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The Community Club

AMA with Cindy Au

alex profile image Alex Angel with Cindy Au ・1 min read

Join us at 3PM ET on 10/29 as Cindy answers your community questions! The AMA will happen in this post at 12PM ET. Ask Cindy anything about communities in the education space, her time as an early employee at Kickstarter, community growth, or anything you may be interested in learning more about! Cindy will be around throughout the day responding, so feel free to comment with your questions early to make sure she gets to it.

Discussion

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shinyee_au profile image
Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Just wanted to say thanks to everyone who asked questions today, and to Alex and the wonderful team at Community Club for hosting! I had a lot of fun answering, and as I'm looking through realizing that apparently I can only answer questions in short novel form?? Thankfully nobody asked me about which season of Supernatural I am currently watching.

I'll be signing off in a bit, but am always happy to continue the conversation if there's a topic you want to explore!

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Alex Angel Ask Me Anything

Thank you so much for being here and answering everyone's questions! LOVE the short novel form, you don't ever have to apologize for that :D Really wonderful insights that you shared that I hope inspire others building in the education space (and all types of community, honestly!).

I'll DM you about Supernatural 👀

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alex profile image
Alex Angel Ask Me Anything

How did you go about building and scaling community at an early stage startup? What were some unique struggles you faced?

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Hi Alex, I love this question! Outside of my current role, I've pretty much only built communities at early stage startups. It's a different ride each time, but I'll share a story from Kickstarter for this question :)

When I joined Kickstarter in 2010, we were a company of 9 people. There were at most a few hundred projects on the site, and maybe a thousand people had ever given money to a campaign. Kickstarter's founders had an early community of artists and musicians that they brought with them to the site, but beyond that there was no clear sense of who our community was, nor what it would really mean to build a community.

One very early community mistake I like to share is our first attempt at a Kickstarter meetup. We sent an email to everyone who had ever created a project, gave them the address to a bar, and said come and join us for some drinks! Well, about 10 people showed up, none of them had anything in common, and most actually came to let us know in person that they were frustrated with our product, our policies, etc. Total disaster.

It seems so obvious now how we did everything wrong, but it's the classic mistake of thinking that because people have used your product, they are somehow a community. They are not - at least not until you invest in understanding their motivations and what it is that actually connects your users.

So we learned and evolved, and frankly, our users were the ones who led the way. They came to us with their needs as different types of creators, and it became super clear that we actually had many distinct communities on Kickstarter - filmmakers, musicians, game developers, startup founders, writers, dancers, comic book creators, etc - and each of the communities needed different things from us.

We started focusing on building communities around these different creative verticals, and it allowed each to thrive independently of the other, while still benefiting the ecosystem as a whole and creating a scalable growth model that was entirely community-driven. More people creating great projects = more visibility for Kickstarter as a whole = more audience for future creators = more people creating great projects.

Segmenting our community enabled us to scale - we hired a CM for each vertical, and for the most part, that structure still exists today despite the fact that the site has grown to tens of millions of users.

What I loved about this approach is that it enabled different communities to have their own unique identities within Kickstarter. Startups saw us as a place to raise millions, while musicians saw us as a place to promote their new album, and artists saw us a place to create their own residencies. It didn't matter if you came to raise $500 for a side project or $1 million to start a company. We could be all these things - exactly what each community needed - simultaneously.

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Alex Angel Ask Me Anything

I love this, thank you for sharing. I'm always so curious to see how different companies approach structuring their community teams (assuming they have a "team" and not just one person) and what works for them that might not necessarily translate to a community that has a different structure.

That first attempt at a meetup resonates with me sooo much. We absolutely had similar things like that at reddit that were great learning experiences on what NOT to do again.

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cesar

How did you make the decision to segment the community by creator type instead of having one community of creators?

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shinyee_au profile image
Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Hi Cesar, there were a couple of deciding factors -

1) We wanted to over-deliver on experience and make sure creators from all our verticals felt they were being supported by people who understood needs unique to their different creative backgrounds.

2) In order to evaluate certain types of projects/campaigns, we needed specialized knowledge. E.g. It was difficult for someone w/o experience dealing with the ins and outs of book publishing to try and provide campaign support and advice to someone making a book.

Once we recognized how valuable that kind of domain-specific expertise was to our community, it made a lot of sense to build the team out to support each category instead of trying to approach as one size fits all. And ultimately this was much more efficient for us, because our in-house experts were often already part of these creative communities, providing us with credibility and trust in addition to specialized knowledge.

