Lessons From The Man Who Managed Reddit's Community Of Millions

Reddit's former Community Manager reveals how the site built one of the largest, most engaged online communities.

Reddit is considered one of the world’s leading news and social sites, with over 5.5 billion pages served to over 100 million unique visitors spanning 186 countries.

It’s also known as one of the most engaged, vocal and opinionated communities on the web. It’s given birth to international movements. It’s found lost children. It’s sparked fiery debates in the media over what the internet should and shouldn’t be.

Given the sheer volume, you’d expect the community team to be huge, but it’s still in the single digits. You’d expect a sophisticated big data machine. What you’d find is a human approach that relies more on intuition than numbers. And yet, the millions of people who post, observe, and return day after day have enshrined it as a sacred part of their lives.

How can you make your company's community feel so connected? Heard? Engaged? In this interview, Reddit’s General Manager and former Community Manager Erik Martin shatters assumptions and talks about how to win by making community management more about the heart than the mind.

Watch the Clock

The number one piece of advice Martin has for community managers: Be very thoughtful about where you invest your time. Depending on the stage of your company, you may have hundreds of users for every one community professional. You may have millions. The latter is what he’s dealing with, and as a result, has become very stringent about how he allocates his time and attention. There’s no way he or his team can respond to every fire, complaint, or unpleasant exchange on the platform. They have to take macro actions to steer the community in the right direction.

“It’s so important to not waste your time on a small minority of users, even if they're very vocal,” he says. Conflicts with users are common. People will feel very strongly about your product, no matter what it is. That’s the reality. So you have to be prepared for some of them to be upset every time you tweak the product, or send a mass email, or change the look or feel of any part of their experience.

“You can’t panic when a certain contingent of people is very loud and angry. You have a lot more people that you’re serving on a regular basis,” he says. “Just remember, most people are reasonable. And the ones who don’t seem to be are often just angry at something else going on in their world. This is where community management can be a lot like customer service. You can’t please everyone. All you can do is try.”

So what are these macro gestures you can take so that millions of people feel like their have a personal relationship with your company?

Be kind and courteous in communications big and small. Use mass communications as opportunities to showcase the humanity behind your product and service. Adopt the kindness and attitude of someone that you would like to know and spend time with.

Be responsive. This doesn’t necessarily mean working your way through an impossible queue of feedback. It does mean recognizing patterns that emerge from many pieces of feedback and responding meaningfully to those issues. And it does mean directing people to resources where they can find help and support on your site without requiring personal attention. This could include a help center, an FAQ, or in Reddit’s case, a moderator. Put channels in place that make you appear responsive whenever possible.

Be empathetic. Don’t tell people they are wrong or handling things poorly (unless an extreme response is warranted). Try first to see things from their point of view and dissect the source of their behavior. When you communicate with them, make it clear that you understand their motivation, and then walk them through a desired course of action to resolve the problem. And don’t forget that the strongest show of empathy is often just listening.

Empathy works in two ways. Not only does it make the user you’re talking to feel better understood, it also demonstrates that there’s actual people behind the product. It’s easier to be mean to an inanimate object than an actual human being.

Erik Martin has worked at Reddit since 2008. In 2012, he was voted one of Time's most influential people above Barack Obama and Zooey Deschanel. He tweets at @hueypriest.

“Sometimes people just want to know there’s someone else on the other side of the line,” Martin says. On Reddit’s page outlining etiquette for the site (reddiquette), the number one directive is to “remember the human.” This is significant not just for that community, but for all online communities where it’s easy to forget this simple fact, he says.

“When you think about things this way, you realize that you have hundreds, or thousands or millions of individuals out there, and that’s why you can’t spend all your time or mental energy on one person or group that’s unhappy. It’s a good reminder.”

Take a Bird's-Eye View

Today, Reddit is home to 7,000 active communities centered around different topics and types of knowledge. To succeed as community managers, Martin and his team need to try to cultivate as broad a range of knowledge as possible. Regularly visiting different subreddits is one way to do this. There’s a danger in only paying attention to the loudest or most popular segments.

For Martin, this means starting every morning by hitting the random button repeatedly to visit a variety of subreddits. He always has his eyes peeled for things he hasn’t seen before. New subreddits pop up on a daily basis, others rebrand or add new features to further customize the experience. By exposing himself to a random cross-section for most of his day, he makes sure that he doesn’t narrow his view of the community, and he is able to make comments to users and moderators that make them feel noticed by and more connected to the site.

