Learn the Secrets of Online Community Management from Moz’s Erica McGillivray

Elisa Gabbert
Last Updated: November 22, 2021 | Marketing Ideas
HomeBlogLearn the Secrets of Online Community Management from Moz’s Erica McGillivray
Erica McGillivray

Today I’m happy to share an interview I did over email with Erica McGillivray. Erica is a die-hard geek who spends a ridiculous amount of time being nerdy (her words, not mine!), both professionally and personally. At Moz, she’s the senior community manager and helps wrangle a community of over 400,000 members, co-runs the annual MozCon conference, and works on whatever else is thrown her way. She’s also a founder of GeekGirlCon, a nonprofit run by volunteers that celebrates and supports geeky women with events and conventions. In her spare time, Erica’s a published author and has a comic book collection that’s an earthquake hazard.

We’re all secretly jealous of the community that Moz has built over the years. Let’s hear from Erica how they did it.

[MORE: How to Be a Data Scientist: An Interview with Moz’s Dr. Pete Meyers]

We’re so impressed with the online community management you do on the Moz blog as well as with YouMoz. Can you share some tips for nurturing a community of blog commenters and encouraging engagement?

At Moz, we have kind of the opposite story compared to most businesses that blog: we blogged first, and then we created our software business. When Rand Fishkin, our founder, started the blog, he did so to write about his experiences and experiments in this brand-new field of SEO and what he’d seen happen to his clients’ sites. At the time, most SEO was a “secret” trade, and Rand transparently blogging about it did two things: 1) engaged community members who wanted to share and 2) set a tone of transparency and promoting best practices, not quick cheats or exploitation of search engine loopholes. When community building, it’s important to attract the right people, but also have a rallying point for the community. We definitely drew a line in the sand. Not every SEO fit in our community, and that’s still true today.

We also, especially with the size of community we have, believe in moderation of our comments and having a community etiquette guide. We believe that our comments are a reflection of our brand, and we love that people know Moz is one of the few blogs where it’s worthwhile to read the comments. Because SEO’s in our roots, we have some specific rules against posting promotion links. We also clean up any ad hominem attacks and directly contact and have conversations with users being problematic. We also sort our comments based on their “thumbs up,” hoping to show the most relevant and discussion-based comments first, instead of just the “thank you for this post” type. But most importantly, we encourage and prompt all our blog authors to respond to and interact with comments.

community management

Community gardens in Park Slope, via Ethan Oringel

It’s probably worth saying that a lot of this was done by magical accident. Rand and others who helped shaped the early years of the community were talking about the things that interested them and continuing the conversation to learn more. There wasn’t any behind-the-scenes big community-building plan. And those first blog posts for several years, had a few comments here and there, but weren’t as engaged with as our current posts. It was overtime that we developed more of a strategy and a thoughtful approach to content and community building and growing a team to do it.

Here’s my really distilled version of the above:

  • Find what you’re passionate about in your industry.
  • Take some stance that fits the “why” of your brand and defines who your audience is and who they aren’t.
  • Write about it. Our own Dr. Pete Meyers argues to go with your best idea first.
  • Be active, not just on your own site, but also on other community sites.
  • Have community standards and be responsible for responding to and moderating comments on your blog.
  • Promote it and be patient.

How did you build such a robust system for user-generated content? How do “MozPoints” work?

Our user-generated blog YouMoz was a natural extension of those great comments and discussions in our early posts. We realized that the more we shared, the more our community wanted to share their own stories. And sometimes, it was much longer than just a blog comment.

We are incredibly picky about the content that goes on YouMoz, especially since the addition of Keri Morgret, our on-site community manager and current head YouMoz wrangler. We want the content and also the love that the posts get to be as high in quality as our main blog. The “highest honor” a YouMoz post can get is to be promoted to the main blog because it was just that great. Most authors have at least a round of edits with our editing team.

We’ve also seen amazing community members come out of YouMoz, even if their first posts didn’t do so well or even was declined for publication. For instance, Gianluca Fiorelli – an amazing SEO, strong community member, and Moz Associate – didn’t have the best response to his first post. It had a lot of thumbs down, and people didn’t respond well to both the topic and the metaphor he used. But Gianluca didn’t toss in the towel; he posted again and his next post helped make him as well-known as he is today in the community.

Another great example is Casey Henry. When he was starting out in SEO, Casey submitted a YouMoz post, which we declined. But like Gianluca, Casey didn’t give up. He worked to get better and submitted again. Not only was Casey published, but he went on to be hired to the marketing team here at Moz, then lead our frontend engineer team, and now is getting back to his marketing roots working at Wistia.

