The most important community manager skill? Being able to ask!

Being able to effectively ask

There are a lot of resources out there describing what are the skills a community manager should have. Not a surprise, considering how many hats the job requires. But if I have to boil everything down to a single ability, from my experience that would be “being able to effectively ask“.

Community is a behavior-change agent. And nothing changes if it’s not challenged by questions. Because a community managers is the architect of their own community, and responsible for its success, they are the first one that has to ask for that change in behaviors needed to fulfilling the community goals. They can excel in all the other skills, but asking is what make possible to cross the last mile and achieve community success. I would say: “No ask, no party“.

There are, of course, different ways of asking, and the effective part is where all the other skills come in handy. Let’s consider the behavior of joining a community.
Among the many tactics to carry out this objective, a community manager can act in the front line and ask something like “Do you want to join my community?”. However, to be successful, they need to find the right people to reach, and the right time, tone and form to invite them. And there are also several ways to formulate the core question: give a context, explaining the benefits for that person in joining etc. Lot of skills are involved to align all these “rights”.

A less direct tactic, where the community manager is less visible, but still the mastermind behind the main question driving change, would be foster community promotion thru word-of-mouth, asking other members to ask new people to join. Those people won’t be reached directly from the community manager, but it was them influencing the process. Exercise influence, another important skill.

The community commitment curve is another tool that demonstrates how much questions are important for the success of a community: if a community manager doesn’t know what to ask to community members to keep them engaged step after step, new behavior influenced after new behavior influenced, engagement will decrease organically.

And so on, with plenty of other examples: here a community that has organized a dev conference because a community builder asked them. Here the email that lit the event:
The email that made DevFest Pisa possible
For the ones non-Italian, the email says, more or less “During these days, and after a conversation with one if your community managers while we both were in Krakow, I thought about you, and I thought GDG Pisa (the community name NdR) is ready to organize its first DevFest“.
Referring to additional skills required to be effective, it was her call to understand the maturity level of the community, make some preliminary chats to test the water and, only at the end, make the ask.
Still in this community context, when people ask me “How can I find new blood to help me run my in-person community?”, I often reply: “At the beginning or at the end of your event, ask people to help you moving chairs around. The ones volunteering will be good leads to get in touch and ask for additional help, this time for the community”.

This detailed community management case study highlights how much concrete and visible call to actions in the forum banner influenced behaviors and drove success in many important steps to improve the community.

Being able to effectively ask regards also process optimization. As Leslie wrote: “If you’re looking for bug reports and pull requests, encourage them in a few simple ways: Respond to bug reports quickly, ideally within 48 business hours, even if it’s just to let the reporter know you’re looking into it. If you’re asking for speakers, provide a list of events. If you’re asking for new organizer, provide a group where they can plug, a mentor, a guide to help them, everything to not leave them alone. Ask for feedback: provide steps to test and template for feedback for. What you have in mind may (and probably is) different from what others have. Set clear expectation for the kind of help to provide.

At the end, the functional unit of any community is dialogue. Open and ongoing dialogue transforms a loose group of people with a shared interest into a community that can share stories, support each other, and pursue collective goals. Have you ever had a true dialog _not_ starting with a question?

 

Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Where community crosses the developer journey

Community and developer journey

A developer journey is the route between a developer with no knowledge of a technology and the same developer that feels confident to use it in production and actively share the expertise acquired. Offering a clear and gratifying journey is the key for fostering adoption of a technology. How can online and in-person communities help along the way?

What are the typical steps of a developer journey?

First, it’s important to define what are the main steps of the journey. Christian Betta points to four main moments: Exploration, Getting Started, Guidance and Reference. While Adam Seligman defines four similar steps: Connect, Engage, Adopt and Advocate. I like the latter more as they seem more generalist and the advocacy step beautifully closes the loop, so I’ll use those as reference.

