Marketing, Public Relations, Community Management, and Customer Service are all the same thing

(Seriously)


Hi. My name’s Elizabeth Tobey, and today I’m here to tell you why marketing, public relations, community management, and customer support are all the same thing.

Seriously.

Stay with me here.

Over the past decade, I’ve run all of the aforementioned departments, and in many instances, run at least two of these at a time. The idea that all of these departments were, at their heart, the same thing, really clarified for me about a year and a half ago when I was the Director of Marketing at a company, reporting to the Chief Product Officer. I oversaw marketing, communications, and community, and my boss didn’t really “get” how all my teams interconnected so she asked me to help her visualize how it all worked.

So I did. One afternoon, in a fit of mild insanity, I made this for her:

I originally drew this on a legal pad with different colored sharpies.

If you look at this madness closely, you’ll see a method to it and that each of the bubbles in this crazy Venn diagram overlap exactly where they need to and with nothing extraneous. That’s because all of these areas of expertise and different departments need each other to be fully functional. To be successful, all of them need to work together as a cohesive whole.

Why are these departments the same?

PR. Marketing. Community. Support.

Chances are, many of you reading this have worked in one or more of these departments (and even if you haven’t, you’ve definitely worked with at least one of these teams in your career.) If you hail from one of these disciplines, you might be saying “no way these are the same.” And to that I say: yes, true. PR folks are the masters of press releases. Marketers can destroy a competitive analysis. Community managers will be able to craft real time messaging to users during a breaking issue with grace and clarity. Support teams will be able to highlight danger zones before launches and triage issues during and after as well. Each of these teams have specific roles and responsibilities that they are better at than anyone else: that’s why they exist, and for a company’s success, it will always be necessary to have the best people in those roles owning those tasks.

So what makes all of these departments the same?

Communication.

All of these departments exist to tell people about a Thing, get them excited about the Thing, give them tools to use the Thing, and empower them to spread the word about the Thing… so that other people use the Thing, too.

Each individual department slots into at least one of the spaces in the lifecycle of a user, but they all also rely on each other to ensure that cycle is a smooth and unbroken experience.

My revelation

I started to figure this out when I put my dog in a box and posted her on the internet.

This is Pancake. She’s a miniature long haired dachshund and she’s more internet famous than I ever hope to be.

I was the head of community and customer service at 2K Games, a video game publisher, and we were announcing a collector’s edition for our upcoming game called Borderlands 2. We had just announced the contents of the edition, held in a box fashioned to look like a loot chest from in game. Someone in the community posed the question “how big is this box?” and, of course, I did the only logical thing: I put my dog in the box, took a picture, and posted it on the internet.

Turns out, the internet really likes dogs. In boxes. And lots of people wanted to see Pancake in a Borderlands loot chest.

First, the picture made it to the front page of reddit, which on its own is a noteworthy feat.

reddit’s weird.

Then, the press started to pick up on Pancake’s viral success. This was a huge win for the game: collector’s editions are, after all, jazzed up and more expensive versions of the base game. As cool as the swag might be, it’s still an upsell, and that’s not always the sexiest story for a journalist to tell. But Pancake’s photo ended up trending stories on dozens of gaming blogs and news outlets.

Kotaku later ran a Photoshop contest featuring Pancake, too.

Today, Pancake’s photo gallery has been viewed over 8 million times. (You can see all the photos here if you’d like!)

This album still gets a lot of views to this day.

With Borderlands, community-driven content saw viral pick up (a marketing win) which carried over into press coverage (a PR win.) By working together and drafting off of these events as they developed in real time, as a whole, three distinct teams saw huge gains.

Taking the bad and making it good

This cross-department collaboration can turn bad situations into good ones, too. It’s easy to point out successes born out of positive things: you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would get angry over that picture of Pancake. We don’t always get to choose the situations we’re put into, though, and turning a bad interaction into a good one can yield just as positive results as something that is positive from the outset.

This is another incident that happened while I was working at 2K. I was sitting on my couch, watching TV with my husband, when someone texted me that someone was very angry at something my company had done and the thread was on the front page of reddit.

“Pause the show,” I said, “something bad is happening on the Internet.”

(Yes, I actually said that exact sentence.)

Navigating to reddit, I found the thread very rightfully complaining about our customer service department.

To this day, I still double check my conversions because of this snafu.

Our agent had mixed up the conversion from megabytes to gigabytes, the user did have enough memory to play the game, and our response was wrong and made us look very foolish.

