A Playbook for a Successful Community Operations Team

When a community program grows, it moves from a one-person band role, to a team of people, to a team of teams. And Community Operations is often one of the first teams formed. When to start one, and how to scale it? What are its key responsibilities? It’s just about data, dashboards and automations, or is there something more? In this session, I shared my best learnings in leading a dev community operations team in Google, the most embarrassing failures and “the road head”.

(CMX Summit, Sept 2022)

Here are the slides, with lot of info in the speaker’s notes too.

Organizer a Slide Roulette for conference speakers

A Slide Roulette is, at its core, a way to challenge conference speakers on their public speaking and improvisation skills, adding a lot of fun. For them and for the audience. Let’s see how to organize one of them.

Slide Roulette basic structure

At it’s core, the Slide Roulette is an improvisation activity where two teams compete on a game structured as follow:

  • A team of two people goes on stage, ready to present a session, but with no knowledge of the session topic and slides.
  • The first speaker is decided.
  • The topic of the session is revealed to them, along with the first slide in the deck.
  • The first speaker has about 1 minute to talk about the proposed topic, “taking inspiration” from the slide in some way
  • Once the first speaker ends their presentation, the ball moves to the second speaker
  • A new slide is shown
  • The second speaker should continue to build on the topic, following the direction of the first speaker, and “taking inspiration” by the new slide
  • The exchange continues, and after 6 slides in total, the session ends.
  • Then, the other team goes on stage and does the same, with a new topic and a new deck.
  • Once both teams finish their performance, the audience can vote and the winner is decided by measuring the intensity of the applause.

This structure can be replicated following a pyramidal elimination structure. For example, four teams at the baseline, split into two groups. The winners of each group will compete, to become the final winner.

As per every improvisation game, rules should be read as guidelines. So, creativity and deviation from this format is more than welcome, in particular to better adapt to the specific conference context.

The following sections contain the reasons for these choices, but it’s really up to the Slide Roulette organizer to “fine tune” the activity.

Create the teams

This is where the conference organizers help is needed the most. It’s important to identify, together with them, a group of speakers that feel comfortable in being challenged and pushed slightly away from their comfort zone. This attitude is more important than having great public speaking skills.

Then, create teams of two speakers each. Having two people on the stage at the same time brings more energy, creates a variety that keeps the audience more engaged, and if a speaker get stuck, the other becomes their safety net.

8 speakers is a good compromise to cover 45/50 mins of time, considering the Slide Roulette introduction and the conclusion segments too. They will form 4 groups, and have 6 matches.

Speakers on stage
The Slide Roulette team at Codemotion Rome 2022

Define talk topics

Define talk topics choosing something that is related to the conference main themes, and in the speakers’ domain of expertise. Leaving some space for creativity.

Familiarity with the selected topics facilitates speakers in finding connections between what they’ll say and the slides, offering a common background that keeps the audience engaged. A topic that has some sort of conflict at its core, of it’s known for being a challenging situation, generally creates space for a lot of fun, and even some jokes.

Avoid too technical topics. For example, if a conference is about frontend development, I would go on something along the lines of “When the team disagrees with the frontend framework choice“, or “The migration of legacy code“, but I would avoid topics like “Management of error conditions in React“, or “How to organize your resources in Angular“. The risk is to “improvise” another conference session. But this is a Slide Roulette, right?

Alternatively, topics can refer to the working life of the speaker/audience. Still with a tech conference in mind, some examples could be like “How to be successful during your job interview”, “Hiring a great candidate for your team“, “Manage conflicts between client needs and product priorities“, “The first stand-up meeting of a newly formed team“, etc.

Build the slide decks

In theory, every kind of image can be used to build a deck. There are services that return random images, they can all be around the same topic, or a mix of everything. Some useful suggestions to choose the images:

  • Avoid text in slides, because it consumes time to be read, and tends to distract the speaker.
  • Avoid slides that are related to the topics, as they could bring “back to reality” the discussion. For example, if the topic is “How to coordinate a successful customer meeting”, avoid slides with people in a meeting room and similar.
  • Put a generic “inspirational” slide at the end of the deck, so it’s easier for the last speaker to wrap-up and close with a final message.

