Community is its own discipline

How do departments fit together? Not as simply as this puzzle will lead you to believe.

Since 2006, I have been working in the world of community management.When I began, I was a Community Manager, reporting to a Web Director. I worked at a video game company. They wanted me to build a blog and spin up a forum to create content about our games and talk to the people who were excited about our upcoming titles or actively playing our existing ones.

In 2010, my promotion went through after what can only be described as a ridiculous amount of brainstorming over what to call me. We decided on Senior Manager, Interactive Marketing. That comma, I should note, was very important. Why? No idea.

Being a Senior Manager (comma) Interactive Marketing meant that I ran a team of two Community Managers as well as our off site customer service department. The community managers did the above work as well as a whole host of social media stuff — it was 2010, after all, and Twitter existed. I also created community/fan focused campaigns, both digitally and in real life, like live streams, alternate reality games, and contests.

In 2012, I made the jump to a new video game company (one that specialized in online games, more on this later) as the Director of Community, reporting to a Senior Director of Communications. This meant I ran an even larger team of Community Managers, Coordinators, and even a Community Producer. Given that our games were online, and thusly a 24/7 product, our interaction and dialogue with our player base was much, much more intense. Game outages, game updates, any issues with the player base themselves — that was all our wheelhouse. We got information out to players to get them excited or let them know what was coming. We triaged the bad times. We answered their questions. We rallied for them when they wanted a change. We celebrated when we got the changes; we explained and commiserated when we didn’t. We were the voice of the gamers to the company as well as the voice of the company to the gamers.

In 2014, my boss moved on to new adventures and after being the interim manager of both PR and Community, I officially became the Director of Global Communications. Corporate, brand, and product PR, events, and community all wrapped up into one department, run by me. I reported to the CEO. It was kind of awesome and it was the first time things started to really make sense for me.

A prettier representation of a word cloud.

I knew, back in 2006, it was a little weird that I reported to the Web Director. Sure, I knew my way around some HTML and Javascript and I wrote basic code for the sites I updated, and yeah, my work was almost exclusively online, but I was an English major and I was not really actually making websites (like, actually coding them beyond a smattering of HTML): I was using web technology to do my job. Likewise, when I reported to a PR person, I felt a little weird. I was definitely doing communication work, but my form of communication was far more operational rather than aspirational. And yet, when I took over all of the communication channels, instead of feeling like I was betraying a player base that needed me to be honest with them (a word we, for better or worse, don’t associate with PR folks) things made more sense to me and I felt more equipped to represent gamers, You’d think I’d feel like I’d sold out and become a shill, but I feel the opposite happened.

In 2014, we were far into the process of blending what it meant to be an Official Reporter and a Fan. If you had a following and talked about the shit I got paid for to represent, I wanted to work with you. Were traditional methods of marketing and PR still necessary? Hell yes. But could you launch a game with a press release that read like a casual email. Or could you preview a game with a live stream on a community-based site instead of a glossy pre-rendered (and very expensive) video asset? Yeah, and we did all of that, and it was awesome.

In 2015, I went on to become the Director of Marketing at a mobile app company who wanted to change their image from “the company that makes phone games” into “the company that connects people who want to make and share music through mobile devices.” I ran marketing (everything from product to brand), PR, and Community. In fact, I was first approached to be the VP of Community for this company and, during our talks, we morphed it into the Marketing gig because that made more sense given what they had in place and what they needed to do. I reported to the Chief Product Officer.

I like to think that blue person with the ? over its head is my old CPO.

Like my previous roles, reporting into Product made sense in many ways but not in others. Everything I did lived and died by the product: I pitched it, I helped fix it, I helped steer its course into future greatness. But the CPO wasn’t a marketer, or a PR person, or a community professional, and I certainly was not an engineering, designer, or product manager. This gap in understanding the other’s core expertise caused friction. It also created the most amazing venn diagram I’ll ever make which is, to the day, the most helpful visual aid I can use to prove that Community is its own discipline.

This Venn diagram might be my crowning professional achievement.

This monstrosity came about because my CPO wanted to understand how everything I did was interconnected. I spent a really long time with every Sharpie color I had access to and many sheets of legal paper drawing this thing so that every circle overlapped perfectly with the other disciplines or areas of expertise that they worked with. I then gave it to my absolutely genius Creative Director to turn into the image you see today (because I promise the pen-and-paper version definitely made me look like a lunatic.) Since I ran Marketing, it’s the center circle, but Communications, Community, or Marketing could all have been center circles and everything else would simply have shifted and still overlapped perfectly.

Why?

