Earlier this week, we learned that Instagram is a company whose growth could be attributed to their focus on community. Instead of taking a product-first approach and bringing in a designer or developer as its first hire, the company brought in a community manager.
For Instagram, it's certainly a decision that has paid off greatly for the company – but what about for other startups? Does a focus on community management always necessarily pay off? And, if so, what strategies work more effectively than others? We reached out to a few startups to learn about how they approach community management, and asked them whether it's truly an essential aspect of running a company.
While community management is often (and somewhat mistakenly) lumped in with social media management, a company's community manager does more than merely moderate and engage with a company's users or consumers on social media. A good community manager is someone who actively engages in various conversations across the web about his or her company's products or services in order to uphold their brand's rapport; indeed, they interact with users and consumers on various social media channels, but they also go beyond that and attempt to learn more about each consumer's needs and desires. By doing so, they are able to accomplish something that oftentimes developers or designers cannot fully achieve: understand the ways through which those users and consumers actually use a company's products or service. And, with this knowledge at hand, community managers enable companies to improve – to align a company's offerings to their community's demands.
Here's what a few startups had to say about community management:
What Strategies or Offerings Do You Utilize with Your Own Community of Users or Consumers?
“9Lenses operates in [the] enterprise tech, B2B sector so building and managing a community is a little more tricky when compared to B2C sectors. Our marketing team approaches the entire engagement from a ‘solving concerns' perspective. The kind of content we create and curate are aimed at trying to answer some of the biggest questions in our community's mind. By educating our community about the actions it can take to solve some of its pain points, we not only engage our community, but are able to grow it organically too.” – Swetha Venkataramani, Content Marketing Associate
“As a former evangelist with Twilio and organizer in the open source community, I've lived and breathed community for a decade. For Clarify, I'm working to make our community self-reinforcing. Instead of just Twitter and Facebook, we've launched a common Slack channel to connect us with them and them with each other. It shares the support burden and lets you know others are out there. It also lets us ask questions and get answers on features, bugs, etc faster.” – Keith Casey, Director of Product
“We pride ourselves in taking a very hands-on approach with our users from day one. We assign each user a talent advisor on our team so they have someone they can reach out to at any time about their career questions. We've structured the initial meeting like a meet & greet to understand their career goals and aspirations as opposed to talking specifics about a role on our platform.
Because we connect with users on a respectful, empathetic level, we have received countless testimonials of how the recruiting experience on our platform is exponentially more pleasant than headhunters – even if the user doesn't end up getting a job on our platform. Our community has doubled in the last 6 months and we owe much of our success to focusing on building long term relationships.” – Jordan Wan, Founder and CEO
“We send every new borrower on our platform a package that includes a handwritten card, a CommonBond t-shirt and a hand-picked gift based on their interests. We often receive gracious responses from borrowers who express their amazement that a student lending company could be that thoughtful.
We also hold regular dinners and other events to connect borrowers in key cities such as NYC, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, etc. This allows our borrowers in those cities a chance to meet and mingle with each other. In one case, one of our dinners led to a borrower finding a new job through a connection made with another borrower.
If a borrower is in between jobs, we offer a program called CommonBridge, where we connect them with short-term consulting opportunities that allow them to earn income and build a portfolio while continuing the hunt for a full-time job.” – Michaela Kron, PR Manager
“Ever since I co-founded Influenster five years ago, we've grown our community of product mavens and social media influencers organically. We now stand at around 1.2 million members strong, and are expecting to double in growth within the next year. We have built a robust product discovery platform: With over 4 million conversations that have taken place on our site on almost 1 million products today, we had to be strategic about the way we engaged our audience from the very beginning. From product sampling based on the unique interests and preferences of our community, to Twitter parties with hash tags that trend on a national level, to social contests that generate excitement, to YouTube videos that shine light on how to best engage with products, we're speaking directly to our community. And these efforts all stems from our core business model of inspiring product discovery.” – Aydin Acar, Cofounder and CEO
“Primarily having a big community can be very beneficial to your company. One of the tactics we implemented on one of our social media pages is to keep our audiences engaged. In our social media, we try to bring an interaction between multiple small- to medium-sized businesses. We host interviews, where they are able share their story and success on our social media. We try to keep our small-to-medium sized businesses engaged within each other through us, such as hosting polls questions, questioning about new marketing strategies in which these businesses respond. We got incredible success as a lot more small-to-medium sized businesses only started following our page and are requesting an opportunity to interview them and are participating with other followers. Our followers increased tremendously with our unique strategy.” – Pratibha Vuppuluri, Founder and Principal
“Our best tip when it comes to community management is to keep your industry in mid when interacting with your community of users. There is a lot of generic advice out there, but you shouldn't treat a community of, say, small business owners interested in getting help with legal filings, as you would a community built around a restaurant or fashion label. Knowing the sort of information and level of interaction your customers are looking for helps you to make your community management more authentic and engaging.” – Deborah Sweeney, CEO
“Ocho’s video comment system is not only unique, but it helps foster meaningful engagement among users who can’t hide behind a fake username and identity. The results we've seen by implementing the video commenting system are staggering. We regularly hear from users celebrating the authentic connection that happens when they or another user take a moment to share a video in response to a post.” – Jonathan Swerdlin, Cofounder and CEO
“We have a completely open development process – which means we develop the software together with our community. This means that things like feature requests, roadmap planning, translation work, etc is done in the open with our community. We like to think of this as “Open Innovation”: 1) our community is really committed to ownCloud as they are deeply involved; 2) they help us with development, provide feedback, discuss feature requests, and QA; and 3) together with our community we come up with the software that at the end of the day is stronger than if we developed it ourselves.” – Frank Karlitschek, Cofonuder and CTO
“One up-and-coming strategy to build a community is distributing real company ownership to the members of the community itself. This form of micro-ownership incentivizes commitment and rewards loyalty. Doximity.com, a Linkedin for physicians valued at $1 billion, offered doctors ‘compensation in the form of equity and honorarium' to drum up adoption. Reddit.com has publicly announced, after a $50 million round of funding, to give 10 percent of their shares back to their community. Jet.com offered 100,000 shares of stock to incentivize its early adopters to refer new users to sign up on their site.” – Erik Chan, Founder and CEO
“For our users, content marketing has been our best strategy for community engagement. We are big on influencer engagement within our three target areas: technology, healthcare, and startups. This is mainly done via Twitter, but we utilize our blog and other social media platforms.” – Laura Smith, Community Manager
“In the fast-paced world of social media marketing, it is typical to use social channels for content distribution rather than a channel for feedback. Most brands have a steady stream of fans that want to contribute and interact with the brand. It is important to give your social community a chance to not only interact with your brand, but with each other.
