Why Community on the Product Team Works, From a Product Leader’s Perspective
Recently, community pro Danielle Maveal joined Community Signal to discuss her experiences reporting into the product organization at Burb. In this episode, we’re getting the opposite perspective from product leader Gitesh Gohel.
Gitesh and Patrick worked together at CNN, where community reported into product. And while the product and community that they were building were short lived, they both speak highly of their time working together. Gitesh describes creating a team atmosphere where each individual’s expertise was respected and given room to ladder into organizational goals, giving each person the opportunity to see the impact of their work. Patrick shares how this fostered trust in processes and created great experiences for the community and the brand.
If you’re debating a community role that reports into product, this conversation will give you insight into how that can be productive when the team has a strong foundation.
Patrick and Gitesh also discuss:
- Gitesh’s first experience managing community pros as a product leader
- Why community pros should be excited about reporting into product
- The successes and promise of CNN+’s Interview Club
Making room for each individual’s expertise within your org (11:35): “One thing which is really important, especially when it comes to collaboration, trusting each other, and being able to lean in on the skill set or experience that everyone brings to the table to accomplish a shared vision, is being able to create space and autonomy for folks to be able to do their jobs. One thing that we did at CNN, specifically working on Interview Club, was create goals which your team had by itself, but also having those goals be integrated into the success of the product itself.” –@giteshg
The background of a product professional (12:54): “Most people don’t train to be a product manager or to have an expertise in product development. … Most of my training came through experience. It was being part of a team who was building a product and being able to play a small role in it, being able to see what really good successful products look like, being able to see what do really healthy relationships look like across cross-functional teams.” –@giteshg
Is product the right org for community? (25:42): “When you make community part of product, [you’re saying] that your users are important, that the relationships that you develop with your users are important and positive, that you want to be able to not have a transactional relationship with your users, but actually one where you proactively engage, where you’re proactively identifying ways in which you have your users connected.” –@giteshg
Why should a community pro be excited about being part of the product org? (26:50): “[When community sits within product], in a way, you’re closest to the decision maker, and I think that’s important. What you are able to do is influence product strategy and how you think about what you build and who you’re building for, and being able to bring the skills and expertise that you have directly into that conversation. [Product is] where you get to do the most fun stuff. It’s where you get to say and explore different ideas that you want to try. It’s a way in which you get the voice of the user closest to the way in which you think about what you end up doing.” –@giteshg
About Gitesh Gohel
Gitesh Gohel has 14 years of experience as a product leader solving user problems in the startup, consumer, media, political, and civic tech space for organizations like CNN, Tumblr, Giphy, Facebook, Jumo, and Obama 08. He is currently the VP of product for Narwhal.
- Gitesh Gohel on LinkedIn
- The Pros and Cons of Community Reporting to Product, Danielle Maveal on Community Signal
- Bassey Etim, who has been on multiple episodes of Community Signal
[00:00:04] Announcer: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Tweet with @communitysignal as you listen. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
[00:00:21] Patrick O’Keefe: Hello, and welcome to Community Signal. Recently, we had Danielle Maveal on the show to talk about community reporting into product from the perspective of an experienced community pro. This episode, we’re going to flip that around and talk to an experienced product pro about how they feel about community reporting into them. In fact, we’ll be talking with the product leader I reported to at CNN, Gitesh Gohel, who was the senior director of interactive product after spending time at Giphy, Brigade, and Tumblr.
As I mentioned on the show with Danielle, I loved being on the product team at CNN. Gitesh was one of the reasons why, but our time together was cut short by the Warner Bros. Discovery merger.
Thank you to Maggie McGarry, Paul Bradley, and Marjorie Anderson, who are among our Patreon supporters who back the show financially because it provides value to them. If you’d like to join them, please visit communitysignal.com/innercircle.
Gitesh Gohel has 14 years of experience as a product leader solving user problems in the startup, consumer, media, political, and civic tech space for organizations like CNN, Tumblr, Giphy, Facebook, Jumo, and Obama 08.
Gitesh, welcome to the show.
[00:01:04] Gitesh Gohel: Hey Patrick, how’s it going?
[00:01:21] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s going well. You’ve spent more than a decade in product roles from manager to VP at Tumblr, Brigade, Giphy, CNN, and elsewhere, and you’ve overseen plenty of teams, but my reading of your LinkedIn experience suggests to me that, before CNN, you had never really had pure community and moderation team report directly into you. Is that correct?
[00:01:42] Gitesh Gohel: Yes. Well, at Brigade, I made community part of our product org to start thinking about how do we think about who we’re building for really in the DNA of our product development cycles. I’d say that Brigade was probably the first time in which community really was part of product for me.
[00:02:03] Patrick O’Keefe: At CNN when you were looking at that role, when did you learn that would be the case? That you would have community moderation within product? Was it during your interview? Was it after? When did that enter the conversation?
