The BSP Interview of Mac Reddin, Founder of Commsor

Jul 15, 2021

Thrilled to share our first interview on The BSP — a chat with a good friend of mine — Mac Reddin, founder and CEO of the community analytics platform Commsor and lifelong community builder.

I originally asked Mac to hop on a call to chat about community metrics, after publishing the GEAR framework, but he has such deep and nuanced knowledge of community building that the conversation grew into something larger.

I've shared the interview in full, below — tons of gems in there, enjoy!

  • Most people focus on growth metrics right away, when really they should focus on engagement and retention metrics.
  • Being data-informed is better than being data-driven.
  • The biggest stamp of approval your community can get is that members want their friends to be part of it.
  • To prove the value of your community to others at your company, talk about it in terms they understand with actionable outcomes.
  • Some of your most active members may not be active in your primary channels — and that's ok.
  • The future of community tools is verticalization.

Ok, so what can metrics teach people about their communities?

Oh man, a lot. Especially when it comes to communities that start to scale and you have to think about things like Dunbar's Number or how you can only keep so many human connections in your own head. A community team is often just one person and when you grow to 1000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000 people in a community, you just can't keep all that information in your head anymore.

When you only have 10 customers you can stay on top of how they're doing and which ones might churn, but at a certain scale you need analytics to understand how people are doing, who's active, who's not, who's really active and who's impacting the community. In my experience managing communities, you end up with this core group that you know in your community and everyone else kind of drops off. Analytics and metrics can help you stay on top of the entire community and understand who your members are, how they're engaging and when you should engage a certain member or not.

So it lets you know the members that you otherwise wouldn't be getting to know because they're not as actively engaged?

Yes. For example in sales, somebody either is a customer or they're not, you know that without needing analytics software. With a community, such as in a Slack instance, it's not quite as simple as, "oh this person posts all the time therefore they're an active member," because a lot of times the value in the community might be there but they're getting it in different ways. There's a lot more human depth to a community. It’s not as linear.

We're soft of talking about the difference between superfans of the community who are really engaged, versus everyone else, right? Do different metrics matter more for either of those two types of members, and what would they be?

Yeah, I think because the value they're looking to get out of the community is measured differently. Superfans often feel they're going to be there no matter what. Rain or sun, they're going to post content, they're going to engage members and they're going to create value for other members. As you work your way down the member engagement stack, where you get more and more consumers versus contributors, the behavior pattern and intended value looks different.

Take the classic 99 - 1 rule or the old Reddit rule. The numbers are very outdated now, but for online engagement it claims 90% of people lurk, 9% can consume and only 1% actually create the content. The numbers vary between communities and I've seen a lot of communities where it's more like 50, 40, 10 but these three buckets are fairly consistent across communities.

What can community managers do to influence that, to bump that 1% up towards 10%?

I'm not sure there's anything you should do sometimes. Writing community metrics can be challenging because I think if community becomes too metric driven and too data driven, you can actually lose what makes community, which to me is authenticity and humanity. So I think a lot of times metrics can act as more of a canary rather than an action item. It can tell you things like "hey, this person was really active and is maybe going inactive so you should reach out and re-engage them," but you can't turn metrics on the community as a way of automating it, right?

Commsor isn't helping you build data driven communities, we’re helping people build data augmented communities. I think this is a subtle but very powerful difference. You need the data to understand the community, but it's not actually going to do the work for you.

A lot of teams strive to be data driven when they're building products too, but that's actually a myopic focus. Being data informed is the smarter way. That's how we built products at Uber and Airbnb.

Yes, ‘data informed’ is a great way of putting it. Take Salesforce. Salesforce is a great product, but it’s not going do the sales for you without a person who knows how to do sales. Similarly, community analytics aren't going to do anything for us unless we actually have the people there who know community, how to interpret the analytics, and how to do the right things with them.

Community is such a human thing. It's probably the most human thing you can be doing at a company.

I shared a post two weeks ago with a very simple framework for thinking about community metrics. The GEAR framework (growth, engagement, advocacy and retention). Which types of metrics are the most important for communities, and how does that change as communities grow?

