Building communities is about giving away the power

Interview with Carrie Melissa Jones

Communities have become essential to businesses. Startups build them. Brands build them. Hundreds of millions of people partake in them. At Estimote, we’re proud to have a 70,000+ strong community of developers working and playing with our products.

That said, community remains one of the most arcane elements of running a business. Many people talk about it, but few understand it as well as Carrie Melissa Jones. She’s the Founding Partner of CMX: world’s largest network of community professionals and organizer of CMX Summit conferences. Before that, she helped build communities for companies like Chegg, CloudPeeps, and Coursera. We sat down to talk about how to build a successful community and how even legacy brands like Harley Davidson can thrive thanks to communities. Enjoy!

Carrie Melissa Jones

Wojtek Borowicz: I often struggle with explaining to people what I do as a community manager. How do you do that?

Carrie Melissa Jones: This is a huge problem at many companies. We’ve started doing workshops with various companies and a lot of them don’t have any alignment on what the answer is. If you have a team of community managers or even just one person who doesn’t know what they’re doing or how to describe what they’re doing, it means that they don’t know their value and won’t be able to focus or work effectively with others on the team.

We’ve distilled it down into a pretty easy definition. A community manager for a business creates content and programming that brings people together, whether they’re prospects or existing customers, in order to fuel a clear business goal.

So if even community managers often don’t know what they’re doing, do businesses know why they build communities?

They’re starting to understand, but a lot of them need help carving out why they’re really doing this. Community has become a buzzword and everyone thinks oh, I should build a community. That’s not necessarily true. You might not be prepared for it. But if you are building a community, you need to do that legwork to define the reason. Otherwise, anyone you hire into that role will be confused.

So not every business should build a community around their products?

That’s something that came up at the last CMX Summit. At any point in a business’s life cycle, community could create value, whether it’s a support community or a developer community, or a community of ambassadors. There’s always something that community could do to provide value for a business. But not every business should build a community because not every business is set up to put community at the core and build trust with customers and prospects in a sustainable way.

There’s still a lot of higher-ups that think it’s all top-down and you tell the community what to do. You don’t.

Is it more a case of the stage a company is in, their product, or a specific mindset that makes them not ready to start a community?

Mindset is the main problem. Wherever you’re at and whatever you’re building, community can always serve some purpose in your business. Even if you’re a solo consultant, you can build a community of other consultants or a community of your clients who can help each other out. There’s always something.

At CMX, you seem more focused on startups. Is it this mindset that makes them a more fertile ground for community building than legacy brands?

A big part of it is that legacy brands are not in a place where they can be transparent. They are not able to sit with us on an interview and say we did this and here are the results. Startups are more responsive to change. They’re more poised to understand the mindset, they often exist within their own local ecosystems and, so community-building comes naturally for them.

But big brands are also investing in community. A friend at Google once told me that, for them, community is not a competitive advantage, it’s competitive necessity. Giant semiconductor companies build communities of vendors and suppliers, developer communities are becoming a huge thing not only in startups but in long-standing companies like Microsoft and Facebook as well.

You’ve mentioned lack of transparency as something that might be holding large companies back from community. Is it impossible to build a community without transparency?

Transparency also has become of buzzword. Building a community does not require that you tell everything to everyone. It’s about trust. There are other ways to build trust, like continuously delivering on your promises or listening more than you talk. It’s just that transparency is the lowest-hanging fruit. It’s like when I open up and share part of my story first, that opens you up to sharing back with me.

Another thing you touched upon is the emergence of developer communities. Brands like Google and Microsoft do that but there are also a lot of other companies from Twilio to SendGrid to Docker. We do that at Estimote, too. Why is it such a common strategy among deeply technical companies?

The entire way software is sold is completely different from the way it was in the 70’s, 80’s, or 90’s. I read a piece in VentureBeat that said over 70% of world’s companies are built on open source software and open source software grows up from the developers on the ground and then gets sold up through the VPs. You need those developers on the ground to play around with your product, to build things with APIs, to see what’s possible and build a relationship. Then the developers can say this is the product we need to use if we’re going to adopt this technology because I’ve interfaced with three of their evangelists, they really care about us and this is the right choice for us.