[00:02:15] Gitesh Gohel: Going back now, which feels like a really long time ago, but actually wasn’t long ago, I think it was during the interview process where I got to meet the larger team and the team that I would be working with and got a sense of the way in which the organization had already started to think about moderation and community. I think that first real moment would’ve been when I was interviewing with the CNN team.
[00:02:42] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes, and you’re saying that makes me think it might have been when you talked to Bassey Etim, who I know was on your hiring panel and recruited me to CNN and is a friend of the show, has been on multiple episodes, because it probably would’ve been clear that he was interviewing someone who was going to be stepping in and sort of entering between him and the person that he was reporting in it to at the time.
[00:03:00] Gitesh Gohel: Yes, 100%. You’re right. I distinctively remember talking to Bassey because I’d read up on his background a little bit and some of the work that he had done at the New York Times and was really excited that there was someone who was part of this panel who came with that expertise and also was indicative of like the importance that had been placed on thinking about these things, which often can be after the fact, but these were things that were being discussed and brought to the surface before anything had even really started to be formalized or built, that was a good sign.
[00:03:36] Patrick O’Keefe: That kind of plays into what I was going to check in on next, which was, product can take many different forms as I’m learning and you know. It’s not always, even in an org work community and moderation supporting, that our department can sit in all sorts of areas. It can be its own thing, which I honestly prefer. At CNN, it was good because I liked reporting to you, but if I didn’t like reporting to you, then I would’ve wanted it to be its own thing. That’s very kind of contingent on the people that you have in the product org and how well they sort of understand, empower, and defer, I would say to the community pros.
When you were applying for this job, the descriptions that we had out for the product we were building at the time, which was Interviewer Club within CNN+ we’re very vague and unhelpful. I think that was still the case when you would have been recruited or contacted or applied or however you came to it, but the descriptions weren’t helpful.
You needed to talk to people. We had people under NDA and maybe that was you, maybe it wasn’t, but then we could say, “Okay, this is actually the thing that’s being built.” Maybe this goes back to your time at Brigade being comfortable with it already, but when you learned that fact about the job, what was going through your mind? What did you think about that?
[00:04:34] Gitesh Gohel: Yes, it’s interesting. To your point, I think I went through the entire interview process with CNN and still had no idea what exactly was being built, because everyone was under NDA. As soon as I started getting a glimpse of what it was that the company had been thinking about when it came to Interview Club and realizing that community was going to be a large part of not only the team but also — again, like I mentioned before, part of the DNA of how we think about building product and who we’re building for and thinking about community being a very much integrated part of our thinking, for me, I think it’s really exciting. I think it heavily has influenced and continues to influence how I like to work with community teams or community managers or having that part of your development cycle when it comes to community management really be part of how you think about product strategy. I think you can’t really separate them.
If you are really building a product that solves problems for your end user and you are thinking about the challenges that they have that you think you can come to the table with solutions that help solve those challenges or problems, then having the user at the heart of everything you think about and also having a way in which you are nurturing user behaviors directly by engaging with your users and the community that you’re building, I think it’s super important.
I think, especially for something like Interview Club, which was very much trying to identify ways folks can feel safe with a group of like-minded folks that they’re having an experience with, community in that regard I think was crucial and critical to what Interview Club even was and what it was trying to accomplish.
[00:06:32] Patrick O’Keefe: This is along the same vein, and maybe it goes back to your time at Brigade. When I talked about this show with our Patreon supporters, Paul Bradley, one of our supporters, was curious about your approach to having a community team reporting to you without having a background in it. I’ll quote Paul here, “I think we’ve all been in your position,” meaning mine/Patrick’s, “where we’ve all had managers who were in Gitesh’s shoes, but we may not have always fully gotten honest pictures of what it was like from that side.” Maybe it’s back at Brigade, but when you first inherited some community pros or hired them or built that into the product team, what was that like for you?
[00:07:05] Gitesh Gohel: I think part of it is challenging because you’re thinking about something which isn’t necessarily in the same lane as you are when you are a product person does a function which has organically evolved over 20, 25 years as to what a product person does. The same thing I think is true for– I’m not to speak for you here, but when you are someone who has an expertise and a skillset in community management and what that means, whether that’s in the offline world, which is where I learned a lot of my lessons that got translated into online experiences, I think you’re always going to have moments in which you need to figure out, well, how do those two worlds complement each other. How does one side of that not dictate to the other how to do their job? I think specifically that’s product people telling community managers how to manage communities. I think it’s having a clear idea of how you share the same goals, have the same vision, or tracking towards looking for the same outcomes and really bringing a set of different skills that help you accomplish those goals. I think that sometimes product, engineering, design trio is often talked about. I think when you are building something which is a social platform where you have groups of people who are doing things together, I think community could very easily just be another tentacle of that.
