Home Do Startup Companies Need Community Managers?

Do Startup Companies Need Community Managers?

You know what little startup companies need these days? They need to hire more people! It may be a frightening thought, but in an increasingly social world – being social is becoming an important full time job.

“Community Manager” is a position being hired for at a good number of large corporations (see Jeremiah Owyang’s growing list of people with that kind of job) but what about smaller companies? We asked a number of people what they thought and the following discussion offers some great things to think about, pro and con.

What Is a Community Manager?

A community manager can do many things (see below) but the most succinct definition of the role that we can offer is this. A community manager is someone who communicates with a company’s users/customers, development team and executives and other stake holders in order to clarify and amplify the work of all parties. They probably provide customer service, highlight best use-cases of a product, make first contact in some potential business partnerships and increase the public visibility of the company they work for.

True believers can’t emphasize the importance of the role enough. John Mark Walker, the Community Manager at CollabNet articulates this perspective well: “I firmly believe that the community manager should be one of the first hires – right after a solid engineering group and before you invest in corporate marketing people.”

Not everyone sees it that way, something that causes substantial distress for people in the supply chain who are advocates for the CM role. “Start ups and all companies that exist online need to be looking at a community manager as a salaried position,” said Dylan Boyd of eROI. “We have been working with big brands and it kills me when they just give ‘social media’ to someone that already has 10 other roles…At Omma Social last month in NYC that topic came up asking all the people in the room from Big brands if they had a community manager. 90% of them did not and are still trying to find out how to spec out a job description in order to hire for it.”

Dissenters: Community Management Does Not Need to Be a Full Time Job

Others see community management as something that doesn’t need to be a full time job. “Community management is essentially a public relationship issue, so whoever picks up that gauntlet is on point for representing their company to the rest of us,” consultant Peat Bakke told us. “It doesn’t have to be a specific person or a full time job, but it is part of starting and running a business, almost by definition: if you’re in business, you’re doing community management whether you like it or not.”

Some would go so far as to call an explicit community manager position a bad idea in the early days of a startup. Darius A Monsef IV, Executive Editor & Creator, COLOURlovers.com told us he thinks that in the early days founders need to be in the thick of managing their own communities.

Jonas Anderson voiced concern about community managers being caught between loyalties to the company and its users, while being tripped up by employer nondisclosure agreements. (Others though, such as former BBC blog producer Robin Hamman, point out that having a community manager can greatly reduce legal risk when a company engages extensively with its users.)

Startup founder Sachin Agarwal splits his time between community and other work. Though he wishes he had more time for this kind of work, a full timer isn’t necessary, he says. “Our contact us page encourages people to ask each other and post on other sites before coming to us – we’re happy to help, but I’d wager that other users know how to get the most out of our site better than even we do.”

Similarly, Twine’s Candice Nobles says after some consideration being given to the position, her company found that their users have been incredibly self-organized and regulating so far.

While those thoughts might seem valid, consultant Dawn Foster emphasized that for some companies – making one person ultimately responsible for community work can be essential. “For startups where community is a critical element of the product or service,” she told us, “I think that a community manager should be an early hire. Without a community manager, the frantic pace of the startup environment can mean that the community gets neglected simply because no single person is tasked with being responsible for it. This neglect could result in failure for the startup if the community is critical.”

Can Founders Manage Their Communities?

We talk to a lot of CEOs on the phone here at ReadWriteWeb and we’ll try to be polite in answering this question. Andraz Tori, CTO at Zemanta answers this question diplomatically. “The [community manager] role can be played by one of the founders early on, but as the project grows you need a person that knows how to listen,” he told us. “Founders have a vision and might be a bit stubborn about what their product represents and offers (that’s why they are founders). Someone a bit more distanced might be much better community manager since he has a lot more empathy for users and their problems and can relay that to developers and managers. And vice versa.”

Pete Burgeson, director of marketing for online marketplace crowdSPRING says that a good community manager can help raise the voice of the users themselves. “We want to be able to build a platform for our community to have a voice, showcase their talent and become as active in speaking for crowdSPRING as we are speaking for ourselves.”

Still others believe that users may not want to talk to the founder or a community manager, but some one with tech chops and focus. “I think a startup should put a developer in the community as opposed to a ‘community manager'”, Rob Diana told us. “Even though the developer may not be as good of a communicator as a marketing guy, there is a different type of understanding of what people want.”

What Does A Community Manager Do?

There are many ways that a community manager can benefit a startup company and it often varies from company to company. Eva Schweber, co-founder of CubeSpace says “it depends on the community and what needs to be managed…the style and distractability of the folks in the startup, how they like to collaborate with peers and how they define their peers.”

