Evan Hamilton has been growing the community and the community team at Reddit for more than four years, and he's been growing communities for more than ten. He curates and shares lessons and advice freely through his weekly newsletter, Community Manager Breakfast. Five stars, would recommend.
We spoke with him about the layers of community (audiences, fandoms, and true communities), effective ways for helping internal teams understand the impact of community work, setting moderators up for success, and the importance of empathy in community roles. We appreciated his thoughts around empathy so much that we quoted him quite a bit in our recent blog post, The Importance of Empathy.
Without further ado, we're excited to share Evan Hamilton's expertise and thoughtfulness with you.
Our interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Hear the full conversation linked above, and on YouTube.
How did you arrive in community over 10 years ago, and what do you do at Reddit today?
Well, I think it's approaching 15 years, which makes me feel very old. As many people did, I stumbled into community, but I think my passion for community and specifically for internet communities started at an earlier age. I grew up when the internet was finally becoming a household thing. And when I was in high school, I was not the coolest kid. What I found online and, and in real life with theater, was that you didn't have to be the cool kid. You could find people who had the same interests as you, and really connect and get a ton of value there. And so I think community, you know, really saved me from becoming one who, you know, was just lost. It helped me find my people and, you know, I went off and became a theater major and tried to go do lighting design and turns out it's really hard to find a theater job.
And I stumbled into tech and discovered this role that didn't really exist. I mean, if you told people, they'd say community management [isn’t a real job]. It was perfect because it was bringing people together to create positive outcomes for them, and frankly, you know, for the company as well. And that idea has stuck with me—my job is to create win-win situations. And that's super amazing to get to do that every day. For the past four and a half years I’ve been at Reddit—we are a community of communities. We have tens of thousands of volunteer moderators who make these communities happen, ranging from gaming to movies, to mental health, to identity, to everything under the sun, really. And so I spend a lot of my time thinking about how I [can] enable community builders to do their job at scale, the very large scale. It's a lot of communications, building programs, building relationships, and ensuring that, you know, our moderators have the tools they need.
There's so many types of communities on Reddit, no matter how you slice it, leading community or building communities at Reddit is an extremely incredible feat. If you were to give us a tour of your brain, do you see patterns emerge among different categories of communities on Reddit?
I think we can actually extract that out and talk about communities in general on the internet. I was just digging in on this with some colleagues the other day. There’s a lot of conflation happening. There's a lot of people saying “community.” We've probably all gotten a message from the DMV being like, “Thanks for being part of our community,” and [I’m] guessing nobody really feels like they're part of a DMV community. And so I think about a couple of different kind of layers.
There’s audience—lots of brands have audiences. There's nothing wrong with that. That's a group of people who are listening to what you have to say. That's not a community by any means. You know, if you tell me I'm part of a community of millions of people who read a newsletter, I don't know them. I'm merely an audience member.
The next layer…is kind of an emerging concept for me, is a sort of proto community called a fandom. I've really started breaking these out as their own thing because I think they act a little bit differently. This is a group of people who are coming together with a common interest who are interacting with each other, but maybe not so much with a common goal or get added value from each other, but more just to hype each other up. Nothing wrong with that. We’re all part of those. I'm a big Marvel fanboy. And so I spend a lot of time in Marvel spaces getting really excited about what's coming next, but that has a little bit more of just a focus on hype and excitement.
Then I think the next layer down you have true communities. And I think we have both fandoms and communities on Reddit, but the true communities are when people have that common interest, situation, mission. They come together, but they have a common effort that they're pushing towards and they get there by interacting with each other. And I think a lot of businesses miss that ‘interacting with each other’ part—that is where the value comes. That is where you are providing something that you as a company couldn't do on your own—you’re connecting people who can share their experiences, their knowledge, who can work together to get somewhere. And so I think that's the kind of true community you see.
And then within those, you know, there's all sorts of topics on Reddit. I think those are the three layers we see these days.