All of these disciplines are pillars of a company. I’ve talked about this very passionately before. They are, at once, the same: they exist to communicate something about their company or product to the people who will use, want to use, do use, or have used it . But in the same breath, they are all their own distinct and separate department requiring different skills, focus, and expertise.

At the end of 2014, I started a new gig as the Director of Support at Tumblr. I reported to the General Counsel. This made almost no sense to me as an individual, but there was a history within the company that did make sense for the department as it existed. Over the next six months, I expanded the role of the department 100% and, at the end of the summer of 2015, we officially became the Community Management department, reporting to the Chief Operating Officer.

Leadership teams usually look like this, give or take a couple positions:

  • Chief Executive Officer
  • Chief Operating Officer
  • Chief Financial Officer
  • Chief Product Officer
  • Chief Technology Officer
  • Chief Communications Officer
  • Chief Marketing Officer
  • General Counsel

You very, very rarely see something called a Chief Customer Officer or a Chief Community Officer. Hell, the existence or a VP-level for these roles is still few and far between.

Let’s all hold hands and get along!

Now, it’s pretty damned convenient for me, a Director of Community Management, to write an article about how there needs to be a VP and Chief of Community in companies. Self promotion for the sake of actual promotion is a pretty blatant and selfish move. I get that, but that’s not why I’m doing this. If anything, I’ve stopped myself from writing this article for a long time because I understand that sentiment and don’t want my words to be weakened or disregarded because the possibility of self-advancement being my motive undermines my point. So, now that I’ve owned up to that fact, I’ll also present this argument: if a fancy title with VP in it is what I wanted, why am I not one now? I’ve had two job offers on the table in the past two years that were VP of Community (one with & Support in it, as well) — so if that was my driving force, I could be there now.

Back on topic: Community is its own discipline.

Prove it, you say.

Okay, let’s do this.

Marketing is about positioning a Thing and figuring out the best way to get folks excited about that Thing. Communications is about telling people about a Thing directly and in a way that will get our message out and propagated in channels that people who will use the Thing will read, absorb, and eventually act on in a way we want. Community is about talking with the people who will, do, or have at some point used the Thing in order to relay information back and forth between people and company. Each of these areas require people with very different skill sets and who need to focus on very different parts of the business in order to succeed.

So why do we have very senior people influencing the executive suite on behalf of all the different disciplines?

Why, in the past decade, have I reported to Web, PR, Product, and Legal, but only once to the CEO? Why do I feel such immense pride that my department now reports into the COO and sinking dread because I think, eventually, we’ll be re-orged back under Product?

I’ll tell you why.

Community is new for businesses.

In the past decade, we have gone from “hey, this internet thing is really a core part of people’s lives and super important for companies” to “Wait you don’t have a smartphone and you still subscribe to cable TV?! Are you a luddite?” And while the internet might be the tool that manifested the importance of the individual and enabled us to easily assemble as communities over pretty much any topic known to man, this isn’t a new or novel concept. Communities have been the backbone of humanity since the dawn of time. The difference here is the proliferation and the ability to empower those communities now because of the gifts the internet and technology have given us, enabling us to spread messages and be heard.

This is what business connections look like these days, whether you are B2B or B2C.

And yet, Community is still new. Companies still don’t completely understand what Community is and why they need it at an executive strategy level as well as an operational one. Three or four years ago, most companies were jumping on the social media bandwagon and hiring folks who could tweet really well. I still spend a lot of time explaining to people that social media strategy isn’t bullshit. Yes, it’s still a super new area and there are lots of people doing it poorly, but it’s still important and takes a lot of skill. There are lots of really crappy marketers and engineers out there but we don’t write off the entire field as bullshit because of them.

In a couple more years, I’d anticipate we see a lot more VPs of Community or a varation of that theme, focusing on the user base and dialogue with that base. I also predict we’ll start seeing Chief Community Officers or Chief Customer Officers, focusing again not just on the operational details of support or service but on the quality and strategy of the relationship between end user and company. Just like a marketing chief can tell a product chief how to tweak a product based on focus groups, community chiefs will tell their marketing and product peers what to do in order to have a stronger and more meaningful relationship and connection with users past, present, and future.

This will come about for two reasons:

  • First, folks like me will be experienced enough to advocate for and then fill these roles.
  • Second, companies who don’t embrace the importance of community will die.

No matter your company, your product exists because of the people who use it. Don’t disrespect those people, or you will have no reason to exist.

The world is changing. Community is growing up and it’s a distinct and crucial discipline for any company’s success. It’s time for us to take charge and make it a department in its own right, complete with executive leadership that has an equal seat at the table for steering corporate goals and policy.

Tick tock.


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