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Marissa Dimino

Oh my gosh, I'm so excited about this! Education is a challenging nut to crack, especially K12. Cindy, to piggyback off of Carter's question, do you work mostly with engaging students or teachers as well? If teachers are included in your audience, how are you tackling engagement with personas that don't have the typical 9-5 M-F schedule and are so strapped for time and resources? Especially during COVID times! Have you pivoted your engagement strategy since teachers are overwhelmed and experiencing extreme Zoom fatigue?

PIVOT

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Hi Marissa, we do have retired teachers and professors in our community who help answer questions, but the majority of our audience is made up of students. That said, we're seeing more and more active teachers come to Brainly and we're in the early stages of thinking through what a community program for teachers could look like. Would love to get your thoughts on this since it's still new for us!

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cesar

Hi Cindy, I'm not an expert in building a community program for teachers but I have been in the community space for about 10 years and I think it's always a good idea to start with the audience first. I think it's important to understand the teachers first, what is important to them, and how they would define success within a community.

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Cole

Have you ever had to convince your company of the importance of community? If so, were there any strategies or approaches that worked best?

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Hi Cole!

I've been super fortunate to work at companies that are highly community-driven. I typically joined early, meaning that these companies made a concerted decision to invest in community from the get-go.

That said, I've seen a pattern develop where as the company grows it's not always clear where community should sit, and that tends to open up conversations around a community team's focus, importance, and impact. And where community sits is very important.

At Kickstarter, Community was (and still is) its own team. We sat as equals alongside Product, Design, Eng, Marketing, HR, Ops/Finance. In hindsight, this setup was not the norm, but I pushed hard for it and ultimately it worked for us.

When you put Community inside of another functional area - be it Ops, Marketing, Communications, Sales, Product, etc - whether intentional or not, that tends to define what its focus is. In my opinion, Community as a standalone org within a company enables you to define community goals/metrics/impact as they relate to company goals in a much more clear, uncomplicated, un-muddled way, because you're not also trying to stuff those same metrics into Marketing goals, Product goals, etc.

I am also a big advocate of thinking about Community as a horizontal layer working cross-functionally across all teams in a company. Community holds specialized knowledge and skills focused on enabling connections, engagement, growth, and retention across a group or many groups of users. Community can deliver actionable insights from those groups back to the other functional parts of an organization and ensure a company is always focused on their customers. I would love to see more companies thinking about Community in this way, and am hopeful we'll have more precedent/examples of standalone Community orgs as time goes on.

Re-thinking org design is by no means the fastest or easiest approach, but I do believe that pushing for change at the organizational level is one of the most important things we can do for our industry.

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Tessa Kriesel

Just want to thank you for this awesome reply. And call out this part, that really resonated with me:

"Community as a standalone org within a company enables you to define community goals/metrics/impact as they relate to company goals in a much more clear, uncomplicated, un-muddled way, because you're not also trying to stuff those same metrics into Marketing goals, Product goals, etc."

I really believe that community should exist as it's own team as well, working cross-functionally with the other parts of the org. (in more cases, I realize this doesnt always work)

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Cole

Yes, thank you Cindy for the amazing reply! I really appreciate your insights here.

Love the quote that you called out, Tessa. These are some very interesting ideas that I'm eager to dive into!! Community is powerful.

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Carter Gibson

How often do you deal with parents in this space? Or is everyone just an adult and seeking their own knowledge? I'm curious if there's any friction there.

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Hi Carter! The lion's share of our audience is students (middle school, high school, and college), but we do have parents and teachers who use Brainly as well, and we just launched a new Parent product that allows parents to pair their account with their child and track their learning progress.

Your question about friction between different audiences is also something we're thinking a lot about. I'm really interested in seeing how our community evolves with more parents on the platform, and how we can support student and parent needs alike.

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Jocelyn

What do you think is the ideal Community team structure?

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Hi Jocelyn! First, just wanted to say that I too am obsessed with corgis :) I have an 8-yr-old corgi name Appa and he is my fluffy pride and joy <3

As for ideal Community team structure.. that's a tricky one! Your team structure should evolve depending on your type of business, stage of growth, and company goals. But with that out of the way, let's pretend none of those are concerns and you can have any team structure you want.

