Just ask

I’ve always loved this song, “Joan of Arc,” by the now defunct Actionslacks. It’s a cute little pop song about possibly unrequited love (do we listen to pop music because were miserable, or are we miserable because we listen to pop music?), and it’s got this seemingly obvious line: “The answer’s ‘no’ until you ask.”

When I first heard that, as a high school student, I was like: whoa. Probably because the two possible reactions I was capable of in high school were: "whoa" and rolling my eyes.

Still: “the answers ‘no’ until you ask.” And it’s true, right? One of my mottos as a community manager is: just ask. It’s easy to make assumptions about what the people who are using our websites will or won’t want, what they’ll use, how they’ll react to change. If you’re reading this, you know that you are not your typical user. But how often do we act on that?

A few years ago, I was asked to organize the first in-person meetup for GHDonline, where I work as an online community manager. We’d never hosted an official event for our members to meet one another in person before. As a community for health care professionals working around the world to share and discuss best practices, many of our members aren’t local, and we assumed they’d be too busy, or uninterested in meeting people outside their particular specialty areas.

We also worried that hosting an event in Boston, when so many members live and work internationally, would be seen as insensitive or tone-deaf to the reality of their day to day lives and obligations.

So, when we announced the event, we acknowledged that and asked folks to let us know if they'd be interested attending something similar in their region. The results were surprising: 50 or 60 people wrote in to say they wanted to attend a meetup in their community, and a number of people offered to help host or organize events in the future.

As I was reviewing these responses, I realized I didn’t recognize many of the people writing in. In a community of several thousand, I don’t know every member’s name, but I tend to remember the people who contribute regularly. I started to search our site, and realized that about half of the people who responded had never posted or publicly engaged in our communities before. Still, when asked if they’d meet other members face-to-face, many of them raised their hands.

We would never have known this if we hadn’t asked—wouldn’t have held the first meetup here in Boston, or organized another event that year in Delhi. We also wouldn’t have known that folks with a seemingly tenuous connection to our community actually identified with it quite strongly.

I’ve seen countless examples of this during my years as a community manager, but I’m still surprised by how often we, as an industry, skip this step.

Uncertain if someone will want to participate in your event? Ask.
Not sure how members will respond to a new feature? Ask.
Wondering what will happen if you change your terms of service? Ask.
Worried a new business model might go over poorly? Ask.

Ask ask ask. The worst that can happen is someone says no. Or they tell you they think your idea is a bad one, before you push it out to the world. Basically, the worst thing that happens is you hear something you didn’t want to hear. Which, well, welcome to the internet, I guess?

You’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear no matter what, so better to ask now than be surprised later.

Some of you are probably thinking, “But Steve Jobs! Henry Ford!” Which, sure, I guess. That faster horse line is a good one. Think of it like Pascal’s wager, but for making websites: maybe you are the second coming of one of those men, but if you’re not, wouldn’t it be nice to know what your users think before they start screaming it at you on Twitter?

There are, of course, a few caveats to this mantra:

Caveat the first: Do not ask people for feedback if you’re just looking for a rubber stamp on something. If you can’t, or won’t, make changes to a site, feature, product, whatever, it’s a waste of everyone’s time to ask someone what they think.

Try not to find yourself in this position. Ask before it’s too late not to.

Caveat the second: Ask people you trust to tell you the truth, and who can bring some perspective to the table that you don’t have.

Caveat the third: Sometimes, what you need to ask is: “What can l do for you?”

One of the few things I’ve found to be universally true in my time working on the web is that people on the internet will never cease to surprise you. Sometimes that’s a good thing. So remember, the answer’s no until you ask. The answers may surprise you.

This post originally appeared on The Pastry Box Project.