Connect

Generate awareness and interest, get in touch with the technology for the first time
In-person communities are great to discover new technologies. It’s true that today “knowledge is at our fingertips”, but it doesn’t mean developers have the time, motivation or will to explore by themselves. Tech meetup events organized by communities help the discovery process, offering occasions to get in touch with something new with a low effort bar: just go to the event, sit down and listen. In addition, follow-up conversations during the event boost serendipity, as like-minded people generally love to talk about their passions.
In online communities, on the other hand, often developer joins because of their interest on specific topics (Q&A, product forums etc), so it’s more difficult to attract their attention about something new. However, if users are well profiled on the platform, it’s possible to reach them with targeted material regarding news and topics connected with their primary interests. Content able to add value from a dev point of view, to avoid being perceived it as spammy.

Engage

Gain hands-on experience, what follows the “Hello world” example
In-person communities can help in this step organizing specific hands-on events like hackathons, workshops, codelabs etc, where attendees can “get the hands dirty” with the technology and create a (first) working prototype. On average, communities organize way more tech talk-style events than these initiatives, so brands could provide specific support or global frameworks to influence the ecosystem to run more hands-on events. The Google Assistant Developer Community, IBM Call for Code, Intel Code for Good, Google Study Jams are good examples.
Online communities can help in the form of open source projects, thanks to a big code base to analyze to understand what’s after the “Hello World”, without starting from scratch. They also offers immediate and intrinsic rewards, like fixing a bug or implementing a new feature. Unfortunately, we all know the common Achilles heel of open source projects: lack of “onboarding” guidelines, poor documentation, few active mentors for the newcomers. All together, they raise a lot the difficulty bar, and not all developers are willing to learn this way.

Adopt

Drive daily use of a technology, in production
Once a dev knows the basics of a tech, the main need is to find answers to specific problems and learn advanced topics that could prevent future issues, like a well-done project architecture, a good testing infrastructure etc. Information that, generally, are not present in the reference doc.
In-person communities can organize events to share best practices and real-life experiences on technologies / tools / libraries / dev workflows, assuming the topic doesn’t have an overly niche audience. Peer-to-peer recommendation during networking moments are generally very welcome and more able to influence than a blogpost on the same topic. In-depth, follow-up conversations happening after the event can solve doubts.
In a complementary way, online communities are the most effective free place to find such answers. We all know the success of StackOverflow and similar services, and several major tech brands have an online presences based on the “Customer Support / Success” area of the SPACE model. The potential risk is that the place where this knowledge exchange happens is more a group than a community. Searchability of the content is another crucial aspect to solve: developers don’t search on StackOverflow, they search on Google that directs them to SO. Another issue is that discussions happening on Twitter have a very short time span.
Similar to the engage phase, open source online communities can offer a training gym outside the main job for experienced users of a technology, with more community-oriented dynamics.

Advocate

Empower and enable
Advocates are crucial to scale the knowledge sharing process thanks to user-generated contents (UGC) they create and erogate. But they need an audience to share them with. Both online and in-person communities offer that crucial audience element, closing the loop and creating new “connect” and “engage” moments in the developer journey of new people.
Likewise, online and in-person communities offer a fertile and informal ground to get in touch with existing advocates, be inspired by their role-models and, with the help of the community leads or even by themselves, become one of them.
Altruism is the top motivator for advocates, followed by intrinsic enjoyment: communities allow this give-back attitude to be satisfied.

 

So, community is really a powerful tool intersecting and contributing to the developer journey along all its steps. Not a surprise, in the end :)

Header photo by Helloquence on Unsplash

How to organize a successful community meetup

Successful Community Meetup

Even the most successful in-person community, able to pack every room no matter how big it is, hosting mind-blowing speakers, moving people even outside of the city, has started from a very first event. Let’s see the core steps to organize a first successful community meetup.

There are three main elements to manage, in the following order:

  • Find a need, and a solution to it
  • Find a place where deliver the solution
  • Find attendees with same need, believing in your solution and willing to reach the place

Find a need, and a solution to it

Human behaviour is driven by solutions to perceived needs. If you want to bring people to your community meetup, you have to find a shared need they have and offer a viable solution. Not necessarily the best solution, but make clear “why they should come” is fundamental.
It could be a need of knowledge, and the solution is a session / workshop / training on a particular topic presented by a speaker. It could be a need of actions to reach a common goal, and the solution is a meeting where people can do something together. It could be the need of not feeling alone about a particular passion, and providing an occasion to meet and chat with like-minded people is what is required. The more the meetup agenda is focused on the need and the solution, the higher the number of potential attendees joining your event.
Of course, you can start from one of your needs, without looking too far.

