Why Community Comes First for Modern Companies—And Who's Leading It

  • Rebecca Marshburn

    July 26th, 2021

Nine small circular portraits of people on a light grey background.

Where we get to how we're going always includes a story. We'd love for you to tell your story about how you arrived in a community role—we're looking forward to hearing and sharing them.

Why community comes first for modern companies
Common Room's CEO recently wrote about what it means to be community-first. To TL;DR her takeaway, it's that people matter most. The people who use, love, and teach others about your product are the leading indicators to its adoption and to your organization's long-term success.

We've also talked about the technology behind community-driven companies—that it needs to serve a purpose beyond aggregating after-the-fact (read: stale on arrival) data collected by legacy systems. Instead, technology today needs to help community teams track and understand what's happening in their community in real-time across multiple platforms.

Inspired by the preceding two ideas - that the people who comprise your community of product users are your most valuable long-term investment and that there's a deep need for technology that enables teams to hear, support, and connect with those people - we surfaced a couple of numbers that illustrate that industry investment in community is growing and that job roles for community in the technology sector are up-and-to-the-righting on LinkedIn: Job roles listed under the title 'Community Manager' rose 9% from 2020, and roles listed under 'Head of Community' grew by 20%.

So open roles are growing and companies are on the hunt for community leaders. Why does it feel like you're seeing community everywhere all of the sudden? What kind of people are companies looking to hire? And who are some of those leaders and how did they arrive in their community roles?

Why you're seeing community everywhere
On your feed. In your inbox. Across newsletter headlines and VC tweets. The idea of being community-driven isn't new—humans have been forming, growing, and mutually benefiting from the needs, feedback, and outputs of their communities long before we had the power of the internet to fold geographic time and space. And when the internet did arrive, community moved online too. But it's been a (relatively) much shorter time that community has been thisclose to company products.

The line between buyer and seller still exists—someone is (often but not always) paying someone else for a product or service but, today, the seller's understanding of the buyer is transforming. They're no longer Buyer 231326, they're Raquel. Or Ron. Or Marcus. Or Yi. Or Jordan. They are people using your products, and these people matter most to the long-term success of any company that gives a hoot. These people have real intent, opinions, ideas, feedback, needs, and use cases for the products they're using.

They fall in love with features, master workflows, experience bugs, uncover edge cases, discover workarounds, and use products in ways that its builders sometimes didn't foresee. Then, they share about their experiences with their networks, and their networks are everywhere, and their networks' networks are everywhere—Twitter, Slack, LinkedIn, Facebook, GitHub, Discourse, Discord, Stack Overflow, YouTube, Reddit, TikTok, online meetups, podcasts, newsletters, and (eventually) in person—events and conferences, Dance Church (I see you Oakland, CA), dinner parties.

The network effect helps explain why you're seeing community everywhere. But more powerful than that effect is the cause behind the word—building a product with a community-driven mentality allows you to better understand and deliver on your end users' needs and wants, shorten ideation phases, identify what kind of educational resources you need to provide, where and how you should prioritize your roadmap, who you should be asking to speak at your conferences or sponsor to lead meetups or ask to collaborate on a blog post or moderate a forum, and which teams and functions within potentially large, difficult-to-navigate organizations you should be connecting your growth, partnership, and account teams to. And now we have the technology and tools to do it.

Companies investing in community need this new technology to serve their communities well, and they need to continue investing in roles that support community—such is the deserved rise of the community manager.

Who are these community managers and community teams?
The truth is: They're you. And they're them. And they're me. And for real, they are me. I serendipitously arrived to a community management role at AWS by way of Detroit, where I was living and studying urban design, and where I focused on understanding how physical spaces inspired community to come together (I love public parks). From a chance meeting in Las Vegas, I met the hiring manager who ultimately would bring me to AWS, where I worked with the illustrious Ross Barich, Head of the AWS Heroes Program, to launch and grow the AWS Serverless Heroes program—a tech specific category within his program that I ran and managed. You can learn more about my move to community in this short vid.

My winding, auspicious path to community isn't unique. On the contrary, nearly every community leader we've spoken to had not originally considered a 'community' role as their destination. They came to it by way of necessity, like Joshua Zerkel at Asana who built connections with like-minded folks while he was frequently on the road with his solo consulting business. Or by trade, like Jeff Barr at AWS whose approachable, conversational, and informative writing style inspired developers to follow him by the droves. Or by accident, like Ale Murray at Confluent who, seven years ago, initially interviewed for a Field Marketing role at DataStax when her mentor suggested she consider taking a community role they had open to which she said, "I don't really know anything about community." He replied, "Nobody does."

The paths to community are so varied, in fact, that we're creating a mini-series about community leaders' arrivals to the role. You'll soon find a growing collection of vignettes about the varied paths on our YouTube and Twitter, and we invite you to tell us your own story—we're looking forward to hearing and sharing them.

I'm new here. How do I step into a community-based role?
If you ask those same community leaders I mention above, two categorial patterns emerge—one around communication and empathy, and the other around strategy and organization.

Joshua Zerkel says "I look for people who understand how community fits into the business context—the impact that it can have. How it matters and why, and that they get that community is not just a nice to have for businesses. It's becoming an integral part of how smarter businesses work. The people who [show that they get that], that’s a real differentiator for me."

Jeff Barr looks for people who "really enjoy communicating" and that have a "great understanding of what [they'd] like to say... and an understanding of [their] audience."

Ale Murray specifically schedules community candidate hiring loops with team members outside of her direct team—she wants to know how candidates respond to people who bring different perspectives and different points of view to the table. She also looks for well-organized team members because scoping, prioritizing, and tracking community programs and events requires a dedicated attention to detail.

A community-focused role requires a wide range of skills that can be cultivated and nurtured through myriad roles and jobs. Many of the skills that product managers, project coordinators, account representatives, content creators, marketers, support and success roles, sales associates, engineers with a penchant for open-source sharing and teaching, and anyone who likes to tackle tactical, business-level challenges through clear, curious conversation and collaboration has the mix of ingredients that community leaders and teams are looking to hire.

There's something beautiful in the idea that the skillset is broadly transferable from other roles and experiences—the rise of the community function can be a driver of economic empowerment for a wider range of backgrounds, enabling more diverse groups of people to step into the tech world and to help build it from the inside, for and alongside their community members.

Ultimately, isn't that the point?

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Companies are hiring! Check the Uncommon Job Board to find open roles at community-focused SaaS companies.

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