Turkey Day and New Beginnings... *a must-read forums story*

CrackBerry Kevin

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Hey All,

Happy Turkey Day! I'm in Canada and our Thanksgiving is long past, but it's a nice quiet day at the office so I wanted to take the opportunity to write out a mini-novel here and play catch up on the communication front.

It's exciting times at Mobile Nations. We have soooo much going on at the moment, and so many great things planned for the upcoming year that one of the biggest challenges I face is keeping everybody in the loop of what's happening. Sometimes I forget that not everybody on the team is in the loop and in sync with what we're working on behind the scenes, which can create some confusion when we do announce things or rollout new site features and the full story behind it isn't told.

Case in point, this week I welcomed back James Falconer to the team on the blogs. All of our EiCs and many of our forum admins and moderators were already in the know of James and his new roll as Community Manager (he actually started November 1st and he's begun saying hello in the forums), but it's clear following the announcement that for some the news didn't make it all the way through and it was still a surprise and there may have been some confusion around the roll. It didn't dawn on me in advance, but the confusion is understandable, as Community Manager for Mobile Nations sounds a lot like Forums Administrator for Mobile Nations, a roll that is held by our forum superhero Cory Streater. I'll take the blame for that confusion, and I'll take this opportunity to clear that up right now, and give you a bit of catch up on what's been going the past year. The good news is my new year's resolution for 2013 is better communication throughout our sites, and I'm already working on our solution for that (details below). Next time, mini-novels like this will happen before we announce anything. Not after.

I'm sure it's a bit out of left field to have somebody new here in the forums all of a sudden. That's also understandable and not unexpected. Long story short, James is now here to help support all of the existing forum efforts and forum admins and mod teams across all our sites. He's not here to replace anybody. This new roll is not there to step on the toes of the great team we already have in place. Here on WPCentral, Dave Blake has done a simply awesome job on building up the forums and the moderation team. We're not going to mess with things where and when they're working well. I detest change for the sake of change. I only like trying out new things when we firmly believe they can make a positive impact (and if we ever do try something new and screw it up, we quickly revert!).

As for Mr. Cory Streater our Mobile Nations Forums Admin... seriously, he is beyond a rockstar, and he's built up an amazing team of mods and an absolutely first class forum community on Android Central. And as volunteer, he's taken on far more responsibilities and put in far more time at the technical support level across all of the sites, not just Android Central, than could ever be expected out of a single individual. The dedication he has shown to our sites is simply inspiring.

I have been talking to Cory on a regular basis for the past year and half since I stepped up from just focusing on CrackBerry to overseeing all of our properties. It became clear to me early on in talking to Cory that we were not yet doing all that we could at the "corporate support" level (for lack of a better term) to help make the forum communities as good as they could be across all our sites. Cory has picked up a ton of our slack on the technical side on his own volition, and I've been working to get our in-house technical team to be much more on the ball in dealing with the forums and supporting Cory in all of his efforts there. Things are a lot better now than they were, though we definitely still have room to improve in how we prioritize and resolve technical issues once they have been escalated. On the forum admin/moderation side, while Cory had Android Central in great shape and still does, across our other sites we haven't always been as consistent or organized as we potentially could be, though we have managed to make things work pretty well (there's always some room of improvement - even on CrackBerry where I was always extremely hands-on in the forums in the early years, due to a sheer lack of time have not been able to show them the same amount of love as I had in the past). And at a recognition and rewards level, we really were not doing nearly enough on a consistent basis. We have so many great members and volunteers that make our forum communities rock, but we've been a bit complacent and inconsistent across the sites at acknowledging and rewarding these outstanding contributions. I look at that is a failure on my part, as I really, really, really do appreciate all of the handwork that all of our volunteers put in. Great communities don't just happen - it takes a ton of dedicated people putting in a lot of time and effort.

Mulling over those early discussions with Cory, over a year ago now I came up with the plan of how we could address all of these areas in such a way that we could strengthen not only the individual communities, but also better promote that feeling of a unified community across all our sites. We even started to tackle this plan last November -- over a year ago now -- but for a few reasons it fell off (which I'll get into in a bit). I'm super excited that we're picking up once again on these efforts with James now in the mix, who's full time commitment is going to be on helping execute that vision. You're probably now wondering... so what's this magical vision?

Let me walk you through the full story... starting with how we've already been executing this plan on the editorial side of the organization.