Find a place where deliver the solution

A good place should offer, at least, an acceptable consumption experience of the solution delivered. It’s an event organizer duty to take care about the whole end-to-end logistic flow, from when attendees start traveling to your event, to when they leave to move to the next place.
Try to figure out all the different steps. For example: they need to reach, and then leave, the place: is it connected at the moment the meetup happens? Is near enough and accessible for your target audience? How people will find your event in the place? How they identify themselves as your guests? How they can ask for help? Is there enough space for all of them? If the solution is a talk, are attendees able to listen to the speaker and watch the content presented? If the event in a tech workshop, are there enough power plugs for their laptop? To what extent they need connectivity? And many more.
Again, no need to be perfect, but devil is in the details, and thinking about the whole “attendee journey” can really help to find and connect all the important dots, at least.

Find attendees with same need, believing in your solution and willing to reach the place

Arguably, the hardest and most time-consuming part, especially if it’s your first community meetup or you don’t already have user base to reach.
Create a message where the need, the offered solution, the place and the when are clear: people need to understand at very first look if they fit in the target and it’s valuable to attend. Making the message sticky and nice to see is a desirable bonus point: also the eye wants its part.
Once you have that message, ask for help of similar communities to spread it; people have multiple interests, and they talk each other. Do both “mass communication” and one-by-one reach: social networks are your friends, and never assume that, because your message is public and available online, people have seen it. Share with attendees, and speakers if any, a call-to-actions to bring other people in, offering some perks in exchange, even symbolic (a pin, a thank you note, a free ticket for a friend, etc): ideally, the moment after they register, they should become your advocate. Keep scouting for people till the last moment: decision to join is made generally within a couple of weeks before the event, even the day before. And, if the event is free to attend, aim to overbook for a good 30%-50% more of the place capacity: people won’t come and won’t tell you.

Once at the community meetup…

Before closing, try to announce when the next meetup will be. Or find a way to keep in touch with attendees that doesn’t depend on them: people are lazy once their need is fulfilled, so avoid asking them to register to your meetup/mailing list/social channels, but rather ask if they have something against you doing it for them, and in case tell you.

Finally, this last point is extremely important: don’t forget to celebrate, regardless the number of attendees. Even if you were able to make 5 people happy, it’s a great achievement, as you’ve done an extraordinary thing the vaste majority of people won’t do. Be proud of you and all the people who helped.

TL;DR for tech community leaders out there: find a speaker with some knowledge to share, find a place where this speaker can talk, find people to attend the event. Simple and straight ;)

Interest on other tips to organize a successful community meetup? More searching for the Event Tips tag.

(Image source: an unconference session during the Italian Community Managers Summit 2018 in Milan)

Thoughts on a Community Management Chatbot

Chatbot hype is over and their forecasted disruptive impact has been tremendously reduced. Nevertheless, I still see some good scenarios where a Community Management Chatbot can help in offline community management thanks to its conversational interface.

One side, it can support community leaders offering “wisdom” about the community management art. Part of my daily job as community builder is to connect with community leaders, asking what’s happening in their groups and I’ve noticed there are similar discussions going over and over. How to start an offline community, best practices to organize its first event, how to find new speakers, venue and sponsors, how to organize more inclusive events etc. A community management chatbot can offer insights on them when triggered. It’s far more scalable than me, available 24/7 and I can dedicate time saved to more specific and in-deep requests.

On the other side, the chatbot can help community builders providing alerts, suggestions and action items for their daily job. Sending alerts on communities that have not been doing event for lot of time, upcoming events requiring attention, the next communities to get in touch with, retrieve reports, show internal community success metrics, etc. In addition, these conversations can happen in a ChatOps scenario, to create a Community Management ChatOps workflow with my colleagues!

