Instant Convention: Add Geeks, Stir

Valley kingpins reach out to online community managers | “Superfans can make or break your sales”

Arianne Cohen

Roughly 4,000 tech developers, engineers, and entrepreneurs converged at a convention center in Portland, Ore., on July 22 for OsCon, the annual open-source coding convention, which featured more than 350 sessions over five days, at a cost of $1,395. “Earthling Eatery” snacks like Martian Macaroni and Planet Polenta were served, and yoga was also available.

While OsCon was setting up, an even odder tech convention was happening just down the hall. Now in its fifth year, the Community Leadership Summit is the only U.S. gathering of tech-company community managers and others who spend their days thinking about cultivating online groups. The meeting is free, and there are no preplanned speakers or panel discussions. There’s also no staff, food, vendors, or logos.

“Think of an idea, the crazier the better,” CLS founder and Ubuntu community manager Jono Bacon told the crowd of 300. Participants were handed Sharpies and index cards, and 20 minutes later produced a discussion schedule featuring experts from the likes of Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard.

Topics included “Epic Fails in Community Management,” “Feminist Maker Spaces,” and “How to Take Vacations.”

CLS feels like a love child of the Mozilla/Linux open-source culture and IFC’s series Portlandia, but established companies including Google, Microsoft, and Adobe sponsor and send representatives to the event. Microsoft sponsored the projectors and sound system, while Adobe paid for $1,000 worth of CLS T-shirts. “I think folks from those companies need the summit more than anyone,” says attendee Ross Turk, vice president of community for enterprise-services company Inktank. For big companies to effectively communicate with the kind of users who can make their products better, he says, community managers “need to do a lot of translating in both directions.”

Most top tech companies now hire community managers to attract techie superfans who can spread the word about products, answer customer questions, find bugs, and even build related apps. “Superfans can make or break your sales, so it’s important to make sure they’re supported properly,” says CLS attendee Rachel Luxemburg, Adobe’s principal strategist for community and social media. “There’s a direct relationship between them and the bottom line.”

While tech giants often dip heavily into open-source code bases, they typically forbid employees from contributing their own improvements to publicly developed code. Conservative in-house counsel and executives worried about keeping company secrets tend to ignore the difference between sharing the code that fixes bugs and their truly valuable intellectual property, says James Falkner, community manager for open-source Web portal maker Liferay, who ran one of several sessions on the topic. “I see it over and over again. Companies have a difficult time thinking long-term,” says Inktank’s Turk. “They say, ‘How will releasing this affect next quarter’s revenue,’ not ‘By releasing this, we’ll create huge demand for our platform five years from now, because we’ve made it open.’”

CLS’s larger sponsors are sensitive to the critique, and the event offers them a chance to learn from attendees. “At my first summit, I had someone walk up to me and say, ‘You’re from Adobe? F--- you!’ He was pissed about our lack of better Linux support,” Luxemburg says, adding that the company has since become more open-source-friendly.

The summit’s no-schedule schedule provided a primer in efficiently tapping community talent: Wide-ranging discussions followed a five-minute talk from the person who proposed each subject. Chairs were arranged in circles. “It’s really interesting to watch,” Turk says. “The content just kind of shows up. It’s different, but if you look at how communities work, the most successful happenings are always grass-roots and led by participants.”

The bottom line An improvised conference in Portland, Ore., draws companies looking to connect with influential online communities.

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