I love how you talk about the different ways that community can have a true impact. [Across your past roles], you’ve increased customer satisfaction and user retention, decreased support contacts, launched meetups and conferences, developed volunteer and ambassador programs and established community advisory councils. Can you talk a bit more about these types of outcomes? Are you able to tie business outcomes to your community efforts?
Business outcome is always where I start, [but] not because that's the only thing that matters. I think equally important is what your community's goal is. But because, you know, someone's paying the bill and you have to make sure you're accomplishing those goals. The more you can align with [those goals], then the more freedom you have to do all of the beautiful, wonderful, artistic things that we all kind of want to do.
With User Voice, which was a B2B SaaS company providing customer service tools at the time, the focus was really on, “Okay, we are bootstrapped.” We are this tiny company without VC funding and we are facing off against, you know, Zendesk and other very large companies. So how do we stand out in the crowd? And the thing we could do was make our customers and our prospects feel special. So we did that through meetups. We did that through conferences. We created this feeling of, okay, if you're a customer service professional, you're not lesser than engineers, but you are actually just as important, just as smart. And you can learn from each other and grow and grow your roles. And, you know, we saw this in the satisfaction from these customers and from the word of mouth because they were willing to go out and talk about us as someone who cared about them versus someone who just provided some software.
When I was at CMX, another bootstrapped company, three people when I was there, the team was really focused on how we could become the industry standard organization for community professionals. For that, it was really looking at [whether we were] providing value to these folks that nobody else was? That came down to surveying and asking people [to figure out] which things are most valuable. We do this report every year, but are people getting much value out of it? We have this conference, but would it be more successful if we got more speakers or if we focused on the quality of the speakers? [Those questions] really lead you down the path to the specific programs and metrics you can tweak.
And then at Reddit, we're advertising fueled. So we want people to be creating a lot of content and reading a lot of content. That also means that our spaces on Reddit need to be high quality, unique, and interesting, which requires our tens of thousands of volunteer moderators who are spending all this time creating these spaces and curating them. So the focus then becomes, “Are these volunteers happy? Do they trust us? Are they willing to adopt new features that might increase [the number of users] using our platform? Ultimately, it's often a very simple metric. From there, there's a number of metrics that feed into that, that you can affect with your programs.
Are there certain ways that you make your moderators feel special?
We've done plenty of surveying and have had plenty of conversations with them, which really is the bedrock of any community strategy—actually talking to people and understanding what motivates them. For moderators on Reddit, what we found is that they're very intrinsic. They’re motivated by helping their community. What they need from us is that we see them, that we know that they're putting that work in and that we're enabling them to do it. That gives us a very specific set of things we can do. You know, we can say that we appreciate them. We can host events to show that we appreciate them. We can get tools built for them. We can eliminate roadblocks for them. I think that's not dissimilar from what anyone can do in any community role, which is really understanding what the core motivation of someone is.
It might be that they want to get better at their craft. It might be that they want to get that next promotion. I think the Salesforce community is really good at thinking about [that, saying], “Okay, this person wants to get promoted. That's good for the company, because then they’re someone who loves Salesforce who's higher up. And so how can we help them with their professional goals, whether it's learning, whether it's giving them opportunities to lead, whether it’s giving them awards for best Salesforce usage, et cetera.” Again, it's that win-win. What are they motivated by? And then how does that tie back to what we're trying to do?
I can imagine a world too, where at those meetups or events or conferences that you talked about, giving someone the platform to be a speaker is a motivation. To give them the opportunity for that first time where they then get to say, “Hey, here's the presentation that I gave to X amount of people.”
One of the moments I'm most proud of is from a CMX summit. We generally had people who had done a lot of public speaking, but we created a lightning round, which were five minute presentations, mostly from people who had never presented before. And we asked for submissions and we dug through and found these diamonds in the rough where someone was like, “I did a lurker week and got 20% of my lurkers to engage.” We were like, “Wait a second. You need to tell everyone about that. That's amazing.” I remember to this day that we had someone who spoke for the first time. They were a little shaky, but they pulled it off. And a couple years later they came to me and they said, “You unlocked the love of public speaking for me. And now I speak all the time and I'm way better at it." And so it was just, you know, creating that opportunity, which also created these five minutes of fantastic content for us.
