Dealing with an Unhappy Community

What happens when your community pushes back?

Most of us deal with the “community” in our jobs on some level or another. Perhaps we are an engineer on a product that has a community of users, or work for a company that has a community of customers, or, perhaps, are in a position to be part of the public face of a company, product or service who is tasked with communicating with the community as part of your job duties.

Recently, I wrote an article about a bit of a dust up in the AngularJS community about the plans for Angular 2.0 and it got me thinking about how we deal with the community - specifically when there is a widespread community backlash.

We’re Not Talking About Trolls

There’s a big difference between trolls, whose complaints are almost always singular in nature (and agressive in tone). In my experience, trolls complain alone and specifically target an issue that is very specific to them. In this case, I’m talking about a decision that caused widespread unhappiness in your customer base or users and is being expressed, sometimes angrily but rarely aggressively, by a large swath of your community.

I Have Some Experience in This

I’ve been on both sides of community backlashes. Professionally, I was the Flash and Flex community manager at Adobe around the time of the infamous “Thoughts on Flash” essay by Steve Jobs. At the time and understandably, any actions Adobe took around Flash and Flex were heavily scrutinized. I was still a public face for the products (even if I had technically just been reorged) around the time that Adobe decided to end of life…errr…open source Flex. As you can imagine, I caught a fair share of flak.

Nonetheless, I think it taught me a lot of great lessons that I’ve carried into my positions since, both for and after Adobe.

The Different Kinds of Decisions that Cause Backlash

In my experience there are three core types of decisions (by a product team, company, open source project, etc.) that can often lead to a backlash. The first two are relatively easy to handle.

Necessary Decisions

Let’s face it - sometimes there are decisions that you, your company, or your product team may make that simply have to be made, but will, nonetheless, make your community unhappy. Sometimes, you, personally, don’t even like the decision. However, there’s a big difference betwen liking a decision and understanding and supporting why it was made.

To me this is easy to handle as your options are very limited. You can and should be understanding of your communities right to be upset about the decision. You can communicate why the decision was necessary and, if applicable, explain that you aren’t happy either, even if you support its necessity.

The last thing you can do in this case is simply develop a thick skin. You’re gonna get some lumps and that’s ok. Keep in mind that these things pass and often seem much worse in the moment than they do in retrospect.

Poorly Communicated Decisions

Sometimes it isn’t really what changed that upset your community but how you, your company or others communicated that decision to them. In my experience, sometimes companies spend so much time wordsmithing their communications that they remove all humanity from them - they sound like they are coming from a committee who is more concerned with protecting the company than with the impact of decisions on their customers. This (and other things) can lead to communicating a the impact of a change poorly.

In this case, I also think the response is simple, if not easy, which is to clear up the miscommunication (and soften any hard feelings it may have caused). For instance, you could draft a clear and personal message expressing concern for the misunderstanding and clarifying the impact. Make this the opposite of the company-type PR response - make sure they understand that you are a part of that community and care personally about it.

Of course, if you can smooth some hurt feelings with free stuff of some sort, that always helps too.

“Best Intention” Decisions

What the heck do I mean by this? Well, this is kind of where AngularJS was. Sometimes decisions are made that impact our customers, users, or whatever that are made with the best intentions, but, in the end, we misread the needs of our customers/users/etc. It wasn’t that we miscommunicated. They understood - they just didn’t like what they heard.

You may think these would actually be the easiest decisions to deal with - simply walk back the choice that made them unhappy. However, assuming this is the best response isn’t correct.

Sometimes, as it turns out, the decision you made is the right decision for the future of the product, service, company, etc. This can get lost in the fog of loud and unhappy users. However, if you let the dust settle, it turns out that it wasn’t as big a deal as it sounded and the “mob” seemed much larger because it was loud.

Sometimes, the decision was in the right direction, but it’s now up to you to translate your customer anger into adjustments to the choice (this appears to be what AngularJS is doing by the way). You were headed down the right path, you just went a little too far or veered slightly off course. Now you just need to take a few steps back or to the right/left, and your community will be happy again.

Sometimes, the decision was a poor one made with the best of intentions and should, in fact, be walked back entirely.

The point is, there are many options to choose from in this case, and knowing which is the right one isn’t always easy when you are receiving a barrage of unhappy tweets, blog posts, comments and more coming your way.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Assume Your Community Is Wrong

Here’s the thing to recognize - in none of these cases is the community wrong. Remember, these aren’t trolls - they are community members we care about with a legitimate complaint. In case 1, they have every right to be unhappy even if there’s little we can do about it. In case 2, we communicated poorly and this led to them being unhappy. In case 3, we probably just need to adjust a little - even if the reaction may have seemed overly harsh. The single biggest mistake you can make in any of these cases is thinking you are somehow better or more enlightened than your commmunity and plowing ahead with your decisions accordingly.

I’d love to hear thoughts.