April 17, 2012

Building Communities Effectively

  • A recent entry into Instagram’s weekend hashtag contest #vacantplaces

One of the hottest jobs today is the Community Manager position. With the growth of social media in the last decade, more and more companies are realizing they need to have open relationships with their customers and fans.

Enter the Community Manager.



There’s an inherent problem for most companies hiring a Community Manager — they’re hiring someone to tweet, pin, like, and comment, but the hiring manager rarely understands the value, strategy, or tactics in the job they’re hiring for.

Worse yet, there’s a line around the block of seemingly qualified candidates — folks with resumes touting their writing skills, personal skills, and Klout scores (bonus points if you only include a Twitter handle as contact info).

What to do? How do you cull through all these exceptional folks to find someone who would be good at something you don’t understand?

There’s no easy answer, but I’d like to offer what I see in quality Community Managers.

1. Embodies the spirit of the company

This is crucial beyond all else. Social media channels change. Methods of communicating change. Situations requiring many different types of communication come up constantly. You want someone who will communicate publicly every few minutes, so they need to embody the values and spirit of the company.

Traditional PR has a microphone and podium to hide behind. The Community Manager is on the street talking to people on their level. There’s nowhere for them to hide behind rhetoric.

There is also no way to coach this later. You cannot hire a Community Manager based on their skills and hope to educate them about the values of the company. It has to be so baked into their nature that every statement out of their mouth could sound like it’s coming from your company — to many people in the community, it is.

2. Is a member of the community themselves

The concept of dogfooding your own product/service is crucial to a Community Manager. They need to be able to relate to the challenges the folks they’re talking to face. Empathy is key.

Eventbrite, Yelp, and many others have some form of local community managers. Eventbrite’s Evangelists throw events about once a week, always using Eventbrite for ticketing. They also attend 3-10 additional events per week, and are in constant communication with their local organizers.

Jess Zollman (@jayzombie) of Instagram is another incredible example — she is an avid photographer herself, and posts some of the best pictures on Instagram.

Perhaps more importantly, she understands that great photography of everyday life often requires an impetus of something to look for. Thus, she created Weekend Hashtag Contests, where the community is encouraged to take photographs that fit a given theme (eg - #soloparking, #twoofakind, or this past weekend’s #vacantplaces) in the hopes of appearing on the Instagram blog.

I have no idea on the traffic to their blog, but I’m sure the reward for winning is tiny in comparison to the reward for being part of the community that are all contributing our interpretations of the theme. If Jess wasn’t part of the community herself, she might not understand how to engage us that deeply with such a small explicit reward.

3. Doesn’t suck at communicating

I put this third and worded it that way on purpose. Communication skills are often the first thing people look for in a Community Manager, but they’re amongst the least important on their own. If a candidate has #1 and #2 nailed, they just need to not suck to get salient points across to their peers in the community.

A Community Manager is not just a blog editor. They don’t need to be novelists in their spare time. They don’t need to give TED talk style presentations. They just need to be able to communicate to one or more people on a personal level about the company or related topics.


So who am I to talk about this stuff? Why does a product guy care?

Because I’ve seen the value of community building first-hand. I did some time as a Community Manager (without the title) at Topspin. We had a product that wasn’t ready for mainstream use, but hundreds of people clamoring to use it based on the vision alone. When I joined Topspin, I was asked to send everyone who inquired via email a polite note declining their access. I evolved this note to send them to valuable related resources.

A few weeks into doing that, I realized it was silly to push our biggest advocates away, and created the Green Room — an email listserve where folks could discuss topics related to being a DIY musician (eg - without a major label). We had hundreds of people sign up immediately, and were up to nearly 1000 when I left. We averaged 4.5 new posts per day, with most of the posts coming from the community themselves (we would seed ideas or share results of some of our marketing experiments, too).

When we were able to open our platform to more users, the Green Room was our first source of customers. We had built a community and positioned ourselves as thought leaders in that community, even without a product, when the default behavior would have been saying “no” and pushing them elsewhere, and had done so by following those three guidelines above. 


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