MozPoints are the gamification on our site to encourage further engagement. You can get MozPoints for filling out your Moz profile; posting a blog post; commenting on a post; asking or answering a question in our Q&A forum; getting thumbs up for your post/comments/Q&A answers and questions; and getting an endorsement from a staff member or being marked as a ‘good answer’ by the question asker on your Q&A answer. Conversely, we currently have a thumbs down feature, so if the community doesn’t like what you posted, you can get negative MozPoints or lose them.

We also give rewards to those community members who work hard. Everything from a digital reward of having a link in their profile “followed” to special t-shirts and other Moz swag. We also have a few exceptional community members who’ve reached 5,000 MozPoints – which is super hard to do! – and those members have been offered a free ticket to our annual conference MozCon.

Free MozCon tickets?! That’s super cool. I have a long way to go.

The Moz blog runs on homegrown software. For the rest of us, what are the best options for community-oriented blogging platforms? What about commenting systems?

To be fully transparent, I’m not a technologist, and I can only really speak to my experience in what I’ve used. Moz does indeed run on a homegrown system, which I do not recommend. WordPress is really the best option because of its flexibility, ease-of-use, and that it’s constantly being updated and upgraded. It’s what I use personally and have used with other organizations. Just make sure to use a great SEO plug-in like Yoast.

For commenting systems, I can’t really speak to a specific one that stands out. However, you do want to consider how people comment on your blog and what’s the barrier to that entry. If they have to sign in, are they signing in on some universal platform (Disqus, social log-ins, just a name/email form) or a specific way? One thing that probably lowers some engagement in comments on the Moz blog, but helps us get better comments, is that you have to have a free Moz community profile to comment. This also helps us combat spam. Whatever solution you use, do not ignore comments or auto-approve all comments as this will lead to a mess of spam.

The venerable Matt Cutts once advised search marketers to “Just be awesome.” How do you measure awesomeness? In other words, what kinds of metrics to do you look at when evaluating the effectiveness of your community building efforts, both on the blog/website and on social networks? How do you measure engagement?

You are very correct in that “awesome” is not a metric, and it’s definitely not what your boss or client wants to hear in your report back to them about how your work’s going. For our blogging efforts and our social media efforts, we have three main benchmarks.

  1. For our blogs, we’ve worked through a lot of different types of metrics, and we really believe in a holistic approach to judging if a content piece was great or not. We realized a while ago that a post can have a ton of thumbs, but not a lot of traffic, comments, or social shares. How successful does that make it? Trevor Klein, on our content team, really took this challenge head-on, and he worked with our data scientists to come up with what we call our One Metric. Trevor’s post walks you through all the steps and gives you a spreadsheet to help start you out.
  2. For our social media, we pay attention to two variations of three metrics: engagement (replies/comments), amplification (reshares), and applause (likes/favorites). We look at a time period, say a week on our Twitter account, and take the total number of @replies and then divide it by the number of non-reply posts we made. This gives us our engagement rate, and then we repeat for amplification, applause, and all the social accounts. We also take this and then divide it by 1,000, this gives us our relative engagement rate per 1,000 followers. This number’s important because it shows that as we grow followers, we are continuing to have the same level of conversation with our community. We use a tool called True Social Metrics to do all the calculations for us. For more in-depth on this, our Director of Community Jen Lopez wrote a social metrics post, and I have a presentation slide deck I did on metrics.
  3. Because Moz is a business, for content and social media, we have an overall goal to increase organic traffic to our website. We revisit this goal every quarter, and currently, we’re aiming for a 15-25% increase year-over-year, which we’re working hard to maintain.

In your opinion, which social networks are the best for building community as a business? Is it different for B2B versus B2C companies? What works best for online marketers, and search marketers specifically?

I believe this is more about business niche decisions than if a company is B2B or B2C. Do your audience research and see where the people are. Everyone has to start somewhere. For us, we started with Twitter, and when we got really good at that, we added Facebook, then G+, and have grown from there. We’re lucky now to have a big enough team that we can focus on where we’re large (Twitter and Facebook), medium (G+ and LinkedIn), and small (Pinterest, YouTube, and Instagram), and be able to serve all those audiences. If you’re the only one (or even the only one part-time), focus on where you can get the most traction for your business, get good at it, and then see about expanding your presence to another network.

Do you have specific tips for B2B companies looking to build their online communities? It feels like more of an uphill battle, but maybe I’m just saying that because I work at a B2B!

We definitely see a lot of B2B companies worried that their product isn’t sexy enough for people to be interested in. It’s funny because people always cite us as a great example, but let me tell you how unsexy SEO software is. J You really have to find that passion and say something that matters in your niche.

Also for B2B, it’s great to be aware of when people are going to interact with you – During a reorder? An emergency? On a regular basis? Seasonally? At Moz, we know our community mostly comes to our site during their working hours, when they’re focused on getting metrics from our software, doing research, or just generally educating themselves. We actually just recently started having official “weekend” shifts on social media and for site moderating, because our community’s grown so much, but that took us seven years to build up.

