Managing Online Communities Pt. 1 with Nic Tolstoshev

Welcome to episode 62 of the Nerd Journey Podcast [@NerdJourney]! We’re John White (@vJourneyman) and Nick Korte (@NetworkNerd_), two Pre-Sales Technical Engineers who are hoping to bring you the IT career advice that we wish we’d been given earlier in our careers. In today’s episode we discuss online community management and its role within an organization with community manager Nic Tolstoshev. Here’s the Nic Tolstoshev fan art Flickr feed we mentioned.

Original Recording Date: 10-26-2019

Topics – Community Management and the Community Management Role

3:20 Online Communities and Community Management

  • Nic is currently a community manager at Automox.
  • He has been working as an online community manager for 15 years and worked in IT as a systems administrator before that.
  • What does a community manager do?
    • They manage an online community, ensure it is thriving, make sure people are getting along, and serve as a conduit for information between community participants and employees of the company who sponsors the community.
      • Think providing feedback to product teams, helping engage customers for beta testing, helping with announcements, etc.
  • Why do companies invest in having an online community?
    • This provides an additional channel to interact with customers online but also a peer-to-peer interaction opportunity for customers.
    • Some companies separate online community from a formal advocacy program, while others do not.
      • Many companies do not know where to put the community management discipline inside the organization (Development / Engineering, Marketing, Support, etc.) because the discipline is still fairly new.
      • Depending on where the role falls within an organization, it can affect perceived internal value of this role, resources and headcount available, etc.
    • When an online community grows up with a company, it seems to be seen as more valuable than a community started by a well-established company (might be more challenge to get buy in).
      • At Automox, Nic has executive level support for establishment and growth of the online community.
  • Do community managers have social media functions also?
    • The roles between community managers and social media functions have mostly diverged with the social media responsibilities being a branch of Marketing.
    • While there is some overlap between social media management (i.e. interactions on Twitter, etc.) and online community management, the skillsets needed are different.
      • John gives the example of the VMware community and how this comes out heavily on Twitter. Individual contributors spend time building brand by expanding reach on social media.
      • Social media platforms do not support having a good conversation* Social media platforms do not support having a good conversation like a discussion thread in an online community does.

15:37 Learning about the Community Management Role

  • The transition happened while Nic was at Intuit supporting Quickbooks Enterprise.

    • He did phone support, trained front line engineers, and covered tier 2 support.
    • An opening came up in the community department and seemed interesting.
  • Nic took an internship at NIH while in high school to write code. During this time is when he got his first UseNet account.

    • He spend a large amount of time in this community, immediately becoming excited about his experiences with online collaboration.
    • Nic and John spend some time talking about UseNet, discussing how new discussion groups were formed, the number of users at that time, etc.
    • Nic refers to The Eternal September and the surge in online community interest in the early 1990s.
  • Community hobbyist to career

    • Nic says it is still fun participating in online communities even though this something he does for a living.
    • Nic’s mentor at Intuit would say that people are going to have the conversation, whether it is in your community or someone else.
      • Companies can engage in unofficial fan communities that pop up organically in various forums (i.e. Reddit), sometimes even offering to buy those communities from those who started them in order to provide a better platform for engagement and not miss out on the conversations.
    • Nic uses BoardReader as a helpful tool to search online forums for specific content.
  • Pros and cons of getting into community management

    • You are very connected to people online, and this helps grow your professional network.
      • Nic gives the example of working for Spiceworks.
    • Remember that you will be a public figure through this.
      • Hobbyist / online gaming communities can open the door for a lot of harassment.
      • Does this problem happen more often as a community gets larger, regardless of community focus?
        • Nic gives a nice example from the the Inuit community and how people leveraged it to further their career through displays of expertise (less incentive to harass).
  • Nic shares a story from when he interviewed with Spiceworks.

    • His background in IT naturally allowed him to understand the community audience.
    • His plane to Houston was rerouted due to weather, and by the time they made it to Houston, the only flights to Austin were the next afternoon.
    • He rented a car to make sure he made it to the interview on time.

29:38 – Tales from the Spiceworks Community

  • Nic shares a story of the photographer who happened to be a lawyer and the scheme he was running.

32:41 – Career Advancement through Participation

  • Nic has seen so many people hired out of the community into various roles. He gives examples from Spiceworks and other companies doing this.
  • Many vendors end up hiring their customers who participate in these online communities.
  • Participation in community is usually intrinsic motivation for an individual but can absolutely lead to advancement. It’s self-promotion in one regard and being helpful in another.
  • Community platforms have content changes frequently, making them optimal for showing in search engine results.
  • John mentions there have been a number of instances where people have thanked him for a community post from years ago. Nic

36:28 – The Crossover with Human Resources

  • There is little training for the community management discipline.
    • Nic double majored in psychology and computer science, which has come in handy in his roles as a community manager.
    • You end up being a friend / confidant to people, a bit like a social worker.
      • Nic shares an example of a community member confiding in him.
    • Some community management schools of thought suggest setting strict boundaries between work and personal relationships in the role.
      • Nic chooses an integrated approach and shares an example from the Webroot community that speaks to this.
      • Herre’s a great quote from Nic – "You’re here to help people. I’ll jump in and see what I can do."
      • John points out the amount of personal baggage that people bring into online professional communities and the way this shows itself.
    • Nic has seen a number of support networks pop up within communities.
  • Nic loves the job because it is a jack of all trades role with many companies not having a community department.
  • Reach out to Nic on Twitter, LinkedIn, or in the Automox community.

Contact us if you need help on the journey.

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