Counting 1 minute per slide allows the speaker to build a micro-story for each slide, without forcing into too many (potentially boring) details. Considering two speakers per team, giving to each one 3 opportunities seems fair enough, for a total of 6 slides.

The role of the presenter in a Slide Roulette

As for every show, the presenter is the person introducing the activity, the people, and keeping the rhythm of the show. Two additional important roles of the presenter are to keep the audience energized between the talks (it could happen that not all of them are an explosion of fun), and to help a speaker when is stuck, moving to the next slide and passing the ball to the other speaker.

The presenter can also be the judge in measuring audience level of applause, or delegate the task to a jury, generally composed by the conference organizers. And to take a selfie at the end of the activity!

Selfie of conference speakers
A great selfie, taken during the Slide Roulette at Codemotion Milan in 2019

Warming up the speakers

Hidden from the audience, but crucially important, is to spend some time (60 to no less that 30 mins) in warming up the speakers with some games. This is a common practice of improvisation, and every sport in general. There are millions of games that could be played to activate the positive and lateral-thinking mind, and to foster connection and collaboration among speakers, so it will be more natural for them to support each other while on stage. Here there are some good ones to use, especially from the “Yes And Exercises” section.

Have fun with Slide Roulette. If you have suggestions to improve the format, please let me know.

Build your Community Strategic Plan

Manage a community is a complex activity, multitasking and multidisciplinary. A clear understand of what to do, and when to do it, is fundamental to have success, and avoid community burnout.

I presented one of my preferred tools to create a connection that starts with community goals, reaches strategy to realize it, and ends with day-to-day activity planning: the Community Strategic Plan.

(Italian Community Managers Lab #2, May 2021)

The founding elements of every community

As a community manager, you always need to keep in mind the core elements of your community, and the business value your community brings to the company.

I presented two frameworks to identify and describe them: The 7P’s of community, and the SPACES model. To the road for an Indispensable Community.

(Italian Community Managers Lab #1, March 2021)

Key principles to organize a community event in Virtual Reality

Organize a community event in virtual reality

You’re excited to organize your next community event in Virtual Reality. You know the reasons for doing it, but you don’t know how to do it. In this post, I’ll list the key principles to keep in mind while organizing a VR community event.

Explore, test, iterate

VR is still a very new medium. Community builders need time to understand its peculiarities, and how they can serve their communities. Especially at the beginning, it won’t be all rainbows and unicorns, and getting everything right at the first attempt is quite rare. Instead, exploring, testing and iterating is my best recipe for success.

Luckily, VR shares many of the social dynamics happening during in-person activities, so figuring our how a community experience can be doesn’t require to start from scratch. Nevertheless, it’s a new medium. Best practices are shaped and refined constantly, platforms evolve, what other community builders are doing today heavily influences what others will do tomorrow.

This is why the way I suggest to understand how VR works is to get hands dirty and explore events organized by others. Being a curious community builder allows to learn about the platform(s) UX, to collect ideas, discover common behavioral patterns, take notes on how the space is built and arranged, notice how communities express themselves in VR… To learn from others!

While the VR-awareness is built, it’s useful to put it under test using the lens of the community event to be organized. Immediately, without waiting to have the full big picture in mind on how everything should look like. Iteratively, because modeling a community event in virtual reality requires to take care both of the content, and the (virtual) environment when it happens. Finding the right synergies between the two, inside of a new medium, cannot use something different than an iterative approach.

Follow (almost) the same rules for organizing an in-person event

It’s astonishing how much people’s behavioral expectations overlap between real life and virtual reality scenarios. Circles are naturally formed while a group is chatting. If a circle is small and tight, there is an uncomfortable feeling to break it (so, Pac-Man rule is still valid). Before a person disconnects, they generally goes around to say goodbye to other attendees. If someone is close (maybe waiting in a queue), it’s quite natural, and accepted, to break the silence and start talking.

