’t feel like it’s necessary. One extra thing I use to let people understand how useful it could be is… So we have these three parts already, guidelines, internal guidelines, and enforcement, and let’s say, when you do send out let’s say, warnings or some information to people, those could be in the macro or even if it’s a macro that you edit a little or however you might wanna do it, but now you have some numbers behind what’s happening and you could feed that back into the product, into your messages, that last step on something you can track a little makes all this even more useful and helps people, “Hey, I can really see how I need to do this more often and start using this as a system.”
10:52 Patrick O’Keefe: So talk about that a little bit. Talk about using macros in that way to inform moderation. How have you gone about that?
10:57 Zack Sheppard: Well, the main obvious way I guess that I use it is, when you start with consistent language you can start seeing what works. We’re all using the same language. They’re already really hard things to talk about, they’re often sensitive because it is moderation. And so if we’re all on the same language and we see people keep reacting the same… This part of language, it makes them feel like you’re let’s say, blaming them or that they don’t understand it, and you can tweak it to help them understand what you’re trying to say. Or you can often tweak a warning so you don’t have to send the second warning as often. If you have warning one and warning two for whatever rule it is, you tweak warning one and warning two usage goes down, then you know warning one is really working. You can really start to see things like this.
11:39 Patrick O’Keefe: So when you say macros, can you talk about that a little bit. What is a macro for people who might not be familiar?
11:43 Zack Sheppard: So macro is like a canned response. That’s the most consistent. People can all them canned responses, macro, lots of stuff. But basically, like the canned response that you send as your… You can start tweaking your first warning and then maybe warning isn’t sent that often. Or maybe you don’t have as many reports of that problem, because the community itself starts to understand and get it and communicate more.
12:04 Patrick O’Keefe: For most communities, updating the community guidelines is pretty simple. You might have a discussion among staff, maybe ask some members for feedback, decide on a change, implement it, and announce it. But when you are working with a community as large as Flickr, a community that is very invested in its content, all communities are invested, but Flickr’s community of photographers are invested in their content in a very meaningful real way. What does the process for updating the guidelines look like at a community like that?
12:33 Zack Sheppard: We generally start at the problem of what we’re trying to address. So an example on Flickr… The guidelines… During part of time I was there, the wording was like, “Flickr is for personal use.” Which makes sense, Flickr really is about original content that people are uploading. It’s not like Imager, it’s not just a bunch of hosted content, the community is about photography. But the personal word, they’d have a problem if a company wanted to get on.
13:00 Patrick O’Keefe: Right, or like a government agency, or an organization, or a non-profit depending on how far… If personal means a person.
13:07 Zack Sheppard: Exactly, exactly. So how do you make that change and not alienate the current community? How do you make sure you keep all the goals you have going? A lot of it is really just working with those words with the team of people that you trust. Heather and I will work on it or maybe someone from design would help, whoever else needs to be in that room would start working on it. And it would usually take a little bit of time, it’s not something you can do in two months. That’s what the process looks like. It really is sitting in a room with the people that have the goals in mind of what we need. And definitely someone from community that understands all the little ripples that it will have out. So many online communities… However you use that community, there are probably 15 or 100 other ways that people are using it that you might not have seen and as a community manager, I’m the one thinking about a lot of that and that’s what our jobs are.
13:56 Zack Sheppard: One fun thing I do sometimes when I’m starting to think about this, I think about other communities that might have kind of a similar problem or a similar change they’ve gone to, or just similar community they’re trying to build. And I like to actually sometimes go to the Wayback Machine and look at people’s guidelines, not just into the present but the past to see if I can see, “Have those problems been there for them? How have they solved them?” And then I can compare the two against each other and start to get some ideas.
14:25 Patrick O’Keefe: With a community that is as large as Flickr I have to assume that there is a deep breath that gets taken when you announce a change. The deep breath of, “Even though we planned it, even though we did this, how will they react?” When you are making a change to the guidelines or when you made a change to the guidelines, were any members part of that process? Is there a council where people ask for feedback or is it simply the first time that all members hear about it is when the change is post live and then you’re managing the response and seeing how it goes?
