Community Relations: Not Just a Megaphone

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In my last post on Building a Community Presence I went over some of the approaches for engaging communities. This time I want to talk about what the actual job of a community builder is.

On Selling

The role of the Community Builder is to sell you on the idea of the company and the product. Not necessarily to sell you the product. Often times what we’re selling are not bought without some decision making process behind them, so a sale is not going to happen then and there anyway. Provide the education, and build the trust, and the sale will happen.

Why I Hate Evangelists

I personally have a visceral reaction to the title “Evangelist”, which is unfortunate because it’s on my business cards.

The issue I have with the title is that when I think of Evangelist, I think of a fanatic who will use whatever methods they can to convert you to their way of thinking. And yes, there are Developer Evangelists who will do this. They are bad community members in my opinion, and I don’t trust their opinions.

The truth of the matter is that there is no single solution to any technical problem, and anyone who tells you differently is lying.

I prefer the “Advocate” title, or better yet, the one I chose for myself at Engine Yard, “Community Engineer”.

Advocating For The Company/Product

Being an Advocate is important, advocating for something in my mind means to put its best foot forward. This meant that while at Engine Yard, I probably sent more potential customers to our competitors, because I knew that had they tried our service they would’ve been disappointed for their current needs. Engine Yard is an amazing platform, but it’s complex (due to its customizability), it often requires some changes to “cloudify” your apps, and it can be comparatively expensive if you’re at the small end of the scale.

If you fall into the segment of the audience that doesn’t need the customization and support, then you’ll find the product over-complicated, and probably, over-priced. That is not a positive experience, go use Heroku instead (for now). If you fall into the other segment, then you’ll find Heroku to be constraining and expensive instead, go use Engine Yard and you’ll find it to be the right product for you.

I believe that honesty plays a big role in advocacy. If people are to trust what you say, you must be able to not only point out the flaws in your competitors, but your own as well. If you fail to do so, and you knowingly “sell” a customer a product that isn’t a good fit, they will have a negative experience and that’s what they will broadcast to their peers — that, to me, is an anti-sale. You stand to lose far more business that way.

If you instead sell them on the right product, even if it’s not your own, while at the same time educating on both products, in the future they will seek you out, and self-select into being a customer. At the very least, they will seek your advice again.

This still falls under the megaphone part of the role. And is probably the less valuable part of the role to your employer. They, realistically, can have similar results using traditional, informed marketing channels. And those flights are expensive.

Advocating For The [Potential] Customer

The most important part of the role is advocating for the customer, or potential customer. This is why I like the title “Advocate”, it cuts both ways. You are an advocate both to, and for, your customers and potential customers.

As an advocate, you are the person (or one of the people) closest to your customers. You attend the same events, you go out to eat and drink together, you attend the after parties together, and you commiserate the early morning afters. You also have conversations, about life, news, the weather, and work.

You hear their gripes and you are the conduit for upcoming news that affects them, negatively or positively.

I firmly believe that the most vital part of the role is creating a feedback loop, directly from your customers to your product team. Your job is to aggregate requests (“I’ve been 14 events so far this year and every time someone has asked about X”), spot trends (“Lots of people are starting to talk about Y, here’s what it might mean for us”), and raise concerns (“People find this part of our product confusing because Z”).

If your community team does not have a direct line back to your product team you are missing out on the most valuable information they are collecting.

Advocating For The Community

As mentioned in the previous post, as part of your role building relationships, and as the person most entrenched in the community, you should be working directly with marketing on messaging and interactions.

You should have the power to veto any messaging your company puts out to your community — after all, your knowledge of the community is one of the reasons they hired you. It’s in the companies best interests to have you invested in their messaging: you are the one on the ground who has to deliver it after all.

Advocating For Yourself

At the end of the day, being a community builder is a job. I personally won’t take on the role unless I believe in the product, because I want to enjoy my job, I want to help people do their jobs better, and I can’t do either of those things with something I don’t use, or don’t care for.

This is also part of the reason I didn’t look for new roles in the same space when switching jobs, it feels disingenuous to the community to “sell” them on one product one week, and then on a competitor the next. My paycheck doesn’t buy my loyalty, the company values and a product I believe in do.

I hope this is obvious when I interact with people, and I believe it’s a necessity to be good at this job. We must maintain our intellectual honesty and community integrity. Your reputation is your true value, for your company, for your community, and most importantly, for yourself.


Thanks to Tessa Mero, Austin Gunter, Margaret Staples, Katie McLaughlin, and Amanda Folson for reviewing this post.

Image courtesy of Chris Combe