Katrine: Curious to hear what your background looks like leading up to entering the community space — did any of your previous roles provide experiences/skills that helped you as a CM? Also, are there any skills that aspiring CMs should have before stepping into this industry, or do you find that folks build these skills up over time?
I started my career in sales and customer service jobs. I’ve done everything from being a ballet teacher, to managing a retail team, to assessing auto insurance claims in Louisiana post Hurricane Katrina, to sales jobs in universities. I am definitely not one of those people that just knew what they wanted to do right after college.
It took a lot of trial and error for me to find my way early on. The common theme that I started to find in my early career was that I really loved working with people. I loved social media. I loved events. And I found myself volunteering for those types of responsibilities, no matter where I worked. So, I think a big part of charting your career path is finding what you love and starting to invent opportunities where you can lean into it and build those skills. When I’m hiring team members and looking at people that want to get into community for the first time, I like seeing backgrounds of people that are in support and marketing. These folks often have a great understanding around the relationship aspect of helping and bringing people together. I also look for individuals with great written and verbal communication skills. This is a must have. And finally, I think being a part of a community is a great way to learn about communities. Being part of things like The Community Club or CMX or any other random community, is a great way to watch and learn. You can even volunteer as a moderator and build skills that way too.
Sagi: What’s one negative and one positive change you see happening to the community industry over the next 5 years?
Hmmm.. let me get out my crystal ball.
I’ll start with the positive. I think the industry is growing and building so much momentum right now and it is really exciting to see community be in the spotlight. Especially for folks like me who have been doing it for 10 years+. There was a time not so long ago when I really struggled to connect with people that knew what it was like to do my job and had real advice about how to solve problems or think about things. It is so refreshing to have this new shiny interest in community and have places like CommunityClub bringing us all together. I think that in the next 5 years, this increased knowledge sharing is going to help accelerate our practice and careers so much.
The negative side of this (and it is already happening a bit) — is that all the shiny new interest in community is bringing some 'hot take' people out of the woodwork that are in it more for the personal brand building than moving our industry and practice forward. Sometimes I see things on Twitter that really make me scratch my head. And there are so many talented people in this space and so many people that are genuinely learning, I would hate to see it all get swept up in the faux thought leader thing.
Alex: As a fellow recovering perfectionist, I loved your callout that it's okay to always be learning. Do you have any tips for people who may be at the beginning of their journey of going with the flow? Was there a particular catalyst that made you recognize you needed to shift your thinking?
Recovering perfectionists unite! Should we form a support group?? I think it can be easy to put a lot of pressure on yourself early in your community career – or really anytime in your community career. The nature of your job can be so public that I completely understand the underlying pressure to always want to get it right.
For me, the catalyst and change in my mindset came when I joined BigCommerce. I went from always working on a community team surrounded by others, to being the entire community team (of one). I remember getting called into meetings with the CEO and other execs where everyone in the room would turn to me and say “Okay Lauren, you’re the community expert, what should we do.” It was scary and exhilarating at the same time. And I realized that I needed to do whatever I could to be on top of my game and be ready for those moments. That meant really investing in my learning/growth and being okay with the fact that I might not always have the perfect answer. And when I don't have the perfect answer, I know where to find it and how to dig in to learn more.
What I have told myself and people on my team is that you should always be learning and leaning on each other for support. My team is so wonderful and collaborative and our mentality really is that “a rising tide lifts all ships.” We want to work together, share drafts, share ideas, brainstorm, and edit each other’s work as much as possible. The act of that not only makes us all better, but it gives us such a strong support system to know that we aren’t in this alone. So, my advice would be, find someone on your team (or in this community) that you can really lean on for advice, gut-checks, and learning. Start your journey there.
Ben: After reading a bit of your interview and specifically your community superpower, I'd love to know what advice you'd give to other Community Managers who are new to the space in developing their sense of judgement. Specifically, what are some best practices one can exercise to get to the point where they can confidently and effectively make the right calls and even handle those "inevitable dumpster fire moments"?
Judgement is honestly something that I screen for when hiring candidates. For all roles, I think asking scenario based questions during the interview process helps me understand people’s innate sense of judgement about how they would approach sensitive, public situations. If you are new to the community space and/or want to build up your judgement super power, I think there are two things that can really help.
1. Hold retrospective sessions post dumpster fires. Sit down with yourself or your team and think through what went well, what went bad, and what can we improve or change next time. Stepping away from the emotional nature of the situation and looking at things analytically can really help you start to think critically about how to improve and exercise better judgement.
2. Document, document, document. Ideally, every situation or dumpster fire should not be treated as a one-off, unique thing. For yourself (and your team) is it a great idea to build out playbooks on how to handle these things. That will help give you a north star for your decision making and now, you’ll have something to iterate and improve on next time something happens.
Katelyn: I gotta ask, as a former camp counselor myself, what was the biggest challenge and the biggest takeaway from your experience running a week-long summer camp program for high school students? And how has that translated into the work you're doing now in community
Oh my gosh. Running a summer camp is such a trip. It was such an amazing experience and really took my organization and planning skills up about ten thousand notches. Honestly, the biggest things I gained from that experience was:
1. Being SUPER organized. I had a master binder that I carried with me everywhere containing detailed timelines and schedules for each day, playbooks for each counselor/team member for each role/day, contact lists, supply lists, and literally anything else you could think of.