I think I'm going to preface everything I say from here on out, with a giant “it depends” asterix. One of the beauties of community, and one of the dangers of it, is that community can mean 10 different things if you ask 10 different people at 10 different companies. Unlike with sales or marketing where it’s like, hey do A, then B then C, then see the sale happened, community is not quite as easy to do that in. If you look at community at Salesforce versus community at Launch House, the metrics are completely different.

Launch House probably cares less about hardcore community growth and much more about each individual member’s engagement. On the other hand, Salesforce cares more about overall community growth, and Airbnb or Twitter care more about overall growth. So I think it's a spectrum and you might be more on the light or the heavy end of each of these metrics depending on what kind of community you're trying to build.

A lot of people make the mistake of assuming that the size of a community is the end all be all. I've said that you need two things in community: you need a reason for people to join and a reason for people to stay. Many people do a really good job on why someone should join, but they forget about the reason people should stay. That’s like the growth and the retention part of your GEAR framework.

Is the number of members important? Yes, but you also get negative network effects as communities grow. Not every community is designed to be as big as possible. Especially in the early days, advocacy and retention are the most important part. Getting that first set of 10, 20, 50 super fans that are going to be the anchor for your community is key. Then you can worry about growth metrics.

People tend to put growth metrics first, advocacy and retention second and I think it should be the other way around: to start small and let the community grow itself. I mean our community, Community Club, is like 2600 members in Slack now and about 12,000 members in total across all the channels that we engage with. It took us a year to get here.

At 250-300 members, pretty much every single member was manually invited and handheld into the community. It then took us another year to go from about 300 to over 10,000. It’s because we built a very intentional base that growth can now happen organically. We don't do a whole lot to actually intentionally grow it, we focus more on the advocacy and retention now, and that actually leads to the growth and engagement.

Most people think about it that way, do they?

They reverse it. In reality, you first engage people that are there and that will then cause people to come in. It’s often said that word of mouth is the best growth channel and that is especially true for communities. It’s the biggest stamp of approval you can get for your community - that members want their friends to be a part of it.

I hear from a lot of people who are just starting out with building a community that community metrics are good for a high level view of what's going on, but they're not as useful for understanding individual community member concerns.

It depends on what metrics we're talking about. Is the number of members and overall engagement rate going to be important? No, but you can still boil things down into what kind of member someone is. I guess you could even argue, is it really a metric if it's a single data point? Maybe it's not analytics anymore but there's definitely ways that you can use that to understand things better. You could have two super users, but then the metrics are completely different in how they engage.

At Commsor we use something called a community grid, which breaks down nine different member personas in your community based on frequency, consistency and impact. I think a lot of people make the mistake of focusing so much on frequency (more engagement is better) and that's just not true with community. You have to understand more than simply "is this person active," but rather how are they active.

As I mentioned before, we've got 2600 people on our Slack but about 12,000 total. We have members that, if you just looked at Slack you'd be like, oh, this person is not in your community. But then they tweet about us all the time and they read our newsletter every week. They are simply a part of our community in a way that's not quite as obvious as the members who are sitting in Slack. So I think metrics can help you understand those different member personas and understand how you should communicate with a super user in Slack versus an active newsletter subscriber.

What are some ways that people could get their team to buy into the importance of community metrics?

If you're a community manager and you have 5000 members in your community and you go to your CMO or your CEO or your head of sales and tell them proudly “we have 5000 members in our community,” their reaction is probably going to be a bit flat. They’ll maybe ask: “what does that do for us?”, ''why do we care about that?”

Community should not exist for the sake of sales and the sake of marketing, etc. But as a community manager, you have to ‘talk the talk’ with the rest of the company, otherwise you're going to be stuck as a second class citizen in your own company, unable to prove the value and probably be seen as a cost center. It creates a self fulfilling prophecy. With a lack of investment in communities, you can't prove the value of community and different communities.

If you can go to your head of sales and say “we have 5000 members in our community, and 60 of them are target accounts for your sales team”, now the sales team is actually going to care. Or if you can go to support and say “we have 5000 people in our community, and because of that we reduced support costs by $2 million last year”, great, now your support team is going to care. You need to create statements along the lines of: because of the community, X is true for the rest of the business.

