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Uncommon Conversations: An Interview with Mary O'Carroll, CCO at Ironclad [VIDEO]

Mary O'Carroll, Chief Community Officer at Ironclad, the leader in business contracts for the digital age, sat down for an Uncommon Conversation to talk about building Ironclad's community V2, what it means to have community in the C-suite, and embracing community as a win-win in terms of empowering people and building a stronger business.

We probably shouldn't say more because Mary says it best: "[Community] is actually going to be a growth engine that creates value for all parts of the company—sales and marketing, sure. Product and engineering, absolutely. Customer success, yes. All the parts of the company, but even moreso it adds value to our customers."

Our interview has been lightly edited and condensed:

Uncommon: In April 2021, you joined Ironclad as its Chief Community Officer, or CCO. What brings the Ironclad community together?

The goal here is to build the world's leading member-driven digital contract and community—so that's the purpose and the focus. It's really going to be open to anyone who uses Ironclad. Honestly, there are a lot of people out there who are very passionate about digital contracting. Since the beginning, Ironclad as a company has really cared about supporting and engaging the people around its platform. Bringing me in is about doubling down on empowering that community and investing in our customers, the experts, and everyone who works on Ironclad or is interested in this space.

You're in a really unique position to understand Ironclad’s community members and to build out its community program. This is probably in large part due to your tenure of experience in this space and as a community member yourself. Will you tell us about your prior experience?

If we just talk about community, generally, I discovered community in my role when I started at Google and I was in a role called legal operations. And when I started, it was kind of this really undefined job. There were no other people that did legal operations. If you Googled the term, you would find nothing. And so it was in my view, sort of like this invented role that had no best practices, there was no standard operating procedure. You're kind of making up operations for a legal department as you went along. And that's different from finance and marketing and sales. So all these other verticals that have been disrupted and have had innovation and had operational verticals, but legal was kind of the last shoe to fall. And so some of us who were in this space were kind of making the job up and trying to figure it out.

And that's a very lonely feeling, right? You're kind of just on your own, you're trying new things. You don't know what's going to work. You don't know which technologies to use. You just don't have a playbook. I met a bunch of people at these other tech companies who said, let's get together for lunch. I think we all do the same thing and let's share ideas and best practices. And so I kind of went into the first meeting, very skeptical, kind of not thinking that there would be anyone else with the same made-up job, but lo and behold, you walk in to a room and you feel this sense of immediate belonging, right? That you have found your people. And you're like, “Hey, I'm working on this billing system.” Or, “I’m working on working with my law friends on X, Y, Z,” and this whole room of people are going, yeah, so am I, and this is what I've done. And this is what's worked. And this is what hasn't worked. And that immediate feeling of, wow, I have found my people and we're actually able to help each other in our jobs, in our careers, in our departments, that was a really wonderful feeling and it helped us all in our careers.

And so that was a group that eventually I helped found, create, and was the president of outside of my Google job. We created an association or organization of business professionals in the legal operations space. And that was called CLOC and CLOC exploded over the next couple of years to be an entire movement in the legal industry. And that kind of changed and created innovation in the space. My point of telling the story is that what I realized is that there's a lot of roles out there, especially now that are new, right? Community is actually a perfect example of something that maps a lot like legal operations did when I started—we need each other. We need the power of many to progress our own departments, our own companies, our entire industry. And so that's kind of how I learned about community. And I'm trying to bring those learnings that I had in building that organization and that feeling of helping each other be successful, to a B2B SaaS company and Ironclad.

You're one of a handful of Chief Community Officers. How do you view the CCO role in the landscape of C-suite titles? What does it mean to you to serve both community needs and business needs and sort of marry those two as a win-win situation?

I'm at a B2B SaaS company, and I think that more and more companies are kind of adopting and understanding the value that community can bring. Not just to the company and the business itself, but also to your users, your members. And so you're going to see, I think, a lot more growth and acceleration of pacing in the growth of communities in our space.

