The Disappearing News Media Comment Sections
As the former director of community for HuffPost, where he led the management of an active, massive comment section, Tim McDonald has had a unique vantage point to the mass closure of news media comment sections. Patrick and Tim go in depth on that topic on this episode.
Toward the end, Tim shares what he believes will be his greatest community ROI story: He has stage IV colon cancer and is in need of a liver donor and could get a lot closer with your help. Please visit TimsLiver.com for more info.
- Why Tim believes he doesn’t make a good soccer referee – or content moderator
- Keeping track of your community wins – both qualitative and quantitative
- Leveraging relationships with influential community members to get your message across, rather than being the face of the community yourself
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.
You can’t make everyone happy in moderation (10:56): “I would hate it when there was a close call [as a soccer referee] because I knew in my head what the call was but I knew if I looked at it objectively from one team’s viewpoint and from the other team’s viewpoint, half were going to be happy with me, half were going to be upset with me, and I wanted to make everybody happy. You can’t do that in comment moderation, and you can’t do that being a referee.” –@tamcdonald
Allowing influential members to do the talking (11:34): “I didn’t need to get into the [HuffPost] community and be the face of the community. I could just have relationships with about a dozen of our community members who were very well respected and let them do the talking. But in exchange, I would take phone calls from them at home, at night, on the weekends. I would listen to them, I would understand what they were going through, but I would also be able to convey what, from a company standpoint, we were trying to achieve. When I did that, they started understanding.” –@tamcdonald
If we aren’t going to invest in it, why spend so much effort? (19:08): “My very last day [at HuffPost was] when we pushed the button and [switched to Facebook Comments]. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, but I just told everybody, ‘I’ve come up with solutions. I’ve come up with options. Nobody wants to pay for this. If we can’t invest in it, and we’re not willing to invest in it, and we’re not going to generate any revenue off of it, why are we supporting it?’ That was the end of it. Obviously, they still had comments. They still do have comments, but it’s nothing to what it was back when I was at HuffPost.” –@tamcdonald
Document your community wins (22:53): “The subscriber growth of The New York Times is often cited … by media folks and executives as an example of the D2C model, but I think people would do well to remember that The New York Times never closed their comments. … People want that success of, ‘Look at all the people they have paying for news,’ but they don’t necessarily want to do that work that is moderating comments for 20 years to build a section that is befitting of The New York Times.” –@patrickokeefe
Document your community wins (30:02): “We say [document your wins], but we don’t necessarily always talk about the process through which we capture that, and so it fails. … If it’s easy and it’s comprehensive, then you’re going to do it. Whereas if it’s manual and it’s slow, not only are you not going to do it, but when you don’t do it, you’re going to not be able to access that information as easily.” –@patrickokeefe
Generous giving is the greatest community ROI (34:16): “When I find [a liver] donor through [the communities] I’ve built up over the years, that is going to be the greatest ROI because I don’t think there’s a price that we can put on our lives, and I don’t think there’s a price that we can put on the amount of giving that that would take from another human being.” –@tamcdonald
About Tim McDonald
Tim McDonald is the community account manager for HomeRoom.club. He is the former director of community at HuffPost, founder of My Community Manager, and director of communications for Social Media Club Chicago. Tim works with organizations and individuals who are stuck to get them unstuck. He helps people connect with their voice and stories. He is also a speaker and facilitates workshops.
Recognizing how fear held him back, he has changed his relationship with fear and has used it to get unstuck and end a 17-year marriage, meet his life partner, move to a new city, twice, leave a toxic job, and currently looks at having stage IV metastasized colon cancer as a gift. Tim is in search of a liver donor with surgery planned around September 2022. If you think this could be you, please visit TimsLiver.com for more info.
- Sponsor: Hivebrite, the community engagement platform
- Tim McDonald on Twitter
- Visit TimsLiver.com to help Tim find a liver donor
- My Community Manager
- Social Media Club
- Bassey Etim, many time guest on Community Signal
- When You Need Community To Save Your Life: The Story of Tim McDonald, by listener and Patreon supporter Jenny Weigle
[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 thank you for listening. Our guest is Tim McDonald who is formerly the director of community at HuffPost. We’re going to talk about the impact of news site comments section closures, capturing the qualitative as easily as the quantitative, and Tim’s search for a liver donor.