[00:08:37] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s interesting that you say that because, as I’ve thought about what my career looks like from here and had a couple of interest messages from recruiters, and drawing on from my experience and seeing it, I see it possibly staying in product and going that way. I see that in the jobs that are out there. The two recruiter messages I’ve received have both been for product roles that would’ve benefited from my community moderation trust and safety experience.
When people ask me, like, “Why did you enjoy working in product at CNN?” I don’t know if I do the best job articulating it and maybe that’s because it wasn’t a very long time that I had. I had two years at CNN and in different capacities, but really focused from a product perspective, I would say under a year. The things that I come up with are, number one, having been in community for over 20 years, the ways that I think about problems, the ways that I approach problems and document things and try to tackle those things.
Maybe this is just who we had at CNN and it was a small group and maybe it was just the quality of the people we had, it just seemed to click with the things that we were moving towards or the things that we were putting in place and how problems were looked at from the product side. It just seemed to mesh well. The other thing is just, you hit on it there so that the respect for expertise, I think on both sides, I think I had it with you and we had another coworker, Kamal Altintas I think is maybe his last name, product manager at CNN.
I had a good rapport with Kamal because, pretty early on, I was like, “Kamal, I really respect expertise that people have. One thing you’re not going to get from me is you’re not going to get me pushing on deadlines or saying to you, you said this is all we can do, but I don’t believe you.” That’s not going to be what you get from my end, even though I have this tool that we’re building both public and private facing that I’m maybe the key stakeholder in, I’m going to tell you the problems and I trust you. We’re going to build this rapport based on trust.
If you say we can’t do it, then I trust that that’s the case because you have the experience here. At the flip side, what I got from him, and of course from you was, okay, we understand and respect that your background is in this area. If you see a problem and you feel like it’s this important or you see an opportunity that’s as important, then we’re going to trust and rely on your experience because, otherwise, why are you here? It was also the fight to instill product processes. I feel that sometimes can be tough when you have other folks who are maybe in my position who won’t work within the processes or won’t fill out a form or have to use a Slack channel or something like that.
It breaks down fast, that mutual respect where, once I think it’s clear that someone from my end is not respecting the pure product experience people, I’m not sure if that’s a good way to explain it, then it makes it easier for them to do that to me and be like, okay, if you don’t have respect for our experience and we’re not going to respect yours and the whole thing breaks down, we hate each other, and it goes from there.
[00:11:28] Gitesh Gohel: I think that’s a very valid point. I think there’s a couple of things there to unpack. I think one thing which is really important, especially when it comes to collaboration and trusting each other and being able to lean in on the skill set or experience that everyone brings to the table to accomplish a shared vision, is being able to create space, an autonomy for folks to be able to do their jobs.
One thing that we did at CNN, specifically working on Interview Club was creating goals which your team had by itself, but also having those goals be integrated into the success of the product itself. Like if we removed you and your team out of that equation, then the product itself just does not exist and does not work. I think being able to create the same expectations that you might have with any other team that you work with to accomplish those goals that you’re working towards, I think having really clear objectives and goals is really important, but also having everyone subscribe to the same set of goals and objectives so you know that you’re collectively working towards the same thing.
The earlier piece, there’s a little meta question here, what is a product person? I think, from speaking for myself for example, I didn’t train as a product person. Most people don’t train to be a product manager or to have an expertise in product development. I should say for myself, most of my training came through experience. It was being part of a team who was building a product and being able to play a small role in it, being able to see what really good successful products look like, being able to see what does really healthy relationships look like across cross-functional teams.
For you, when you say you’ve got two years of experience just working at CNN, if you break it down into, well, what does a product person really think about? You think about who you’re building for, what are the opportunities out there, what are the problems that you can solve, how do you think about prioritization of all of the things that you could do versus the things that you can actually do with the time or people that you have available. How do you go and execute against those ideas that you have? How are you able to measure the success? How are you able to work with other folks who enabled you to be successful? I think everyone on your team got to experience that. If it’s breaking down what a product person does into more specific pieces of that responsibility, then you’ve had almost all of it because you identify as someone who’s a director of community and has community roles.
I think anyone who works in that space is pretty much a product manager because you’re really solving for this idea of creating a solution for your end user and everything that you and your team did, thinking specifically with the lens of the user in mind is the definition of that.
That’s how I specifically think about it and specifically how I thought about you and your team, which is why I thought having you more and more integrated into the product team and actually starting to even give you explicit product responsibilities over time, even though we didn’t quite get to a place in which that was fully implemented for many, many reasons, mostly that we only survived about four hours, I think, before we got shutdown, there’s a lot there to maybe dig into a little bit more.
