Talk with the Experts – Sarah Hawk

Each week I’ve been introducing you to new coding concepts, this week we’re introducing something new! We are lucky here at Sitepoint to have a lot of talent in our surroundings and as such we’ve put together this series of ‘Talk with the Experts’ videos.

For this first video in the series, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sarah Hawk to discuss her Community Management role at Sitepoint. Hawk, as we all know her, is the seeing eye watching over and engaging with our social networks and forums. Tune in below to learn about the community management role and to hear what goes on behind the scenes here at Sitepoint.

Jess: I’m here with Sarah Hawk, who is your Community Manager here at SitePoint. Hello, Sarah. Can you tell us a bit about your role here?

Sarah: I sure can. My role is split into two main parts. 50% of it would be management of our forums and the other part would be management of our social media presence.

Jess: What communities do you manage and how big are those communities?

Sarah: So, the forum community, which is just our SitePoint forums, about 0.5 million people. Although, to be fair, that’s not 0.5 million active people at one time. So we’ve got 0.5 million registrations. The social media communities that I manage are across the SitePoint network, and we probably have a combined Twitter following of about 130,000 people, and Facebook combined around 30,000, 35,000, so relatively large, the bulk of those being SitePoint, with the niche sites making up the totals.

Jess: Yeah. Wow. That is a big, big community to do. So how do you do that as one person? Do you have other people that sort of help you out from within the community?

Sarah: I do. The forum side of things, very much so. I manage a staff of about 40 people, and those are all volunteers, so they’re not paid staff. I couldn’t do it without them. At the social media side of things, no. I am a one-man band. But I obviously use a lot of technological tools to help me to do that job.

Jess: So if you have people helping from the inside, what is it that they can bring to the table? Are you guys always looking for community help?

Sarah: Oh, yeah. We definitely are. The community needs to manage itself to a certain degree, so the people that we employ work in moderation roles, so they’re split into teams with a general management structure. But in terms of the community itself, the more people that do community-type assistance, for example, report in posts that concern them, pointing out new members that they think might need assistance, offering to help with community projects.

We run a lot of competitions, that sort of thing. So, any of those types of basic community activities are always welcome. We tend to employ our staff internally, so we spot the people that do behave in that way and we grab them pretty quickly.

Jess: Why is it important for you to watch over a community? Is it to keep people in check or are you sort of protecting these people? Or is it to promote and engage things?

Sarah: Yeah. All of those things. Primarily, a community needs to be nurtured and protected if it’s going to continue to grow organically. So, we want people to be able to come to the community and feel welcome and comfortable so that they can ask new questions. Generally, somebody that comes to our forums, especially, are brand new to web development or to a certain aspect of it.

Nobody wants to be made to feel stupid. So, yeah, as a moderator and a community manager, primarily, my job is to protect those people. On a wider scale, we are there to protect our brand, and to make sure that the message that people are getting in relation to the company, to SitePoint, is a healthy one and is the one that we are meaning to portray.

So, both of those things are, I suppose – the third aspect of my job would be to protect our community from our marketing branch, I suppose, and of the company. That’s a bit more of a balancing act, though.

Jess: So the balancing act is the community management and marketing, I guess, right?

Sarah: Absolutely. Well, it’s balancing the message that we give via social media, making sure that we communicate important marketing messages to consumers. I mean, that’s why people are part of our community, generally. They want to find out about new books. They want to hear about good deals. So it’s important that we make sure that they get those messages without feeling spammed.

So, they choose to follow us because they like us, so we just need to make sure that we maintain a good message across the board, which isn’t too “marketed”.

Jess: Would you say your role is to grow your community? Or is it more important for you to spend time managing what it is that you already have?

Sarah: Right, yeah. So I guess that question is growth versus engagement, and I think that both of those are vital. So in my opinion, a really small but engaged community is probably to be considered healthier than a huge community of consumers, especially in our industry. My goal is to make sure that the community that we do have give and take and continue to nurture each other, and
growth is obviously a sort of goal.

Jess: Would you say in your experience, then, that it’s better to get involved and really be in the middle of that community and tell them sort of where to act or how to act? Or do you really want to let this grow and let it have its own sort of life to it?

Sarah: You’re talking about two quite different aspects of the community I guess. The forums community, I think it’s crucial to get in there on the ground floor and make sure that you know what’s going on in your community. It’s impossible to manage a body of people if you don’t know what it is that needs to be done.

But then social media, kind of a different ballpark, really. Social media, a goal is definitely engagement. I mean, the more engagement you get the easier it is to get the growth. But it’s definitely not something that you need to be quite as involved in, in terms of understanding what [inaudible 00:06:06]. So they’re more of a consumer community.