Our Patreon supporters are a great group who support our show financially. We appreciate it. Among them is Jenny Weigle, Serena Snoad, and Paul Bradley. If you’d like to find out more, please go to communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Tim McDonald is the community account manager for HomeRoom.club. He is the former director of community at Huffington Post, founder of My Community Manager, and director of communications for Social Media Club Chicago. Tim works with organizations and individuals who are stuck to get them unstuck. He helps people connect with their voice and stories. He is also a speaker and facilitates workshops.
Recognizing how fear held him back, he has changed his relationship with fear and has used it to get unstuck and end a 17-year marriage, meet his life partner, move to a new city, twice, leave a toxic job, and currently looks at having stage IV metastasized colon cancer as a gift. Tim is in search of a liver donor with surgery planned around September 2022. If you think this could be you, please visit TimsLiver.com for more info.
Jenny Weigle, who as I just mentioned is a Patreon supporter of our show, recently wrote about the impact Tim has had on her career and we’ll include a link to that in the show notes.
Tim, welcome to the show.
[00:01:37] Tim McDonald: Great to be here. Thank you for having me.
[00:01:14] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s my pleasure. I tell people all the time that one of the best ways to get into community work or to advance in it is to build a community of your own, build a resource to share, even start a solo community. You started My Community Manager, a resource that existed for quite some time and that I participated in happily multiple times and the #CMGRHangout live conversations, and that actually led to your job at HuffPost. Can you tell that story?
[00:02:06] Tim McDonald: Yes, and actually, it didn’t start with me starting that community, it started when I was in real estate back when the market crashed in 2008 and I got involved with social media because people buying homes were first-time home buyers and they were the first ones that were using Facebook. When Facebook opened up to me, I just thought I’m going to use this and connect with people that I went to high school with. Little did I realize at that time that everybody is related to a realtor or has a best friend who is one, so that didn’t work out, but then Twitter came around and I started seeing the power in being able to listen in on what people were talking about and then engaging with them that way, not trying to sell me, but be helpful to them.
I just wanted to learn as much as I could about this whole new way of communicating on digital channels so I got involved with Social Media Club Chicago. I went to a couple of events, volunteered, and then all of a sudden, they asked me to join the board of directors as their director of communications. As I was doing this, I’m realizing, wait a minute, this is more than communications. This is like volunteer coordination, event planning, customer service, email marketing. It’s a whole bunch of different things and I’m like, there’s got to be a name for this.
I just started googling because I heard the phrase community manager and I started googling it. I found there was one community for startup companies, there was one community for enterprise or internal communities, and then there was, obviously, the gaming community managers who thought we were crazy for thinking community management was new 12 years ago. 14 years ago, I guess now I guess it is. What led me to think was, well, if I’m searching for this information and nothing’s out there, then why don’t I create a site and put it out there for people.
I started doing that. It started just as a website with blog posts. I was trying to do job postings to get people in, and then all of a sudden Google+ came around and I’m like, “Oh, here’s something new,” because I didn’t want to jump on the Twitter chat bandwagon that everybody else was back in the day. I know they still exist and they’re still around but back in the day, it was like everybody was just creating another Twitter chat. I was like, “Oh wait a minute. Why don’t I just jump on Google+?” They had Hangouts. Hangouts weren’t public at the time so, as we used to say, you probably remember these days I’m sure, what stays on a community manager hangout, stays on a community manager hangout.
It was all private because it wasn’t recorded and it wasn’t broadcast publicly. We did that, but then it did open up to be public. At the time, I was just looking what can I do? I really want to do this for a living. I had posted something on Facebook that was a Venn diagram that I’m sure all of us have seen renditions of this. It’s the three overlapping circles. It says what you’re good at, what you’re passionate at, what pays well, and in the middle where they all overlap, it said #win or something like that.
