Does your *(thing)* need a community?

As a community manager a common conversation I end up in is “I have this (thing) and it needs a community. Should I install (forums, slack, name your poison) on my site?”

And my first reaction is usually “Slow down, Cowboy, do you understand what that means? And why do you think you need it?”

There’s this perception out there that you need to build communities around things, but rarely do people stop and think through what this really means. You don’t just “install forums”, they require maintenance, and they require administration — so there are ongoing costs and resources you have to be willing to commit to. The worst thing you can do is install them and assume they’ll magically run without any ongoing activity from your team. The second worst thing you can do is tell yourself that your existing team can just put in a bit of time around their existing roles, because if you make it a spare time activity for them, it won’t happen, but you can pretend it will.

I bring this up because Casey Liss and Myke Hurley have this extended conversation in episode 76 of the Analog(ue) podcast on Relay.FM and it’s a quite good look at the opportunities and challenges involved here. Some of their listeners have been encouraging them to create a Slack channel (Slack being the latest community hot toy, and honestly, it’s pretty good so the hype is generally deserved) and both of them are hesitant to do so. Relay.fm, like most podcasts that include a live stream, use IRC as a chat room during the recording of the podcast, but some users would like a place to discuss the show afterwards or communicate among each others.

 

While I think communities can be nice additions in these situations, a big question both the hosts and their listeners need to think about is whether this is a good use of people’s time. The communities won’t thrive if the hosts aren’t at least visible and active some of the time, and if there isn’t active administration, the chances they’ll be taken over and trashed by the trolls is quite high — and is fostering this kind of community the best use of the hosts time here? Or should it go into growing the business in other ways, or expanding content? Or reducing the inevitable sleep deprivation of the independent small business person?

Listening to his comments on this, I think Myke has a good handle on it and if you’ve had this conversation in your organization and are wondering what to do, this podcast will help clarify some of the positives and negatives.

I do have some thoughts and suggestions for them to consider:

I do think a good community would benefit Relay.FM and its hosts, but I’m not convinced it’s the best place for Relay to invest its resources right now. Maybe once it’s larger and more established and so the community investment wouldn’t be as significant a chunk of revenue…

That said, there are low-key ways to do this. The Incomparable Network recently started a Facebook group and I think that sort of thing works pretty well in this kind of situation. I realize it’s trendy for the geek world to complain about Facebook or loudly talk about how they avoid it, but in reality, the service works pretty well and, loud complainers notwithstanding, most people are on Facebook (including many of the loud complainers). It’s a low-risk, low-cost way to experiment and get started, and it doesn’t take a lot of time or energy to keep it going. I like Slack, but I think dipping your toe in with a Facebook group is easier and less risky (and less resource intensive).

Both Myke and Casey griped about IRC a bit, for good reason. IRC is one of those ancient things geeks love and everyone else finds opaque so here’s my suggestion: every time someone says some variant of “but we already have IRC!” to you, mentally replace it with a phrase like “why do we need Slack? We have email!” or “we don’t need web sites, we have FTP!” that will help you put the IRC discussion into the proper perspective and help you decide what part if should have in your future operations… (i.e. limited to none, unless you’re dealing with a hard-core geek greybeard audience).

Myke knows he needs someone to administer the community, but is hesitant to use a listener. I think he’s right that this kind of role — at least for the lead manager/administrator — needs to be a formal one instead of an ad-hoc volunteer, but pulling one out of the listener group is a good idea, if you choose the right one. I know organizations that have avoided bringing in people too connected to the group, but those can be your strongest evangelists, so I wouldn’t reject the idea. What’s important is to find the right people who know what and how to do to manage the group for you, set up the expectations and rules appropriately, and remember that you’re not anointing them and throwing them down the well, but you’re creating a management chain where you are delegating responsibility to them, but still in the chain and still active in working with them instead of the community directly.

Bringing on someone to lead the community makes sense; for a group like the one Myke would likely need, this could be a part time moonlight gig for a community manager where they’re contracted for 3-5 hours a week, with that role to grow as the community grows along with Relay.FM. Or — thinking out loud here — find the right people and fire up a community management podcast with the lead host running the Slack channel for Relay.FM, with the discussion of the issues and activities involved being a continuing theme for the podcast.

If Myke were asking my opinion on this, here’s what I’d tell him: I’d take starting a Facebook group seriously like Incomparable did. I’d start looking around the community for someone who could come on board for a very few hours, and when you find that right person, THEN look at rolling out a Slack channel. Don’t expand IRC, and ask yourself why you’re using it as much as you do (maybe do a survey to see what % of users join it, since this thread is about best uses of limited resources – my guess is it caters to a tiny percentage of the user base. Now, is that a user base important enough to the podcasts to warrant it? Maybe, but worth looking into… And are there tools out there to replace IRC with something more user friend and administrator friendly? Almost definitely, although I haven’t looked into them….)

And for those of you have have been in that “Hey, we should have a community for  our (thing)!” staff meetings, listen to this podcast. It’ll help you better understand just what that seemingly simple question is going to dump at your feet…