[00:15:15] Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a great point because one of the things that has struck me about these recruiter messages, because I usually don’t get much, I’ve been pretty public about this, it’s always funny because you see people who are like, recruiters are overwhelming me on LinkedIn. I try to be really open about the fact recently that has not been the case for me. I don’t get tons of recruiter messages. The opportunities I get tend to be someone who knows me and is doing something, and is like, “Well, Patrick, you should look at this.”
I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I don’t think I’ve ever got a job I applied for which maybe means that I’m bad at it, which I don’t think is the case. I help other people with their resume and they get jobs. Getting these messages and them being product roles, it’s underscored the fact that I think, and to your point about how we think about our experience as community pros, it’s good for our career if we at least– if not get “product experience,” just to think about how we can talk in product terms about our experience, because it does seem like there are a lot of opportunities for folks with this kind of an experience for these jobs.
The job that I can fully talk about is one was a product manager for online safety for PlayStation. Another was a product manager for legal compliance for Disney. It was like both of those areas are relevant to community moderation, trust, and safety. They wanted someone essentially who would be an expert who have strong expertise in those areas and then work on the product team. It just opens up more avenues, I think.
You started getting in something that I was going to ask about, and it’s hard to ask this without being– I think it’s a little self-serving. You had a really odd entrance in my view into CNN in the context of building a team because you were hired for the senior director role, and you had a product manager, I mentioned earlier, Kamal. You didn’t hire Kamal. The person that was on your panel, I mentioned Bassey, left for another part of CNN shortly thereafter. You inherited me and two people with promises to hire more.
It was a promotion for me and I was hopefully kind and respectful, but also honest about the fact that I needed my title to change, and I needed these things. When you had this happen, Bassey left and here’s Patrick, and we never really talked much, what was your impression of that conversation of having this pure community people pop up that you didn’t know and be like, “Hey, I do this thing, I want this thing, I need this thing”? Hopefully it wasn’t like that.
[00:17:28] Gitesh Gohel: No. Honestly, I loved you from when we first chatted. I’m trying to remember when or what that first conversation was, but I think having been part of a lot of startups and I think having been part of a lot of teams that have– I’ve either been in organizations that have been very, very early on, or I’ve been part of organizations which have been maturing. I think the CNN team was interesting in that, it had half matured, but was not sure how the other half was really going to complete itself.
When I met you and met the team, they were all very positive feelings. You came, I remember reading your background and seeing the expertise you were bringing to the table and the work that you had done with Bassey before I had got to CNN. I think that would’ve been– you were there for maybe a year before I actually arrived. You can feel very lucky that you are walking into a space where you have really special people who bring a very specific skill set and experience to the table that you yourself don’t have.
You immediately start to think about, how can you best leverage this skillset so it’s actually used? How do you actually take advantage of, from a selfish point of view from myself as a product person who is leading that team? How do you best utilize the people that you have to help you accomplish, again, those goals that you’re trying to accomplish? Those goals for us were pretty hefty. Part of the reason why I joined was, I was fascinated by the news organization as an entity.
I was fascinated by the challenges that traditional media faces in the age of people being more and more agnostic as to where their content or news comes from, and having an opportunity to be a part of an organization that was maybe doing a little bit of self reflection realizing that it needed to do something fundamentally different from what it had for the last 25 years, and also leaning into wanting to be different and thinking differently.
When I got to CNN and Interview Club and saw that there was this very eclectic team in place coming from a tech background, typically don’t have 25 television producers part of your team, so having a large group of content folks, having a large product engineering design org but also having the expertise of community, it really for me was a positive sign.
[00:20:14] Patrick O’Keefe: Thank you for that. Then I hit you with the parental leave thereafter which you were very supportive of. Thank you for that as well.
[00:20:22] Gitesh Gohel: Yes, of course.
[00:20:23] Patrick O’Keefe: I credit that to your tech background, too, as opposed to being a hardcore journalist because the journalism people at CNN, I still don’t know what holidays we would have got this year. I’m being very honest right now. I still don’t know because I still like to have a conversation around what holidays are we guaranteed? I didn’t get there because, from the journalism side, the news side, it’s very much like, who knows. But the tech side, we’re like, oh, we get these days and, of course, you would take your parental leave.
[00:20:47] Gitesh Gohel: Yes, totally. For me, it was a non-discussion because life happens. These really special moments in our life happens that will and should take you away from the work that you do and being able to facilitate that because you value the people that you work with and what they bring to the table and are able to recognize that there’s something more important than the thing that they’re working on I think is really important just like how we think about who we are and the values that we hold.
I would also say a second part of that is that you had built a really excellent team. I think this is credit to your style of managing and developing your team where you were able to totally step away and have folks who felt empowered to take on all of the responsibilities that you had. You set that team up for success. I think that’s a sign of someone who is really thoughtful and thinking about the long-term and not just thinking about what you’re doing on any given moment in any day, investing in people who you work with like making sure that you’re helping to give them opportunities and developing them so that they are able to stretch in moments like that.