It was three yellow circles, where they overlapped was red, so I said when I posted that, I’m getting closer to red every day, and one of the people I connected with through My Community Manager and the Community Manager Hangouts was the Director of Community at HuffPost and he commented, “Come work at HuffPost, we’ll get you there.” I remember my flip reply to him, Justin, send me love, but my flip reply to him was because I knew how employee referral programs worked, [chuckles] is, “If you’re serious, pick up the phone and give me a call.” [laughs]
The next day he called me and he started going through all these positions that they had open at HuffPost. One, it was called HuffPost streaming network at the time but it was basically what became HuffPost Live. I said, “Wait a minute,” he was in the middle of talking about all these jobs and I was getting bored with listening to all of them and I was just like, “Wait a minute, go back to that one. Wait, that’s a live streaming network that you need a community manager for?” He said, “Yes.” “That’s got my name on it.”
I interviewed for it over livestream. That was my interview with two of the three executives that were starting it up. I will never forget the day, I was sitting at the pool with my wife in the Chicago suburbs. It was in May, so it wasn’t Memorial Day yet but we had warm weather and our complex opened up the pool. We’re sitting there and I get a phone call. It was from the HR department asking me all these qualifying questions if I was able to work and blah, blah, blah. I said, “Well, what is this for?” They’re like, “Oh, didn’t you hear from the hiring manager?” I said, “No.” They’re like, “Oh, you’re getting offered a job.” That’s what got me the job and got me from Chicago out to New York.
It all started for me just getting involved with Social Media Club and then seeing this opportunity and then figuring it wasn’t there, create it myself. That led to me getting the job there, and as they say, the rest is history. [laughs]
[00:06:58] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, it’s a great story. I realized recently I’ve never got a job I applied for, which is either an indictment of myself or just how my life has worked out. Every job that I’ve had, or every opportunity, most of the opportunities I’ve had have been because I met someone at some point in my work. More recently with CNN, Bassey Etim hired me. I’ve known Bassey for like 12, 13 years. I met him because I was writing about comment moderation on news media sites. I reached out to him and David Williams from CNN at the time, still CNN, and like, “Hey, what’s going on, would you like to be a part of this thing?” We did a panel at South by. 10 years later, he’s like, “I’ve got this thing, we should work together.”
It’s funny you mentioned everyone knowing a realtor because we were recently looking for homes out here in Los Angeles and have kind of given up for now. It just doesn’t feel like it’s the right time for us to buy. I think we’re going to take that money and invest it in a different way. I went to a home. So many people asked for like a phone number or an email address and I really don’t want to give it because I know what’s going to happen to it working in the field that I do, I get added to an email list and I just have no desire for that. Our realtor doesn’t even send me listings. I find all the homes. I have a Zillow notification that comes to me and then I decide what we’re going to look at, but I did for this person for some reason, and I was getting emails from him and I realized that he is JoJo Siwa’s brother, Jayden. JoJo Siwa is a singer, dancer, I think she was on or is on Nickelodeon, very popular with kids. Because the last name is sort of not common and so I looked it up. I was like, “Oh, that’s this person’s brother?” She’s gotten millions and millions of followers. It was just funny, so yes, everybody’s related to a realtor.
[00:08:22] Tim McDonald: That’s why I didn’t stay in real estate too long because I was not one of those people who automatically added you to a list or started calling you right away. I was a nice realtor. One of my clients actually, we had a mutual friend, and told me, “Tim is the nicest guy in the world but he sucks at being a realtor because he doesn’t know how to sell.” [laughs]
[00:08:42] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, yes, that’s a tough thing to do if you don’t know how to sell. [chuckles] I was looking at HuffPost’s website in 2022. They have a sidebar that shows how many comments have been posted today. I have no idea what timezone that reflects when it resets to zero, whatever. On a Sunday, yesterday at 6:00 PM Eastern, I looked at it and it said there were 905 comments that had been posted so far today, on Sunday. How does that fit with the volume you were seeing when you were working there?
[00:09:07] Tim McDonald: That was like a couple of minutes.
[00:09:09] Patrick O’Keefe: Okay. [chuckles]
[00:09:12] Tim McDonald: We were processing millions of comments a month. A lot of them never made it to the site but we had a machine learning program that was constantly being updated to filter out almost every single comment that came through just for, you think it’s easy, right? Like the F-word, right, but put in different characters, put in foreign languages, put in everything else, other ways that you can say it. Now, all of a sudden, you have 155 different variations of the F-word that you’re filtering out via computer so a human doesn’t have to do that, and that was continually being added on to.