It’s a complicated job, but one that can help bring cohesiveness to the life of a company. “Any opportunity to interact with the community forces one to think about the product/feature considerations and ramifications of one choice over another,” says Nagaraju Bandaru of SmartWebBlog. “In many ways, community manager is the evangelist for company’s products and the voice of the customer in internal discussions. It’s critical to react to online discussions with skill, consistency and aptitude; The role is hard to understand from outside but impossible to miss once a startup is in execution mode.”

This coherent communication can have business development benefits as well. This seems to us to be one of the most important benefits of the position. Graeme Thickins, VP of Marketing at doapp explains:

“Their world includes the online community that represents both prospective customers/users, as well as strategic partner companies, possible future investors, future employees, and more. Perhaps thinking in terms of a ‘listening manager’ would help a lot of startup founders better come to grips with what this job is all about.”

Carol Leaman from AideRSS says investing in a community manager position has helped her company “gain maximum benefit from our early adopters and growing base of users, as it’s a key link between them and our development team. NOT having someone on this full-time would impede our growth and success. We consider ourselves fortunate to have both realized this need early, and to have found an amazing Community Manager to fill the role.”

Does that have to be one person in particular? AideRSS’s Melanie Baker explains that specialization is as appropriate in this role as in others. “While especially at startups there’s a shortage of bodies and it’s all hands on deck, not all hands are best suited to all activities,” she said. “No one would want me writing code, and I wouldn’t necessarily want just anyone talking to frustrated users, for example. It’s also totally a hybrid role. My background involves marketing, web, QA, and writing, and I use all of it as a community manager. Someone with a more specialized background can certainly learn what it takes, but might have a hard time wrapping his/her head around the customer service/marketing/business analysis/tech support/software testing/documentation/journalist needs of the role.”

“You need someone who understands the fundamental distinction that while you want to grow your user base, a user base does not equal a community,” Baker said. “The best success involves growing the former while making every effort to evolve them into the latter. Because communities grow themselves organically a lot more easily than user bases do.”

Isn’t it ultimately about marketing? Kim Bardakian, Sr. Communications Manager, at the wonderful music site Pandora put it this way: “Pandora just created this position about four months ago and it’s been INVALUABLE to our company, in such a short time! It’s opened a whole new world of communications for us! Lucia Willow fills that role for us and she’s great. With the iPhone/Pandora launch on Friday, the Twitter network and followers were making tons of buzz! It was very exciting.. “

Is Community Management the New PR?

Hutch Carpenter points to

an example of community management leading to extensive new media press coverage

and saving money on PR.

Others see PR evolving towards a community management type of role in this increasingly social world. “I particularly liked the reference to PR as ‘public relationships’, interjected Kathleen Mazzocco ClearPR. “[That] conveys the directness and transparency of today’s new PR. How can it not be given the open conversations going on? That’s why Community Managers are the critical new PR position.”

PR has long got a bad rap, though, and if PR pros are going to get into social media (they are already here in large quantities) then there may be some challenges to their ability to play a community management role. “The idea of a ‘community manager’ is a good one as long as that person has the freedom to discuss the negatives as well as the positives of the company’s efforts,” says Dave Allen of Nemo Design. “If we consider all the aspects of social media as PR 2.0 then I would argue that it is a very important position given that companies would hardly have gone without PR 1.0. I posted a top 10 list of what you might call a ‘community manager’s’ activities might be like here.”

(Disclosure: the author has a consulting relationship with Nemo)

Is This Worth Paying For?

Why would a busy little startup spend precious money on this kind of role?

“While a Community Manager isn’t the same as a traditional PR role, ideally they should work together,” says Meredith from A Little Clarity. “Startups are in a blur; often they’re being run by engineers with VCs looking over their shoulders — they don’t know from community managers; so there should be some accountability, and that’s the tricky part. Do you measure connections? Responsiveness? Transparent ‘public relationships?’ Whatever it is that your company will value, get it out there and agree on it, because one thing startups don’t always have is time to do it right after getting burned.”

You want tangible? Semantic web researcher Yihong Ding will give you tangible! He says that community managers are tasked with tending the most precious asset that many startups have staked their future on – user content.

“As we know, most of the Web 2.0 companies are built upon user generated content,” he told us. “Philosophically, User Generated Content is embodied human mind. This embodied mind is generally the fundamental asset for the company. Maintaining a proper community so that users may embody their mind with high quality is thus a central issue for the growth of the company. The duty of community managers is to supervise and maintain the high-quality production of the fundamental mind asset used by the company. Therefore, I would say that community manager is a critical job title for most of the Web 2.0 companies.”

We agree with Yihong. User data and community content are the foundation that web 2.0 style innovation and company valuations rest on. Failing to focus meaningfully on tending those assets is a foolish choice.

Thanks to everyone who participated in this conversation. We hope readers will contribute their thoughts in comments below.

CC photo by Flickr user ItzaFineDay.

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