How to head off disaster before it starts

Once you have a product launched, you will the face the joys – and the despair – of a community that grows up around it. I won’t sugar-coat this: it is one of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of building a company online.

There are many articles by many experts (myself included) extolling the virtues of listening to customers. In fact, there are so many of these propaganda pieces that this question might naturally cross your mind: if listening to customers is so great, why do we need so much propaganda? I’ll tell you the honest truth: listening to customers is gruesome, uncomfortable, and painful work. Sure it has its moments, but then so does getting stranded on a desert island.

Yet few products these days can succeed without their online community, and the insight you can gain from interacting with that community is unparalleled, despite the pain. But to take advantage of that learning, you have to avoid the absolutely one and only cardinal sin of community management: not listening.

This probably sounds illogical. Communities care about lots of things, like how good your product is, how much information you give them, how you defend them from trolls, right? And when you’re being pilloried by community members over the latest mistake your company made, it can be doubly confusing. After all, people rarely say they are mad because they are not being heard. But just because they don’t say it doesn’t mean that it’s not true.

Let me give an especially painful example:

At a certain point in IMVU’s development, we faced a difficult choice. Some of our most passionate early adopters were using IMVU’s user-generated content capabilities to create illicit content. As you can imagine, this was a lucrative customer segment. But it became clear that if IMVU was ever going to become a mainstream business, we had to effectively fire these early customers. The reasons were many and complex, so I won’t rehash them all here. Suffice to say that our partners, vendors, and most importantly regular mainstream customers all found the idea disturbing. So we had to start enforcing new content policies that restricted what kinds of virtual goods could be bought and sold on IMVU.

We did not take this step lightly. We did a lot of analysis to make sure that we were minimizing the number of customers affected. For example, we spent some time researching the usage of virtual goods that would be disallowed under the new policy and were relieved to discover that they accounted for less than 0.1% of all usage. So we felt confident that removing them wouldn’t have too big an impact. We couldn’t have been more wrong.

This single decision wound up costing the company significant revenue and over the course of several months sent its customer growth into decline. We were totally unprepared for the magnitude of what happened. In the end, we managed to repair the damage, but only after losing a lot of time and at significant opportunity cost. This was one of those catastrophes that shouldn’t have happened. We carefully rolled out the change in stages. We did our best to actively communicate why we were making the change, and we tried to put in place policies that treated affected customers fairly.

Yet none of that mattered, because we violated the cardinal rule. We didn’t listen. More accurately, we made our customers feel like we weren’t listening. And until we could make that right, we kept on hemorrhaging business.

The problem was that although very few customers were affected by the changes in policy, many more were anxious about those changes. We tried to be low-key about the roll-out of these changes, so as not to call attention to it, but our silence on the subject simply served to make room for conspiracy theories about what was really going on. And, because the people complaining were yelling and screaming, we thought the right response was to ignore them and wait for them to leave. After all, someone who is writing ten-page posts about how they are going to abandon your product is presumably going to go away, right? That’s why one of the most important maxims in online communities is “don’t feed the trolls.” People who thrive on creating controversy through volume, repetition and hyperbole don’t really want to be heard. They just want attention, and giving it to them just encourages more reckless behavior.

But silence was the worst possible strategy. For months, we made constant product and policy changes, trying to end the controversy without simply undoing our original decision and abandoning the mainstream market. Nothing worked, until we finally had one of our community managers start talking to real customers on the phone. Then the reality of our problem hit us.

A surprising discovery:

Most normal customers – even among early adopters – do not pay attention to the trolls. They don’t participate heavily in the forums, and they don’t send email when they are dissatisfied. They are largely invisible in the normal channels where customer service and community management pays attention. But that doesn’t mean they are not aware of what’s going on, or that they don’t care deeply about it. It turned out that our customers had gotten a clear message, one that we had never intended to send: that IMVU was becoming a teen-only site. We were totally shocked. Adults, even those that aren’t at all interested in racy content, were our best customers. We had built numerous features specifically for them, and often had to contend with charges from teenagers that we were too adult-friendly (these two segments don’t really like hanging out with each other as a rule).