If you go away for six months, that’s great, that’s not like a bump in the road at all. I would also say that that’s a real point that I would highlight where it’s super important to be able to build a team that you invest in, that you grow, that you’re able to nurture and give those opportunities too, so that when something like this does happen, it’s totally okay.
[00:22:34] Patrick O’Keefe: Thanks for that. That means a lot. It’s funny because this is something that I don’t know if it plays well with some folks, but something that I’ve told my teams before, especially when they get stressed, is ultimately, 50 years from now we’re on our deathbed, no one’s going to remember any of this stuff. If we’re not enjoying it, and it’s stressing you out that much, go for a walk, do something happier. Ultimately, fortunately, with Interview Club with CNN+, that turns out to be quick for all the stuff stressing out, twisting all the work that goes into something. Then, as you said, four hours, it was a little longer, the four hours. Then you know, it’s gone and I ended up with nine and a half months of parental leave, I guess, based on your perspective.
I’ve asked you a series of questions here that assume community is in product or has to be in product, but I’ll just come out and ask a different question which is– you’ve talked about this, I don’t need to have you repeat yourself. I think the question is, how do you feel about community and the work that I do being part of the product org? Or from your perspective, I don’t know where it belongs, but is that a great place for it? Is that a place you would like to see it? Is it dependent on something else? Do you despise it and resent it? How do you feel about it existing there?
[00:23:49] Gitesh Gohel: I think from my perspective, I do believe it is part of product. Well, I think I always have thought of it as part of product. I think there’s a couple of pieces that start becoming a little gray area. Specifically, if it comes to as community responsible for user acquisition, for example, is that the right team to own that? Is that the right place for the responsibility to sit inside of a product org? I don’t know, it really depends on the moment and situation.
If it’s a startup that’s starting up from scratch, then 100% absolutely. If you have specialized expertise who knows how to do user acquisition, or that’s the job that they do, then maybe that shouldn’t be part of the product organization. Generally, I don’t particularly like seeing community as a service org inside of organizations where you function as a silo remotely on an island, a list of work that gets passed typically from a product org or a marketing team, or a partnership team. I have always seen the value. This is always evolving too, because these experiences are very nourishing in how you continue to evolve your thinking, but I’ve always found community to be such an important part of the product development cycle. I think product can sometimes become detached from its users, which I think happens just by a lot of different priorities, what you’re focusing on at any given moment in time, and the complexities of having to decide who you build for, and the many people that you don’t build for, especially when you are trying to get product market fit.
But community is– you’re explicitly saying when you make community part of product, that your users are important, that the relationships that you develop with your users are important and positive, that you want to be able to not have a transactional relationship with your users, but actually one where you proactively engage, where you’re proactively identifying ways in which you have your users connected. You’re able to leverage insights from them. You’re able to bring them on a journey with you and identify ways in which you can directly communicate, manage those relationships. For me, I think community should be a part of product as much as it can be.
[00:26:26] Patrick O’Keefe: I was going to ask you to think about the pros of community reporting into product, but I think you’ve talked about that several times, from your perspective, all sorts of ways. What do you think those are from the community professional perspective? Why should, in your view, a community pro want to be a part of product?
[00:26:43] Gitesh Gohel: In a way, you’re closest to the decision maker and I think that’s important. I think what you are able to do is influence product strategy and how you think about what you build and who you’re building for, and being able to bring the skills and expertise that you have directly into that conversation. It’s where you get to do the most fun stuff. It’s where you get to say and explore different ideas that you want to try. It’s a way in which you get the voice of the user closest to the way in which you think about what you end up doing.
For a community professional, say, for example, like on the Interview team, your team oversaw a large part of functionality when it came to internal tools as well as user facing functionality, and often the experience that we were thinking about when it came to encouraging users to create UGC that funneled through to us that then were became part of a live show, a lot of those mechanisms and experiences that we built originated from the insights that community was able to bring to the table, because we’re just in it more than a product person could be.
Unless the product person is the director of community, and therefore, the director of community is the product manager. It’s full circle here. For me, I think that’s one of the biggest reasons why being close or reporting into product makes a lot of sense.
[00:28:14] Patrick O’Keefe: I think that’s a really smart observation. I think if I don’t know anything about anyone at the org, I’m just coming in blind, I know nothing, and you listed a bunch of departments, product, marketing, operations, and it couldn’t be its own thing or that independent thing, customer service, where else have I seen? I’ve seen it in IT before. I won’t talk about that for the sake of limiting our own choices here. But if I had those options, my default out of those would be product followed by probably operations before– and marketing would be at the end because I don’t trust that right off the bat like that.