Do you remember any key takeaways from the lurker presentation?
It was basically around owning the fact that they were lurkers saying, “Hi lurkers, we welcome you,” and encouraging the rest of the community to engage with them. Just giving them that permission, that it’s okay to be a lurker, or to speak up for the first time and we'll be here and support you.
I think [it can feel] very touchy-feely on the surface, but going back to community work being just as serious as any other work, there is a lot of psychological safety work that is, as touchy feely, as it seems, really thinking about how you can create the structure where people can come in and feel comfortable engaging in your communities. And I think it's one of the most neglected areas of community building. We create the space and then we start hosting events rather than thinking about, “Well, what's it like when someone first walks in that door and is intimidated by what's going on?”
For communities who are just starting out, where do you recommend a small team focuses to see the biggest initial, positive impact of their work?
I really believe in the minimum viable community approach, which is very similar to minimum viable product. I think it starts again with your business goal. One of the models I worked on at CMX was the SPACES model, which I recommend for thinking through the different ways community can help your company. You'd be surprised how many companies come to me and they say they want to build community. And I'm like, great. Why? And they say “because we're supposed to.” I love the enthusiasm, but if you go in without a goal, at some point, you're going to say, “This is costing us a lot of money. What is this doing for us?” The SPACES model says, you can make customer support more efficient. You can give and get product insight. You can drive acquisition, you can create content, you can engage users and you can help users succeed.
Many communities do multiple things within the SPACES model, but you want to choose one to start with and then go out and talk to your target audience. I would try and get that as narrow as possible. It's really easy to say, “We're going to create a community for all sales people, but sales people at a 60 person business are very different from sales people at an 8,000 person business. So narrow it down and then have conversations. And it, it sounds really basic and boring, but it's the human work—what are people motivated by? What are their challenges? What are their fears? What are they excited by? And then where are their gaps that you can address?
Going back to my experience at User Voice, customer service professionals felt like frauds. They were like, “I didn't go to school for this. There's all these engineers who know all this stuff and make way more money than me. I don't know anyone else who does this. So I don't know if I'm doing it wrong.” They needed to feel like they were legitimate (and they were), but they didn't have that validation. And so a lot of what we did was just connect people to share their stories, share their frustrations and their concerns. And they got a lot of practical use out of it. The main thing they got and the main thing they mentioned over and over to me was, “I feel like I'm legitimate now. I feel like my job is real. And you know, I am a part of this industry as much as anyone else.”
So really trying to identify those kinds of emotional gaps or goal gaps, if they're trying to get to the next level of their profession, what is it that's preventing them from getting there, and then figuring out how you could address that and test it.
I don't know what it is about humans, but we love to build something big and pull the sheet off and be like ‘Tada!’. And that's the worst way to launch anything…because we don't know what's going to work. I've fallen into this trap many times where I spend way too much time planning something and then launch it. And it's not as good as I thought it was going to be. And so once you think you have that win-win of business goal and community need, try it out. I think events are the easiest way to try this because there's no long-term expectations there.
So you say, okay, we think our audience is Trust and Safety personnel. And we think that what they need is an outlet to talk about stressful things. Then host an event, a one time event and say, “Hey, Trust and Safety folks. We're inviting you to this event to talk about these things.” Then look at how many people that you invited RSVP? How many people show up? How many people ask you afterwards if you’re doing another one. That's a really cheap and easy way to test this out. You're going to be able to tell pretty quickly [if it’s valuable and worth repeating].
It is a very quick way to understand how robust your funnel is and how enthusiastic people are. And you can do a bunch of those events and figure out what is most compelling for folks. And from there you can figure out, “Okay, what is the actual final form factor for my community? Is it a forum? Is it a series of events? Is it big conferences?" And you can start to experiment with that, but you really want to avoid getting too far down the rabbit hole before you have something that people are excited about.