When we actually started listening, things changed fast. First of all, we discovered what was really upsetting our customers. They had come to rely on the fact that IMVU was one of the very few online communications platforms where verified adults could meet one another. This was an unintended side-effect of our earlier content policies, that required age verification before you could buy unrated content from our catalog. It turns out many of our best customers were becoming age verified and then not buying any “adult” content. They enjoyed being treated like adults and having a way to chat online with other adults. Again, this was not about prurient content. Avatars make it possible to meet other people as they would like to be perceived. Mostly, that’s a good thing – many people believe their avatar is a more authentic representation of their true self than their physical appearance. But it also has some drawbacks. In the middle of a serious conversation on the joys of motherhood or the stress of a career you might realize that the person you’re talking to is only 15. That can be a jarring juxtaposition of physical reality that breaks the suspension of disbelief.

It took me a long time to understand that benefit of our product. Most customers couldn’t articulate it; they just knew they were angry that we had ruined it. Except that, from a literal point of view, we hadn’t ruined it. All of the features that enabled that experience were still there. What we had done to ruin it was make our customers feel like they were not welcome anymore. We kept denying that we had done anything wrong, that the features still worked as advertised, and justifying our decisions instead of apologizing. When we finally understood the problem, fixing it was relatively easy. We made a series of very public declarations that IMVU would always support adults, that we appreciated their unique contribution, and that we would always protect the key features that meant the most to them. The fact that pornography was not one of these key features was besides the point. We had summarily turned off one of their features without consulting them and without remorse. Who knew what feature might be next?

So real listening can head off a crisis in progress. But it also has other powers. For example, consider a common case of a minimum viable product. Since this product is necessarily missing a lot of features, those of us who ship them often want to duck the feedback. After all, it’s likely to be something we already know. In fact, I used to have the urge to argue with customers who gave feedback like “hey, idiot, you’re missing feature X.” I used to respond with something like, “I know, but it’s on our road map and we’re already working on it and we don’t really want feedback about that right now and so please get off my back.” You can imagine the field day the trolls had with that.

Lessons learned:

Feedback that tells you something you already know is still quite valuable. It gives you a hint that you are on the right track, but it also tells you quite a lot about the person giving you the feedback – that they believe in the path that you are on. For an early adopter, having this insight acknowledged and validated is a powerful experience. So we learned to take the time to say “thank you for your suggestion. Thanks to you, we’re going to prioritize feature X.” Then, when feature X finally did come out, every early adopter who suggested it feels an earned sense of ownership over it. Here’s the best part. They will also defend you against future attackers and trolls.

Collectively, an online community has an unlimited amount of time to spend. Even if you and your community managers are a hundred times smarter and more productive than the members of your community, there is absolutely no way that you can keep up with its sheer volume of energy. So you can’t fight an online community and hope to win the argument. The only way to have your point of view prevail is to have members of the community invest their unlimited time and energy in evangelizing it. And that’s what really, truly, actively listening does. It sends a signal to passionate customers that you care, that you want them on your side, and that they are part owners of your vision. In fact, I am convinced that if you could find some of IMVU’s earliest adopters, they would say something like this: “sure, those guys at IMVU HQ were helpful in writing code and stuff, but in the end they were just the hired help. It was really the community who built that product.” Imagine what happens when a troll shows up and starts bad-mouthing you. Those earlyvangelists (to borrow Steve Blank’s phrase) will defend you.

I have seen this dynamic time and again. As a creator of products (and now an author, too), it’s one of the things that keeps me going. When your customers become your allies, there’s almost nothing you can’t accomplish together.

There’s only one catch. You can’t stop listening. If you do, as IMVU found out to our peril, you break the implicit bargain that made you allies in the first place. And when your defenders join forces with your trolls, there’s no way to have your message heard.

That’s why not listening is the cardinal sin of community management. Any other mistake can be overcome: shipping bad product, removing key features, erroneously banning community members, even kicking out a whole segment of customers. And when those allies feel unheard, you simply can’t do anything right. Every little thing becomes a crisis. Choose wisely.

 


A version of this post originally appeared on Eric Ries’s website where he writes about Lean Startups and entrepreneurship.