I love a diverse community team with a lot of cross-functional skills, and have been thinking a lot about these core roles/areas for Community:

People Managers:
The folks on your team who take care of other folks on your team. Your people are your greatest strength, and unlocking growth for them personally and professionally means they're able to bring that same level of care and investment to your communities. People Managers should mostly be devoted to making sure the team knows what matters and where to have the most impact, helping them deal with challenges, and listening to their feedback so you can constantly improve your organization and company.

Community Program Managers:
The folks on your team who create, develop, and oversee programs. I like keeping "programs" wide open so that you're able to flexibly deploy community professionals into almost any type of area where their ability to organize and motivate people to accomplish something together will be the most impactful. That's anything from managing a Superuser program to creating new user onboarding/education, building a community referral program, developing the community playbook for launching new categories/verticals/products/policies, or owning community research. Community professionals come with a lot of diverse skills, and a CPM role can be designed to tap into that and allow someone to continuously be diving into new problems to solve. You could be a CPM for User Education, CPM for International Growth, CPM for Policy, etc.

Community Data/Insight Analysts:
I love having Data/Insight analysts embedded on the Community team. There is a trove of useful information just at our fingertips, and having someone who's mandate is to understand customers and help pull actionable insights out of the hundreds of thousands of actions/interactions happening every day on your site is an incredible superpower to build into your team. Plus, every company loves graphs and charts.

You'll notice that I did not include Community Manager here - it's not because this role isn't important - it is. But I struggle a lot with this title and role, in part because for the past 12 years working in community, I consistently see a huge inconsistency in what this title means, what the level is, and how it can grow. It can often be a mashup of tasks that don't always add up to a career path - and that concerns me. So there's a lot of work to be done to bring the Community Manager title the clarity it deserves, and in the meantime I lean toward Community Program Manager for X as a way to make sure the role has been crafted with clear focus and purpose.

I would love to hear other peoples' thoughts on this!

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Jocelyn

A corgi named Appa?! I'm obsessed. Love Avatar and corgis!

Thanks for the detailed response. I love what you're saying about Community Program Managers and having them focused on something based on community and business needs. 100% agree with having a dedicated community data or insights analysts. I was lucky enough to have a community user research at my first team and having someone dedicated to pulling insights and looking at data is so helpful.

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Alex Angel Ask Me Anything

Do you have a data analyst on your current team? I think this sort of role is so so important, but I've found it very atypical to see anyone with an actual data background on a community team (or even tasked with helping the community team even if they don't report into it).

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

It's a brand new role, but yes! I'm so excited to have a data analyst on my team.

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alex profile image
Alex Angel Ask Me Anything

That's fantastic, I hope that trend continues!

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Mac

Hey Cindy, thanks for taking the time to do this AMA with us all!

What's the biggest consideration that community builders have to account for when building in the education space?

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Wow, where to begin!

When thinking about the education space, there are so many different stakeholders (schools, teachers, students, parents, other care-givers, governments, non-profits) with governance at every possible level (nation, state, county, district, individual school) in every possible type (public, private, parochial, alt-ed, home-school, virtual, blended learning) and every level (pre-K, middle school, high school, college, post-secondary, continuing ed). Multiply that by every country in the world and variations from country to country, and those are all of the possible iterations of considerations you might find yourself having to wade through.

Almost every ed tech product out there can potentially impact all of these different areas/stakeholders, but trying to tackle them all is simply impossible. So with that in mind, perhaps the biggest consideration is to really know who you're serving and how to stay focused on them. No part of education is "solved" - it's what makes it one of the most challenging but also rewarding areas to work in.

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Ben Halpern

What are the important differences between formal and informal education settings on the Internet.... And is there crossover?

Like, there is the formal ways of learning at university, and all the informal learnings between classes?

Open ended question, would love your thoughts!

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Ohhh, that's a super interesting question.

There's definitely a whole world of LMS's that schools/institutions use to bring digital tools into formal classroom settings. Most college educators have had to use Blackboard at some point in their teaching careers, and many schools license software and content that everyone is supposed to use, paid for ostensibly by their tuition. It's a very closed system and hard to innovate within because it's centralized and controlled by the school/license owner.

At the same time, there's an ever-growing world of learning tools and resources that have grown, largely organically, by bypassing the school or institution and serving teachers, parents, or students directly. TpT (teacher resources), Skillshare (video-based learning), countless learn-to-code platforms, etc - all are basically providing better, faster tools or filling underserved audiences/curricula in the learning space. If your high school doesn't offer programming classes, you can use Code Academy. If you can't ask your math teacher for homework help at 9pm, you can ask Brainly.