The sales models for developer-centric products have shifted completely from the top to the power being distributed among the people lower in the management “hierarchy”.

Is a dedicated fanbase the same as community? Companies like Harley Davidson and Apple have a cult following, but are these followers a community?

A lot of sports fans and Apple fans will disagree with me, but I say staunchly no. I think about it as theater sitting versus a round table, people staring at the brand versus people interfacing with each other.

So it’s audience versus community?

Yeah, and these two are not the same. Apple and Harley Davidson have actually built communities, it’s just that not all of their fans are a community. My dad is a member of a Harley Davidson club in San Francisco and, at least once a week with other members, he goes on a joint ride. Harley Davidson even started these H.O.G groups and those are definitely communities. They’ve given the power away completely to local chapters and stores. They know the community is going to carry on the message and live the lifestyle they’re selling.

That’s good news for legacy companies then, if they can use the power of their brands as a driver for community.

It is good news, and it’s really about giving away the power. That’s something any company can do.

Harley’s sales tanked in the 80’s, and when they launched those groups and communities, they took off again. They’ve regained a lot of their market share and reached a younger audience even though they were afraid their brand was going to die off with a certain generation.

Actually, not a Harley. Photo: Sven van Bellen

But is it even possible to create a community that doesn’t feel fake? Isn’t that something that should grow organically, from the customers?

It’s definitely possible. You need a strong foundation and you certainly cannot do that by saying here’s a platform, now use it. It’s about first getting your goals straight. What do you, as a business, want to accomplish with this community?

But you also shouldn’t be talking with prospective members with that in mind, but rather be very flexible about what people want, what are their pain points, where they feel isolated: that’s the best ground for community building. Then build something based on that. Don’t come up with a solution and say okay, you got a problem we got a solution for you. Cola-Cola once launched a community like that, but no one used it because why would they join? To talk about Coca-Cola products?

What about the dangers of community building? What should a business do if ideological warfare becomes part of their brand engagement? Take Intel for example: they would later switch their stance, but their initial reaction to gamergate was to pull ads from Gamasutra.

The worst thing you can possibly do is to remain silent and unresponsive.

What about don’t feed the troll?

Don’t feed the troll, but you also need to define your vision, mission, and values before you start a community. Had Intel had clear values to call on and say we don’t support people harassing each other, we support equality, it would have ended immediately and their PR issues wouldn’t have gotten out of hand.

Values you create need to be the core of every decision you make as a community builder. This can be true from a moderation standpoint all the way to what ads you allow on your community platform. Once you make those values crystal clear, it becomes very easy to take a stance.

Which companies are doing the best work in the community field right now?

Lately I’ve been looking for inspiration outside brands. I’ve been looking at social movements like #BlackLivesMatter and all the ones that splintered off of Occupy Wall Street. Branded communities could learn a lot from how those movements grew and distributed themselves.

Photo by K. Kendall

A while ago I would have said AirBnB, but they haven’t really managed to scale their vision and values as they’ve grown. Slack is doing an amazing job with how mission-oriented they are and the programs they create to fuel that mission. Every team at Google has their own community top contributor program and Google is doing incredible things with these programs. SendGrid has launched a great mentorship program for founders to get help in email marketing.

I don’t have data to back it up, but from my observations, community teams are among the most diverse in tech. Is it just the case of a more diverse talent pool to begin with, or something else?

I agree, it actually is one of the most diverse professions in tech, but we still have a long way to go. Community is all about what gifts can everyone bring to the table and understanding that everyone has value and a contribution to make. And a lot of cultures outside the western world have looked at communities like that forever. Western culture has gone very much into rugged individualism. You know, VR, AI, how can we be more into our screens? For other cultures, all of that technology is not really a precipice of what we can create together.

There’s a lot more we can do in terms of looking outside tech for inspiration. We can look at local communities and bring in a lot more diversity.

Make sure to recommend this post if you liked it! And follow Estimote channel for more interviews in the coming weeks.