Have you found solutions for tracking and measuring conversions that result from social media, and if so, how do they work?

We don’t track conversions from social media. Not because we don’t think they happen, but for us, our product is extremely niche and traffic from social typically puts people in the top of a sales funnel or often in our content, not our product. Not to mention, except for ads, we rarely sell from our social posts. Instead, it’s all about traffic driving, branding, education, and continuing to nurture our community.

Does Moz actively work to get more followers on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, etc., or does that following grow naturally out of your blog content and tools? Similarly, do you do much content promotion, or does your content promote itself?

For our followers, we’ve had follower goals in the past, such as have more Twitter followers than Rand, but now we really focus on those engagement, amplification, and applause rates instead. We’re more interested in providing great interactions and content than counting numbers. A lot of social media managers get into trouble promising follower growth, which alone is a meaningless metric as you can easily buy followers. Don’t do that!

We definitely promote our content across all our channels. Extra special content and our product itself will get paid ads. We also believe in our content as a team. We won’t promote something we don’t think it up to quality standards. In the past, as a community team, we have pushed back on promoting things that either weren’t ready or where we thought they should be. A hard conversation to have, but we respect our community too much to share something that’s not ready.

How do you handle community trolls and negativity in the comment sections? Do you moderate/delete? Step in and take sides? What about on social media? How do you respond to haters?

As mentioned earlier, we moderate, edit, or delete comments and have conversations with community members who do something against our etiquette and TAGFEE values. While it’s hard sometimes not to take sides – especially on the issue where the too heated debate may have taken place – we try not to interject opinion when it makes that situation worse. You know, there are probably better times to give one’s opinion on content strategy or Google’s latest algo update.

I actually really enjoy responding to a certain type of troll on social media, the “yeah, Moz, whatever” type. Because then I just make a joke and things fizzle out. Especially if they are upset Morrissey fans that think we stole the @Moz Twitter handle or ask us about drugs.

Buzzing Communities

I really believe there are three kinds of haters Moz gets:

1) people who are upset about our product, who we’re empathetic to and work to address their feelings and fix their issue;

2) people who just decide today they are upset with us and those are the ones we either ignore or defuse with a joke; and

3) people who have an issue with us since those very first days of the Moz blog, who we typically ignore or let Rand or another team member personally respond to if necessary.

We really try to not spend too much time on haters, trolls, or spammers. I was recently reading Buzzing Communities by Rich Millington, and he talks about how the more time you spend on haters, trolls, and spammers, the less time you’re spending on quality community engagement and content. It was like this light bulb went off in my head. Yes, you need to combat spam and maintain the quality of your community, but put processes in place (like automating moderation of comments for someone to approve or delete) to help deal with the bad stuff and focus more on the good stuff and increasing that. It’s the only way your community will grow.

I heard Jen Lopez give a talk on community last year, and she talked about the importance of figuring out what makes your community emotional. What are some strategies for tapping into emotion on that level? What gets search marketers emotional?

Write about things that people care about and take a position on them. Say something meaningful because that’s the only way you’ll be able to cut through the noise and reach people’s hearts.

For search marketers, this is every time Google changes their algorithm or really, when anyone on the search team sneezes. 😉 This is definitely one area of content we really excel at now, but it wasn’t always true.

I started working at Moz almost three years ago, and back then, which is like ancient history in terms of search marketing, there would be a Google algo change and everyone would run around pulling out their hair. To quote one of my favorite lines from Ghostbusters: “Human sacrifice! Dogs and cats, living together! Mass hysteria!” People looked to us to have the answer, but we’ve always wanted to respond in a thoughtful manner, which can be hard in the face of breaking news. I could see people getting frustrated because they were confused, upset, and worried about their own sites. And Moz wasn’t answering!

Then stepped in Dr. Pete Meyers, our marketing scientist. He became one of the biggest experts out there on the Google algo. Pete jokes that he became the expert so not every SEO needed to and could worry about our actual work. It’s true. In recent years, Pete’s built MozCast, which proactively checks for changes in the algo and things Google’s testing in SERPs; maintains our Google Algo History; updates our G+ with interesting minor algo changes he finds; and more easily, actively finds insightful commentary on major breaking changes in the algo instead of adding to the noise. Pete helps us give much needed relief and information to our community in their time of need. They trust him to give a measured and thoughtful response. And now we’re able to do it much faster than ever before.

Meet The Author

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream’s Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

See other posts by Elisa Gabbert

the 120 best words and phrases for marketing with emotion guide ad

More Articles Like This


Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

wordstream google ads performance grader

Sign up for our weekly newsletter!

wordstream google ads performance grader