As I see it, the lines between formal learning and informal learning online are increasingly blurred - especially in our current situation. It's hard to build walls between remote learning and all the possible tools you might turn to to support your education, and how should schools think about things like attendance when you're watching a recorded lecture?

It's encouraging to see schools/teachers/parents opening up to possibilities necessitated by what has essentially become the biggest global experiment in online learning ever conducted. As a result, everyone is fundamentally rethinking everything from how long a school day or class should be, to what kind of curriculum actually prepares students for life beyond school.

Formal education will continue to be vital student development, but after this year especially, I suspect we'll see some much needed evolutions in how we define it and what it looks like.

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Jocelyn

How has building community in the education space differed from working at [insert well-known company here]?

Do you typically work with parents, students, or educators?

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Josh Rozin

Hey Cindy,

In the education space, how important do you find mentor relationships within this space? Do you find there are more scalable mentorship substitutes with 2020's technology?

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Sofia Rodriguez

Hi Cindy! What drew you to early-stage startups? & what do you think it took to be successful at them (as you reflect back at your career)?

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Honestly, when I first got started I did not have a traditional background (I'd been in academia for almost a decade) and I just didn't have a resume that could get me a job in an industry with established requirements. So in some ways I was drawn to startups out of necessity, but now that I've only worked for startups, I can safely say it is where I am most at home :)

I think one of the most important things to keep in mind with startups is most of them fail. It was only by chance that the first one I joined not only did not fail, but actually succeeded and succeeded very quickly. Working at a startup where everything is growing and the numbers look great and there are no concerns about revenue/profit is definitely not the norm.

So for a more typical early startup experience, I'd say you really need to be open-minded, flexible, and comfortable with having limited resources, structure, and management. The flip-side of that coin is that if you have a knack for operations, strategy, management, or leadership, you can very quickly grow within a startup - every startup needs these things in every department, especially early on.

For me personally, after teaching college students and being a waitress for so many years, working in a startup felt like a dream. I had a desk! And snacks?? Things that might stress out startup teams dealing with customer issues, bad press, things breaking/constantly being on fire seemed pretty a-okay in comparison to someone shouting in your face because you forgot to refill their diet coke. "Calm under fire" is a phrase you often see in community role descriptions, and that definitely came in handy throughout my career, and helped unlock new opportunities for me. People typically remember leaders for how they managed the tough situations - not the easy ones - and I like to believe I was able to help my teams and the companies I've worked for get through many a crisis over the years.

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sofmata profile image
Sofia Rodriguez

Thank you for a very thoughtful response! "People typically remember leaders for how they managed the tough situations - not the easy ones" is so true.

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Sagi Kadosh

What other teams do you work most closely with at your current company?

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

While we work with pretty much every team, we work especially closely with Product/Eng and Communications/PR. With Prod/Eng, it's a combo of supporting new things we're building as well as iterating upon our existing products, and with Comms/PR we frequently work together on campaigns, stories, and opportunities to elevate voices from within our community.

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Alex Angel Ask Me Anything

Another one for you!

How do you typically approach creating guidelines or rules for your communities?

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Cindy Au Ask Me Anything

Crafting guidelines/rules is so core to our work - I feel like after you've gone through guidelines revisions cycles enough times, you feel equipped to rewrite the constitution 😂

Guidelines are so tricky because they tend to be the things that seem so clear when you read them, but then you roll them out and people find exactly all the ways in which they're fuzzy. And that's kind of the deal. If it wasn't fuzzy, it would be in your TOS. Sometimes they're in both, and it's still not enough!

Guidelines writing requires you to transform a set of ideas or concepts that are inherently important for defining your community and culture into words that can be understood by anyone, with any intention, from anywhere. It's hard to do well for all these reasons.

Some important principles when getting into the process are:

  1. Start with clear goals/purpose - guidelines/rules are just as important as things like your company mission/vision. They tell the story of who your community is and how to be part of it.
  2. Write guidelines with your best users in mind, not your worst. Don't let exceptions be the rule.
  3. Guidelines/rules only hold water if they're enforceable. If you're not sure you'll be able to enforce it, it can't be a rule.
  4. Get feedback on your guidelines/rules from (trusted) community members.
  5. Get feedback on your guidelines/rules from other teams. Have them role play different scenarios with you and see where things actually will land if this set of rules were live.
  6. Build into your guidelines the understanding that they will change. Culture shifts over time, and your guidelines will too.

I've written about this more here, for anyone wanting the longer version :)
medium.com/@shinyee_au/designing-g...