We have that and then we had a team of 57 and all but four were moderators, so 53 moderators we had. They worked 24/7 and definitely, our politics, we called all of our new sections verticals, so the politics was, by far, the busiest, business was probably second, and then all the other ones. If you were really one of our top moderators who knew the politics vertical, you would get as many hours as you wanted and you could be on there, but your volume was several hundred comments an hour being able to handle that.
I had always told people when they wanted me to talk about comment moderation, I said, well, I can talk about it, but don’t ask me to do comment moderation because I suck at it. I know how to manage a team of moderators, I don’t know how to moderate myself. [laughs]
[00:10:36] Patrick O’Keefe: Why do you think that is?
[00:10:37] Tim McDonald: I think I’m too empathetic and see different sides of things. I learned this early on in my career when I was a soccer coach, I was a professional soccer coach, in the youth leagues, not in the MLS or anything, but I also got my referees license and I started reffing a couple of games, obviously not that my teams were involved with, but just on the side.
I would hate it when there was a close call because I knew in my head what the call was but I knew if I looked at it objectively from one team’s viewpoint, from the other team’s viewpoint, half were going to be happy with me, half were going to be upset with me, and I wanted to make everybody happy [laughs] and you can’t do that in comment moderation, and you can’t do that being a referee, but I think it does make for being a good community manager because you don’t need to make everybody happy but you can try and make most people happy.
I think forming relationships with a few of our community members was what really made me successful in my job and what I did and how I did it because I didn’t need to get into the community and be the face of the community. I could just have relationships with about a dozen of our community members who were very well respected in the community and let them do the talking, but in exchange, I would take phone calls from them at home, at night, on the weekends. I would listen to them, I would understand what they were going through, but I would also be able to convey what, from a company standpoint, we were trying to achieve. When I did that, they started understanding.
I’ll never forget one of our first moves was because when I got promoted to director of community, Ariana was very insistent that she wanted the toxicity of our comments gone, which is impossible almost to do, but I was all for that trying to make that happen. One of the first steps we took was these people that are trolls know how to set up accounts that can get around IP addresses quicker than our ops team could block them. The one thing that was a simple lift at the time was using a verified Facebook account.
Now, this isn’t the blue check mark that you get on Facebook but back in the day, Facebook considered you verified if you put a phone number in and then got a text and verified that it was actually you, so you needed a Facebook account that was verified with a phone number, while a lot of our commenters were not people that wanted a Facebook account because they hated the privacy aspect of it.
What I would do, and this was, again, all just one on one conversations with a few people, is offer to walk them through how to set up a Facebook account, how to make sure everything was shut down so that only they could see it, and then how to verify it. I also gave them tips and I did this actually for some people because it got a little bit complicated, but creating a Google Voice, or what’s now Google Fi, a Google Voice number so that they could actually verify it.
For some of my top people, I actually gave them my phone number as long as they deleted it off of there so I could add it back in mine. That’s how they got verified, but as a result of that, now, me doing that with a couple of different people in our community, they told everybody else that they wanted to tell about it in the community, and so it was me telling a couple of people and then probably 100 to 200 other people that were concerned just like these three or four people were, all got the same benefit just from me sharing it with those few people.
[00:13:54] Patrick O’Keefe: Let’s take a moment here 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.
With so many moderators, you say yourself you don’t want to do comment moderation. What was the escalation process on certain comments if it needed to be brought up to someone else or was there one?
[00:14:33] Tim McDonald: We had lead moderators that were our top of the top. If somebody had a question, they could pass it through to them but I got to say our team of moderators was top-notch. That very rarely happened. My feeling still to this day, when people say we got free speech, well, free speech doesn’t give you free reign to say anything you want. You can’t go to an airport and say, I have a bomb. Why do you think it’s okay to say that online? People saying that, people saying things that could be harmful or taken out of context and viewed a certain way that’s putting down a certain group of people or a specific person is not free speech. That’s not according to our guidelines and our rules of our community forum. When we do that, when people would come to me and say, “Hey, you’re banning my free speech,” and honestly, I’d go look at the comment, I’d see what it was. I’d get with the moderator, I’d learn what it was, but then I’d get back to them and I’d just be like, “Listen,” I said, “If this happens, every comment you post is not going to get up on the site. It’s just a fact that you got to live with.”
