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Why the Reddit Situation Really Matters to Associations

This post originally appeared on Online Community Results. SocialFish and OCR partner on many online community strategy and implementation projects – contact us if you need help with yours.

The story is several weeks old now. Certainly you’ve read all about what happened at Reddit (see this long and full rundown if you need the backstory), where the community revolted after a beloved community manager was unceremoniously fired without explanation, and which eventually led to the CEO’s firing.

There are hundreds of posts all over the internet analyzing what happened, but I think what most people have written about the situation isn’t helpful — AT ALL — for association community managers.

The Reddit issue isn’t about bad community management, it’s not about how too much control was given to volunteers, and it’s not about the wrong people being in the wrong jobs (even if it’s a little about some of those things). What it is about, is a fundamental misalignment between the community strategy and business strategy.  Or more specifically, how command-and-control leadership and office/board politics weren’t transparent and therefore not compatible with good community management.

Let me explain. Somewhere along the way, ex-CEO Ellen Pao felt pressure to make decisions that the community felt weren’t in the best interests of the community. Where did that pressure come from? Why did she cave in?

So many associations make bad decisions about their communities because of these external forces. Community managers will never be able to eliminate the external forces, but how they cope with them, and how they communicate with their superiors about them, are important skills for community managers to master.

Joe Cothrel, Chief Community Officer at Lithium, said it best:

Leadership is communication. Communities, like other forms of social organization, depend on leadership to achieve their goals. If you’re in a position of leadership in a business or in a community, you may be doing many things, but if you aren’t communicating, you aren’t leading. Reddit CEO Ellen Pao noted that failure in her apology: “We haven’t communicated well.”

Superusers should know more, and know before. Communication must begin with your superusers — in Reddit’s case, their moderators. Your most active users feel a sense of ownership over the community — and that’s a good thing. Don’t present them with major changes they don’t see coming and don’t understand. Pao: “We have surprised moderators and the community with big changes.” Know more — communicate — and know before — don’t surprise.

Empower your community manager. If your community manager can’t get things done for the community, they will lose members’ trust. Even worse, you will lose your community manager’s trust, and they will “go native” or leave. In either event, you’ve lost the power to lead the community, which depends entirely on trust. Often these failures center on platform issues, as happened at Reddit. “We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them.”

That analysis is spot on. At a high level, failure of communication and transparency between decisions that were being made (rightly or wrongly) for business reasons created the conditions for powerless volunteers to wield the power they did have — over their community groups.  And for Reddit, that small amount of power led to a full-scale mutiny for which their hapless CEO ended up being the fall guy (or woman).

In the association context, here are a couple of granular examples of bad decisions that are usually driven by office politics and leadership issues:

  • Example #1 – Management directive: We won’t auto subscribe members to daily digests in our community, we’ll get way too many complaints.

The issue here is that the leadership is risk-averse to member complaints about overmessaging, probably due to bad communications planning and overmessaging in the past. But instead of a blanket directive about not auto-subscribing member to the community, how about approving this:

  • Community manager response: Let’s pilot it with a smaller group and see what kind of reaction we get.

In this example, the growth expected by the senior leadership in this community isn’t possible without auto-subscribing members — so making that politics-driven decision basically prevents the community manager from doing their job to achieve the results the business leaders want in the first place.

  • Example #2 – Management directive: We need to create a subgroup for every SIG, section and committee; if we don’t, someone will feel left out.

In this second example, the pressure from outdated governance structures leads to a mission critical situation which could literally cause the failure of the community. Nobody wants to browse a bunch of empty subgroups with no activity. What if instead, this was the rollout plan:

  • Community manager response: Let’s start with the largest, most active SIGs and release to the smaller ones over time. If SIGs step up and ask for a subgroup, we know there’s a need. Better to set up subgroups that we can expect to be active right off the bat than setting up subgroups that turn out to be ghost towns.

In both of these examples, the business pressures and internal politics, which the community manager may or may not be even aware of, create situations where the community could literally fail. And in both cases, some simple communication and transparency — about the risks that the business leaders are worried about, or about the underlying assumptions they are falling back on without understanding how online community works — is all that is needed to re-align the community strategy with business planning.

Being aware of how the two forces are aligned or not  and taking steps to keep them aligned can make or break your community.  Don’t let the Reddit story be your story.


(photo credit)

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