It’s for the marketing leader to really prove to me that like, I will not have to serve marketing’s goals, which is a tough thing for them and for me, because I tend to think that marketing, even though we all have the same general goal around making the company successful, building something over the long term, maybe even making people happy, customers happy, users happy, members happy, the individual goals that you break out that you’re accountable for on the marketing side, this is just my opinion me speaking, my experience is community can support them and should, and that should be very collaborative. Community should not make decisions at a core level for the purpose of satisfying marketing’s core objectives.
I think community has its own objectives. If those go well, I think marketing benefits, but marketing is sort of at the bottom. Yes, I think that’s good advice. Are there cons? This could be from your perspective or a community perspective, and you could say no, like I’m having you on here sort of a product person who like believes in product and community. Are there cons of someone like me reporting into someone like you?
[00:29:50] Gitesh Gohel: Yes. I’m sure there’s plenty of them. I think it can go sour if you don’t create the space for community to do their job and be additive. I think it can go sour when you end up dictating to community what they should do, and again, being able to create the space for folks to be able to, again, bring their skills and experience to the table and have a voice at that table and be additive to the product that you end up building. Specifically, for our experience at CNN, we were building an interactive community-centric product experience. There was a natural fit there.
I think that the relationship being managed as often about prioritization. When you have another group part of product, you’re adding more things to the plate. You’re adding more chefs in the kitchen as well. I think those conversations or those relationships can become sour because you end up making someone else feel like their work is less important. I don’t think that is maybe exclusive to community.
I think that’s just like sometimes how we can end up in this very narrowminded way of thinking what is important and what is not, saying that marketing is more important than community right now because we need to market this product and get growth, which is why, again, I think having shared goals but also separate goals for each of the functions that are contributing into those goals are super, super important.
[00:31:32] Patrick O’Keefe: I feel like you and I had a solid dynamic and communicated well. I was going to ask you why that was. I think you just talked about it though around not dictating to community what to do. I’m sure there’s a reciprocation of that to some extent and of course me not dictating to you what to do. Is there anything else you’d add to that as far as why– assuming you agree that we had a solid dynamic, this is a good place to air it out. We didn’t, but assuming you agree, is there anything else you’d add to the why of that?
[00:31:59] Gitesh Gohel: Yes. You’ve got to hire smart people to do the work that they’re good at doing. I think that really is at the core of it. I was never going to be able to write as thoughtful, as mature, as sophisticated community and moderation guidelines as you did. That’s not my skill set, but I know how important it is to have those guidelines for the product that we were building. Therefore, I think, again goes back to how do you really lean in on what people bring to the table and have the best most thoughtful ideas went out versus trying to tell someone what to do.
If I wanted to just have someone who I told what to do, then I don’t need smart people. I want robots and machines who basically take orders and do what they want. What I really want is a partner who I can think through some of these things with, a partner who can bring to the table from all of their experience, what they think would be a good approach or would be additive, all the things that we should do.
I think having a good dynamic and relationship between us which was respectful and can also be challenging in terms of challenging each other, I think that’s one of the reasons why it worked so well. I distinctly remember there were number of times in which I basically just said, you tell me what you think is the right approach here and you go off and figure out how we can make that happen. I think that’s one of the reasons why we worked so well together.
[00:33:41] Patrick O’Keefe: I think that takes a certain amount of trust that maybe we didn’t have as much time to develop as we could have but was there pretty quickly. The way I would describe it is just like, I’ve talked about this with other people when I talk about how things worked and why I liked reporting to you and reporting to Bassey is a focus on results. I always point to the Dr. Fauci interview because I feel like there’s a lot of ways for things to go wrong.
But ultimately, we have this goal of having a community of question askers that asks thoughtful, on topic, and challenging questions. We want to get to a point where that’s the thing we have on the screen with Dr. Fauci, but we realize we’re opening up the questions during a free trial period where bad actors follow Dr. Fauci and submit all sorts of questions. The one that always sticks with me is they really wanted him to define gender, which is not what he was there for.
There was a network of people who were submitting questions to get him to define gender and they were clever, not that clever to get by us, but clever enough where it was in the context of COVID results. COVID results break down by this gender, so how do you define– that sort of thing. The end result was good. The interview was good. Fauci was great, but also the questions were great. The questions that were on screen were great. All the processes stood up and did well. That allows, and this is just my perspective of it. You focus on results, so the result was well. Therefore, you trust the process.
A someone who’s been around for a while and wants to do good work and thinks of himself as an A player, I want to be trusted to do the process that I think will work well. If I deliver, that’s how I’m judged and you trust the process and don’t get into my business so to speak. If I failed, if the process failed and the result was bad and it was bad multiple times or in a high profile instance or enough, then that would cause you to want to get into the process justifiably and understand why this is happening.
Maybe there’s a good explanation for it. Maybe it’s not the problem of the process, maybe it is, but that’s how the trust can start to erode. When you need to get into the details because you have people above you who are wondering, hey, why did Fauci get all these questions that were totally inappropriate? Don’t we have a good process? Then that would obviously and justifiably lead you to question me and be like, well, what happened with that? But because we hit the result, you can trust the process. I think that’s part of the dynamic.
