Have you ever wondered what's the best way to manage your community? I have, and to some extent I am still figuring it out... I am convinced that not only is community management important, but that it is a key piece of the puzzle for a successful software organization. Community organization promotes your solution to a wider audience where it will be recognized and used on a larger scale.
Engaging the user community is just as important as sales, support, and other the other functions that are your bread and butter. I have always advocated allocating the necessary time and resources in my current position at Nuxeo and in my previous ones at eZ. Building a community is not a simple task, but some of the important factors are beyond debate, such as the power and utility of knowledge management tools, like collaborative Q&A ala Stack Overflow. I am unsure of the best way to manage it from an internal perspective, within the organization, and probably there isn't one single best way!
In an attempt to give shape to my thoughts, I have asked some of the Open Source vendors I am in touch with how they do it, and what they think. If, like me, you are curious about what they have to say, read on!
I was lucky enough talk to James Falkner (@schtool) - community manager of the Liferay project, Nicolas Pastorino (@jeanvoye) - director of community management for eZ Systems, Tjeerd - chief marketing office of Hippo (@tbrenninkmeijer) and Laurent Doguin (@ldoguin ) who is community liaison here at Nuxeo. I first asked them to explain how the community management role fits with their company’s organizational scheme.
Community manager, a dedicated role and function within the organization?
James to start:
“We consider our staff employees to be part of the community, and with it the responsibility to further Liferay's open source mission. Meaning, every employee is encouraged to participate and manage, to some degree, the areas where they have expertise. In addition, since we often hire from the community, many of our staff are already dedicated community members. As community manager, I am more of an organizer of activity to get people engaged, and less of a manager.”
James added “Much like other small companies, our employee hierarchy is very flat and most people report to different individuals based on their role at the time. Occasionally, it is the CEO doing a bit of community management : )” which I can confirm is true as well on the Nuxeo side!
Tjeerd reveals a different setup on the Hippo side.
“We don’t have dedicated staff. At Hippo we believe we get the best results if everyone in our company is involved in the community. That’s why we share and divide responsibilities. All developers and system administrators within the company participate heavily on our mailing list / forum to assist the community. Our marketing people organize Hippo Meetups, Apache get togethers and Boston Java meetup. Our product manager talks and listens to the community and provides feedback on our product roadmap.”
At eZ Systems, Nicolas Pastorino explained that, just like Liferay, eZ Publish community management is a dedicated role within their organization. About reporting and where this staff fits within the overall organization, it looks like here as well, it is distributed, requiring a flexible organizational model
“Disciplinary report of the main manager to VP Product Management, daily collaboration with VP Product Management, strategy building with VP Product Management and CEO.”
Rather than answer myself, I kept my content geek hat on, and asked Laurent for his thoughts directly (a good way to check we are on the same page ;-))
“I’m working full time on community management but I get various help from pretty much everybody at Nuxeo. This company has strong open source roots and all our staff is sensible to it. This makes it natural for them to participate on our community sites, like the collaborative Q&A (http://answers.nuxeo.com) and the forums, or also on social media. When it comes to organization, I'm part of the marketing team so I report directly to its manager, our Products & Marketing VP and the head of our marketing team. ”
Trying to find boxes in the organization is one thing (and it looks like there is no single box at Hippo), but knowing how to fill them is another question all together! What makes a good community manager? It seemed like a natural question to ask - What is the right profile for a community manager?
James (from Liferay) comes from an engineering background with significant engineering experience at some big companies such as Oracle and Sun. He added that this is the case for “many of our most valued staff employees who are visible and active in the community”. He also added “we also have individuals with marketing and sales backgrounds (and jobs) that regularly contribute in our community. For example, our Marketing team regularly contributes very useful bits to our Facebook page and Twitter streams, and our Sales team, by virtue of their knowledge of the product, can do technical presentations (while not trying to sell anything) at regular community meetups.” Here as well, the idea of the community manager not “managing” but “organizing and orchestrating”!
At eZ, we see a similar setup. The main manager (e.g. Nicolas) has “a generalist engineering background, and 7 years of experience at an open-source software editor, in consulting, training, software engineering, product management, and finally community management.” He also added: “The team will staff-up with more marketing/communication tinted profiles.”
And about Laurent, “I’m personally an Engineer. Before community management I was working as a developer here at Nuxeo. Being technical is a strong asset, if not mandatory, when you manage an open source software vendor community, especially at the beginning when most of your members are other developers.”
For my last organizational question I simply asked, “Is it a full time job?” Truth be told, we started at Nuxeo with a very part-time post for Laurent, and it seems like a common pattern to think people can take on a community management role while juggling a “real job”! So, is it really a full time job?
I was not surprised by Laurent’s answer, knowing what I mentioned above.
“Definitely. There is always something to do. Your community could be 5 people or 5000 you'll find some work. You're always looking to make it bigger or to sustain it. Your goal really is to help, give them what they need to make the community alive. “
Nicolas added, “Absolutely. Only focus and dedication can bring excellent results. The discipline of Community Management requires full-time availability and listening skills, which systematically go beyond the initially expected/forecast workload and working hours.”
James joined in as well “Yep, much like a party host or a gardener, you have to have dedicated people to keep the conversation going, and to constantly invigorate new and old members alike.” I must say, I concur with this vision of the Community Manager as an organizer or facilitator, rather than as a “manager” per se.
And Tjeerd, while not totally concerned by the question due to Hippo’s strategy for tackling community management still added: “Yes, it’s hard work. As I mentioned it is crucial to us that everyone interacts with the people helping to create and use our software. With everyone combined it’s more than a full time job.”
It looks like there are some common themes emerging for community management among our open source vendors! We're interested in finding out how others approach this. Feel free to comment below to share your take on these questions with us. And if you are interested in this topic, please stay tuned. In the next post, our community of community managers will tackle the thorny question of balancing the needs of a community with the business needs of a software company.