I said, “Now this could be perceived in this way and this is probably why.” I didn’t get into the head of the moderator because, one, I don’t think that’s fair to our moderators, and two, I don’t think that’s good for you to share with your community because then they’re going to try and use that against you the next time they have something come up. [chuckles]
It was all about just trying to help them understand that 99% of your comments get up on this site in a very timely manner. If we take the time to address this one that you’re concerned about not getting up there, that’s going to impact how quickly and how real-time our comments can be if you ask me to really investigate this. Most of them all understood that and most of them just let it go and actually appreciated the fact that I would have that dialogue with them, so they didn’t call back again and they let it go.
The escalation process really, I would say, was in place, but it wasn’t really utilized that much because we didn’t allow it to be. I think the way we utilized it didn’t allow it to be used that much. That was intentional, very intentional.
[00:16:43] Patrick O’Keefe: You left HuffPost midway through 2014, and in the eight years since, many news outlets, big and small, have closed their comments sections to the point where I would consider even a trope with online community folks and audience engagement folks, or whatever your title is. You can just Google, “News site closes comments section,” and find just endless number of examples.
Obviously, moderating or being responsible at a high-end for such a large comments section, and HuffPost still has comments, to their credit, what’s gone through your mind as you watched this play out and seen one after another domino news site just fall and close their comments section and push it off to somewhere else?
[00:17:21] Tim McDonald: It really wasn’t surprising to me because, as I was going through all this, trying to understand and clean up our comments section by not allowing toxic comments come through, not letting trolls to come through, it really became clear to me because every option that I came up with to make it healthier associated with the dollar sign. When I looked at trying to justify the dollar sign for the revenue that we got off of this, I understood that it didn’t have any business value. here was no advertiser who wanted to be around our comments section. I think the exact words were within a mile of our comments section. [chuckles] None of our commenters wanted to pay to have the privilege of being a commenter and our site was free to read so we weren’t generating revenue off of readers, it was all off of advertisers. Even though a lot of people loved coming in and reading the comments, they had to read the article first in order to get to the comments. Them being a reader of the content was good.
[00:18:22] Patrick O’Keefe: They’re given a lot of credit that they read the article before commenting. [laughs]
[00:18:25] Tim McDonald: Most of them actually did. I wouldn’t say all, but most. Then, the other thing that I realized, and this started happening when we went non-anonymous commenter, was that all these people that didn’t want to have a Facebook-verified account would then start another site or get involved in another forum on a different site and start talking about the articles on HuffPost.
I raised my hand up in celebration saying, “This is the best of both worlds. They’re having the conversation over here. We don’t need to touch it. We don’t need to spend a dollar on it, yet they’re coming back to our site every day to actually read the content and understand what’s going on with it in order to have those conversations.”
When I presented that, that was actually my last day there, was, as we called it, hit the nuclear button and went to Facebook comments instead of our native commenting system. That was my very last day when we pushed the button and did that. Everybody looked at me like I was crazy, but I just told everybody, I said, “Listen, I’ve come up with solutions. I’ve come up with options. Nobody wants to pay for this. If we can’t invest in it and we’re not willing to invest in it and we’re not going to generate any revenue off of it, why are we supporting it?” That was the end of it. Obviously, they still had comments. They still do have comments, but it’s nothing to what it was back when I was at HuffPost. [chuckles]
[00:19:45] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting because there’s this tug of war with an ad model. Ad model being tied to a number of eyeballs impressions, those sorts of things. Comments often being a way to generate additional time on site, additional impressions, additional eyeballs. When done well, opportunity to increase retention, lower bounce rate, et cetera. It can support that but there is that sort of a curve at some point where diminishing returns, right? Where if you look at it from an investment standpoint and you can’t tie it to revenue generation or that increased traffic, then it becomes a question of, okay, are we losing money on this, or is it worth it in a different way?
For us are those people worth more to us as subscribers, as people who buy merch, as people who come to our events, ticketed events, whatever. Yes, it’s an interesting tug of war where I think you can grow too much sometimes and become too successful where you can outpace the ability you have to keep it healthy, right?