To summarize, and looking from two angles, the community management chatbot targets and the level of knowledge it has about their communities, we could have this potential features quadrant:

Community Management Chatbot Feature quadrant

Let’s see some concrete examples for community leaders target.

Community Management chatbot for community leaders, with no community knowledge

There are two learning paradigms: a pre-Internet-and-search-engines: read, memorize and hope, when you need that information, you’ll remember it or where to look for it. Then, the post-Internet-and-search-engines: you search what you need when you need it, without too much previous knowledge on the topic.
The majority of community leaders I know haven’t studied the art of community management, so they use the second approach trying to solve their community needs. Unfortunately, search engines return results too generalist or inappropriate for lot of those “basic” questions. The community manager chatbot could be used as a sort of improved search engine.

Any person can ask, for example, “how to organize my first community event?” or “how can I search for speakers?”, or “what can I do to increase retention rate of my community?” and so on. Ideally, the bot should give at least one actionable item for every reply to keep the human side engaged, asking also for more information to contextualize the request and offer more refined answers. Follow a potential conversation script:

User: “Hi, I need to organize an event”
Community Management Chatbot: “Great, it’s the best way to keep your community active and well perceived in the local context. Do you already have a venue?
User: Yes
CMG: Perfect, so you need content to present. Is the agenda defined, or someone presenting something?
User: No. How can I find a speaker?
CMG: I would suggest to first look around you. If your community is not new, you may ask their members if they wanna present something. Or you can find speakers talking at similar events, reach them and ask to talk at your event. How old your community is?
User: it’s brand new, it’s my first event.
CMG:  I see. You may look for speakers in conferences with the same focus of your community and happened in your country. Once you have that list, you can try to reach them proposing to come and speak at your first meetup. You never know how much people are happy to help a new community, especially local speakers!
User: I’ll do, thanks.
CMG: See you soon!

The bot is open to everyone and doesn’t need to remember conversations or user details. It comes to my mind a model similar to a text adventure, where the player (the community leader) explores a dungeon (the first question) gaining items (the replies to their question) while choosing where to go (the follow-up questions the bot makes to better contextualize).

To make things simpler, initially such bot can help only on a specific set of questions and, over time, it can learn more and more about the art of community management, broadening its expertise and the support able to offer.

In term of technology, I’m already doing some tests using DialogFlow to understand what user says, a Google Doc with the conversation script, so it’s easily editable and with no tech knowledge, and a Python backend to match user intents detected by DialogFlow with script sections in the doc. Still in a too early stage to share, but If you’re interested in helping, ping me!

Community Management chatbot for community leaders, with community knowledge

If the bot knows data about the community led by the person interacting with it, it could be more proactive and focused. Data could be retrieved connecting the bot with the community account on Meetup.com, or Facebookm or other sources. Here an examples of a data-aware interaction:

User: Hello!
Community Management Chatbot: Welcome back Alfredo! I see yesterday event was a success, with more attendees that the average: well done! Have you already sent the follow-up email?
User: Mmmm, not yet.
CMG: Please do it, the sooner the better, especially if you want to have reliable feedback from the attendees. Here a simple template you can use (link)
User: Thanks. Anything else?
CMG: A couple of things. It seems you’re alone in leading the community, is that right?
User: Yes, I’m the only one now.
CMG: So, at this point and after the events you’ve made, I would give high priority to find a co-organizer. It seems an hard task, but the benefits are enormous. Have you noticed if someone has come over and over to your meetups?
User: Yes, there are two people who I see often at my events.
CMG: It’s a start! What about asking them to give you a hand for the next event? They could find a venue or a speaker, taking care of the catering, post on social media about the event and much more. Small tasks, but if they help you and keep helping, they could be open to run the community with you.
User: Any other way?
CMG: Of course! You can also …

In this scenario, the bot is able to offer more focused suggestions and proactively ask questions to the community leader, based on the data it has and on community best practices applied to that data.