What metrics or other tools do you recommend bringing to the table when you're trying to build those bridges and tie positive community outcomes to positive business outcomes?
The two big structural things I recommend are, one, really understand the company goals and the goals of your peers and try and orient your work around that. It doesn't mean completely changing it to make it unrecognizable, but thinking about, “Okay, if I really want to build a community of practice but the company's goals are really around recurring revenue, how can I actually tie that to it? Can I target a specific type of person?” Maybe I only want people who are customers and maybe I want to make it a community of practice for the type of person who we want to have renewing contracts. And [think about] how you phrase it to those teams.
You don't go in and say, “Hey, here's what I want to do because I want to do it.” You say, “Here's how this is going to help you achieve your goal.” And it sounds stupidly simple, like, oh, of course you say it that way. But I think it really is an art to figure out how to explain your work in the context of other people's work, because you're coming from a different perspective. And so, you know, it's empathy just like we have empathy for our community members. We have to have it for our coworkers and understand what they're trying to accomplish.
The second part, which is trickier, is helping [your colleagues] come to the same conclusions you did. Finding paths to help people come to the same conclusions as you is like the ultimate trick. One of the things I built at Reddit after a couple years of trying to get people to care as much as I did about moderators was something we call Adopt an Admin, where we have staff members join a moderation team for two weeks and do the same thing moderators are doing alongside them.
Without fail, people come out of that and they say the exact same things I've been saying to them for a long time, “Wow. Moderators work so hard. They’re so smart. They really need investment. We're not doing enough.” And they get committed to making that investment. And it's just because they got to experience it themselves, apply their own values to it, and come to that conclusion on their own. It's not a light lift, and when you're starting out a new company, you might not be able to ask for that level of commitment, but looking for those opportunities to let people discover things on their own, instead of just telling them, [is super valuable].
Let's talk a little bit about community platforms. I'm going to reference a blog that you wrote that I thought was pretty cool. In it, you say that you appreciate Slack, but you also ask community managers to not view it as a panacea. There's all these pros, but you can’t just “put a Slack on it.” One of our Uncommon community members, Mike Ma from Research Rabbit, broke down his understanding of community platform options pretty eloquently so I'm going to borrow some of his words here. His team evaluated platforms and channels across three dimensions: Sync versus async, public versus private, and anonymous versus verified. I'd love to ask you about these platform options—how do you see not only Slack, but platforms like Discourse and Discord fitting into the community management tool belt, and when should a community leader consider opening up new channels?
I love how you broke that down because I think that opportunities and challenges for things like Discord and Slack have to do both with the synchronicity as well as the public versus private nature. And you know, the way I think about sync versus async is that synchronous experiences are peak experiences, right? For most people, their top experiences with someone are in real life. The asynchronous keeps us going in between. So I think async is a really good way to have a connective tissue in between those really powerful synchronous events.
I think the other factor, as [Mike mentioned], is public versus private. There's also indexed and not. And one of the biggest problems with Slack and Discord communities is they're not indexed by Google. You may or may not care about this. That goes back to your business goals. If you're trying to get lots of new people in who might not know your community, you probably want it to show up in Google search results. If you are very picky about who joins and you want to hand choose them, get them into the community, that's fine. You don't need nor probably want your posts in your community to show up publicly. So that's another factor that we need to bring into the equation.
And then on the last point [about anonymity], I think there is a spectrum here—there’s true anonymous, which is just anyone can post anything at any time with no identification attached to them. There's pseudo anonymous, which is what Reddit is, where you have a username that is attached to you. It's not your verified real name, but you use the same one all the time theoretically. And then there's all the way up to fully verified. This is who you are and this is what you do. I think there's benefit for each.
There’s this myth that pseudonymity creates toxicity. And that's been pretty thoroughly debunked. Anecdotally, you can look at certain platforms and see that there's plenty of toxicity, but there's also been studies done that show that that's not necessarily true when it comes to pseudonymity. When it comes to full anonymity, when you are just shouting into the void and nobody can see your face, you do often see more toxicity.