Whenever Martin stumbles on something particularly unique or interesting, he shares the information with his fellow community managers, and sometimes the whole company. Most of the time he takes his own personal notes in case things become relevant later on.

One time he saw that the Sweden subreddit had made a map of the country with dots over the major cities linking to those cities’ subReddits. When he visited again during the holidays, he saw the map had changed, turning each dot into a Christmas ornament. Sounds like a cute, superficial move, but it also taught Martin a couple things:

Customization is key. “I hadn’t seen anyone use a map like that. It had so much pride about it. As Reddit grows organically and globally, we see more and more communities defining their corner of Reddit to better serve their communities,” he says. “That really shows us a lot about the untapped potential there is for giving them more tools to do this and letting moderators and followers make more of an impact on the site.”

Tread and retread. You might think that some old threads are dead, or that there’s no use checking in with certain users that you’ve been in touch with before, but it pays off to revisit old conversations, forums or exchanges to see if you can apply new context, get new ideas, learn how to handle future situations more readily, more rapidly. You can learn a lot by going back and seeing how situations have evolved--especially if you have a community that talks a lot amongst itself.

Martin doesn’t have a regular schedule for connecting with moderators across Reddit, but he is constantly on the lookout for ways to encourage them over email or in comments. Most importantly, he’s sensitive to opportunities to connect them with other moderators or cool examples of what they could make possible. Encouraging a strong peer network breeds efficiency and incentivizes people to come back and engage on the site.

Don’t Overthink It

The second biggest mistake a community manager can make is trying to create too many guidelines around how they communicate with their users, Martin says. Especially when you’re at a growing startup, the situation will change nearly every day. People will be concerned about different things, will ask different questions, will need different types of responses. For all these reasons, learning to trust your own instincts is one of the most important things you can do.

“As a community manager, you can’t really have a long-term plan, you have to trust yourself to react appropriately in the moment,” he says. Most of the time you’ll be right. When you’re wrong, you’ll learn something new--just don’t get hung up on it.

As an example, SOPA and PIPA have sparked a number of heated debates and protests on Reddit. The platform’s audience in particular was strongly opposed to any legislation that could infringe on its free speech or innovation. Martin and his team had to think through how to listen to their audience’s needs on these issues, and they decided to amplify their voice.

Reddit decided to promote a subreddit devoted to SOPA where a lot of grassroots efforts really took off, including the boycott of GoDaddy, and even calling out high-profile politicians to take action. All of these events built on each other, eventually leading to the Internet Blackout last January, announced first on Reddit, and extended to Wikipedia and Wordpress.

In this situation, the community team at Reddit had to pay close attention to what its audience needed from the platform to have a fulfilling experience and feel heard at the same time. By increasing the visibility of the SOPA and PIPA protesters, it harnessed the power of the general Reddit community to make things happen and get even more people engaged. But it was mostly a gut call.

“Sometimes the best thing you can do when you’re managing a community is just give people a forum. Especially if you don’t know what to do about a particular situation--just watch the conversation and figure out what you should do based on that,” Martin says.

Listening in on conversations across various subreddits is one of the major strategies the community team uses to keep tabs on hot-button conversations, possible sources of conflict or questions, and how people are enjoying their experience on the site. The best community managers are the ones who commit to reading and listening in all day long to see what users care about, not just checking in when there is a problem. Otherwise you can get blindsided or simply won’t have the context you need to act.

With SOPA, we took a pretty big leap of faith based on the momentum we saw, and it was a wise decision

When people hear the word intuition, a lot of them think that it’s something innate, or that you have to be born with. But Martin disagrees. He believes it can be learned with time and practice. Especially as a community manager, when you have so many interactions every day and every week, it’s possible to develop a sixth sense for what people need. “Along with this, you develop the ability to deal with times that are wrong. That’s even more critical.”

Dust Yourself Off

Martin is the first to admit that he wasn’t always good at making and accepting mistakes. The natural impulse is to try to gloss over errors, but when you have a community watching every move you make--and you always will have die-hard community members who do--you have to acknowledge every accident, every wrong choice, every wrong decision you make.