I have still no idea on how to make such bot, but narrowing the scope to a particular kind of community (Google Developer GroupTwitter Developer Community, etc) can help a lot in the data collection tasks, and the bot can connect a user to their community with a simple question during the first interaction. It would be great if Meetup.com can offer this service, for every community it hosts (or with a Pro account).

I’ll talk about the higher quadrants, chatbot for community builders, in a follow-up post. Any thoughts so far?

 

Conferences for community managers in 2018

Chairs in a conference room

As per every job, it’s important to be part of a network of like minded and professionals with similar skills. What are the conferences for community managers, leaders and builders worthwhile attending in 2018?

FOSDEM Community DevRoomFebruary 3, Brussels, Belgium: Every year, thousands of developers of free and open source software from all over the world gather at the event in Brussels.

DevXCon, June 4 and 5, San Francisco, California: DevXCon is the practitioner-to-practitioner conference for developer experience and developer relations. Come hear the best practices and pitfalls for end-to-end developer evangelism, onboarding and success.

Community Leadership Summit, July, Portland, Oregon: The Community Leadership Summit brings together community leaders, organizers and managers and the projects and organizations that are interested in growing and empowering a strong community. The event pulls together the leading minds in community management, relations and online collaboration to discuss, debate and continue to refine the art of building an effective and capable community.

Swarm Conference, August 30-31, Melbourne, Australia: Founded by practitioners, Australia’s flagship community management conference connects local builders, thinkers, managers and makers with top international talent for two days of learning, collaboration, inspiration and outcomes.

TheCR Connect, October 1-2, Boston, MA: TheCR Connect is exclusively for community practitioners – those engaged in the development, implementation, management, and measurement of community initiatives. You might be a community manager for a 5,000 person internal community, the community specialist at a start-up, or the director of community for a Fortune 500 brand. TheCR Connect is a vendor-free event to ensure that open conversations can happen between community practitioners.

CMX Summit, October 1-3, Portland, Oregon: Communities change the world. Over 3 days, CMX Summit seeks to expand discussions, techniques, and tactics applied to community building for businesses and support communities and their builders (you!) at scale. You’ll gain insights from the best in the industry and make lifelong friends.

Open Source Summit Europe, October 22-24, Edinburgh, UK: the leading conference for developers, architects and other technologists – as well as open source community and industry leaders – to collaborate, share information, learn about the the latest technologies and gain a competitive advantage by using innovative open solutions – Community Leadership Conference

DevRelCon London, November 8, London: DevRelCon and DevXcon is an international series of conferences for people who build developer communities and developer experiences. There are also other events in China, San Francisco and Tokyo.

FeverBee – Community SPRINT: Unfortunately, they’re not planning to organise any SPRINT in Europe this year

If you’re a community manager, living in Italy, please consider join the Italian Community Managers group, as we organise several event across the year, included 2 main conferences in Milan and Rome, to discuss about these topics.

Any other important occasion missing in this list?

Google Developers community management culture

Working with communities, at scale, means working with a decentralized team of people in different geographies, with a similar, but diverse, professional background and expertise level. One of the few working strategies to keep all of us aligned on main goals, while fostering local ideas and adaptive strategies to better fit the local ecosystem, is to define and maintain a common team culture. Recently I was asked to present what is the Google Developers community management culture and key insights in front of our team of community builders, people like me in charge of supporting tech communities all over the world that want to share knowledge on Google technologies during their activities. Here a list of my main takeaways.

Why we do what we do and what is our role?
Dev communities help to solve the growing complexity of the technological landscape, adding a very unique social flavor. So, as community builders, we accelerate learning, cultivate culture and collaborate with communities on a shared mission and goals. We help them to be more successful because, ultimately, this helps Google dev products to be more successful. And because we love communities.

Community leaders first
We should already be used to the “User first Google’s philosophy principle. In our case, it translates to “community leaders first“. They are our primary focus, and should be treated with respect. We have to build a two-way and mutually useful relationship. All the rest follows.