[00:36:00] Gitesh Gohel: I totally agree. I would also add, I think part of that process was a lot of really close collaboration. I think there was a lot of transparency and communication between us from pretty much day one, which created an environment in which that trust is able to grow because we were also able to talk to each other on a regular basis and be able to share ideas with each other and were part of the same conversations on a regular basis that I think there was a feeling of collaboration again towards those shared goals and that shared idea that we had of what we were trying to accomplish.
[00:36:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Ultimately, none of this is a secret. All the processes and handbooks are documented and written and available for people to read, not just us and our team and you, but across different teams. It was a relatively open book that you could find and just read through how things worked. On your side too, I have to imagine like one of the many ways this type of thing could break down, and it’s not just product community, it’s any leader, manager, and report is micromanagement is part of it obviously, but you shouldn’t want to be in that process as such a minutia level of detail because you have your own job to do and your own things that you’re worrying about and a team you’re trying to build and wider picture things.
I’ve had bosses who said that’s what they wanted. They didn’t want to be in those details. Then sure enough they were in those details when it wasn’t justifiable or there wasn’t a need for them to be, I don’t know, micromanaging an individual forum post with a community manager. It wasn’t necessary. I guess it goes back to the idea of hiring smart people. That’s an era where people can break down because there are people who say that. Donald Trump has the best people.
I think there are people who say this, they hire the best people. They surround themselves with the best people but all that can be just a talking point. If ultimately you need to be in those details and micromanaging a situation, which of course ends up with you not having the best people because the best people just leave because the best people don’t want to have to deal with that.
[00:37:56] Gitesh Gohel: You’re spot on there. I think good ideas win. Making mistakes is something that shouldn’t be punished either. I think that’s the other part of creating a safe environment in which you’re going to make mistakes because you’re trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I think the same way in which product has often a lot of leeway when it comes to doing iterative product development and learning and adapting and iterating and being able to leverage insights and data that help you make your next decision. I think creating that safe space to be able to trip up and fall to encourage folks to have the humility to say, hey, I screwed up here, but here’s what I learned from that experience or from that moment, that’s going to be added to how I think about the next thing I do or work on, I think is also really important.
[00:38:51] Patrick O’Keefe: I like to say you can’t moderate scared, so you have to moderate willing to make a mistake from time to time because that’s just the job. To wrap us up, I have a fantasy sports question, fantasy baseball question I guess. You were thrown into a product that was steam rolling toward the finish line, I think, and whether by choice or not.
Really, we just scratched the surface before the plug was pulled in a lot of ways, in all sorts of manners in which that applies, like the product, product processes, us building out a team together. Let’s say that that didn’t happen.
This year, 2022, what do you think that this mix could have accomplished this year if not for that stoppage? Or what were you looking forward to when this got announced? What was the next steps that were exciting?
[00:39:41] Gitesh Gohel: I think I’ve genuinely been curious about this idea of like micro communities of like-minded people who come together for short periods of time and then dissipate. I’ve used this idea in a lot of other projects that I’ve kind of been thinking about and working on. I find that to be really interesting in terms of what do we mean by community and what do we mean by creating these spaces where folks who have the same interests or the same values or the same curiosity or are seeking out a similar goal, are able to come together and be connected to each other. What does that exactly mean? How does that have a longer term impact on how you form relationships or respect or trust with folks specifically online?
I think there was something there that we were doing with Interview Club which started to lean into that. How I always saw each 30-minute show was a group of people who were curious about COVID all came to the same place for 30 minutes, were able to see what others were curious about and asking, were able to learn from each other, were able to feel not alone when they realized that other people were also curious about the same things that they were or thinking about the same things they were.
After that 30 minutes ended, that crowd basically went away to do their own thing until another variation of that crowd came together to talk about booster jabs, or to talk about climate change and emissions. There’s something there which I think was really interesting about what we were doing. I think specifically on the interactive side, we really started to explore the idea of making users feel like participants in a live television show online.
We really were at the infancy of our thinking as to what that looked and what that felt like, but I think for a traditional media company and a traditional news organization, being able to acknowledge this incredible asset that you have when it comes to journalism and your ability to go and really report on news and make that news accessible to folks so that they can become informed and educated around it, I think even that is for me really interesting to think about how news organizations continue to evolve digital experiences which feel like collective collaborative spaces and not like traditional linear television watching. I find that to be fascinating.
[00:42:32] Patrick O’Keefe: There’s this– I call it a paradox, makes me sound like I’m trying to be smart and it might not be a paradox. There’s this thing that I’ve witnessed multiple times. I saw it at CNN. It’s like everyone wants to be the New York Times, but no one wants to put in the time that it got to be the New York Times when it comes to subscription revenue, retention revenue, and digital subscribers. I see that use case cited multiple times in different ways.