14:54 Zack Sheppard: It depends. Usually, at least at Flickr, it was between us because so many of us were such a part of the community anyway that we didn’t usually ask like that. There were some cases where we’d create a small group and ask in the group and talk about it there, but most of the time we knew the goals we were trying to get to and did it that way.
15:14 Patrick O’Keefe: When it came to announcing a guideline change, was there a particular method or a thought of going about it like… I don’t know, a particular part of day, the way that it was brought to the community, the way it was packaged, how you listen to feedback, is there anything that you did to make the community more accepting of the change, to make it more comfortable for them?
15:34 Zack Sheppard: Definitely. So anytime we made a guidelines change, we would announce it in the Flickr forum and same thing for new features as well, but the Flickr forum is a really unique and special place. The community itself was just so active so when we would announce it there, we would get lots of feedback and they might bring something up that we had missed so we’d go talk about it, we’d think about it, maybe make a change, announce that change. If we announced any change, we got lots of just standard, good forum rules in there like, “If you’re gonna edit something, write that you made an edit.” If we made an update, we’d put that at the top so you could usually click over to it. So the community would definitely be listened to and there would always be a big discussion on anything, especially a big change like that.
16:22 Patrick O’Keefe: And when you announce a change like that, something I’ve found… Because I’ve managed communities independently for the most part, done a little bit of consulting, but I have one community I’ve managed for like 15 years. And so when you have a long term community manager in any kind of space, there is this built-up trust. Hopefully, hopefully it’s built-up trust. Hopefully it’s not built-up resentment. It could be a bit of both, but overall hopefully there’s that trust. So when I come and I have a thought or I have a change I wanna make, or I’m announcing something, there is an inherent belief that I am there for the betterment, because I’ve been here for a long time, I didn’t just show up and try to change things. So when you think about having someone like… Heather was there for a number of years, you were there for a period of time… When it comes to announcing those changes, it seems like it’s best if someone who’s been around for awhile announces them. Do you think that’s the case?
17:14 Zack Sheppard: I do think that’s the case, but I would also say if someone feels that they’re ready to go for it, that they’re from staff, it’ll say staff in there if it’s someone that works there, then I think it’s okay to do it. That staff moniker, at least there, gave a lot of trust. I would probably review it first, but it’s definitely better. It is definitely better if it’s someone that they trust and know that they know that long history.
17:41 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, and you’d probably be there to support that person. [chuckle]
17:45 Zack Sheppard: Well, that’s the fun of it. It’s always all of us just there all day anyway. We’re all yelling across desks and helping each other and on chat, so if this thing’s done often, it could work either way. But you’re right, for the community to see that the name… It was really helpful if I remember correctly, when I started posting in there, I said something that wasn’t quite strong enough, it didn’t end up in the right way and the community just didn’t quite sell them enough and then Heather would help out. She’d pop in and they’d like, “Okay, I see Heather is… ” You know.
18:13 Patrick O’Keefe: Yeah, she conveyed that trust onto you and then you conveyed it on to the next person when they came along.
18:19 Zack Sheppard: Yeah, totally.
18:20 Patrick O’Keefe: I wrote an article a year ago about how I felt like community in resident or community professional in resident was a thing that we should see more of and I wasn’t aware of you at the time. I’ll apologize for that.
18:32 Zack Sheppard: No problem.
18:32 Patrick O’Keefe: But when I went into looking into your background, that was exactly what you were doing at the time at Techstars. I find it really interesting, do you think there is great potential in that type of role, and that community is important enough where VC’s and incubators, etcetera should consider community to be an area where they should have mentors well versed in this work?
18:56 Zack Sheppard: Definitely, I definitely do. And especially just because… When I did that it was really fun thing to do for a couple of years. I just wanted to try that, it was totally volunteer, meet all these young, eager founders but really the whole company there’s like five people and they have lots of questions. ‘Cause they’re so excited about building their community, I feel like many more founders these days get that it’s not just about the product and the code. They have that excitement that you know you need as a community manager. They just need some direction because it is a scary world, no matter how good you are at business, it’s scary to put yourself out there sometimes. So a little bit of direction and confidence that they’re doing the right thing or some little direction is so helpful.
