Wednesday, March 28, 2012

On HuffPost: What NOT to Say to an Eating Disordered Friend

Now live on HuffPost Teen:

So you've just found out that your friend or family member is struggling with an eating disorder. You want to be supportive, but you're not sure what to say, and before you know it, your friend is defensive and angry or (perhaps worse) completely shut down. What went wrong?
The fact is, eating disorders are complex mental illnesses. Without a basic understanding of how an eating-disordered mind works, you can easily stumble into trouble. As someone with a long history of personal struggle, I've used my insight to compile a list of the most common mistakes people make in this area.

Read more at Huffington Post...

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Are You There, Pinterest? It's Me, Maddie.

Pinterest has been through a lot since their meteoric rise to popularity this year. Last week, they revised their rules to cover a gaping hole in their TOS in response to copyright concerns. This week, they added a clause to forbid pinning anything that "creates a risk of harm, loss, physical or mental injury, emotional distress, death, disability, disfigurement or physical or mental illness to yourself, to any other person, or to any animal." This comes in the wake of public outcry against pro-eating disorder communities and Tumblr's move last month to ban content that promotes self-harm, including pro-ED content.

Here's the problem: Pinterest is still saturated with pro-anorexic content. A search for the keyword "thinspo" (a term used by the pro-ED community to describe images that provide inspiration to continue eating disorder behaviors) turns up endless images of jutting collarbones, stick-thin legs, and concave stomachs. I know from years of experience in content moderation: Don't ban something if you don't have a plan in place to remove it.

But worse than these issues themselves is that Pinterest's team has remained eerily silent. I am particularly surprised that Pinterest's community manager is nowhere to be found. In fact, as the CM of a user-generated content site myself, I saw the copyright debacle coming and reached out to her via LinkedIn. About a week later, everyone was talking about it. I didn't take offense at her lack of response; she must be busy. But doing what?

This is the real problem with Pinterest, the one they're going to have to solve or sink. We all make mistakes, as individuals and as companies. Pinterest hasn't made any mistakes from which they can't recover. I've read a lot of criticism of the company, but I haven't read anything that indicates people aren't ready to forgive and forget. But when you make a mistake, you need to reach out to people and invite them to do so. Admit you're not infallible, and use that point to relate to your users, rather than remaining silent and risking a loss of brand trust.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Not-So-Illustrious Origins of #InflatableShark

It all started with an inflatable shark. Not even an actual, physical inflatable shark. Just the threat of one.

As the community manager of HubPages, I've dealt with a lot of persecution complexes. As I like to say, "the internet brings out the crazy" (often in otherwise seemingly sane persons). Online, as off-, people want to believe they're being specially victimized, rather than examine what responsibility they carry.

The original #inflatableshark moment arose from one of these situations. A user was highly indignant about one of his Hubs (articles on HubPages) being moderated as containing unrelated products. He insisted that all of his Amazon and eBay capsules contained products relevant to the subject (cable TV programs). The user sent several abusive emails to staff about the moderation, and we responded politely more than once to explain the problem. He ignored this and went to the public forums on our site to open a thread ranting that HubPages is staffed entirely by idiots.

I responded:
You have an inflatable shark in one of your product capsules. 'Nuff said.

Normally, I would not respond so brusquely, but having seen the emails coming from this guy, it was clear to me that he wasn't actually reading our communications to him. Partly, I wanted to be as succinct as possible to maximize the likelihood of him actually recognizing the problem. And partly, I was quite frankly sick of the guy. Perhaps not my finest moment as a community manager, but it gave rise to an internal meme around the site and office, which would quickly gather a life of its own.

Suddenly, the thread was hijacked by several users posting endless pictures of inflatable sharks... and some dolphins too! One of our moderators (anonymous for her own protection) pasted the image of an inflatable shark over the cowbell in a photo of Will Ferrell from the classic SNL sketch, with the caption "More inflatable shark!" Around HubPages HQ, we started referring to "inflatable shark moments."

When an Internal Meme Goes Public

As community managers, we all have these moments. We've all posted to our Facebook pages as ourselves instead of our brands, or mistakenly tweeted something personal from the company Twitter account. And really, these moments are not exclusive to community management. In a way, the user who prompted the whole meme was having one of those moments too.