I think it's fantastic that it's in the C-suite and such a visionary statement by our CEO, Jason Boehmig at Ironclad who, like I said, has always had community at the heart of the company. And part of the culture since its very founding. Bringing me in at this level is really a signal to the market, to the company, to our customers and members about how important this is to us and how we're really doubling down on customer success and the community and making a real investment in this space. As many of us know who have worked in this area, it's not easy. It's not something you just spin up on the side and hope goes well. If you want to do it right, it takes the right level of commitment, investment, and empowerment in that function in order to see the real results and the impact of it.

We've heard repeatedly that internal stakeholders and partners have to be aligned in terms of why community is important. Could you share about the conversations that you and Jason, your CEO, had when you were discussing the expectations and outcomes from building a community team and from the CCO role?

One of the big focal points of the community that Ironclad has had and is now relaunching is about our members, about our users of the Ironclad platform. And a lot of those folks that we start with are actually in the legal operations function or in the legal world. And of course our users or our stakeholders goes far beyond that as really anyone who touches contracts. But the first touch point is often the legal department and the legal ops professionals. And so bringing me in—I have that experience as a customer. I have that point of view of what's important and also have grown a community of legal ops professionals. And so I know this space really well. I think that's why he thought that I was uniquely suited for this.

But the expectations for the role, what I love about this role at Ironclad, and I don't know that I would really even consider this elsewhere, is how important it is to the company. There's a lot [of info] out there about how to make a business case, how to convince your CEO that this is important to invest in. And I didn't have to do any of that. That groundwork was already laid. This is just the best environment to be able to walk into and have this role because the culture is there, in that every function in the company is already a big believer in the power that community can have and the impact it can have on the business. So the community that we plan to get a relaunch, is not a marketing community. It is not about generating marketing leads. It is also not about just customer success.

We view it as a business strategy. And if it's done correctly, it's actually going to be a growth engine that is going to create value for all parts of the company—sales and marketing, sure. Product and engineering, absolutely. Customer success, yes. All the parts of the company, but even moreso it adds value to our customers. You're not just buying software when you come to Ironclad. You're getting an entire community of people who are here to support you and who are interested, invested in your success with the product, with your job, in your career, in your company. And so I think the fact that we're all aligned on that as a company is fantastic because community is such a cross-functional function.

In the C-suite, I have got to play well with all the different function areas that work in the company and you can't really do community alone. The last thing I'll mention is before I got to Ironclad, I already was a big fan of the company and followed it along. But it's also been the one company that as a customer and a buyer of these types of products and services in the past, that you find a bunch of people out there in the industry raving about it. We're Ironclad users and we love it.

And you just don't hear that a lot. I mean, anyone who uses software, as a B2B buyer is often complaining about how terrible it is, how rigid it is, how there's no support. And the customer and the followers and the fans of Ironclad were just such vocal advocates on their own, that I also knew this is already a strong community that I'm walking into. So, what a gift.

When you stepped into the CCO role, you described your mandate as, "To create the world's-leading community, focused on unlocking the value of digital contracts" and that's a super bold mandate and I love that you know the direction you're going in and that vision. But with all journeys, it begins at the first step. Can you tell us about your step one?

So there's already kind of been community 1.0 at Ironclad. It's been a big focus since the beginning, even before I got here and they did a great job. They created a successful following and fans through events and different efforts. But now what we want to do is take it to the next level. So to date in the past, it's been a lot of sort of unstructured, informal exchanges. Like I said, events per year, a newsletter, a lot of enthusiasm though around the brand. And what has been, in my mind missing, which is not a criticism of 1.0, but to take it to the next level, we need to have that clear vision. A clear purpose and a clear focus so that everyone knows why they need to be giving up their most precious resource, their time to be here and want to be here.

And so that was the first thing that I worked on. In addition, the relationship in the past was really between Ironclad and the members of the community. And what we want to do now is create a true member to member, peer to peer experience and to facilitate that. And so our first priorities are going to be focusing on the members, and providing a means for them to access people and content and solutions that will make them successful in their roles and their organizations. And be able to share with each other.

