Avoid failure when supporting free and open source communities

Originally published on opensource.com.

This is Part 3 in a series of articles three on community management best practices. Read Part 1, Practical business reasons to support open source communities, and Part 2, How your company can build and keep community trust.

Although supporting a community offers many benefits to an organization, to imply that there are no risks to the organization or community manager would be disingenuous. When handled poorly, engaging with a community can lead to major growing pains, raging headaches, and total meltdowns. In this article, I’ll discuss how to prevent the headaches before they happen.

If your organization decides to invest in and grow a community, not knowing why you are supporting a community and what results you expect are a huge problem. Humans—some more than others—are social creatures, so the appeal of being part of a community can be strong. However, that does not excuse your organization from responsible business practices. Undertaking any sort of large initiative without understanding the business reasons for doing so, or criteria and metrics for success, is irresponsible and not sustainable.

Defining ROI

Still, many organizations dive head first into community (and other) initiatives without having done basic due diligence from a business perspective. They fund the salaries of the community management team and sponsor community events without discussing assumptions, expectations, parameters, metrics, or anticipated ROI from the endeavor. Down the road, this inevitably leads to awkward conversations. And some of these conversations negatively impact the community, which can lead to serious blow-back and negative PR for the organization.

Another risk organizations face when initiating a community support program is mistaking the community for a market or for customers. Although community members may also fit these roles, and traditional marketing and sales outreach techniques can be helpful at times, treating the community like anything other than a community can lead to resentment and ill-will from its members. Remember: A community is a self-organized and self-identified collection of people. Identification is a powerful thing, and treating someone contrary to their selected identification is arrogant and disrespectful. When an organization begins to think of the community as merely a well-qualified market or as sales leads, it has lost connection with the community and risks losing members and public negative feedback.

Community value

Organizations that do not think through business aspects of their community support programs risk devaluing the community they support. Without considering the business case for supporting a community, the organization can fall into thinking that any community will do, and that this community is expendable or hot-swappable for another that the organization can simply support or build in parallel. Again, this line of thinking ignores community self-organization and identification. It dehumanizes the community members, treating them as interchangeable cogs turning in a machine cranked by the organization. This dehumanization creates a blind spot in the organization such that they are surprised when the community exercises its agency and independence, often with unfortunate results for the organization.

Organizations that decide to support a community and then, through neglect, allow the community to fall into disrepair are also at risk. Communities will self-manage; there is no requirement for an organization to swoop in and offer its support on that front. But a self-managing community is not always a healthy community. Through neglect, indifference, or political skulduggery a community can become a negative space that is unwelcoming to the new, the reasonable, the empathetic.

An organization that reneges on its promise to help manage and lead a community cannot walk away from the reputation it earns by being associated with a negative and toxic community environment. This is, of course, a worst-case scenario. More often, a community left in neglect withers and dies silently. But sometimes thriving and toxic weeds overrun it, and ignoring this possibility is a mistake that a supporting organization makes at its own peril.

Then there is the problem of expectations mismatch. The organization cannot simply decide to support a community, go stomping in there waving money and touting their principles, and then expect to be embraced as a conquering hero. Entering a community, as I mentioned in Part 2, takes time and deliberate effort. A large part of that effort is communicating why the organization has decided to become a part of the community, what they hope to gain, what the community will gain, and how the organization intends to operate both within and outside the community.

Communication is key. Both sides must openly outline expectations, otherwise they risk an expectations mismatch, which can sour the community to future support from the organization. If the organization supports and listens to a skillful community manager who understands the community and its members, the chance of an expectation mismatch goes down. The communication pipeline provided by the community manager ensures that all sides understand what is going on, when, why, and how everyone can contribute.

Enter the community manager

I’ve discussed the benefits and risks to organizations supporting communities, but there’s another piece of the equation that is often overlooked: risks to the community managers themselves.

Community manager (or a variant, such as developer relations) is a relatively new job title in the tech industry. As organizations began to recognize benefits of supporting a community, they also began to see the need to have one or more employees guiding, growing, and communicating with that community. But problems with this role can start early on, when organizations aren’t clear on expectations and requirements for measuring the community manager’s success.

Community managers are in curious and occasionally awkward positions. To succeed at their jobs, they must participate in their communities at a level that can appear to be disloyal to an employer and in favor of the community. In fact, a successful community manager plays the role of diplomat and translator between organization and community, representing the organization’s interests within the community, while transmitting the feedback and concerns of the community back to the organization. The community manager must understand the perspectives and motivations of each side and work to balance and achieve goals to benefit both.

This is a difficult task in the best of situations, but becomes particularly challenging when the organization misunderstands the diplomatic role of the community manager, and instead expects them to enforce organizational edicts without regard to effects on the community. This can be perceived as disloyalty to the organization rather than what it is: the community manager working to protect the reputation of the organization.

Community manager ROI

Community managers also have the challenge of proving their value to their organizations. The metrics required for such validation often are difficult to track, nebulous, or both. Proving the ROI of a community support program is hard enough; proving the impact of an individual community manager on that ROI is even more difficult. For the sake of community managers and of the community program, that organizations define metrics and criteria for success before beginning the undertaking is vital.

Community managers who are not armed with metrics and organizational expectations are unable to show the value they bring to an organization, and they become low-hanging fruit when budgets are cut, and they can be cut out of the picture. Often organizations that choose this option are those that failed to outline their motivations and expectations for supporting a community. And, having not thought things through from the start, these organizations rarely have considered the repercussions that losing a community manager can have on the community and how it views the organization.

Other risks to community managers are more personal in nature. For instance, embedding oneself within a single community can lead to difficult career mobility. Becoming a trusted member of a community takes a great deal of time, energy, and emotional investment, and although the relationships built and interpersonal skills learned are valuable and transferable, a community manager cannot simply jump from one community to another as easily as a programmer can move from one project to another. When an organization decides not to continue supporting a community, or if the community manager is no longer satisfied with their role or organization, finding a new position can be difficult.