Driving the right conversation: An interview with Tom Norman
Having worked in community for over five years, building communities like Cuvva and Daily Prompt, Tom Norman, the founder of Connector Tribe, is no stranger to identifying the key to a successful community. We recently caught up with him to talk about his experience in the world of community, and what his most valuable lessons have been along the way.
How did you first get involved in community management?
My first taste of community was actually way before I realized there is a whole industry around it. I worked at an incredible time cafe where you pay for the time you spend there and not what you eat and drink. I was really heavily involved with the community and worked with them to build different community-led events every evening and it was one of the best times of my life so far. After that, I had other various other community-focused roles at start-ups and ran a project of my own called How To Be Human. But officially, it wasn't until 2020 that I discovered CMX and Jono Bacon and discovered that I wasn't the only one who loved running communities.
What is one of your favorite stories about one of the communities you managed?
What were the greatest achievements driven by that community? At Ziferblat, the time cafe, I remember hosting a How To Be Human event about the topic of "Being Single" on Valentine’s Day. Over 40 people arrived and squeezed into a small room for the discussion and even the national newspaper showed up to cover the event. We had a thoughtful chat for an hour and a half discussing our experiences being single in a safe and open environment. Building spaces for people to gather and connect meaningfully inspires me the most when it comes to community.
What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced managing a community and how did you overcome them?
One of my greatest challenges as a Community Manager has been myself. In every community role I've had, I’ve always operated as the only Community-person in the company and it can feel quite isolating. That can lead to a lot of self-doubt and imposter syndrome: you know the typical feelings of wondering if I'm good enough and feeling like a fraud. Something that helped a lot was starting a Mastermind group with fellow community managers. Now, 3 of us meet every month to share our progress, and our problems and we offer one another support in our community journey. It’s transformed my experience as a community manager since it gives me a place to look for advice and support from people who already know me and my story.
You founded Connectors Tribe with the intention of assisting indie community managers. What are the special necessities of an indie community manager, and how can Connectors Tribe help?
Connectors Tribe was built from a personal need to find a support network of other community managers; particularly those who operate alone. It can be a lonely path if you’re the sole community hire at an organization. Those you work with may have interests and ideas about how the community might work, but sometimes you really just need support and advice from others within the community industry. Connectors Tribe was built as a way that any community manager who works alone could have access to others who can have their back and guide them.
How important is it for Community Managers to have a support network, and more specifically why is it important?
I think that anyone, regardless of their profession, can really benefit from being surrounded by a high-quality support network. As community professionals, we’re lucky to have a lot of incredible places to connect with others. But one thing that’s sometimes hard to come by is people who really know you and have your back. More than just posting on a forum or in a Slack group somewhere, there’s incredible value in having your support network of people who already know you, your story, your skills, and your shortcomings.
Community Management can be a demanding job. People are increasingly stressing the importance of well-being in order to avoid burnout. What are the finest practices in your opinion for improving the well-being of the Community Manager?
Taking time off. A community is alive 24/7 and as a people-loving, empathetic community manager it can be really difficult to step away and give yourself time off. But it’s important, no imperative, that you do. I find that by giving myself true breaks at weekends and in the evenings I am able to think so much clearer the following day when I show up to work. This means I’m able to bring my best self to the community instead of a tired, stressed, and overwhelmed version of myself. In addition, I think finding a community team for yourself is important. As I’ve mentioned already, having other people to throw ideas around with and get support from is vital.
What are your top tips to help community managers to manage their time?
Time-boxing really helps! It can be really easy to just rush around putting out fires all day and as a result, you’ll never do the important work that’s needed to nourish your community and help it grow and evolve. Instead, it’s important to time-box tasks. Ensure that your day has some time to interact and have conversations with the community, but also a period of time for focused work without notifications or distractions. Also, your downtime is precious. As mentioned above, your community will be there 24/7 vying for your attention. And you physically can't be available for it 24/7 without doing some serious damage to yourself so make sure there are times when you're fully switched off with notifications turned off where you can relax and rejuvenate.
What do you think are the most difficult challenges for individuals to overcome in order to create and manage a community?
One of the biggest challenges, in my opinion, is potentially the idea of systematizing and scaling your impact in the community. As an empathetic and serving leader (like most community managers should be), it can be really easy to take on everything yourself. But that doesn’t scale and easily leads to burnout and feeling like a failure. To really see sustainable success in a community without wearing yourself thin, it’s important to empower your members. See what lights them up and how you can support their personal goals and ambitions. Look out for those individuals who have energy and passion for your community and see how you can support them by taking on other responsibilities - hosting events, offering members help, and building groups of their own.
What are the top three pieces of advice you would give to a fellow community manager that doesn’t have a defined strategy?
A strategy is important. It helps you know your goal and gives you a clear path to try and get there. But a strategy isn't everything. As someone who previously felt a huge amount of pressure in the past to build the “perfect strategy”, I'm calling myself out here and saying “There is no perfect strategy.” However, there are a couple of important things that you should take into account:
1. A community is about conversation
Get to know your community as well as you can. Don't be a distant "manager" but get involved, have conversations, and get to know them genuinely as deeply as you can. A strategy is great but better still is to really know and understand these people; understand their pains, their frustrations, their motivations, and you can make decisions for the community based on this.
2. Be clear on why your community exists for your organization
You should be really honest with yourself about your business/organizational expectations for the community. The SPACES model is a fantastic way to think about this where it offers six different types of business goals a community might help your organization with. So it's important to choose the one (or two) that are most important for your organization and build your metrics and actions based on those.
3. Be clear on why your community exists for your members
If you only build a community with your organization's goals in mind it will come to a quick demise. A community by its very nature should be member-focused and built to serve/support members in some way. Remember point 1? Do it. Chat with members. Understand their wants and needs as much as possible and think about how your community might serve them. Think about what members could do together in your community, why they'd be interested in doing it, and why your community is the best place on the internet to do it. The last question is vital. Some years ago, it might have been enough to build a space “to chat and connect" but with an abundance of distractions on the internet all vying for your members' attention, unless your community is solving a real tangible problem for them they're unlikely to stick around for long!
To follow more insights and stories from Tom, be sure to connect with him on Twitter. Want to learn more about Community Management from leading experts in the field? Visit our blog today, and discover more stories, insights, and tips.