The second is going to be on scaling customer success. And so that means creating content, creating a way for them to find each other and share best practices. And that will make them more successful in the way they deploy the system. And then finally, what a lot of this is about is community-led growth. So, how can we create an engine for sales and marketing and product to have a voice of the customer, and truly understand from the community what's wanted, what's needed, what's working, what could be better? And so all of that is the first step. That's a lot. I mean, that's like the first, second, and third step, but that's where we're starting to focus.

Could you break those steps down a bit more in terms of tactics?

I spent the first 30, 60 days really coming up with the vision, the mission, the purpose, and the focus that I talked about. And now we're moving into the tactical execution phase. So that includes building out a team, but also putting together the components of the community that included doing an RFP and understanding our business requirements for an online platform. Because again, we wanted to create a place for our members to communicate with their peers and that did not exist in the past. So we did an RFP, trying to figure out what the right platform is to host an online community. And now we’re defining what that will look like: There will be a forum. Will there be a help center? What will the events calendar look like? What are the in-person and what are the virtual events that we'll have? How will content and education play a part and what are the components of that content? So now we're really getting sort of into the nitty gritty. What would that user journey look like when they're a member and what will it include? How will they interact with each other?

Which platform did you end up choosing from that RFP process?

We're currently in the process of implementing Khoros.

What were the leading two or three platforms from the RFP process where you said, “Okay, let's weigh the pros and cons now”? And why did Khoros win?

I've done this before in my past life where some platforms are better for associations. Some for organizations that are more focused on the association experience, some that are more focused on the B2B experience…which is kind of what we want. And so the customer success help center integration pieces are a big part of it. That helped narrow it down a little bit. Then, I think there were some that had better UI than others. I was hoping for something that we could configure and work on ourselves that had the features that I talked about that we absolutely needed. At the end of the day, what won me over with Khoros was the fact that you can interact with the forum via email.

The bottom line for me, because I've worked with this target audience before, I know where they work and how they work. And one of the principles that we put together for the community as a whole is to meet people where they are. And that means if they're used to using email all day, making them go and interact with another platform is a point of friction. We want to make it as easy as possible to share and consume content. And for me, I just know that people are going to interact with it a lot more if they can access it in email where they're working all day rather than logging into a forum—that’s a big ask and that's a big change.

Are there certain content pieces that you want to focus on first?

This is where I think the collaboration and the cross-functional work that's taking place [is so amazing], because we have a success team that has created really great help center and help self-service content. We have a marketing team that has created really great user stories, success stories, and how-to guides. The bottom line is, the content that I would love to showcase for the community is going to help educate them and help make them successful. And what you often hear from our users is, “Hey, how is everybody else using your tool? What reports are they using? What metadata are they tracking? How many approvals do they require?”

We want to be able to facilitate them sharing and creating this platform for them to showcase themselves. So folks are always happy to share with other people, tell how they've implemented and how they're using our systems and tools. We want to make stars out of them. Creating content that features their stories and their journeys not only helps them amplify their voice in the community, but that also is content that everyone else is dying to hear and to consume. So it's really a win-win of putting the folks together.

Can you tell us about the metrics that are most important to you and your team?

I see them in two different buckets of metrics that I want to be able to track. The first set is whether the community itself is healthy and strong. So that is just like community success metrics. And I think a lot of folks will look at membership numbers and whether those are growing or not. And I think that's important, especially in the beginning, but really the engagement metrics are more important to me.

I would rather have a small group of people who are strongly engaged with each other. That to me is a healthier community than a lot of numbers. We’re early days and we're still implementing software. So I think it's hard for me to even know. We haven't even gotten to the module where I know what I can track and if these metrics that I have in mind are even possible. But ideally, if we're doing dream state right now, I would love to define and create some sort of health score for members as well as for the community as a whole.