The direct consequence is that best practices for organizing an in-person community event apply also to a community event in virtual reality. From having spaces to take selfie together, to reserving time for unstructured networking opportunities (yep, they work very well in VR). From welcoming new community members, to pay specific attention for attendees that joined in VR for the first time. From having a prominent and visible stage to keep attendees engaged with the speaker(s), to a decent volume of background music, not too loud to cover people’s conversations, but audible enough to characterize the space with a positive mood.
There is already a lot of material available, and I suggest to take a look to The Art of Gathering book.

Why does this happen? Because VR is truly immersive, and we feel we’re really somewhere, body and mind.

Carefully pick-up a platform

In real life, there are many interchangeable places where a community can host its events. In virtual reality, the different platforms play a crucial role in the final experience offered to community members. Potentially, all of them can host a community event. In reality, a lot depends on the purposes for the meeting. It’s an intimate meetup? It’s important to leverage the network effect of the platform to acquire new members? It has to be a fun moment? The main goal is to be productive and move forward in a community project, or to share knowledge? There are specific platforms for each one of the listed objectives, and I’m sure more will come in the future.

In addition to specific use cases that each platform focuses on (or doesn’t), there are also technical aspects to consider. For example, how many people the event could host (>10 / 50 / 200 / 1000+)? Recording and sharing afterward is important? What level of space customization is required (total terraforming, changes some details of pre-defined environments, ability to do it only inside VR vs importing from external tools like Unity)? How much the avatar can be adapted to members’ preferences (heavily customizable in every aspect, clothes included, vs standard and coherent, more photo-realistic vs cartoonesque, etc)?

Finally, it’s important to take into account the platform transition cost. Each user has preferences, and it won’t be easy to move community members from one platform to another. New accounts, new UI and UX, different supported hardware, etc. With the due exceptions, it’s important to choose from the beginning a platform “to partner with”, and try to stick to it as much as possible, to build the user base over time. Among the exceptions, a community of pioneers, that makes the “experimenting with what’s new” its reason to exist, or meeting for once somewhere else, as a kind of “VR roadtrip experience” offered to the community members.

This is where someone with virtual reality experience can really help, saving a lot of time while matching the community goals and habits, with the right platform to fulfill them.

Keep building the community identity

A common identity, and shared experiences, we know, are among the cornerstones that build a sense of community. Customizing the VR space, to make it able to narrate the community identity and bring out these shared memories, is a crucial element for running a successful community event in virtual reality.

There are two senses that could be leveraged in VR nowadays: sight and sound. If the community already has past experiences in real life, it’s fine (and suggested) to create a continuum between these past experiences and the current VR setup. Placing pictures of past events somewhere in the VR space works really well. Recreating in VR known places, where the community had meaningful experiences is even better, at the cost of more effort. If there are physical routines the community is used to (for example singing a hymn, saying particular sentences, use specific objects, etc) it’s a good idea to translate them in their VR counterparts. Music or songs that are connected with community memories could be used as background music. If the avatar’s clothes can be customized, why not creating a VR community t-shirt, and ask event attendees to wear it?

If identity and past experiences are connected with other senses (taste, smell or touch), it could be useful to place in the VR environment objects that can be used as a proxy for them. It’s (still) impossible to reproduce the taste of a food, but using a 3D object could recall the memory associated with the taste, and the experience around it. The same for a particular odor, where maybe the specific shape of the dispenser, or the object that generated it, could work as a good proxy.

Put accessibility at the center

Unless the community is VR-focused, chances are low its members have the necessary gears to properly experience a VR event, like a standalone headset or a PCVR. In addition, there are people that suffer from motion sickness, so cannot really use a headset. While planning a community event in virtual reality, it’s core to make the event as much accessible as possible, examining entrance barriers and friction points, and dedicate time and effort to lower them down.

For example, there are platforms that offer 2D clients, to participate in the VR experience from a desktop PC, or even a mobile phone. The price to pay is losing some non verbal communication elements, like head nodding, hands movement, eye tracking, etc. But more people will be able to participate and build common memories, reinforce their sense of community.