We saw it at CNN. We even saw it at the WarnerMedia level justifying the launch of CNN+ is like, look at New York Times subscriber growth, look at their direct– their D2C revenue. What you don’t see in that situation– and we mentioned Bassey before, like Bassey was at the New York Times for a decade building out a community desk of 18 people where they had this really robust commenting operation, where they had comments that represented the spirit of the paper and the spirit of the publication. They knew that revenue from those subscribers was higher. They had the data.
That beautiful subscription growth that you see, this D2C revenue, doesn’t come from bringing people together for two weeks or two months, or even two years necessarily. It’s we’re committed, we’re invested, and we’re doing it. Then we look back 5, 10 years and New York Times has this great subscription revenue, but for so many people in media now and even, I would say, in some non-media businesses, there’re this case study of like how D2C can work so well for like this old brand that remade itself.
There’s just such a behind-the-scenes investment that goes on where you have to commit and make it happen. If you don’t do that, you don’t get the opportunity to have these fun experiments around like temporary community or spinning up small groups. It’s funny to think about.
[00:44:10] Gitesh Gohel: I think one of the things that was said about CNN+ specifically was it was never going to work. I think coming from a product background, typically, you know, what you’re really trying to figure out is how you do make something work and the journey you go on when it comes to launching an idea on day one. How that idea evolves a month in, 2 months in, 6 months in, 12 months in, a year in, or 2 years in, the idea is never going to be the same or formulated in the same way it was on day one, that it will be on day a hundred or thousand.
I think what I don’t believe in is this idea of– a presumption that something was not going to work. I think, at its core, it may be more truthful to say, we just don’t believe in this idea. I think that would be a more honest representation of a motivation that you have to make a decision. I think I’m always a little skeptical when I hear people be presumptuous about something not working, especially after it’s been given such a small amount of time to figure out what it even is.
Going back to identity, identity takes time to form. I think encouraging a behavioral change takes time to happen. I still believe that there’s something incredibly interesting about creating interactive digital experiences in a D2C format when it comes to news. I think news organizations are starting to realize that they do need to form a better relationship with their end consumers and users and readers or watchers because that’s where longevity really exists.
Using aggregators and allowing your identity to be planted everywhere else, dilutes to your ability to really form a stronger one or a newer one, which is what a lot of these traditional media companies are really going through over these last couple of years and will be for the next couple of years and feels a little messy to me.
[00:46:34] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. Having a wife that works at Netflix and having worked at CNN for a couple of years, and obviously, you also have a significant other who’s in entertainment, it’s helped me to realize how bad the hot takes are on Twitter. It’s really given me a perspective, like everything Netflix does. Then my little time at CNN and how people react to this or reacted to CNN+ especially. If someone doesn’t seem like they should know something, they don’t, is what I’ve figured out.
With CNN+, when I’ve talked to people, the thing that I’ve said is like, it never would’ve worked, whatever they say. It’s like, we didn’t get the chance to succeed or fail on our own merit, period. That’s just it, we never got the chance to figure it out. Would it have failed? Maybe. Most ideas fail. Most artists fail. Most things fail. Would it have succeeded? Maybe, but we didn’t get the chance. There just wasn’t an opportunity for that to happen for that to play out. We didn’t get to play it out and that’s life. This is my first media merger thing, but it’s not the first one that’s ever existed. It’s very common. It’s just new to me. People ask, are you devastated? Are you bothered? I said, I had a great severance. I get to spend nine months with my baby, so no, I’m okay. It’s a job. I try to keep things in a healthy light. What’s the one thing? The one thing is we didn’t get to play it out because I think, if we had got the chance to play it out, at least it would’ve been fun to find out what the outcome would’ve been.
It’s like the end of a story. It’s like the author rushed, right? I haven’t watched Game of Thrones. I’m watching House of Dragon now because Kara wants me to, but I haven’t watched Game of Thrones, but like I know obviously last season got a lot of criticism because people felt they rushed. It’s like that. It’s like they just, we get an end but it’s like, who knows what it actually would’ve been if it had played out.
[00:48:09] Gitesh Gohel: Right. I think the big takeaway for me is all of these experiences, being able to be part of the launch of a entirely new news network, streaming news network, and also being part of shutting down a news network or really additive experiences, things that will carry forward with us and we’ve learned a lot from and made really good friends and friendships from it. I still feel really lucky that I had a quick flash in the pan opportunity to be part of it.
[00:48:40] Patrick O’Keefe: Yes. This conversation has been an additive experience, too. Gitesh, thank you so much for spending some time with us today.
[00:48:45] Gitesh Gohel: Yes. Thank you so much. This was super fun.
[00:48:48] Patrick O’Keefe: We have been talking with Gitesh Gohel, former senior director of interactive product at CNN.
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