[00:20:45] Tim McDonald: Yes, and I do honestly think that I inherited something that up until I took over was purely focused on the number of comments. Because of that, we got so huge with the amount of comments that we were processing that it became a beast that you couldn’t control anymore. When I say my last day was when we flipped the switch, we had actually tested this on a couple of verticals for a couple of months before we made the switch because the other thing that we weren’t getting from our commenters was we weren’t getting any social sharing.
This was right when social media was becoming big and people would share on Facebook or share to Twitter or wherever. I mean, we didn’t have Snapchat, we didn’t have TikTok back then but it was like they were sharing on the social media platforms and our commenters were not the ones doing that, but when we switched to Facebook comments, it became much more likely that our commenters using Facebook comments on those verticals would be sharing to their Facebook page.
Now we were getting organic traffic from people sharing to their Facebook page coming back to our site because of that. That was the other piece of this equation that drew us to Facebook comments was it was a great way for us to get our commenters now to self-moderate, we would obviously help and with the reduced staff and not as much tack, but we would also be getting a business value from it because we’d be getting more traffic back to the site because of it through social sharing.
[00:22:10] Patrick O’Keefe: A lot of people talk about D2C, going direct to the consumer, and no matter where you look, there’s D2C plays. Disney+ is a D2C play. Every streaming service that every legacy brand, Paramount+, I’m a subscriber now. The Offer, I love The Offer, the show about making The Godfather, it’s awesome. Everyone wants to be direct to consumers, have the consumer data, no one between them, no middle person within the customer relationship.
News media orgs aren’t any different. Obviously, CNN tried it with CNN+ but that’s just one of many. There’s membership programs, all sorts of membership programs with different media companies, small and large. There’s efforts to go around the, I don’t know, the traditional models of monetizing broadcast news, print news, digital news, et cetera, and just go direct to the consumer.
One other example that I’ve heard a lot is The New York Times, specifically the subscriber growth of The New York Times is often cited as sort of this D2C win. It’s cited by media folks, executives, as sort of an example of the D2C model, but I think people would do well to remember that The New York Times never closed their comments. A lot of successful work done was architected by Bassey who I mentioned earlier, Bassey Etim, a friend of the show, he’s been on multiple times. That’s really not the only reason for the success, The New York Times does many things well, but it’s part of the mix but they had to do it for a while.
I think The New York Times first, is a very old news organization, right, but also that was a multi-year, going on multiple decades now, effort to build a really good comments section and be really strict about it and measure it. Not everyone’s built for that. People want that success of like, “Look at the subscriber growth in The New York Times. Look at all the people they have paying for news,” but they don’t necessarily want to do that work that is moderating comments for 20 years to build a section that is befitting of The New York Times.
I think there’s something funny there about like, “Look how great The New York Times is.” Well, yes, but you can still go on to a The New York Times article right now and share your thoughts and have it viewed by a moderator on the audience or the community desk. I don’t know, that’s often left out of that example I feel like.
[00:24:11] Tim McDonald: I think that’s part and parcel to why community is so important, right. They probably didn’t do this with the foresight that this is why they were going to need it at the beginning but they nurtured it in a way and stuck with it for long enough where when the tides turned, when they saw this opportunity, they knew it was there for them because they kept it. Now, I remember after I left HuffPost would come up to New York quite often and have some Danish journalist come over and I’d set up meetings and one of them was with somebody from New York Times.
[00:24:41] Patrick O’Keefe: I think I might have set the introduction up for that if it’s the one I’m thinking of.
[00:24:45] Tim McDonald: Yes.
[00:24:45] Patrick O’Keefe: You had asked me to introduce you to Bassey for something and he couldn’t [crosstalk] and there was someone else who stepped in and I connected them to you– [laughs][crosstalk]
[00:24:51] Tim McDonald: Yes, and it was so weird because what had happened was at that time they only were opening comments up on certain articles. They were experimenting with having some of their past writers and editors be the moderators for the comments section, but it was something that they were insistent that they wanted and were going to keep doing and just playing around with how this was going to work. This is before they went to, I think, the whole digital shift and getting all the subscribers and everything, right before, but it was just so interesting to see.