I think there are more tools that are probably going to be built for managing communities that don't exist today. I'd love to hear your ideas about what types of tools are missing from the market?

At a high level you can look at things like the old MarTech graphic where there were 20 marketing tools and then 300, then 7,000, then 18,000. I think community will go a similar way and not just in the metric space. As teams grow, they need more legitimacy in their tool stack. If you're a sales team, it's not, "do I have a tool," it's "which of 3000 tools am I going to pick from?"

It's really interesting when you look at the specialization in that space. Take HubSpot versus Salesforce versus Gong, they’re almost all kind of the same yet sales teams still end up with six of them in their tool stack. Community is obviously way more immature right now than sales or marketing, but I do think we'll see more specialization, for example, community analytics for creator communities. A YouTuber with a million subscribers has a community and data stack that looks completely different from Commsor’s. I think the integration of the analytics and the tooling is going to be different.

Beyond that I think we'll also see tools that actually plug into other tools like that. At Commsor, people are trying to take the data we have and then build tools that help build automations or engagement tooling that actually turn that data into more actionable things, both manually and automatically.  If we look at what sales automation and marketing ops did over the last decade, I think it'll probably look exactly the same over the next 10 years for community.

So, why did you start Commsor? What's the mission?

The honest answer: it started as a hackathon project without the intention of it being a business. The more nuanced answer: it’s a pain point that I've experienced in the past as a community builder. Originally we were trying to solve the simple question of: "who are my members and where are they active?" But it's obviously evolved into something significantly more complex and significantly more nuanced than that.

A lot of communities right now are saying that they've onboarded people in the past few weeks but don’t really know the size of their community, “oh we've got like 50,000 on Twitter, 10,000 on Slack, 1000 attended these events, 100 on the newsletter but we don't know who's active, we don't know what the overlap is.” These are legitimately large companies who struggle to answer the simple question of “how big is your community.” So I think it started from a place of trying to solve a very, very simple thing, and has obviously turned into something much larger.

Do you find that communities who find you understand the value of Commsor or does it take some time to click?

Community managers get it, I think. We have a quote on our homepage: “I've been in community for 10 years and I've been dreaming about a tool like this for 10 years.” Historically, companies didn't understand community. They weren't investing enough in it, so they weren't investing enough for a tool like ours to exist, which meant they couldn't understand it, which meant they wouldn't invest in it. It's a weird cycle that has to get broken.

In the last 12 months, as anyone who's been on tech Twitter or any sort of tech thing has seen, people now give a shit about community in a way they haven't in a very long time. I think community managers and community teams get it right away, they've been literally dreaming about this for years, but it's convincing marketing folk etc that still needs some work. Community has historically been a bit of the bastard child, where companies are like, is it marketing or is it sales or is it support? It's now finally maturing into its own team and its own department that can now justify its own tooling.

Okay, last question then I'll let you go. When we look ahead, what's going to be different about Commsor in five years?

Oh man, let's see. We'll come back to this in five years and see if I was right.

One way it could go is more verticalization in the community space as teams mature and get more specialization. My pitch for communities is probably a bit broader than most companies who typically define community as their Slack community or a physical forum, something that the community team owns. My perspective of community is that it’s not so much a space as it is an ethos.

When a company is truly community led, it's a way of thinking that bleeds through the entire business, not just a thing that gets bolted on the side. It leads to community led sales and community led marketing. 90% of our customers today come into our community, build a relationship and then three to six months later, buy our product. I think there's a world where community actually evolves into customer experience in a way where community is both the tangible and the intangible of the entire customer experience.

I could argue that we’re not really talking about Commsor on this call, you're not on a Commsor community channel by any stretch of the imagination, but after this conversation, your impression of Commsor, will positively or negatively impact our community in a way that maybe can't be tracked. This kind of goes back to metrics. There's a lot of intangible in community that metrics can't track and never will be able to track.

It's almost like a brand. Brand is your logo and your language and your color, but it's also the feeling people get when they think about your company and I think there's a lot of that in community. Which is why it's so hard to give advice about communities sometimes. How do you describe to someone or teach someone how to build a feeling around their business, because that's a lot of what community building is.

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