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  • Writer's pictureKerri Williams

The Evolution of a Community Professional

Over the past three decades, there have been some phenomenal shifts in the community world. Dating back to the early 1990’s, academics and early adopters used IRC and BBS message boards to connect with each other and share ideas (also why I chuckle when people suggest community is still a ‘new’ idea.) Towards the end of the decade we aalso saw niche Communities about collector items, sports teams and other special interest groups starting to pop up, laying the ground work for so much more to come.

Fast-forward to the mid-2000’s, we saw the early stages of enterprise grade Community platforms come on the market — Jive (previously known as Clearspace and now primarily intranet focused) and Lithium (now Khoros) being the two early leaders in the space. Brands like Best Buy, Home Depot, Dell, HP and BlackBerry led the field as a means to scale support through peer-to-peer interaction and leverage user-generated content to drive huge SEO traffic and awareness with minimal ad or marketing spend.

These spaces lent themselves particularly well to hardware markets where customers could leverage the wisdom of the crowds to help them solve their issue as even Google prioritized interactive sites as higher in their rankings. At the time, many Community teams reported often reported to the Support organization (and many still do today.) But, back then it meant minimal career advancement available in what felt like a very niche space — it was incredibly rare to find a Director of Community, let alone a VP or Chief Customer/Community Officer. Keep in mind, customer experience and success were not defined as they are today, so professional development was pretty limited, which thankfully led to the creation of organizations like The Community Roundtable and others.

The 2010’s are where things started to get weird in my opinion. Before this, Community platforms served a pretty obvious purpose for companies who needed to scale support. But enter a post-recession world where dollars are being scrutinized, ROI and value are being assessed and new competitors are entering markets in all different industries. You’d think it would have been an easy leap to say Community saved companies money, but often they were more concerned with the price tag to maintain.

Many of the organizations that had an early foothold have since shuttered their Communities (Dell Ideastorm, BlackBerry Support Forums etc) for other customer engagement strategies. New organizations took an interest in Community but didn’t have the budget, the resource commitment or the addressable market to truly make a successful go of it. Everyone and their brother seemed to want a Community, knowing there is something to it, but many didn’t understand the requirements or know how to manage expectations. Then you had these passionate Community Managers from the ‘00’s growing up and wanting to do more, but many had limited exposure to other teams in the business to know how to make the case for what they needed. An unfortunate chicken and egg situation emerged.

Fast-forward to now though and the B2B world in particular seems to be forcing our hands and expecting Community professionals to know more, influence more and lead more — especially the more senior up the chain you get. Given the history of the role, it’s not surprising that there’s really only a few dozen long standing high level professionals out there anymore. Many have gone other paths entirely as areas like customer advocacy or digital marketing. But if you want to stick it out in space and continue to grow, I think there’s still huge potential to do so — once you acknowledge you’ll need complementary skills to reach the higher levels in the space.

Here’s a few areas that I’d recommend considering at least a baseline understanding, and if you find something speaks to you, keep learning — gone are the one trick Community Manager days and you’ll only benefit from applying broader concepts to this new integrated digital world.

Product Management — This is something I spent the last two years of my career owning and working every day to get better at. Understanding prioritization, roadmapping, value assessments, levels of effort, user stories etc. was a whole new world but something I’ve been able to apply in so many Community situations. Some great resources to start with:

Escaping the Build Trap by Melissa Perri Product Thinking Podcast with Melissa Perri Inspired by Marty Cagan Product Roadmaps ReLaunched by Todd Lombardo, Bruce McCarthy, Evan Ryan and Michael Connors.

Customer Success — Community is going to become a core element of digital customer success and an organization’s ability to scale their CSM resources. A few resources to get you started:

Customer Success 2.0 by Nick Mehta, Dan Steinman and Lincoln Murphy. Gain Grow Retain B2B Customer Success Community & Podcast Gainsights Gamechanger Community

Customer Experience — Know the differences in how organizations define different customer teams and functions. Customer success is often part of Customer Experience (CX) but not the only piece.

The Effortless Experience by Matthew Dixon, Nick Toman and Rick DeLisi Outside In by Harley Manning and Kerry Bobine Human Duct Tape Show Podcast with Jeanne Bliss

User Experience — Get a sound understanding of how to build an experience that is easy and intuitive for your users. This goes beyond basic user interface (UI) and should look at the entire experience journey for your users.

Interaction Design Foundation — All kinds of great courses available around experience design. Design of Everyday Things — by Don Norman IDEO U — Great hands on course for Experience Design in general — HIGHLY recommend, so much fun!

People Leadership — This one is tough because IMHO, you either have leadership qualities or you don’t — but you can learn how to better develop them. There’s lot of great resources out there on this one too, but keep in mind, there’s a distinction between being a Manager and being a Leader. Manager = you have reports, you approve stuff, you manage priorities etc. Leader = you empower your teams, you translate the big picture, you understand the broader business. In theory you could be both at the same time, but it’s the Leader part that can be toughest to elevate to. Some of my favorite Leadership resources:

The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou Radical Candor by Kim Scott Dare to Lead by Brene Brown Multipliers by Liz Wiseman Organizational Leadership A course from University of Toronto Rotman School of Business (one of the best I’ve taken in a very long time!)

There are certainly other areas that you as a Community professional can expand into, but these are my favorite areas to weave into my work, particularly in the B2B space where Community can be such a strong driver of customer focused business outcomes like adoption, retention and advocacy.

Are there other areas you’ve found helpful in your Community professional journey? Would love to hear more!
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