3 Essential Community Management Tips from Microsoft’s Dona Sarkar

In this second post of our two-part interview with Dona Sarkar, leader of the Windows Insider program, she unpacks several community management tips for beta program executives, product managers, and other people responsible for Customer Validation.

While your community may not be at the scope and scale of Dona’s program at Microsoft (and not many are, given the approximate 17 million users currently enrolled in the Windows Insider program), the wisdom she shares is relevant to beta programs of all shapes and sizes.

Managing a large distributed beta team can be a nightmare. What types of tools and workflows do you use to stay on top of everything?

Dona: Since our program is completely open and public, we mainly engage with our Insiders through Twitter. It’s an informal way to broadcast on a large scale and immediately engage. If something has gone wrong after we’ve rolled out a build, we’ll typically hear about it on Twitter before anywhere else.

Aside from Twitter, we’ve built a set of in-house tools to track participation, feedback, and the progress of our work. With every build we push, whether it’s in production or pre-production, our users have the ability to submit feedback directly within the application.

We also have private cohort communications using our own Microsoft Teams product. This allows us to set up private teams for very specific workflows — for example, hardcore users who want to be involved with accessibility features or to-do list features, or Cortana voice feature users.

Besides the right tools, what is your advice to the people behind the community management strategy and execution?

Dona: On the internal side, assign clear roles and responsibilities within your beta team. Set cadences and communicate those cadences clearly to the team. It’s important to establish who is creating the new build announcement and when, who’s in charge of deploying the build, and who owns the first level of troubleshooting once the build goes live.

Microsoft’s Dona Sarkar on Co-Creation and Leading a Thriving Beta Program

We want to take Insiders on a journey from being experts in Windows to being experts in productivity — whatever they do.

On the external side, a big part of community management is maintaining high engagement. Communication is a two-way street. Find out what your testers’ favorite and least favorite features are. For specific features, follow up on the information they need from your engineers.

I also recommend in-person events. Aside from engaging people online, meeting them in person is incredibly powerful. Solidifying that two-way communication leads us to build these deeper relationships, where Insiders become like our family.

A solid foundation and the right tools, check. Are there other secrets to maintaining a thriving beta community?

Dona: One secret to running a beta community is understanding that it’s like a relationship. Like any good relationship, you need to fulfill your commitment to your beta community. This means making sure they feel valued and appreciated for the work that they do.

Instead of stopping at a purely transactional level, the team and I are always asking ourselves what more we can do. How can we give our Insiders more behind-the-scenes info on how we build things? Monthly webcasts and podcasts, for example.

We also care deeply about lifelong learning. This lines up well with our Insiders, who are incredibly passionate, curious, and highly technical. We want to give them ample opportunities to curate and grow their skills so they can be leaders in the next decade. So we make sure there’s plenty of resources to learn about cloud, AI, and machine learning.

We want to take Insiders on a journey from being experts in Windows to being experts in productivity — whatever they do. Our passion is to ensure Insiders are at the forefront of technology. We’re not just preparing them for today, but for 10 years from now.

And finally, what are your tips for beta program managers and leaders?

Dona: As leaders, it’s impossible to stay on top of every detail. That’s where the roles and responsibilities come into play. You want team members that you can trust to take ownership.

One way to reinforce this is by creating metrics and SLAs, and holding your team members to them. For example, we have a 24-hour response time for Twitter-related inquiries. To help with that, we roll out our new builds on Wednesday mornings. This helps us capture the majority of high-priority issues before the weekend hits.

This kind of work isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle. If you don’t believe in our mission, you’re not going to like this work because it’s 24/7/365 — there’s no pause on engaging with Insiders.

Last but not least, build the right internal team. Passion for the mission is mission-critical. This kind of work isn’t just a job, it’s a lifestyle. That’s why we are very picky about who we hire onto our team. If you don’t believe in our mission, you’re not going to like this work because it’s 24/7/365 — there’s no pause on engaging with Insiders.

For me and my team, we would still be doing this even if it wasn’t our job. Believing in your mission, evangelizing your mission, and upholding your mission is of utmost importance as a leader.

How can we stay up to date with upcoming activities and talks you’re delivering?

Dona: Feel free to connect with me on Twitter. And of course, I’m also available on LinkedIn.

Thank you so much, Dona. This experience has been both enlightening and incredibly fun.

Whether your community is 1,700 users or 17 million, the work of maintaining a thriving community is never done. Want more tips for community management? Check out the practical tips and best practices in this on-demand webinar from Betabound Director Brad Day.

Smart Strategies for Building a Relevant and Engaged Tester Community

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