Embrace goal diversity and work on the sweet spots
We have to recognize, and acknowledge, community leaders are driven by their own goals and reasons, and our company goals cannot be pushed to them. Instead, to keep this relationship prolific and sustainable in the long period, we have to base it on collaboration and independence, searching for overlaps in goals and build on these sweet spots. And we should be the first ones doing that. Sooner or later, opportunities will come.

Be a transparent and servant community builder
Community leaders know very well we don’t do this for charity. Like any trust-based relationship, it’s important to be transparent with them and communicate openly. We’re here to serve them, and not the other way around, as communities can exist without Google support, but we cannot exist without communities.

Treat them equally, as the ecosystem is our highest value asset
Some communities are more mature than others, some are quicker to execute, some able to have a bigger impact. It doesn’t matter, because what we value the most is a healthy growth and development of a vibrant community ecosystem. So they all are our beloved community leaders and we need to support all of them in the mid-long term, regardless of how they could help to reach our goals in the short team.

First save their time, then ours
In case we need to make a choice between saving our or their time, pick theirs: we’re paid to do this job, they volunteer their time. First, we need provide a coherent system maintained by a culture to interact with us, avoiding community micromanagement: in the long period, it will save a lot of time on both sides. Then, we can always optimize something: write easy-to-read, timely and useful communications, avoid asking data useful only to us, etc. Finally, if they don’t know about our initiatives, or they missed something, we assume it’s our fault.

Be data driven and restless student
Getting meaningful data out of communities is hard, but it doesn’t matter. A better knowledge of the community ecosystem helps us to make more informed decisions. We can be brave community builders, trying new things to improve our culture of community management one step at time, relentlessly, for the good of our communities and for a better collaboration with them. Every time we collect a new learning, positive or negative, we should share with each other.

Have fun
This job keeps a consistent part of our life busy: make the best out of this time, having fun while cultivating our passions.

If you’re curious about my life in Google, there are other posts to read.

How to structure useful 1:1 with your team

One of the core components of my manager toolbox is the 1to1 meeting (or 1:1, or one-on-one, or 1on1, face2face, f2f, …), a recurring appointment each team member has with me. How to structure and get the most out of it?

At the beginning, it’s important to set the reasons to spent this time together and the tone. The meeting is all about the team member: their needs, frustrations, feedback, ideas and career growth are the topics of discussion. The 1:1 is a chance for the team member to bring the problems them need help with, and a chance for me to learn more about their work. As consequence, I empower them to be the owner of the agenda and structure it around a unique, core, question: “What can your manager be helping with?

Once the objectives are clear, I set the cadency of the meeting to create an habits, generally weekly and one hour long. Unless something more urgent happens: rush hurts the quality of the conversation, so better postpone to a less busy moment, or shorten, or even make a phone call if there is something urgent to discuss and other conflicting activities.

Especially for the first times, I prefer to use a format that facilitate the discussion centered on the previous question. To make everything more collaborative and transparent, I have a shared and confidential document with every team member that we can both pre-populate, with this general structure for each meeting we have. The use of “you” is important to empower the team member, instead of a more abstract 3rd person.

  • Challenges: Leverage manager support to remove roadblocks and enhance your impact, receive coaching and guidance in areas where you have a challenge
  • Issues and Concerns: make manager aware of any personal or professional issues you have
  • Review core and project progress: an opportunity to demonstrate your impact, to share what’s going on and what’s coming up
  • Performance expectation and feedback: from the manager, to the manager
  • Career and personal development: support in developing your career, skills and knowledge
  • Misc (Out of office, lead updates, other unplanned discussions)

It’s important to constantly remember the point on career and personal development and, once in a while, it becomes the main topic of the meeting. Again, to facilitate the discussion, it can be useful to have a career worksheet template to use as base, touching these main areas:

  • Personal reflection
  • Goal setting
  • Action planning
  • End-of-quarter retrospectives

As final touch, I remember the team it’s always possible to change the structure of our 1:1 and they can schedule extra 1:1s outside of our normal schedule, as I’m here to serve.

Bonus activity for one of the 1:1: ask the reasons they do what they do.