Community Manager: Decoding the mystery behind the most talked about role in startups
“Hello, I’m the Head of Community”
Community is a hot word. Being the ‘head of community' is a sought-after job, especially in the world of startups and tech.
Type the words “head of community” under Jobs in LinkedIn and nearly 11,000 listings show up. Of course, there are some jobs that aren’t formally labeled community that sneak their way in there like Customer Support and Social Media Manager.
These jobs contain certain aspects of community management, specifically engaging and interacting with customers. Still, head of community is something unique in and of itself. In the same way that social media managers weren’t a thing 20 years ago, the head of community wasn’t much of a thing 10 or even five years ago, yet it’s a coveted role that’s in great demand among startups.
But take a step outside the startup bubble, and it quickly becomes evident that people don’t actually know what a head of community does.
Take Exhibit A here:
This confusion is likely due to many things. One of them being that it’s a relatively new job. HubSpot, a CRM platform with more than 8,300 employees, was founded in 2006 and hired its first community manager nearly 10 years later. Jennifer Sowyrda, community manager No.1 at HubSpot, says, “We now have a team of 15-plus people involved in community … HubSpot’s built a team around something that I started very humbly and with no expectations. It’s something I don't take for granted, and I'm very proud of.”
Community roles are closely tied to the ability to deliver value. With so many brands vying for consumers’ attention, how can a company differentiate itself and provide additional value to customers beyond its product or service? How can it make customers feel closer to the brand? How can it solve user problems, or provide outstanding support, in a way that actually scales?
Interact, a bootstrapped quiz builder making $3M in annual recurring revenue (ARR,) is a great example of a startup that’s built a thriving community by answering the above questions. Interact was founded in 2014 and launched its community in October 2021.
Jackie Aguglia, who leads community at Interact, said they built their community because people needed help creating quizzes. Initially they tried to solve this problem by creating office hours. While this was successful, it didn’t scale. Interact’s user base is global, so it was difficult to create office hours that worked for every time zone. They decided to move over to Facebook Groups. While the FB Group was successful, it started to cannibalize itself. The group got so big and popular that it became difficult to find useful information and answers to questions. Interact decided to transition its community to Circle.
Aguglia says, “(Circle) works really well because you can divide out different spaces for different topics and discussions, so people can easily find what they're looking for and ignore the stuff that they don't need to read through or see.”
It’s table stakes for communities to have customer support features where they answer questions, troubleshoot, and go above-and-beyond to point members in the right direction.
“When you come into (our community), and hopefully any other community, it's supposed to answer your questions, to help you feel less overwhelmed, less frustrated.”
- Jackie Aguglia, who leads community at Interact
The ability to communicate quickly and effectively is the foundation to any strong community. Brad Klemmer, the co-founder of NFT project Bored Breakfast Club (BBC), knows this firsthand. Messaging platform Discord is where BBC’s community congregates and is the main tool for communication. BBC is in a completely different industry than Interact, but Klemmer shares a similar sentiment as Aguglia: A community needs to be informative and help people. He says, “We were in (Discord) all the time. Whether it was to make sure that people were engaged, felt like they were being heard, and answering their questions.”
It may sound like creating a community just requires setting up a website, group chat, and answering questions. But it’s actually not that simple, and there’s much more than meets the eye. Even a large, recognizable brand can’t assume its name and brand reputation will do the heavy lifting. There has to be someone who will maintain, foster, and give people a reason to keep coming back.
Sowyrda of HubSpot says: “Sometimes big brands can get to the point with community where they're like, ‘Oh, well, we have a community. If we launch one, the (people) will come. They'll take care of it. They want (the community) and need it.’ But you can't rely on your brand name. When you're building community, you still have to do the work. You still have to make sure that you're creating value for your members day in and day out. Otherwise, there's a lot more to lose because it's your brand reputation first of all, but also your members are going to come once, see it’s empty, and never come back.”
To hedge against this, community managers need to create intriguing opportunities and programming that facilitates engagement between members.
Klemmer of Bored Breakfast Club believes their Share A Cup program has been a great way to do this. The Share A Cup program allows current Bored Breakfast Club members to send virtual cups of coffee to someone in the club or even outside of it. If the recipient receives 20 cups of virtual coffee, then they’ll receive a free, physical bag of Bored Breakfast Club coffee. This initiative has been successful because it requires the community to work together and decide who to send the virtual coffees too.
Klemmer says, “It gets everyone fired up and helps bring new people into the fold.”
HubSpot keeps people coming by connecting the dots between members. In addition to being a CRM, Hubspot also offers separate educational marketing courses under The HubSpot Academy. HubSpot community manager Christina Garnett says they’re able to leverage the Academy to connect people who have taken the same classes, have the same certification, and share similar interests.
Garnett says, “(It creates) micro-communities that are niche specific to HubSpot Academy Classes, and you can learn more from like-minded people. We’re always thinking what are the different ways to connect people based on their needs and what they want to do in the future?”
Community managers are constantly thinking about value creation and anticipating members’ needs and wants. The way to decode and anticipate what members want next? Good, old listening—which many people struggle with! In addition to being an excellent listener, Aguglia mentions that community managers need to build a robust feedback loop and quickly pivot when things don’t work.
“Whether they love us or hate us, (our members) are constantly vocal about how we can improve things for them. We’re very tuned into that. Making sure that your community has a very clear feedback loop is absolutely priceless. Because (members) will do a lot of the R&D for you. They'll tell you exactly what they want, how they would want it, and why it would help them. And that's like more than half of the work right there. That's the brief!”
But sometimes members aren’t that communicative. Sometimes they’re upset, frustrated, or confused because they just didn’t get the memo…even though you’ve told them a hundred times.
Klemmer says, “(You) spend time crafting these announcements, and a lot of people just don't read them. You have to constantly be repeating yourself, answering these questions, and not get frustrated.”
Aguglia backs up Klemmer’s statement, “Patience is required because there are people who come in hot! They’re frustrated, they're upset, they needed this thing working yesterday.”
Needless to say, a community manager contains many admirable traits like superhuman patience.
Moreover, community managers’ forethought and scrappiness can a be a secret weapon that adds incredible value to your startup or business. However, Garnett points out that with the economic downturn, community roles could be at significant risk:
“Anytime there's an economic downturn marketing tends to be hit pretty hard. And I think communities also are going to be hit pretty hard because there’s a lot of people who jumped on the bandwagon in the past couple years that will jump right back off with financial hardships.”
Garnett reminds us that community is an essential long-term game; it’s not just a buzzword.
Sowyrda (Hubspot community hire no.1) expands on that and says: “Community is worth being more than a buzzword. It should be something companies are putting their mission statements behind because that's how you create a company that can be successful regardless of a financial downturn.”