In technology circles, Jeff Atwood is one of the most well respected engineers of our time. He is the co-creator of the remarkably popular Stack Exchange and Stack Overflow. Most recently he has focused his talents on re-thinking and re-inventing forums as the co-creator of the popular Discourse forum.
Atwood has a profound sense for how human beings engage and collaborate with each other. He sometimes describes his work as a form of building multi-player games, evident in his work including carefully crafted rules that help users to generate high quality content and reduce noise.
Atwood’s work is hugely valuable to marketers in which companies want engaged, passionate communities of customers and users. I sat down with him to explore his work more.
Shaping the public good
Atwood has been a long support and contributor to open source and open communities. It gets to the heart of what drives the work he does.
“I want to create communities that are sustainable and part of the public good in some way” he says. He continues, “Mostly I want the web to be full of these wonderful public (or semi-private) parks that we can all enjoy together, and benefit from. They could be enormous, like the grand canyon, or tiny, like a neighborhood park or garden.”
His view is not merely philanthropic, but also rooted in productivity and quality. “I strongly believe that the only way to make a sustainable community is to let the community have a strong stake in running, owning, and operating itself,” he says.
His own project, Discourse, is a case in point, “You can see this in the creative commons licenses we chose by default, the prominence of ‘meta’ or self governance sister sites as fundamental underpinnings to the whole community, and the regular public moderator elections Stack Overflow holds across its entire network. Discourse is, of course, itself a fully open source project from top to bottom as well.”
He is not wrong. As I have seen in my own work too, what makes communities tick is a sense of connectedness that when combined with the ability for people contribute and add value can make communities a tremendously rewarding place to be. This is where there is real value for marketers.
The marketing value
Atwood sums up this value for marketers neatly, “In the same way that a single glowing Amazon product review can sell thousands of units, the best way to spend your marketing dollars, in my opinion, is to cultivate a dynamic community of enthusiasts around your product.”
He continues, “If you have great customer support, but nobody can see it except for the single person that was helped, did you really get all the value out of the money you just spent on that customer support incident? I don’t think so.”
While support is often an initial carrot dangling off a stick for organizations to explore community, the potential is much deeper. “Real community is so much more than just basic customer support, it’s listening to your customers, talking to them in public, folding in their feedback, talking to your own team in public, watching customers give pro tips to other customers, and generally just walking alongside your customers in their journey with your product.”
This gets to the crux of Atwood’s vision and goals for Discourse, somewhat inspired by WordPress itself. “We have one big goal: to be the WordPress of community,” he says. “WordPress is our spirit animal, at least WordPress from 2010 onward.”
He touches on a real opportunity. Historically forums have been old, cumbersome, and at times ineffective tools for communities. Discourse changes all of that.
Discourse is not merely a new lick of paint on an old concept, it is a re-thought and re-considered approach to how people communicate effectively together and have meaningful and productive conversations.
It features rich integrated ways of having conversations, not merely text, but including images, videos, headings, social media posts and more. Forums can be categorized into different thematic areas, and private or domain specific areas are easy to spin up. It simplifies registration, user-to-user communication, and much more.
Discourse is designed to be self-moderating in which the users are given more responsibility as they participate. At the core of this is a powerful trust system which helps to identify and entrust active users with additional capabilities. This is further bolstered with gamification and a raft of subtle features which encourage the right kind of engagement.
While Discourse is powerful, no-one should be under any illusion to the time and commit required to make it succeed.
Atwood shares this view, “There is a certain amount of emotional labor involved in any community. It’s like parenting. Mostly this means you have to care, and above all else, you have to show up. I find that making your community a regular part of your daily work — integrating it into what you normally do on a daily basis — rather than treating it as ‘oh, now I have to go to this place I never usually go to’, produces the best results.”
Atwood is absolutely correct: building a community is tough if you don’t play a role in the community you are shaping. Ultimately this work is about empowering your audience.
“Longer term, your goal is to recruit your biggest fans and enthusiasts and empower them to help you run the community. Think of it as not just advocacy, but recruiting. In the long term, these are often the sort of people you want to hire to work at your company,” he says.
One of the most interesting components integrated into both Stack Overflow and Discourse is a carefully crafted gamification system in which the system rewards users with badges for different methods of participation and skills growth.
Gamification and rewards can be a contentious topic. Rather unsurprisingly, Atwood has some perspectives in how you build gamification and rewards into your systems.
“First of all, is it collaborative (Discourse) or is it competitive (Stack Overflow)? Both are valuable but they are very different activities with different goals. Collaboration is about reciprocation and empathy, whereas competition is about peer acceptance and differentiation from the other options.
You can get a long, long way with intentionally deciding how you sort the data you display, rather than explicitly telling people “this is what I want you to do” or giving them a badge or award. Always do that first!”
Atwood applies suitable caution though to the use of metrics to measure contribution in our communities. “Remember, whenever you put a number next to someone’s name, you are now playing with dynamite” he says. “People will do whatever they can to make that number go up, even if it makes no sense at all, or has long since stopped being reasonable. Carefully consider all the implications of that number carefully before you put it anywhere, and take a moment to think about what Evil People will do with it, as well.”
Discourse is a powerful tool for marketers to build engaging communities. When harnessed correctly, it can build fantastic value for companies and consumers alike. At the center of this work is building engagement.
“Ultimately, when it comes to Discourse, it’s a party. So call your local neighborhood party planner. What activities have you provided? Who’s there that is interesting or famous or cool or funny? Will there be food? Will there be free stuff? Are there prizes? Contests?
What have you done to make it interesting? Think about team building exercises and how those work, but also bear in mind the work itself should be interesting anyway — so if part of your daily work touches the community, that’s interesting.. isn’t it?
Once you reach a certain critical mass, the party will definitely keep itself going, but that requires the right people in attendance, and regularly.”