Jess: Does that meet there are basic sort of ground rules that you would live by as a community manager?

Sarah: Yeah. I think so. I think that when you go in and set up a community or when you take over a community, you decide on the things that the community values, and then you can have any number of tools to help you enforce those things. But if your principles and your values aren’t clear, the community doesn’t have anything to live by. So I think that transparency and honesty and clear guidelines are as important as any kind of moderation tools.

Jess: Would you say then that managing a community is less a question of procedures, maybe more a question of establishing the right principles?

Sarah: I think it definitely is. I think that every community has basic rules, and most of those will probably be the same. I don’t think many communities tolerate abuse. I don’t think many communities tolerate spam. But then there will be communities and trick rules that apply and across the board for us, those relate to the sorts of things that you’re allowed to discuss. We are primarily a web development forum.

We talk about other things in general discussion areas, but we don’t allow, for instance, talk about religion or politics. It doesn’t matter how many moderation tools you have or how many moderators you have, if people don’t understand what the rules and boundaries are and what your principles are then there’s no point – you’re never going to win.

Jess: So you’ve been working within this world for quite a while now. How has this social media boom affected your role?

Sarah: It’s changed my role considerably. When I started in my job, I was a forum administrator, basically, and it was, I guess, what a community manager was at the time. Then social media
came in and the nature of communities change. We’ve still got our forum community and that hasn’t changed too much, except the way that people use the forums definitely has.

Because there is such a raft of different ways to consume on the internet now, people don’t necessarily spend the time that they used to spend, which is quite difficult. People don’t necessarily come along to make friends and be part of a community like they used to. They don’t come along to answer questions necessarily. They come along, they find the information that they want, and then they disappear.

Jess: Is it helpful then for you to have so many social media tools to choose from?

Sarah: There are almost too many social media tools to choose from. I think that there are core ones that most media managers use. For instance, HootSuite is a really good way of managing your Twitter accounts. There are all sorts of different tools that allow you to schedule. Because an online community means that you’ve got an audience that’s not just all around the world, but it’s in every time zone imaginable, it’s impossible as a single person to be able to maximize the visibility that you give to your audience.

So, yeah, there are awesome tools around now that you can use to pre-schedule tweets, algorithms that figure out who’s going to see the most things at the most times. That didn’t used to exist, so those sorts of things are great. Obviously analytics now exists that we didn’t used to have, so we can see which forums are still valid forums, how our community is evolving and changing. So yeah, absolutely, I think, after having a staff of people, having a raft of tools is crucial.

Jess: So what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve been faced with in your role?

Sarah: One of the biggest challenges would be managing a large staff of volunteers. It sort of comes with those same people management necessities, and requirements that any other job would. But I’m not paying them. So I’ve got to really juggle personalities, how far you push somebody when you know that they’re doing you a favor, what you ask of somebody when you’re not giving them money.

So that’s difficult. I find that that’s to be challenging. But probably the biggest challenge that’s facing me at the moment, anyway, as I talked about before, just the changing nature of internet consumerism. So whereas before our forums were the biggest and the fastest growing, and the easiest to … we didn’t have to worry about numbers. Now we’re constantly coming up with new ways to involve people, to keep them engaged. To try and crowd source new content, to try and find ways to incentivize people to stay, not just to come along. To get people to not just ask questions but answer questions, to give back.

Yeah, it’s difficult to look at it from the right perspective and realize that that is just an organic change as opposed to something that we’re doing wrong, and to kind of try and embrace new technologies. There are so many of those around now. Do you go for Google Plus? Do you go for LinkedIn? Do you use Pinterest? Which of those things is going to be the most applicable to your business? Are you missing out on a huge market by not choosing one of those things?

I mean, as I said earlier, I manage eight different communities. If I tried to set up eight different LinkedIn groups, eight different Google Plus groups, I’m just spreading myself too thin. It’s not feasible. Nobody would get anything good out of any of them. So, yeah. I guess we’re spoilt for choice, and that does make things challenging rather than easy.

Jess: Thanks so much for your time, Sarah. This has been Jess Genevieve Brown with Sarah Hawk, who is your Community Manager at sitepoint.com.

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  • http://www.sitepoint.com HAWK

    This is the first of our ‘Talk with the Experts’ series of JumpCasts. Previously they have all been topic based, rather than this role based approach. I’d be interested to know what you think.

    I’d also be happy to respond to any questions that the interview may have raised, or elaborate on anything, although I concede that Community Management and Social Media may not be the most interesting to some of you!