That would be some sort of weighted blend of time spent on the site, the content they're interacting with, how much they're posting, how many likes they're getting. That kind of thing—and putting it together in some sort of an indexing score. That for me would be great. But if we aren't able to do that, looking at whether the community is healthy and strong is again, just engagement numbers for success on whether people are able to answer each other's questions. Perhaps looking at the number of posts that are being answered by peers and not having to have Ironclad step into that. Where people are sharing content with each other, how much that is happening. The other bucket that I mentioned that we want to look at is going to be about the positive impact that community is having on the rest of the business.

And so of course, we want to be a community that generates a lot of value to our members. And that's one piece that I'm measuring. The other piece is we also want to be a community that's generating a lot of value to Ironclad. And can we measure that? I do really think that if you are a successful community, you can help elevate all the business performance metrics in the company. And again, that can be anything from your weekly average users and how long people are logged in, to your retention rates, to your sales and lead generation from a customer success perspective.

Are you deflecting support tickets? Again, are people helping each other find new use cases and does that lead to an upsell? So there's all sorts of things that I think we would like to be able to track. Are the people who are more engaged in the community likely to have higher net promoter scores or higher general health and happiness scores with the product that we have? Are they likely to have higher upsell rates? So, there’s just two buckets and we’re still defining it, but I have a lot of wishlists right now in the metrics.

I want to take a minute to talk about your team. As you said, Community is a cross-functional, cross-organizational job. What do you look for when you are hiring community team members?

I am building out the team right now and it is me and we have one other team member, Alex, who is community engagement. So he, as I describe it, is sort of front of the house. And when the community 2.0 launches, he will be the face of the community. Getting to know people, really listening to them - whether it's virtual or a forum or in-person conversations, and understanding how to connect. Really being the front of the house engagement [person] that I think us community folks understand pretty well. The second hire that I thought is really important and that I'm currently hiring for is strategy and operations. And it may be because my background is in strategy and operations, but I immediately felt like that is a role we need, especially in the beginning as we're trying to define what this looks like, define the programs, scale it up, get it up and running. So a kind of project management, program management, design strategy, and execution role.

What kind of perhaps attributes really bring candidates alive for you, when you're hiring for that type of role in a community lens?

This is so interesting because as I mentioned, this community has so many parallels to legal operations when I started there. In that, you're not going to find tons of resumes of people who've been doing B2B community operations or community engagement for the last 10 years. It just, it doesn't exist. And so you have to really, like you said, figure out what the skills and qualities are that you're looking for in that person. For me, I think community is something that can be learned and that the underlying skillset of just being a good project manager, have business acumen, be really structured in your thinking and be a problem solver. Those are the skills that I'm kind of looking for someone to bring. Bringing a rigor and the ability to scale an organization, those thoughts into this role. You need someone who has the ability or the desire to work in a field that's a little bit ambiguous and to maybe love that creativity and innovation.

As a leader paving the way for community, especially as someone in the C-suite, where do you envision the function of community in 3, 5, 10 years?

That's a really exciting thing to think about. We're a software company…but can we have community be such an integral part of who we are and why we're successful and why people love the product? It becomes a plus when you're evaluating different providers to go with.

I think part of your discourse on that is really: Community is a brand pillar. In the same way that people spend a lot of time saying, what does our logo look like and what is our voice and tone and what are our visuals and how do we throw events? Community is totally a piece of the brand that is part of the identity of the person who's buying that brand.

Absolutely. A hundred percent. And that needs to come through in your corporate culture, in your community culture, in your in-person events, in your virtual events, in your forums, in the way you communicate. It's got to feel cohesive and it needs to feel really genuine and like you. And I think that's something that we're trying to be really intentional about in all the ways that we communicate publicly and within our community.

Every time we have an expert conversation, we ask our guest to choose a nonprofit whose cause and mission they would like to highlight. And then Uncommon donates in your honor. Can you tell us about the organization that you and Ironclad chose to dedicate your Uncommon Support to?

The one that came to me was Special Olympics. It's such an amazing organization.