In a #cmgrchat discussion a few weeks ago, I mentioned #inflatableshark on Twitter for the first time. The other community managers (and a few in particular) immediately latched onto the hashtag. I believe it was Michael Hahn who suggested we could use it as a funny codeword for a community mishap of any kind. Penelope Singer suggested t-shirts. A few days later, Matt Hirshfelt pointed out a daily deal site offer for inflatable sharks, and both he and I bought them for our respective offices. Rosemary O'Neill uncovered a forgotten inflatable shark on her table at home! We tweet each other regularly using the hashtag, sharing pictures, stories, and general camaraderie.

Taking those bad moments and laughing about them is vital, not only in community management, but in life. I see this user's quiet exit from HubPages (without even responding to the thread he himself opened) as a lesson. If you take yourself too seriously, if you can't take responsibility for your actions, if you can't laugh at yourself when necessary, you're doomed to a very unhappy on- or offline existence. Bottom line: we all make mistakes. It's how you recover from them that counts.

What #inflatableshark moments have you had recently? Join me on Twitter and share.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Future of Community Management: Thoughts from 2/29/12 #cmgrchat

I've recently started participating in the weekly Twitter chat #cmgrchat, hosted by lovely ladies Jenn Pedde and Kelly Lux. Today's chat focused around the future of community management, and specifically how we (as members of the Community Manager community) would like to see it develop as an industry and profession.

Here are some of my thoughts following the chat.

The future of community management still isn't clear. There's a lot of exciting and varied discussion around the future of the Community Manager role, with some common themes:

HappLand!There's general consensus that as CMs, we'll need to continue to increase our coverage and rally more resources around ourselves. Suggestions ranged from a universal tool for updates across all social media platforms, to easier analytics, to self-cloning, to caffeine IV drips, to unicorns. (Unicorns make everything better.)

Another point of agreement was that we need to stay focused on the human element of social media. Too many brands overwork the tools and forget the people they're trying to reach. This ties right in with my last post regarding individuality in community management.

There were many points of contention as well. Heated discussions arose around the pros and cons of outsourcing community management, as well as whether or not we envision the creation of a C-level position (Chief Community Officer). The pros of keeping community management close to the ground are clear: better brand knowledge, better connection to the pulse of the community, more honest human interaction. But many companies think they cannot afford to hire dedicated CMs, or believe that outsourcing to a dedicated agency will get them better results. In my opinion, as the web becomes increasingly social, pretty soon companies won't be able to afford not to have a community manager. And I see it as our job to convince them.

I'd like to give a shout-out to everyone who contributed to today's #cmgrchat. It really is one of the highlights of my workweek. If you're a CM, or interested in community management, I highly recommend it as THE place to hangout at 2 pm ET on Wednesdays. :)

Friday, February 24, 2012

Be More Than Your Brand: Individuality in Community Management

The conversation amongst online community managers often centers around brand advocacy: how we represent our products in social media; how we maintain a consistent message across multiple platforms; how we turn customer feedback into positive change; how we build lasting relationships for our companies, both with our users and with other brands. These are valuable conversations, but too often I see community managers single-mindedly interacting as their brands, where in many cases a little touch of individuality would go much farther.

I am not a robot. Believe me, I've been asked. I've also been asked for my "customer service ID number" so that the user would not have to deal with someone else... at a company of (then) 14 people. I saw both of these interactions as failures on my part -- not necessarily failure to represent the brand, but failure to be an individual within that brand.

When I came into community management in early 2008, the industry was still in its infancy. It was derived in terms of other established roles (customer service, marketing, content moderation). Today, we're [mostly] respected in our own right, with a dedicated position in the corporate hierarchy. We no longer need to fight tooth and nail to have our jobs validated as necessary, and can dedicate those resources to making ourselves -- and our brands -- more approachable. The key is humanity, but even more than that, it's individuality.

By no means am I advocating flooding your branded Twitter feed with personal updates about what you ate for breakfast. Chances are, you were hired as community manager for your brand at least in part because your temperament meshes well with the culture of the company. Trust yourself to choose appropriate moments to share, and the appropriate time and forum in which to share them. Posting pictures, videos, and written anecdotes of the office, staff, and team outings are an easy place to start. There's not too much controversy there. But I recommend going further.