“The job requires making assumptions and testing hypotheses. It stands to reason that some of these will end up being wrong,” he says. “When this happens, you just have to pick yourself up and deal with it. Emotional resilience is one of the most important qualities you can cultivate. It’s the only way you’ll keep moving forward.”

Early on in Reddit’s history, the team thought it needed to create a family of different sites in order to expand into new topic areas. They even launched a site called TheCuteList.com to showcase the many adorable photos of puppies and kittens that you see on the site today.

“We thought, ‘Wow, looks like people really want to see cute animals, but do they really want to see them on a site that is also all about news and programming?'” Martin says. They went as far as buying a variety of different domains and rallying moderators for each, believing that was the pathway to expansion for the Reddit brand in general. “Whoa was that wrong, but we didn’t know it at the time,” he says.

Instead of creating separate sites, they worked with the product and engineering teams to make it easier to customize communities within the general Reddit framework. This is how subreddits were born, all connected to the main site, all with a very similar format, but with their own unique characteristics (yes, you can pick your own Game of Thrones sigil on that particular subReddit).

In another instance, the community team tried distinguishing moderators by placing icons next to their names in comments sections. “It took about 15 minutes after we turned this feature on to realize how wrong we were,” Martin says. “The good thing is, even when you’re wrong in a big way, most of the time it’s easy to fix pretty quickly and recover.” In this case, they very rapidly made the moderator icon optional, and no permanent harm was done.

The worst thing you can do is dwell on a problem, conflict or mistake. It’s sort of like how dogs can smell fear. Users can sense uncertainty, a lack of commitment, a lack of confidence in how a product is being presented. When you experiment, make it clear that’s what you’re doing, so that you can make changes and remain flexible without seeming wishy-washy. And don’t over-apologize. The vast majority of users have shorter memories that you do about the product. But if you can’t let something go, they won’t either, and you can prolong user unhappiness if you aren’t careful.

Identify the Real Troublemakers

One thing Martin and the community team had to learn is that it takes users a while to get initiated into Reddit’s ways. It’s a site where an unspoken etiquette reigns (well, it’s on the site, but not in an obvious way). People tend to expect other Redditors to behave in a certain fashion, and when they don’t, skirmishes crop up and the community team has to step in.

“What we realized is that not everyone who gets into trouble is a real troublemaker,” says Martin. “Some people are just new and don’t know better.” Incidentally, some of these initially perceived “troublemakers” have become great assets for the community team. You crack down once, they learn the rules fast and become ambassadors for decorum.

Other times you’re not so lucky, and no amount of guidelines, explanations or warnings can stop someone from spamming, cheating, posting inappropriate content, etc. This requires a different approach--usually suspending people from the site is in order for these cases.

At Reddit, the community team enlists the help of moderators who run individual subreddits to determine which users present a real threat, and which are either newbies or one-time violators. This may sound unique to Reddit, but most online communities have influential users who are online so often or who are so familiar with other users that you can tap into their knowledge to take the right measures when problems do occur.

Take It Offline When You Can

One of Martin’s most significant learnings is that there’s no replacement for meeting people in person. He advises that community managers make every effort to meet with the people they are serving online day in and day out. You can imagine how hard this would be for him and Reddit, but Martin has traveled to many cities and countries to meet with Redditors where they live.

“This is a great opportunity to conduct informal focus groups. I ask people how they heard about Reddit, which subreddits they’re into, how familiar their friends and coworkers are with the site, have they noticed any changes--anything that could help us build a better product that appeals to more people,” he says.

More often than not, the conversations Martin has out in the world fuel a feedback loop that changes the product. “If I hear the same thing about a feature on the site multiple times, that’s an indication to me that it’s important to people. It’s something we should either not change or we should look seriously at improving or expanding.”

Martin even finds himself engaging in these conversations when he’s on vacation. “I have been to meetups all over the world. It’s part of my job to be fundamentally interested in what people think,” he says, adding that he considers it more of a perk.

The ideal community manager is always excited to be learning about people--not just what they think about your site or your product, but about what moves them. What drives their decision making? What are real problems in their lives and what would you do to solve them if you could? “You have to realize that there are no formulas for how people think,” says Martin. “That’s why you have to keep learning from them.”

For example, he’s encountered a number of people who have used Reddit to stay connected to a familiar community when they find themselves in a new city, at a new job, away from home. It becomes a constant that people can rely on.

