What We Learned From Starting the Slack GatherMods
Responding to feedback provided an opportunity to practice engagement with our community.
When we started Gather Slack in early 2018, the idea was that it would be a place for our community of practice, to, well, gather and engage with one another. At that point, Gather as a site was just a few months old, but we were seeing less one-on-one interaction on the platform than we’d hoped when we launched in October 2017. The steering committee thought: Why don’t we put the practices we recommend into action, and meet our community where they already are?
By the summer of 2019, a lack of interaction was not our biggest problem: Our Slack community had more than 1000 members, and while not all members or channels were active on any given day or week, the notifications could quickly get overwhelming, especially for those who only checked in periodically. When we ran our community survey during the summer, we heard from respondents that because of the volume of conversation, it could be difficult for an individual to identify what information was important and professionally relevant.
When the steering committee gathered to discuss the responses, we brainstormed about what we could do to make the Slack community more accessible to users who were new, busy, or just check in less often, and through this process make it more useful for everyone.
In our survey, we had asked our members what could be done to improve their experience across Gather’s various platforms, and how they might be willing to help. Several respondents told us they might be willing to moderate conversations on Slack. This was something for which we had a precedent: Our #paidacquisition channel had been pitched by Phillip Smith and Alexandra Smith (no relation), who traded off weeks starting conversations and answering questions around their very specific topic. Finally, we’d been looking for a way to tap and support more leaders within the Gather community.
In that steering committee, we agreed that this seemed like the right move, Lauren Katz offered up the name — and, with that, the GatherMods was born. Gather community manager Joy Mayer asked if I’d be willing to co-lead the team.
While a “moderator” of online communities typically enforces community guidelines, we were more interested in using our squad as leaders to ensure our community of practice is as useful to our members as it can be, without being overwhelming, and in sharing the work of following what’s discussed throughout our various channels. We have guidelines for appropriate behavior on Slack and the Gather site, but enforcing those rules was not going to be our moderators’ top priority.
Instead, we wanted them to lead the conversation, send updates to our community manager about important conversations to make sure that things didn’t get missed or forgotten, and allow our community to participate without feeling like they had to read every message in every channel in order to benefit. We also wanted to recognize the subject matter experts in our midst, and give them the opportunity to share their understanding of the landscape of resources and projects, helping keep the quality of conversations and knowledge-base high and tagging in others with experiences that might be useful to those with specific questions.
We solicited applications from the Slack, and a small group from the steering committee matched interested members with channels. As a result of feedback from the earlier survey and ideas from applications, we added two additional channels at this time — #professionaldevelopment and #culturechange — and changed the #help channel to #orientation and the #brainstorm channel to #announcements. We wanted for the moderators to feel like how our Slack community worked was something we were building and experimenting with together, and to feel empowered to suggest changes.
Joy — whose work has been integral to the success of Gather thus far — wrote in the newsletter announcing these changes, and introducing the new moderator team: “We heard from you in our user survey this summer that there are four key ways Gather can be especially useful: help us connect; help us keep learning; help us keep up; and help us understand the big picture … The Mod Squad can be deputized to serve as hosts of specific Slack channels — they’ll help welcome new folks, answer questions, moderate discussions and make connections.”
Now, we’re six months into the experiment, and still learning. It’s a time of transition for Gather, with Joy’s recent departure as community manager and Alisha Savson stepping into the role, but new people continue to join Slack, and with them come more opportunities to change both Gather and journalism for the better. We recently added two new channels, in an effort to better serve our members’ information needs. As we continue to listen to the Gather community in the coming months and years, I’m sure we’ll be looking for new ways to further improve the experience, along with feedback on the work our GatherMods has put in so far.
Some takeaways from the project:
- Make important information available in a consistent place.
Your community’s time is valuable, and you show that through your actions. Before the GatherMods, we had been pointing newsletter readers to interesting Slack conversations, but Joy had been surveying a week’s worth of notifications on her own. Now, every Monday our team of moderators shares an update on especially valuable or interesting conversations that happened in their channel during the previous week, and these highlights get curated into our weekly Wednesday newsletter. (Sign up here!) We also put together a guide for our community on how to best set up your Slack notifications, and have been posting tips for making the most of Slack without getting overwhelmed in the #orientation channel.
- Be predictable, and communicate a clear timeline for any planned changes.
We started this project with the idea that it would be a three-month experiment. By the next month, it was clearly making a positive impact. However, we stuck to the plan: Meeting with our moderators every month, asking for feedback at the end of the pilot, and offering the opportunity to step aside at that point from the volunteer commitment if it was taking too much time or otherwise not the right fit. Along the way, we kept our community updated on any changes to the program via the email newsletter mentioned above.
- Start with a clear definition of success, but be open to changing it based on feedback.
Joy and I wanted to make sure our founding moderators felt agency in shaping the project, so we started the first meeting by asking our team how they thought we should define success. After, we realized that we probably should have started by talking about the problems we hoped the initiative would tackle, and then proposing the goals/metrics we wanted to watch. Starting with the definition of success was too big of a question. However, that definition is something we’re continuing to refine, and as always, we welcome feedback from all members of the Gather community.
- Surveys are your friend.
We learned about this issue through regular check-ins with members of Gather Slack, and were even able to use the survey to brainstorm potential solutions. We also surveyed our GatherMod through their applications, and checked in after the pilot period to make changes. These surveys supplemented monthly conversations during our Zoom meetings and day-to-day chatting in our private Slack channel, allowing us to hear about all of the issues and make our community work better for our members. Surveys also allow people to participate on their own time, and address specific questions and topics.
- Let your community help you.
This is the top lesson, I think: Our communities are our most valuable resource. Ours contained subject-matter experts who were willing to contribute to making our platform more accessible and useful. If you’re facing a challenge with an audience-facing project in your newsroom or office, I’d encourage you to think about how your readers or users can help you to solve that problem. You don’t have to do it all on your own, and the end result will probably be better if you don’t.
Here are our current moderators, by channel:
#advocates: Bridget Thoreson
#audiencedevelopment: Nicole Barton
#culturechange: Summer Moore
#europe: Laura Oliver
#facetoface: Max Resnik
#metricsandimpact: Jessica Lee Martin
#moderation: Anna Bold
#newsletters: Tommy Hamzik
#orientation: Julia Haslanger
#paidacquisition: Phillip Smith
#professionaldevelopment: Elizabeth Dunbar
#socialmedia: Beth O’Malley
#teachingandlearning: Andrew DeVigal
#tools: Stephanie Backus