2. Over communicate everything. Managing the staff, the kids – and all the kids' parents was a challenge. To keep everything running smoothly and keep us from getting a million questions every step of the way, we had a lot of proactive communication to let everyone know what to expect each day and each step of the way.
3. Fun activities and relationship building takes intentional work and planning. Just like in a community, it's not enough to just put a bunch of people in the room and expect it to all work out. You need to create a space, plan ahead, and make it easy for campers to engage and participate.
All of these skills have served me really well in my entire career – and especially in community. Oh and biggest challenge: being exhausted and getting a 2 am wakeup call that campers were sneaking out of their rooms and security had been called. That was NOT fun to go deal with.
Briana: What do you think is the most important skill for early career community professionals to develop over the next year, based on the trends that you're seeing in the evolution of communities?
Here are my two cents — I think there are some foundation things that are always going to help take your community skills to the next level:
- Understanding the numbers side of the community. Learning how to think about data, build reports, and measure progress and performance is huge.
- Being able to articulate how your ideas/efforts align with company goals. For example: if your company cares about retention, ask yourself how you (and your community efforts) can contribute to that.
- Building project management experience. Look for opportunities to own a project from start to finish. Get good at building out project plans, defining problem statements, tracking work, etc.
And then based on the trends that we are seeing, I think a lot of organizations are looking to invest more in community and make it a bigger, more holistic customer experience. A good skill here is to focus on building and strengthening your cross-functional relationships. The more you can understand the goals of the departments and teams around you, the more you can understand how the community can help them. Working together toward a shared purpose will allow you to build a more cohesive customer engagement experience. I wrote this blog post about working cross functionally and how to do it:
Shawna: I loved reading your interview to learn more about your journey in to community and the successes/struggles you experienced along the way. I'm looking for inspiration as I make an intentional career shift from non-profit/education space to the community space in the for-profit/tech world. What is the best piece of advice you've ever received from community professionals as you began your career? Or maybe just the best piece of advice you've ever received, period!
I talked about this a little bit in the interview, but in my first community role, I was really lucky to have a very supportive manager. He was incredibly open, trusting, and down to hear my ideas. This isn’t a profound quote or anything, but his best advice for me was just the encouragement to “go for it.” A lot of community building is about experimenting. He gave me the freedom to try things out and learn/build in public and that gave me the confidence to build my skills.
Speaking of experimentation: my team was really inspired by this recent article by Alex Angel on the same topic. Highly recommend!
Rachael: Related to some of the advice you'll be giving to early career folks via Briana's question, how do you validate and express seniority in your work now? What have you found to be the "aha" moments of senior community manager?
I think the biggest shift in myself going from an early community manager to a more senior one was how I thought about:
- The community as a product. Shifting away from thinking about it as this isolated online forum in our corner of the web to thinking about our work as a key part of what we offer our customers. Our platform and our programs need to have strategic impact and I need to build a roadmap for how we can do that.
-The cross-functional impact. I talked about this in my response to too, because I think this is really a skill you can start building no matter what your seniority or skill level is.
- Managing and coaching those around you. You don’t need to be a people manager to help coach and lift up the team members around you. Making that shift into Senior Community Manager means that you are starting to use yourself as a resource for your team so everyone can learn and grow.
I hope that answers your question. This is such an interesting topic!
Lindsey: You mentioned your passion for relationship-building in your spotlight interview. Curious to hear when you're starting to mobilize a community — what are squares 1 & 2 to build those engaged relationships that stand the test of time?
Love this question!
Square 1: Understanding your customers. I think it is so important to have a foundational understanding of who your customers are. What are their needs? Motivations? Pain points? What are their personas? All of it. If you don’t know, then ask. Surveys, focus groups, and one on one calls are a great way to gain that foundational knowledge while making friends along the way.
Square 2: Get out there and start introducing yourself. In order for the community to scale, you’ll need a core group of engaged members that can help sustain the larger group. Start with your most active members and reach out through DM (or email) get to know them. My team will sometimes offer to jump on a call simply just to get to know our most engaged members better. If appropriate, you could also follow them on other professional social channels (LinkedIn or Twitter), so you can have a more personal connection with these folks as your relationship grows.
Max: Just out of curiosity, if someone asked you to define what community management is or what you do on a daily basis, how would you tell them? Asking this because I am getting this question a lot from friends/family and would love other perspectives!
Oh man. My parents literally still have no idea what I do and this has been my job for 10 years.
For my mom, I’m usually like, “Hey, you know that website where you go to ask other people sewing and pattern-making questions. That’s an online community. I manage one of those for the tech company I work for. I build the place and the programs where our customers connect, ask questions, and share with each other” And then my dad is usually like “Don’t you work at Facebook?!"
Erin: I have a question about HOW you go about gaining a deep understanding of the members in your community. Do you have some sort of systematic approach to this?
If you are new to a team or launching a new community (or maybe you just want to know your members better), I’d start by researching your customer base. Work with your cross-functional friends across the organization and learn about any established customer personas. Those profiles can help you understand users' needs, experiences, behaviors and goals.
One tactic that we’ve used at BigCommerce to better understand our members are community surveys. Through surveys, we’ve been able to learn what job titles our members have, what motivates them to join and participate, and what their values and needs are.
Beyond data-gathering, I think it is all about building those relationships and meeting the real people in your community. Meeting folks and hearing their first-hand accounts will help go even deeper and add a lot of layers to how you think about your community members and their needs.