So pseudonyms are this nice middle ground where people don't necessarily have to attach their real name to something, but they care for their account. They feel like they're putting an identity forward. And so they're less likely to be toxic. Pseudonymity can be really beneficial for marginalized groups for people in countries with oppressive regimes, or even just…we’ve seen this with teenagers—they use pseudonymity in different accounts as ways to explore facets of their personality they're still developing. They’re still figuring out who they are. We've also seen this with women dealing with postpartum depression, and that's a really hard thing to come out with your full real name and talk about, but they find these support groups.
So there's a lot of benefit there, but obviously if you are, you know, having a professional community focused on, say, Chief Revenue Officers, you don't want to have a bunch of random people in there who aren't Chief Revenue Officers, because that's going to create a lot of mess. So it comes back to what your business goals are. I don't think there's any one approach that is wrong, but you really have to examine the trade offs. I think it's too common for people to say, “Well, everyone knows how to use Slack or everyone knows how to use Facebook Groups. It's really easy to set up. That's the best place to start my community.” And then you might get yourself in a trap where either people aren't engaging or you don't have access to the data. It's really worth taking that time to figure out what platform for your community is going to be best.
There’s a very large publicness about Reddit, although it's not fully anonymous as you just described. I'm wondering if you can talk a bit about how you and the community teams at Reddit think about maintaining cohesion, especially at such a global scale?
I think a couple crucial things here. The first one is that we have individual topic-based communities. I think this differs from a lot of social media because when you are walking through the town square that is certain social networks, you could be hearing somebody talk about the latest Marvel movie. And then all of a sudden somebody is talking about politics and it can be very disorienting. And while Reddit does have a public feed, a lot of our focus is around the communities that you join and the interests that you have. And so your experience on Reddit can be entirely cute animals. It can be super gaming focused. It can be an eclectic mix of politics and comic books and fashion, whatever you want it to be.
And we empower people to create these unique spaces that have their own norms and vibes and rules. And we have a two-tiered moderation system. So we have our site wide rules. We have a Trust and Safety team that makes sure that we are protecting our users, but then each of these communities create their own spaces and have their own additional rules. And these can be silly. You know, if you go into our slash ‘cats standing up’, every post has to be a cat standing up, and the title has to be cat period. But they can also be, you know, much more subtle. If you check out ‘change my view’, this is a very nuanced, structured debate where someone comes in with a view, asks others to change it, and they approach it in a certain way and have certain rules for how you engage with it.
And that really allows people to find spaces that are compelling to them and for us to not dictate every single aspect of the experience and let people create that for themselves. So I think those are important foundational aspects. To your other questions about how we maintain that, it's very much a snowflake model. We are in the center, then we have these moderators - we have lead moderators and then other moderators on the teams - and then the users and, you know, the controls federated out gradually throughout those groups. So we really have to think about how we are leading from the top. We spend a lot of time with our moderators because these are the most visible, powerful members of our communities who are going to set the tone and the culture on Reddit.
So a lot of it is thinking about the education we need to do. What is the vibe we want to set? And then, what are the indicators that something might be headed in the wrong direction? We might look at indicators like how fast a moderation team is getting through their queue of reports. And if they're not, what are the causes of that? It’s not intervening with that individual community because that isn't going to scale, but can we understand what the underlying issues are? So it sounds very abstract, but really it just comes down to digging deeper and deeper and deeper until you can figure out, okay, this one thing all the way at this end caused this thing way over here that happens to millions of users. If we can work on fixing this, we'll help all of them.
Let's talk a little bit more about moderation. Do you have any advice around what you've learned around moderation? So there’s setting clear guidelines, being able to enforce the rules, being transparent about a why…but I imagine that at a place as deep and rich as Reddit, you have other ideas in terms of maintaining a high bar of community through moderation.