19:40 Patrick O’Keefe: And when you were talking to those companies, I’m guessing, maybe I’m totally wrong, one of the questions you might get asked is, “When should we hire a community person?” And even if you weren’t, I’d love to hear your take on that, having worked with those start- up companies. When do you think a community hire should be made? Is it in the first… Obviously, there’s different cases, different companies, different types of organizations, but is it in the first 10, first 15, first 20? How early do you think they should make that a priority as opposed to, I don’t know, just having a founder do it for awhile until they find that they’re gonna be whatever their role is in the business as an executive?
20:16 Zack Sheppard: That’s interesting. I would say, if you get into like 15 people, then maybe they need someone to answer these emails. That person that’s doing that, you need someone that actually understands community and can do both a little bit better, I would say. But I really do think it’s important for the founder to do it for awhile, to really understand that community. Just as I believe that they can continue doing it in some kind of, getting in a forum, or getting in an email queue, or whatever might be to stay connected is super important. But how early should they hire that person? If community is an integral part of their site, like Twitter community is super important.
20:54 Patrick O’Keefe: Or if moderation’s a big part of what they do, or they have a lot of UGC, those sorts of things.
21:00 Zack Sheppard: Exactly. If it’s that, then you need to hire them very quickly and it probably should not be a dual role where it’s customer service and community manager, it should be someone really focused on that. But if it’s not, if it’s trying to do some kind of Ruby programming language, open sourced thing, maybe it’s not as important. It really depends.
21:19 Patrick O’Keefe: I’m talking with you right after Verizon announced that they would be buying Yahoo!, including Flickr for $4.8 billion. It’s the end of an era really, as far as an independent Yahoo! When I was coming up, I don’t know if coming up is the right word, but I was a big fan of Yahoo!, Yahoo! in the late 90’s inspired me in a way to start developing websites. My first serious website I launched on my own was ifroggy.com and it was a web portal of sorts and it was inspired by what Yahoo! was doing. And really I tried to create my own Yahoo! as much as one person could do because I loved Yahoo! And Yahoo! had really strong products, it still does, like Yahoo! Fantasy sports, Yahoo! Sports, Yahoo! Finance, were all really strong products that I used a lot. I tried to do that so, it’s interesting to see Yahoo! now fade into Verizon after so many different takeover offers and bids and whatnot, and just a lot of different trials and tribulations over the year. But specifically for Flickr, as someone who worked at Flickr for more than 5 years, what do you think about a Verizon owned Flickr?
22:17 Zack Sheppard: I guess, since it’s hard to tell what it would look like, I still think Flickr has such a strong community that the Flickr and the Flickr community that we have will find a way to keep going on in a very recognizable way is my hope. Without, of course, being able to know but there’s so much there, that is definitely my hope. And the larger Yahoo! as well, I got into the internet in large part because of Yahoo! When I left college, I was in Nevada and I had an English degree, I was like, “I wanna go be part of this internet thing.” So, I applied to three companies and nothing happened, and then I drove out to the Bay Area, with resumes for eBay, Yahoo!, and someone else I forgot. And I drove six hours from my little town in Nevada and I remember I went into Yahoo! and there was some lady at a desk, talking on the phone and I was trying to give her my resume and she finally took it even though she didn’t really look at me. And then I went, “Well, that’s what I really want anyway.” And I threw the others away and I drove back home. And then a month later, they called me and that’s how I got my career start in the internet. So, they also means a lot to me and I guess I just hope there’s so many of those strong products, there’s so many really wonderful people that are there, that I think they’ll find a way to keep them going, my hope.
23:33 Patrick O’Keefe: Zach, it has been a pleasure to have you on the show. I’m grateful that you came on to share your experience. I’m grateful for your patience today on what has been almost a dumpster fire of a day for me. So, I’m sorry that I wrestled you into that but it’s been a pleasure to speak with you.
23:46 Zack Sheppard: You too, Patrick. Thanks a lot.
23:48 Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Zack Sheppard, who consults on customer support and community policy, drawing from his experience at Kickstarter, Pinterest, Flickr, and Yahoo! Visit his website at zach.io. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we’ve mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad. We’ll see you next week.
Thank you for listening to Community Signal.