If you look at my resume, it’s pretty clear that job titles have always made me uneasy. You can see the tiny artifacts of rebellion against my own corporate skin in the titles themselves. When I was doing online marketing for an independent film studio, my business card listed my title as “Head of Digital Marketing & Love”. When I joined reddit in 2008, my title was “Community Manager & Troublemaker”. Later at reddit and Depop I was a “General Manager” which was at least inoffensively vague. When I led a team at WeWork, I tried unsuccessfully to lobby for my team to include emojis in their official job titles. At Nike, I was a “Lead Entrepreneur in Residence” which although more squarely in the business genre, wasn’t necessarily any more descriptive than a string of emojis would have been. My LinkedIn headline is a joke about The Rapture.
Our culture intertwines job titles with our identity, so why not sprinkle in self expression where possible? In some ideal future strain of the multiverse, perhaps collectives self-organize to a point where job titles and roles are no longer needed. In the meantime, I’m the Chief Community Officer at Teal, an online community and platform for professionals to grow their careers. I feel the Chief Community Officer job title has more meaning and importance these days, not just for me personally but for the business world overall.
The first time anyone used this job title was a little over 20 years ago, and it’s just now becoming common enough to be something more than an oddity. Recently, I’ve talked to a few business leaders who wanted to see if I knew anyone who would be a good Chief Community Officer for their startup or organization. They knew it was an important role, but in the conversation they also asked what a Chief Community Officer does. The power of “Community” for business is gaining traction, but the C-suite role is still pretty rare and its function is still nebulous. Chief Community Officer doesn’t even make the Wikipedia list of approximately 50 C-level titles. LinkedIn currently shows 0 openings in the US for a Chief Community Officer, and only a few hundred people with that job title, many of which are at nonprofits or refer to local communities in a public policy perspective.
Founders, VCs and even Wall St investors are talking about community more than I have seen before. A critical mass of business leaders and consumers recognize that “community” adds value. How much, how durable and through what mechanisms are open for debate, but at least most people now accept the basic premise. Even with that momentum, sometimes working in the community field has felt like being the social director on the cruise ship. People view community as important and something the customers of the business valued, but it wasn’t steering or keeping the ship afloat.
Community is often used to refer to customers having a shared identity or experience. It’s used to refer to pre-existing niches or communities of customers, but the lens I use for Community is the direct interactions between customers catalyzed by the business. By definition, it’s not surprising that Community leaders are a new role. There’s precursor and analogs, but only with recent technology have companies been able to facilitate customers interacting in significant ways at scale.
Ana Andjelic highlights a key example of this definition in her new book (highly recommended) The Business of Aspiration: How Social, Cultural, and Environmental Capital Changes Brands, "Glossier succeeded because it recognized that women enjoy sharing their beauty preferences, it and gave them the tools to create content that enabled conversations around it. Glossier’s value is not in the sheer scale of its user base, but rather in the interactions within it." If the interactions within the user base define the value, not the volume nor efficiency but the network of connections, then the company should have a leader whose primary focus is the health and growth of those interactions. Though there are elements of overlap, this focus on cultivating customer to customer interaction doesn’t fit within marketing or support or even product management.
I believe in community can be more than just a brand asset, more than just a hedge against churn, more than just a moat against competitors. It’s an alternative way for corporations to not just extract but to create value. Community-powered businesses ask the same thing that community organizers should ask, to quote Peter Block, “What do we want to build together that would make the difference? What can we build together that we cannot build alone?”
To build not just for customers but build with them for the new interactions they create requires focus and disciplined experimentation. It requires those of us like myself who find ourselves in leadership positions at community driven businesses to show results and quantify the value and velocity of the interactions. This isn’t easy, and I don’t have all the answers. The nature of community management is trying to “manage” something alive and emergent, it’s living in a world where you are accountable but not in control. I imagine, like many people in the community space, I get energized by the relationships and the budding behaviors that happen when people come together. Data and instrumentation and quarterly plans may always feel inadequate to measure and animate these revered human level interactions. Determining and communicating the value of Community has been an elusive task as long as I’ve been in the industry.
It’s because of these limitations that the leadership role for Community is important. Companies don’t have the answers, but its users just might. We have to listen, not just to feedback and research, but we need to listen to what ideas come from community members talking to each other. We need to learn from the ways people are working together to solve their own problems. This grassroots work often comes naturally to us Community professionals. It’s our job to blend this bottom up work with the strategic plans of the organization. This is the way community leaders need to take an active role in steering the ship, but it can’t happen without us understanding the business drivers and how to communicate them as well or better than any other C-Suite titles.
I love my job. Being able to focus on nurturing a community is an amazing privilege and I’m glad the community space is growing in size and impact. I’m glad more companies are thinking about community at the executive level. I’m excited by new resources like The Community Club’s mentorship program. For better or not, corporations have considerable power in our society. If more brands and companies and organizations focused on the meaningful connections between people and what they might create together, that will be positive progress. I’m glad I’m at the point in my career and the industry is at a point where being a “Chief Community Officer” isn’t automatically considered any more absurd than other modern job titles, but we are just at the beginning of the sea change that happens when customers create value through their interactions with each other. If we, If I, really want to steer the ship together in an interdependent way with our customers, and if we want Chief Community Officers to be more than a novelty then we need to make sure we keep innovating in process and strategic planning and measurement.
Would love any feedback and especially would love any examples of how y’all are structuring community teams and quantifying user to user interactions.