It just goes to show there’s not one way for any news organization to do comments. You got to look at really, what’s good for your business, what’s good for your community, what’s good for your future business because I don’t think any traditional print magazine or publication would’ve thought even 10 years ago that we would be sitting where we are today. [laughs]
[00:25:47] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. I notice, and of course, your LinkedIn is only a high-level view of our work histories, but you left Huffington Post, and outside of some workshops here and there, it seems like you just didn’t go back to the media. Did you have enough working in that industry and decided you needed something else, or what’s the story?
[00:26:02] Tim McDonald: No, I’ve actually loved it right until before the pandemic. I’ve been working with journalist groups a lot over in the Nordic region but also here in the states and it’s just been fascinating to me to get a chance to talk with them but it also kept me up to date because I’ve talked with companies like Quartz, and they bring in speakers that were talking about when bots were becoming popular and how to do it right.
I learned how to build my own Facebook messaging bot back in the early days of it, that didn’t sound like you were talking to some creepy computer. It actually talked like you were responding to a human. I’ve stayed in that arena for so long and done workshops with different consultants that were in that space that I still feel so attached to the media industry even though I haven’t worked in it since I left HuffPost. [chuckles]
[00:26:53] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. That makes a lot of sense. You mentioned to me before the show that one of your focus areas is combining qualitative and quantitative metrics, “Not so much that this is new, but finding ways to capture both as easily as it is to get the quantitative ones.” Big topic, but how can we make it as easy to get the qualitative as the quantitative?
[00:27:16] Tim McDonald: Well, it’s interesting because the company I’m with now, there are a lot of no-code engineers and looking at ways to utilize existing technology to make things happen. It’s been interesting to see just how simple it is to put a reaction, an emoji, or a certain phrase that maybe most people wouldn’t use onto a comment and, all of a sudden, that can automatically trigger you capturing that thread.
I’m like, huh, I guess there are ways to make this easy and automated. Because it’s not that it’s automated, you still need to take the action to actually mark that comment with that reaction or with that phrase that you’re going to use in order for it to capture it, but it’s a lot easier than doing a screen grab, downloading it to a shared folder, and then having to go back through all those things again later and then put it into your reporting.
It’s the one thing that I’m really excited about is seeing the opportunities because I’m not like the tech person that knows the back end of stuff, I know the front end of stuff and I know how users interface with it. It’s like seeing and knowing that it’s possible now to even on Twitter, mark something a certain way and then have it trigger where it goes automatically into a report, or into a folder in a report where you can actually select or deselect it.
I think these are becoming in such a way that we can make those qualitative things, but the one thing that won’t go away, and I think this is true for quantitative and qualitative, is if you don’t provide the insights for what this data means and you don’t tell the story with it, nobody understands what the hell you’re showing them. They can take their own interpretations of it, but that can be very dangerous, especially if you’re trying to build a case for why community is important.
If they take it as something else, they might just look at it as another sales channel and turn it into sales, and all of a sudden your community is gone because they don’t understand the nuances of what it takes to build a community and they’re not there to be sold, they’re there because they love what you’re doing and because they have a shared purpose that they feel that they’re a part of with your brand. It’s like all these things are thrown out the window when another department reads the data incorrectly. [laughs]
[00:29:27] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, the right mix. One thing I take away from that is just, we all hear this, I’m sure I’ve said it and maybe you’ve said it too before, documenting your wins. Who doesn’t say that? Document your wins for your community work, for your team, for your company, that relates to your work, document those wins to tell your story down the road. You’ll need them when it comes time to advocate for something, prove your worth, whatever.
We say that for individuals, we say document your wins as a professional, the things that you accomplish at that company, and make sure you don’t just get lost in that company. Make sure you’re documenting the things that you’ve done so that you can advance in your career when you need them. The thing that’s interesting about what you said, I think, is just we say that, but we don’t necessarily always talk about the process through which we capture that, and so it fails because it’s such a manual thing where it is taking a screenshot or it’s some massive Google Doc that is tough to search or turns into 50 pages and who knows where it is, or it is images and unless you have like an OCR search or you can search the text in an image, which is more and more possible, you’re not searching that as easily.
Whether it’s some tool allows you to automatically capture something you’re looking at and then tag it and have it be transcribed or something, obviously, there’s note-taking apps, things like Evernote and whatnot, that probably help to some extent with a bookmarklet or something. Think about the processes for which you capture those things because if it’s easy and it’s comprehensive, then you’re going to do it. Whereas if it’s manual and it’s slow, not only are you not going to do it, but when you don’t do it, you’re going to not be able to access that information as easily.