Prior to the change to the Mobile Nations brand and the newly-launched Mobile Nations Passport unified login, we had the Smartphone Experts "network" of sites. I put "network" in quotations as we really were not a network. What we had was a group of individual sites that were "affiliated" under one brand, rather than a proper "network" by definition of the word. Each site was run very differently, not just on the forum side, but also on the editorial/blog side of things. We had very little communication and visibility across the sites into who was doing what, and how things were getting done. Even for me as the Editor in Chief of CrackBerry, over the course of literally years I'd barely ever speak to guys like Phil or Rene or Dan who were running our other sites, all with their own teams of writers. Even though we were one company and group of of individuals working on similar things with similar goals, it was like we were running five separate entities with brick walls between each one. It's kind of ridiculous now that I look back on it at just how much of a silo each of our sites was contained in. I literally just lived in my CrackBerry world for years.

Over the last year and half though, we completely revamped the way we are organized and work together on the editorial side. Now all of the site EiCs talk literally multiple times per day. We have writers that contribute across multiple sites. We built and put new tools in place that allow us to better plan our upcoming content. We standardized the way we do things across the sites (standard writers guides, etc.) while still keeping intact the personalities that make each site unique. We discovered that each of the sites excelled in different areas. We uncovered everybody's best practices and shared them and now all the sites are up to that "best" standard across the board. And we now communicate a lot more - both between sites, and with our writing teams, using things like Skype, Campfire and Google Hangouts on a regular basis. Instead of having that feeling of five sites spanning out like spokes from a central hub, on the editorial site we really feel just like one big team, all part of the same mission. We still maintain each site's individual identity and personality on the editorial side, but we've woven this Mobile Nations stitching through the fabric of our sites that really holds everything together and makes us stronger. The result of these changes is that we're all doing a consistently better job, and having a lot more fun running our sites than we used to. And, we're getting the results we set out to achieve. This week we broke the 10 million monthly readers milestone for the first time. Completely awesome.

Of course, we still have some areas on the editorial side where we can improve, but we've done a lot already and the changes we have made have really improved things for the better.

Now onto the forums...

For the last couple of years the number one feature that has been requested to us was to roll out unified login for our sites. Even just just and a half years ago, CrackBerry was the biggest site in the network by far (making up 80% of the traffic for all the sites). As users left CrackBerry, a lot of them moved over into our other sites (I always cry a little when I browse through the CrackBerry defectors thread on Android Central). At the same time, the sites have also grown organically on their own, and what we've found from the extensive user research we've done is that most "average" users of our sites now are very pragmatic. While there is always that core group of users on each site extremely passionate about their platform (hardcore BlackBerry fans, Android fans, Windows Phone fans, etc.), we've found that our average member isn't nearly as "loyal" to a platform as we once thought. They want the mobile device/solution that is best for them, whatever it is. Or, we've found that many people own two devices these days (BlackBerry phone and an iPad for example). Others yet just want to stay on top of everything.

And since 2.5 years ago, we've witnessed the amount of users creating accounts on more than one of our communities accelerate. Though we still operated as five different sites, our users began to look at all of our sites as being part of the same family (which is what we were telling them they were, but were not actually providing). But account management was a pain in the , having to manage a different login and potentially different identity on each site. We weren't supporting our users in what they actually wanted to do and how they wanted to use our sites.

Which brings us to the roll out of Mobile Nations Passport. This was a HUGE undertaking and not something that happened overnight. We first started talking and planning out Passport over 18 months ago. The process of consolidating ~5 million accounts across fives sites, working out username conflicts and every scenario that a user could potentially face was daunting. But we got it done, and it was something we HAD to accomplish. The rollout of Passport went extremely well given how much could potentially go wrong when pulling the trigger on a massive change like that. We put a lot of time into testing it before we pushed it out, but you can't test *everything*. Overall, the rollout went really smooth. We had a few little hiccups, all of which have pretty much been resolved now, and we've been seeing the benefits of Passport already. Finally getting social login working as well (Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc.) has been great too - literally over 50% of new users are creating their accounts via social sign on. Since going live, we have even had a lot of people in the industry reach out to us and tell us that we now have literally the best single sign on solution on the internet, which is just awesome to hear. Passport is a technical hurdle we had to overcome, but now that it's there it's really going to allow us to do a lot more awesome stuff on the sites moving ahead, and deliver a better user experience. Even right now when you go to your Passport account page or register today with a new account, we're asking users at sign up what device they own. A massive % are now doing this at time of registration. With time, having new users give us that info is going to help us better target our content offerings to them (if we know from your Passport profile that you own a Nexus 4, as you browse through the site we'll deliver more Nexus 4 content to you - instead of digging up the content, it'll be right there for you).

So while Passport has just gone live this month, even over a year ago I was thinking about the impact of what Passport means to our sites.

And here was the big revelation.