I believe in transparency and honesty. That’s a scary thing for a company: it leaves you vulnerable, but if you do it right, you can win the respect and trust of your community, even in situations where you have serious egg on your face. So at 10 PM on a random weekday night, I did the thing that scares a lot of community professionals: I waded into a user thread on reddit as a company spokesperson and spent a couple hours talking out the problem.

Wading into a community conversation as a corporate spokesperson is kind of like a trial by fire.

This tactic worked for us. The thread also made it to the top of the /r/games subreddit, but now, when folks clicked in to see what the fuss was all about, they saw my response at the top of thread and a plethora of jovial conversation back and forth.

The honest answer also won us press coverage. While this incident pertained to an older game in our catalog, we were also working on releasing a new shooter and I was hosting a live stream for the title a few days after this reddit thread transpired. This kind of event would be a difficult thing to get an outlet as large as Mashable to cover, but in conjunction with our outreach on reddit, they had a larger story that won us press coverage for our upcoming game that we otherwise would not have been able to score.

Aw, shucks. Thanks, Mashable!

In this instance, a customer service problem was solved with an honest answer (a community win), garnering significant good will for the entire company and also getting us press coverage on an upcoming title (a PR win.)

Making my team better today

Last year, I was hired on at Tumblr as the Director of Support. When I arrived, it took us around 150 hours to send a reply to an inbound support ticket and our backlog was 7,600 tickets deep.

Whenever I show these graphs, folks gasp in horror and amazement.
I imagine our evolution to Community Management looked something like this.

Within three months, we’d solved this problem entirely. Within six months, we officially evolved into the Community Management department. We now spend less than half our days doing what you would call traditional “support” work (we think of Zendesk as a tool to speak to our community just as we use internal tools, other social media outlets, or our own Tumblr dashboard to communicate with them.) We now act as the advocates for our users and focus on proactive and reactive outreach with our community to make their experience and our product better.

So how’d we pull that off?

Three steps.

  1. We dug into the data of our ticketing system and simplified systems and protocols that were overly complicated and automated things that didn’t require personal attention to resolve. This left us with about 33% more time to focus on issues that required a human touch, allowing us to dig into technical problems, helping our product and engineering team, and spend more time finding softer-touch issues within the community and resolving them one-by-one.
  2. We bucketed our team. Instead of being 15 people in a Support org, we are now three teams within a Community Management department: Product & Engineering Liaision, Outreach & Advocacy, and Support. The first focuses on security and technical issues. The second deals with proactive outreach, reporting, and messaging. The third helps VIPs, brands, and continues to optimize our support pipeline with technology and better processes so we can be more efficient while also gaining quality.
  3. We put a ton of emphasis on training and teaching. I’m a bit altruistic in this regard: I want to be more than a manager. I’d like to be seen as a mentor. I want to give every person on my team the opportunity to become better at their job and set them up for bigger and cooler opportunities in the future, whether that’s within my team, at another department in the company, or somewhere else entirely. After all, 15 minds are far better than 1: I don’t want to be handing down edicts that my team merely carries out. By empowering everyone to suggest new ideas and challenging them to go to conferences, take classes, and learn new things, our department has been able to grow and adapt far faster than if I had been trying to mastermind our path on my own.

How to un-silo your departments

When I talk about this topic, the most frequent question I get is “how do you get all these teams to actually work together?”

If you’ve worked in or with one of these departments, chances are you’ve seen friction when the disciplines overlap. It’s a fact of life we all have to struggle with at some point in time, but it’s not an impossible task.

So here’s my answer.

Start with a cup of coffee.

My latte art never looks this good.

It doesn’t actually have to be coffee. In video games, it was usually tequila. Sometimes, it’s a baked good. Other times, it’s a walk outside, out of the office.

The best way to break through barriers is to start an honest conversation. That requires a lot of listening — and I mean real listening, the kind where you absorb and aren’t waiting for your turn to make your next point. Listen to what those other departments are up against. Hear them talk about their biggest pain points and challenges. And when they are done talking, take all that information away, mull it over, and come back with ways you can help them with their problems. By solving problems together, you’ll find camaraderie, and out of that camaraderie true collaboration can happen.

Once folks take a step back and realize that overlap doesn’t have to end in quarrels but instead can end in a more cohesive body of work that creates a seamless user experience throughout their lifecycle in your company, the silos will start to break down and you’ll find yourself all working together.

That’s because marketing, public relations, community management, and customer service are all the same thing. They’re all about communication to better a product.

Seriously.


This article has been adapted from a talk I gave at Userconf 2015 in Portland. If you’d like to see it, you can check it out on my Youtube channel. You can also grab the stills from the slides here.

Pancake also has a blog. You can find her at pancakethedoxie.tumblr.com.


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