Introduce and promote the [public] social media profiles of your staff. On your own personal accounts, share not only industry news and product updates, but twinklings of personality. I tweet quite a bit about HubPages and community management in general, but I also throw in links to my food blog, silly Instagram photos (as at right), the occasional FourSquare check-in, and a weekly #FlashbackFriday video highlighting the memes of years past.

I understand the instinct to completely compartmentalize, but the truth is, illustrating your humanity to your community can only help your brand image -- assuming you do it responsibly. As we're all tired of hearing, online activity is becoming increasingly social. To engage socially, you need to be more than a bloodless, faceless organization. You need to be a living, breathing organism. You have to be human.

Coming soon... "The Balancing Act: Personal vs Brand Sharing on Social Media."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What Makes a Great Online Community Manager?

When I first donned the title in early 2008, "Community Manager" was still a relatively new term -- so new, in fact, that when I asked for a job description prior to accepting the position, my soon-to-be-boss had to do quite a bit of research before he could formulate a cohesive definition. It isn't that the community management didn't exist until that point; it was simply known by other names, often a smaller responsibility of someone in a different department (for example, marketing).

As the web becomes increasingly social, of course, that can no longer stand. Just in the last year, the demand for (and awareness of) community managers has exploded. As Mashable author Meghan Peters put it in her recent piece, 4 Community Management Predictions for 2012:

Community management, an industry still in its infancy, came a long way in 2011. Many businesses no longer ask “What does a community manager do, and do I need one?” but rather “What makes a great community manager, and when can I hire one?”

While I can't tell you when you can hire a great community manager (after all, I won't be on the market for a while...), I can shed some light on the first part of the question. What makes a really kickass community manager fabulous at the job? I've come to believe it takes a very particular kind of person to survive--let alone excel--in this profession. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as being friendly and moderately tech-savvy.

The Anatomy of a Good Community Manager

From head to toe:

  • Farsightedness - What you do online today affects you (and your brand) tomorrow. A great community manager looks ahead, evaluating potential consequences before acting, and sets aside knee-jerk reactions in favor of measured responses.

  • Sharp nose - Nose, intuition... Call it what you will, where the internet is concerned, the ability to sniff out a rat is indispensable. Even with all the back-end tools available to you, there will be times when the evidence is inconclusive and a judgment call has to be made. In these moments, a good BS-o-meter is all you've got.

  • Silver tongue - Much of a community manager's duties center around communication, both internal (with team members and other departments) and user-facing (both on- and off-site). Delivering information clearly and concisely is important, as is the tone in which it's imparted.

  • Six arms - "Oh, come on! I've only got two hands!" just ain't gonna cut it. Multitasking is not optional. As community manager, you need to be in six places at once. Not only that, but you need to be doing six different things in those six different places. Someone who needs to work on a task start-to-finish before moving on to the next one simply isn't going to make it.

  • Strong stomach - Even if you don't work at a user-generated content site like HubPages, you're bound to see (and read) some graphic nastiness in this occupation. You need an iron constitution so you can handle anything that's thrown your way, from 1000-word expletive-filled rants against your person to explicit images of sex and violence, without losing your lunch. Leading us to...

  • Thick skin - When you become a community manager, you lose the privilege to give as good as you get. You'll still get plenty -- plenty of insults, accusations, threats, conspiracy theories -- but unless you can let it all roll off your back, you appear unprofessional and waste time that could be spent on something else. ("Oh come on! I only have six hands!")

  • Sea legs - Things change quickly on the interwebs. It can be dizzying and downright disorienting, but you need to keep your feet. A combination of self-confidence and flexibility is priceless in times of upheaval and crisis (which, believe me, will come).

  • Clown shoes - Okay, okay, so it's not really a part of your body, but this final ingredient is one of the most important: a sense of humor. In this line of work, you're not getting out alive unless you can laugh -- at yourself when you make mistakes, at difficult users you have no chance of pleasing, at the absurdity of the situations in which you find yourself. But silliness serves an even greater purpose. The internet can be cold and impersonal. Humor is one of the most effective ways of cutting through the computer screen and connecting to each other. And that is, after all, the whole point of being a community manager.