I think one of the biggest lessons is just…expectations. Someone's expectation affects everything about what you do because two different people with two different sets of expectations can have the same experience and come out the other side feeling differently. And I think this is one of the things that companies in general and communities specifically do very badly. We don't spend the time to say “here is what to expect when you show up here”. I think the biggest thing you can do is make sure when people are joining the community, they know what to expect and what they're committing to. I want to be part of a community like that and I will behave in that way.
And then with the services you're providing, you set expectations for what it’s going to look like because most of the challenges we run into, and I see other communities run into, is where there's a vision in one group's head that doesn't match up with what reality is. Companies can spend the time to set that. I think a subset of that is how you can set people up to enter [a community] with a certain mindset. I've seen Twitter do some really interesting stuff, even, you know, companies that are known for toxic communities like Riot and League of Legends. They've done really interesting stuff, [including things like] loading screens telling people, “Hey, you know, teammates prefer when you treat them in a certain way”, and they see toxicity decrease. It sounds really simple in practice, but to do it right, it requires some subtlety and can have really immense benefits.
When you're looking to hire community teammates, what are some of the key attributes you think are important?
The most important one is empathy. You can't build community without it and you have to have a high level of it, because sometimes it can be unforgiving work. I also look for some maturity in that empathy because it can be really easy to get overly focused on an individual situation. And the most successful use of empathy, in my opinion, is to ask, “How can I change the system to help the most people, rather than trying to just solve for this one situation?" I think after that, it depends on the role. I used to think, “a community professional is a community professional”, they have empathy and that's all that matters, but I've really come around to thinking that there are very few people that possess all the skills needed in community.
Usually there's two different camps that you can hire for. One is community relations, the person who's out there in the field who can talk people off a ledge, who can make people feel fantastic about what they're doing, get them psyched up. That is a really unique skill and lots of people just don't have it. If you can find someone who can do that, they're worth their weight and gold. They often are a person who dislikes spreadsheets and charts and thinking about, you know, logistics.
And so there's another type of professional that I've started hiring, which are program managers who are really thinking about, “How do we progress? What are we doing?” We have the person out there talking to people, but what tools, what programs, what structures can we give them to help them go farther? I've come around to thinking that it’s fine and actually good to have different teams focused on different areas because it's very hard to hold in your head the long term and the short term. And so it's useful to have the person who is down in there worrying about what's happening today and then someone else who's looking at the long term picture.
I'm curious if there's a recent big challenge that you’re most stoked to have solved with your community.
We recently launched our first ever moderator training and certification program and I'm really excited and proud about that program because it’s solving this large long-term issue with this very specific approach. We know that moderation teams struggle because they don't always have as many moderators as they should. One of the problems there is that it takes a lot of time for them to train new moderators. These are volunteers, so we don't want to make it a heavy lift for them. And so with this training and certification program, we've seen results that show that folks are actually staying on moderation teams longer because they're actually learning the things that they need to learn. So it's solving this distant problem of these spaces being well moderated, but by addressing one specific pain point on this end. It’s been really exciting to see the response to it because people are also really excited to learn. Turns out, if you give them the tools, they'll use them.
I cannot let readers and listeners leave home without knowing two more things about you. One is, can you tell us about International Beer Day and then two is, will there be a Monsters Are Not Myths reunion tour?
International Beer Day is something my best friend cooked up many years ago that was a great opportunity to put some community building skills into practice. We managed to get it on people's radars and at one point, we had thousands of bars around the world celebrating it. It just goes to show if you can get people excited about something, magic stuff will happen. And yeah, probably not a reunion for my band Monsters Are Not Myths, but I occasionally play music as Kicking Tuesday.
Lastly, will you tell us about the cause you decided to highlight today through Uncommon Support?
I really appreciate that you do this. I've chosen Sierra Club. I've been a lifelong environmentalist and it's only feeling more urgent now. The Sierra Club is one of the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organizations in the United States. They really take the power of community and get their millions of members to defend everyone's right to a healthy world.