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Empathy at Scale

How community leaders can build trust in times of crisis.

Patrick Woods

March 30, 2020

These certainly are interesting times we find ourselves in and now more than ever we will continue to support our community with business continuity

I bet you’ve gotten dozens of emails exactly like that over the past few weeks. They’re usually “From: CompanyName” and signed “Sincerely, CompanyName Team.”

Some of my favorite hits include:

We can assure you that, while it’s too early to tell what the full impact of the coronavirus will be, we are committed to serving you.
A moment like this is a reminder about how we all need to band together to overcome challenges and complexities.
We're committed to proactively communicating with you if we anticipate any impact to our ability to serve you.

I’d ask if any of these sound familiar, but have you actually read beyond the subject line of any of these emails? If so, have any of them made you feel better, safer, or more confident? Have they made you feel anything other than annoyed?

With so little differentation and specificity in their messaging, it makes you wonder why companies feel the need to say anything at all.

On the other hand, in a time of crisis and panic, shouldn’t companies have a message for their constituents?

Companies can’t show empathy, but people can.

As I've experienced the first few weeks of COVID-19 shock, I’ve grappled with these questions myself. I kept asking myself, "Why would anyone want to hear from Orbit in a time like this?" And I realized, they probably don’t want to hear from Orbit, but it might be nice to get a note from Dustin, Josh, or Patrick.

In the coming months, community members will rely on each other to stay healthy and grounded as we navigate the unknown, and companies should look to community and customer-facing teams to introduce empathy into their processes and communications.

Empathy starts with listening

On listening with empathy, Stephen Covey says:

“We are naturally inclined to ... want to be understood first. Many do not even listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They either speak, or they are ready to speak.

Our conversations become collective monologues. We never really understand what is happening inside another human being.”

One reason mass communications can seem unhelpful is because companies, with so many constituencies, can really only speak to the lowest common denominator, like “users” or “website registrants.”

As a result, our inboxes overflow with the collective monologue from the companies talking at us rather than messages from people talking with us.

There’s no way an email blast can account for Sallie in Stockholm whose mom is sick or Paul in Pittsburgh who just got laid off.

DevRels and community managers, though, can demonstrate empathy through their closer and more nuanced relationship with individual members and smaller groups within the larger community.

Though most community teams are small, and can't reach as many people as a single email blast can, here's the thing: email blasts are one-to-many, but community folks can scale their one-on-one empathy by taking advantage of the one-to-few-to-many nature of online communities.

To get started, here are a few ways to show empathy to the folks in your community.

One-on-one conversations

Set up one-on-one conversations with your inner circle, or your Orbit 1 Ambassadors in Orbit Model parlance. Invite them to share their thoughts and concerns, whether about your company, their jobs, or whatever is on their mind. You can’t solve all their problems, but you can at least learn what your people are experiencing and show that you personally care.

Conversations on Slack

Second, check in on Slack (or your preferred channel) with your extended network of acquaintances, or your Fans. You might not know them as personally as your ambassadors, so chat is a good medium to start with.  If they want to share more, invite them to join a call.

Host a community Zoom

You might also try hosting a Zoom meeting for certain members of the community to share some facetime. We’ve seen this work in the form of office hours, happy hours, and even long-running “meetings” that last the entire day. These serve as a space to hang with some humans who share at least a little something in common.

👉 Check out this thread about safety in large Zoom calls.

You can use these sessions to listen and learn, to share ideas and get quick feedback, or just to hangout and have fun.

Give demos and get feedback

Developers are careful with their time and can be hard to convince to jump on a call. But during these unusual circumstances, people generally seem more willing than ever to chat. This can be a good opportunity to demo new features or get feedback from key users of your technology.

👉 Check out our post When and How to Offer 1:1 Onboarding to Developers for ideas.

Finally, you may not be able to offer 1:1 time with every community member, but as you spend time with your inner orbits, try to equip ambassadors and fans with empathetic communication principles to model listening in their own spheres of influence, which includes parts of your community, other communities, or even within their companies.

And that’s how empathy scales: not through broadcast emails—no one's going to forward those corporate email blasts crowding our inboxes—but through empathetic people situated at central nodes in networks who model empathetic behaviors, like listening.

In this way, thoughtful community leaders can influence the posture and tone of conversations far beyond their 1:1 interactions, unlocking the true potential of the 1:few:many foundation most communities are built on.

Let’s get through this together

One-off email blasts might check a box for the communications team, but customer- and community-facing teams have the highest potential to help as the initial shockwave of COVID-19 dissipates and evolves to feelings like denial, anger, and depression, which are likely to occur before we all acclimate to our new reality.

And you know what? You don’t need a crisis to practice empathy at scale. The tools and methods you put in place now can benefit your community and companies for years to come.

Sincerely,

Patrick


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Why Orbit is Better Than Funnel for Developer Relations
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Slack vs Discord vs Discourse: The best tool for your community
An in-depth comparison of 3 top community platforms across dozens of factors.
How we use Orbit to build Orbit
A guide to how we use our product to build our community.

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