[00:30:52] Tim McDonald: Exactly. The numbers we pretty much got down to a science, right. If we know and the platform can provide us, we know what we’re capturing and it’s all automated for us. Now, we still need to take that and tell the story with what those numbers mean but it’s the whole other part, the qualitative, that really gets into visually sharing what this means. What do these numbers mean and represent?
I think you said it well, it’s not only within your company but I loved sharing wins with our entire company. When I was at HuffPost Live, sharing wins for all of them. They’re not seeing this, they’re producers, they’re head down into their next segment that they’re producing, but it’s like if I can give them a five-second little read and snapshot of what just happened in the community that was because of their work, now they’re more jazzed to make that next segment just as good or even better than the other one because they’re seeing the results of what their work is putting out.
I was as big of a cheerleader for our community as I was for our employees. It was always about trying to get them jazzed up to see and feel a part. Just like I wanted our community to feel a part of what we were creating at work, it’s all about getting our employees to feel energized about what our community is feeling because of the work that they’re creating.
[00:32:13] Patrick O’Keefe: Talking about getting people energized about community, feeling good about community, one of the questions I ask people pre-show is I ask for the most memorable story that you’ve ever heard about an online community. This is a relatively new question I added. I used to just ask for ROI story and I realized I’m interested in what’s the coolest thing or the most memorable thing you’ve ever heard about an online community. You told me that you don’t think you’ve experienced it yet. Talk about that.
[00:32:36] Tim McDonald: [laughs] Well, it’s a little, because it involves me personally. I was diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer back in November of 2020, and I’ve made great progress. For those that aren’t familiar, stage IV colon cancer is what they consider terminal. There’s no cure for it. I never believed that and there are people who have been cured of stage IV colon cancer so I’m a big believer that I’m going to be one of these, I have since I was diagnosed, but I was in a place where I was responding well to chemo, but all the other options that were available, more traditional options of getting the cancer completely out of my body were off the table.
It was either chemo for my life or going into a clinical trial which was basically an experimental chemo to try and get rid of the cancer. I’m not opposed to doing that if I have to. All of a sudden, I heard about this opportunity to get a liver transplant because the colon cancer metastasized to my liver, spread to my liver. Since I wasn’t a candidate for any type of surgery on my liver, this was now a possibility for me.
I started about a year ago, last June, reaching out to a couple of doctors who did this, and one of ’em is up in Rochester, New York, Dr. Hernandez. He didn’t call me a candidate for it, he said I was a possible candidate for it back a year ago, but my last call last week with him was, “You’re definitely a candidate for a liver transplant,” and so right now I am trying to find the right donor for me and I think that when I find that donor through the community and the communities, I guess, that I’ve built up over the years, I think that is going to be the greatest ROI because I don’t think there’s a price that we can put on our lives and I don’t think there’s a price that we can put on the amount of giving that that would take from another human being to be able to give to us.
When you asked me for what the biggest ROI is, I truly believe this is going to happen. I don’t know with who and I don’t know exactly when, but I think it is going to be this priceless ROI that I don’t think I will ever forget. It’s all because of what I’ve done for the last 12, 14 years in building up these online communities. Even though I might move from place to place or go from industry to industry, I still keep relationships and bonds with people in those communities. I truly view this as maybe my overarching personal community that is going to be the one who provides that ROI that I think we’re never going to forget. [chuckles]
[00:35:18] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, hard to put a dollar sign on it but maximum value. Whatever the value of infinity is ROI, I think you’ll have hit upon it.
Well, Tim, we’ll be sending positive vibes your way. It’s been a pleasure to have you on. Thanks for making time for us.
[00:35:29] Tim McDonald: Oh, thank you for having me. I really appreciate the opportunity to share some of my insights and you letting me share what my biggest ROI is going to be. [laughs]
[00:35:39] Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Tim McDonald, community account manager for HomeRoom.club and former director of community at HuffPost. Tim is looking for a liver donor with a surgery planned around September 2022. If that could be you, visit TimsLiver.com.
For the transcript from this episode, plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced by Karn Broad and Carol Benovic-Bradley is our editorial lead. Thank you for listening.
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