Of course not every online community will play as primary a role in people’s lives, but there are still takeaways for good managers. You want any community that you curate or serve to feel anchored to your product and the forums that you provide to them to talk about it. That’s one reason why responding to one-off customer complaints or questions over email is probably not going to be sustainable. You want to ground people in relationships with many other people, give them a consistent set of parameters, make it clear that people are listening, and take actions as a result of views expressed by users just like them.

Don’t Be Too Driven By Data

As other sites collect and dissect huge stores of data, Reddit is keeping it simple. Reddit’s primary source of metrics remains Google Analytics despite explosive growth. This is mostly because Martin believe that data should supplement rather than guide decision making in most cases related to community.

“We don’t make any decision solely based on data--it’s something we take into consideration,” he says. “Of course community managers can’t be everywhere or see everything, so data can assist with us maintaining that broad view of the community. We look at trends and topics that are getting a lot of traffic. Mostly, it helps us see if issues, problems or trends are emerging so we can jump on them if we need to.”

During the 2014 elections in India, Reddit saw a spike in activity that lasted for several weeks--from early April to mid-May. The community team saw the momentum starting to build in the weeks leading up to this period so they could keep a close eye on related conversations. “We weren’t just looking to avoid problems,” he says. “We actually saw the highest engagement ever in India at this time, so we wanted to explore this new market and see what was connecting people. The data signaled that it was a good time to learn about users.”

When you’re a community manager, anything going on in the world--whether it’s political or culturally significant-can affect day-to-day operations. It can mean a higher volume of messages, signal more requests for support, or open your eyes to future areas for growth. In most cases, you don’t need data to tell you when these things are happening. In fact, if you are too fixed on the numbers, you could miss the forest for the trees and not realize what trends actually signify and how you can take advantage of them.

In the case of the Indian elections, Martin had to explain to many people that Reddit the company was not in any way controlling the discussion on the subreddit devoted to the topic. People were upset--they assumed that Reddit was supporting some communities over others. Martin and his team had to work overtime reminding people that their job was simply to provide a platform where other people could express their opinions.

Data allowed the community team to anticipate these complaints and answer a higher volume of queries, but they didn’t use data to manipulate the conversation in any way. “It’s important that data doesn’t replace your intuition when it comes to how you shape your community. In the majority of cases, the best tactic is to simply stay out of it. Don’t let data convince you to intervene.”

Let It Go

“You want to aim for that point when your site will be able to run itself,” Martin says. Even if you are managing a young community where you play the most active role responding to people, the ideal is always to develop other community members as experts (in Reddit’s case, moderators), who can answer questions and manage threads. Even Google does this by incentivizing users to become “top contributors” and help other users with their issues. This is one of the easiest and best ways you can scale.

“We know we’re never entirely going to get there, but I believe it’s important to approach community management with this goal. And the way you do that is by giving those who are active in your community the ability to create the spaces they want.”

When you’re first starting out, your primary role as a community manager should be to create guidelines that will define the group that springs up around them. You want these guidelines to capture what is important to your community, how you expect people to treat each other--and you want to make them visible to everyone.

“Good community managers leave some gray area in their guidelines--this is the room you’re giving to people to express themselves,” says Martin. “When you make it clear that this is also part of your vision, you can avoid a lot of controversy.”

Different constituencies will be disappointed. They’ll think and say that community managers are favoring others, or not giving their viewpoint its due. When this happens at Reddit, Martin says they generally point back to the philosophy that they want the community to be self-sustaining and self-policed--a free space. “Usually, when we do this, they understand that we are trying to create a platform. People respect that. And the beauty is that even if people disagree, they understand the platform approach.”

As long as you communicate with people in a courteous, professional manner, and allocate your time wisely, you probably won’t run into too much trouble.

“I'd much rather have people who feel strongly about things than people who are indifferent.”
Reddit works so well because it spans the range of human interests, emotions and personalities. These should be treated as positive things in online communities, not disruptive elements, Martin says. Everything that makes your users human is positive, because there’s a basis for empathy. And when there’s a basis for empathy, there’s a basis for common understanding.

“I may not care about skydiving, but a lot of people do, and Reddit lets those that see their world through skydiving build a community around that,” says Martin. “Think about how people see the world through your product. How can you respect and celebrate that? That’s your job.”

This article originally appeared in First Round Review and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Mechatronics Guy]

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