Prior to Passport, we had FIVE separate communities. With Mobile Nations Passport now live, things have fundamentally changed. What we now really have is ONE BIG community, that manifests itself across five sites (or more if we decide to roll out any new sites next year). The Mobile Nations theme works really well here too as an analogy?. it's almost like what Europe did when the put the European Union in place. Germany, France and Italy are all very different and distinct countries with their own cultures. To a person visiting each place there are still local differences, but there is also a certain expectation every individual citizen of the EU has for the consistency across all member countries - for example, you know your currency (Euros) is going to work everywhere and your passport is valid in all of the of countries.

With this realization over a year ago, it became pretty clear what we needed to begin to work towards on the forums. Just like the EU example, in a post-Passport world, a visitor/member to any one of our sites should be able to expect a similar experience and treatment when visiting another one of our sites. But that wasn't the case. The forums across all our sites were run very differently. CrackBerry's rules were completely different than Android Central's which were different than the rules of webOS Nation. What was allowed on CrackBerry might get you banned by a moderator on webOS Nation. The marketplace rules were different. On one site you needed to meet one criteria before you could sell something, on another site it was different. Even jumping between the forums, we used gave different names to things that were essentially the same. For example, CrackBerry had Site Questions and Bugs as one forum name, but on Android Central the equivalent forum was "Meta" (which I still don't know what that means).

So at this point over a year ago, I actually had Adam Zeis -- my number two in command on CrackBerry -- step up to the role of Mobile Nations Forums Administrator along side Cory. And between Adam and Cory we started to work on a process to bring all of the forum experiences into closer alignment, with Android Central really leading the way in terms of best practices that the other forums should try and match. So we started to do that. We updated the rules across all the sites to get them more closely aligned to Android Centrals. Cory even began to work with the moderators on some of our other sites, to put them through what I like to refer to as the "Cory Streater School of Modding". And that's been great, especially as we have seen some of our moderators move between sites, like John Yester for example, who was originally on CrackBerry and is now rocking out mod actions on iMore.

As mentioned above, one of the challenges we realized we needed to resolve even a year ago was communication, which was difficult when our teams are split up across five sites. Each of our sites has its own staff forums, but they're on the the individual sites. Just as we had brick walls in our editorial organization, we still have those now in the forums. Moderators from Android Central don't have a centralized place for discussion where they can talk to moderators from CrackBerry for example. With Passport now live, the need for cross site forum discussion becomes increasingly important, as we may have members posting on multiple sites. If a "problem" CrackBerry member now joins Android Central or WPCentral or iMore, we don't have an easy way to discover that user history, and there needs be one. Or heck, even a post like this I'm making on each of our forums in the moderator section, instead of being able to post it once and reach all of our forum teams.

The solution we came up with over a year ago was the idea of building a cross site staff forums. Which we actually started to build and you can actually see by going to Mobile Nations Staff Forums. We started setting this up as the central meeting spot where we would have all forum admins and moderators from all sites go for cross site discussion. It would be a place where moderators from one site could get to know moderators from another site. We could discuss cross site members, and as we did successfully with our editorial teams this year, begin building that feeling of cross site unity.

So the vision even a year ago was in place, but then we sort of stopped executing on this before we finished. Adam wasn't quite able to rise to the occasion on it (he didn't have the time with his other CB duties and it proved very difficult to task switch between forum mode and editorial mode). And with Passport still a year out and things not really broken at all the way we were running them, there wasn't too much of a rush for us to continue down the path of evolution just yet. So we put things on hold for the new forum vision we had planned..

In the meantime, Cory still forged ahead behind the scenes working to improve the forum experience greatly on all our sites. He pushed out all the VB 3.8 plugins and hacks that upped the forum experience big time, and more recently in 2012 he paved the way for all VB4 upgrades that we've now been rolling out. The improvements have been huge and the forums have all done super well.

Now fast forward to August 2012. At this point we had our first annual Mobile Nations EiC Summit, and Phil Nickinson and Rene Ritchie and Dan Rubino all flew to Winnipeg and we looked at everything we were doing across the sites. Together as a team, we quickly made the decision that we needed to have somebody on our core full-time team dedicated to just helping out in forum communities. It was kind of crazy when we looked at the numbers. On the homepage, we publish ~1500 posts a month, and that takes a lot of effort and resources from a lot of people in a very structured and organized way. In the forums, we're publishing ~17,000 forum threads a month (a thread is like a blog post - it's a new page hitting the web), and that's all happening organically. Of course, it doesn't happen "on it's own"? we have so many dedicated volunteers and awesome members that contribute to that. But it was clear that given the amount of effort we put into the homepage editorial content, that we should be doing even more in the forums to further encourage and go above and beyond the awesomeness we already had happening.