It is also important to dedicate some time to “onboard” people to the platform. Despite several tutorials focused on how to use the app, platform controls, etc, we all know people don’t often read manuals. My suggestion is to organize a video call on a quick intro session to VR, to align event attendees to a few standard concepts. This learning moment will also be useful to do hardware checks, like a working mic, make people used to platform controls, give them a glance of what to expect, fix errors in installing the app / 2D client, and will avoid spending time to fix problem while in VR, delaying or even ruining the experience of the attendees. Over time, more experienced members can run these crash-courses into VR, as an occasion to give back to the community.

Why you should organize a community event in Virtual Reality

Pandemic forced all of us, community managers used to organize in-person events, to interact exclusively using the online medium. I have no doubt that, post pandemic, we’ll be back to in-person activities: as human beings, we are genetically wired to this form of interaction. But I also think there is a third option, able to break this online vs offline dichotomy: Virtual Reality. To me, as community managers, we should seriously start considering to run some of our events in virtual reality, adding over time this new option to our precious “community toolbox”. Allow me to list the core reasons.

Online brought several positive elements, with two that really stood out: no more physical barriers to attend an event (not able to travel to the place, no time for commute, I have to choose between family / event, etc), and a considerably less effort for the event organizers, both in financial terms, that the time required. The same applies to VR events, and it’s already a huge plus.

On the other side, online events severely lack in two areas, compared to in-person counterparts: attendees’ attention span and connection opportunities. Both are not impossible, but difficult to obtain.
On the contrary, because VR is immersive, attendees focus on what’s happening to them “here and now”, without being too much distracted by the rest of the world (or, simpler, by the rest of open tabs in their browsers).
And because of the “spatial” element of VR events, where attendees can move around in the virtual space, during moments of unstructured networking people tend to naturally gather in small groups and talk to each other. Similarly, they can listen to a discussion happening close to them, and then decide to join it or move to another group. Or spontaneously start interacting with an avatar close to them. I’ve seen this happening to every single meetup I attended in virtual reality. For what it’s worth, Remo.co brings a very similar “spatial” paradigm to online conferences, and it works pretty well, for my personal experience.

Virtual reality experiences offer also several options to reinforce two key elements of every community: a sense of togetherness, and the perception of a common identity.
Going around in a virtual event, it’s possible to perceive the mood and the vibe, if attendees are awake and proactive, or just passive listener. It’s hard to explain, but it happens, like it happens for real events. And when the mood is positive and energized, attendees feel part of something bigger, are happy to be there, and not somewhere else, and there is a positive peer pressure to contribute. It’s empowering!
For the identity piece, the space in virtual reality can be customized to breath the community identity. From putting around picture of past experiences that bring good shared memories to attendee’s minds, to symbols disseminated everywhere, that are unique to the community. It’s even possible to re-create real locations where the community was used to gather. Avatars too can contribute to the community identity, for example by wearing a common dress.
All of that mainly because the intrinsic immersive aspect of a VR event, and the maturity of the VR platform used, in terms of environmental details and space customization options offered.

Another additional considerations it about the Gen Z and Gen Alpha habits: they’re already used to interact with friends and other people in a 3D space using a 2D client (e.g.: Fortnite, Minecraft and other platforms). So, for them, the transition to an immersive 3D world is pretty straightforward, I would even say expected.

Virtual reality is a new frontier

Of course, virtual reality is a new frontier, it may be scary for someone (like videoconferences scared some people before we were forced to get used to them), it has a learning curve, and it’s difficult to get it right on the first attempt. It’s normal and expected. But personal connections make all the difference between a group of people, and a community. And only in VR I felt personally connected to other attendees, similar to how I feel during in-person events. Something that didn’t happened at the same level during the many other online events I’ve participated in these last 10 months, no matter their quality. Simply put, I believe the online medium doesn’t allow, while the VR medium can, if well orchestrated.

So, you should try, as soon as possible, to organize an event for your community in Virtual Reality. Test and iterate. The majority of the platforms are free to use, or free up to a certain number of attendees (around 50), and some of them offer 2D clients for people without a VR headset. Curios to know where to start? Here I put some key principles to organize community events in virtual reality.