At the EiC Summit, we brainstormed all of the things we'd like to do even more of going ahead if we had a person on the team who was just 100% was dedicated to building and engaging with the communities across the sites. Somebody who was there to give Cory and all forum admins/mods the support they had been lacking. Somebody who was there to really take the lead on giving back to the communities, and somebody who could start tackling things we'd talked about for years, but just never executed on because of a lack of time. There's a lot on the to do list we want to do? Mobile Nations meet ups, Community Awards (already announced this week and happening), taking forum members to events like CES, etc. Thinking on the content too, we came up with ideas around having a forum content strategy similar to how we have content strategies on the blogs. We came up with too many ideas to get into the full details here, but the bottom line was that we made the decision to be on the lookout for somebody who could come into his new roll.

Of course we immediately thought about Cory during these discussions, and over the past year and a half on more than a couple occasions I have talked to Cory about trying to get him to go beyond volunteer commitment and join the team at a full time level. That's always something that's open to Cory (and still is right now as I type this). The realization we had at the EiC Summit was that even if we could have our dream come true of having Cory onboard, we would still need another person dedicated to the communities, as this is a role that goes beyond how we've managed our sites to date. Again - the goal isn't to change what's been working so well. It's to go beyond.

And that brings us to James. When we found out this fall that we had a shot at bringing James back onboard the team, all of the EiCs were excited for the idea. James has been around for a long time. We all know him. He has a skill set that fits nicely into the goals of what we want to achieve. And it's a bonus that he's located in Winnipeg, so he can work out of the same office as me and Tom (our lead community developer). Being able to yell into Tom's ear for when any tech issues pop up is a big bonus. And having James next to me puts him in a position where he can readily execute on my vision immediately. A further bonus is that now that he's in the role and getting his feet wet and coming back up to speed with everything, he's having a lot of great ideas on his own beyond that original vision we wanted to execute on. Final bonus, he's also a great guy and a fun guy to work with and somebody I think all of you will really enjoy working with as you get to know him more.

I just want to be clear again that the addition of James to the team was not meant and is not meant in anyway to replace Cory or minimize any of his contributions to the sites to date on Android Central or our other sites. And the same goes for Dave here on Windows Phone Central. The intent was and is the opposite. James is here to help support Cory and Dave and all of the mods, site forum admins, etc. across the sites.

With James now on the team, the first thing he has to do is build relationships with everybody involved in the forums. In a virtual environment, it's not the easiest thing to do. It's not like walking into an office on the first day of a new job and waving Hi everybody and walking desk to desk for the meet and greet. He'll ramp up slow and steadily, and as this a new role it'll take some time to find our way with it, but I do think everybody on the team here and across the sites is going to love it. It's really a new beginning of sorts, and I'm super excited for where we're going. I think in six months we're all going to look back and just say WOW. We have so many great things planned for the sites and the communities. In the meantime, getting to know each other more is a great first step. Google Hangouts, Skype Calls, etc. should definitely happen in the near future, and James will definitely be saying hi and getting to know all of you.

I'm sure there are bunch of questions everybody has, and I'm happy to clarify things if there is any confusion.

As for those new cross-site staff forums I mentioned?. in the near future we're going to setup http://forums.mobilenations.com as a new cross site forum (a place for cross site platform debate, etc.). It'll of course be tied into Passport, so logging in will only take a click. On that site we'll setup new Mobile Nations Staff Forums, which will be for all the moderators across all of the sites, so we'll finally have a place for unified cross site communication and things like tracking members who move between communities. And I'll get to make a post like this there once and reach all of you, vs. having to post it right now on each site's mod forums. Of course each site will still maintain it's own staff forums as they have now, but then we'll also have this new place that brings everybody together. Should be good and fun and effective.

Ok, this is a long forum post. I should shut up now. This is what happens when I dive into the forums and start typing? I write mini-novels.

At the least, I hope this clarifies things a bit as to how we got to where we are and also gives a hint as to where we're going and why. Even more great things ahead!

Talk soon. Happy Thanksgiving!

Kevin
 

Dave Blake

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Jan 11, 2008
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WOW! I need a glass of water and some eye drops after that read...lol

Can you feel the passion in that pep talk? What all this means to the WPCentral is that we are a great community on our own but together with the other communities we are a great Nation. James seams like a great guy I am really excited about what he brings to the table. As we all clime on board with what's happening keep in mind what benefits the Nation benefits us all.

Will we all be able to moderate each others posts on the new forum...? :devil:
 

Duvi

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Jan 1, 2011
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Thanks Kev. I'll say it again on CB.

Had to read this in parts! Lmfao. That might be the first book I've ever read... ha!
 

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