Get out of our customers’ way and let them talk to each other. Their goal is to facilitate peer to peer interactions without censoring and to encourage customers to interact with each other rather than Spreadshirt being the one to spark the conversation. This is a great approach to building community and brand loyalty.” – Adam Lasky, Head of D2C Marketing North America
“At When I Work, we send every new customer a handwritten thank you card that includes a personalized message and a hand-drawn version of their logo. It’s our way of welcoming them into our community. If a customer has any sort of issue or challenge with our product, we ask them what kind of candy they like, then we find it, package it up, and ship it directly to them within a few days. It doesn’t cost much, but we’ve found that it makes a big impact when it comes to customer happiness and loyalty. We also send branded t-shirts out to customers and followers who request them. In addition to these strategies mentioned, we spend a lot of time developing and sharing original, high-quality content with our followers and users in an effort to help them improve and grow their businesses.” – Chad Halvorson, Founder and CEO
Why is Community Management Critical to the Success of Startups?
“Community is the foundation for any successful startup. If the community is not successful, then the startup will not be successful – you cannot have one without the other. It's crucial the Community Team keeps users (in some cases, the company's service) strong so the rest of the startup can effectively grow.” – Allison Stuart, Senior Manager of Community Marketing
“Community management is a misnomer…it's less management and more engagement. Your customers, partners, etc. are going to be talking one way or another, this is a way to participate, understand, and occasionally direct the conversation. A community can also do things you can in ways you can't, like respond to competitors.” – Keith Casey, Director of Product
“Understanding your community of users and consumers is key to any business. Knowing your client and understanding their needs, as well as receiving their feedback, both positive and negative, can assist in the growth of your business. In addition, providing superior customer and client service shows that you actually appreciate your consumers and are much more than just a business looking to make money. In any business, whether a start up or established, understanding and managing your community of users/consumers will go a long way. I believe its one of the biggest drivers of a successful.” – Ryan Cook, Cofounder
“Community managers are the “eyes and ears” of a successful firm. We have to be in tune with our members, to know what they do and do not like, in order for any of our campaigns to do well. Every member action – from comments to likes to retweets in our social space – has to be taken care of in order for a startup to grow. Often times, a genuine engagement with the community leads to new business opportunities, which leads to a massive and rewarding return on investment.” – Aydin Acar, Cofounder and CEO
“Hiring a community manager was critical to the student experience here at the New York Code + Design Academy. Collaboration is important to tech education and networking drives the placement and outcomes of our graduates. Having a community manager enables our students, instructors, alumni and staff to connect with each, solve each others problems and support a vibrant community.” – Jeremy Snepar, Cofounder and CEO
“A community manager is crucial for three reasons: 1) Community managers are inherently well-positioned to understand what the team needs to know and what the community has to say. Community feedback is usually invaluable for product development. 2) Community managers allow teams to focus as a community grows. Without a community manager, a team can get caught up in trying to figure out how people are receiving a product as well as distracted by handling inbound messages. 3) Lastly, a friendly voice to encourage discussion and posting can help drive adoption and retention early.” – Jonathan Swerdlin, Cofounder and CEO
“For us, engaging the community gives us the opportunity to provide additional value beyond what our product does. It helps our customers and users interact more with our brand and get to know the people behind our brand. In order to be successful as a startup, you have to keep the human element alive. You’ve got to go out of your way to understand and listen to your prospects and customers. It’s the only way you’re going to be able to develop authentic, sustainable relationships with people who can help you improve your products and ultimately grow your business.” – Chad Halvorson, Founder and CEO
And This Particularly Exemplary Example of Community Management
“The brand we are trying to build at Glide is all about visual communications – that is, personal communication and human interaction – so it was important from the outset for us to have a face represent the brand. We decided that having a real living person to interact with our community of users was critical to the expression of what our brand is all about. One of our first hires back in 2013 was our Community Manager Sarah Snow (aka Sarah Glide).
As a live video messaging app, we discovered that community management is more than simply engaging through traditional social media channels. We found that Glide is the ultimate platform for community management, as it enables Sarah to actually reach out directly to our 15 million registered users and engage with them on a 1:1 basis – to hear from them and really understand their needs, what they like/dislike, what features they might want and how they use the product each and every day. This way, they not only feel engaged by our brand, but also that they have a voice in developing the product.
In terms of the impact of the business, we’ve seen a direct impact between our community management efforts and our user engagement and retention levels. Clearly, being able to interact with a real human being and experience visual communication first-hand using our product has been critical to our growth.
Community management also led us to discover and engage with an unexpected audience of users for our app – the deaf and hard of hearing community. Sarah first began noticing enthusiastic reviews from these users in the app stores. Then, she received comments on her YouTube videos that let our team know they loved the app, but couldn’t understand our ‘hearing' videos.
To better communicate with Glide's users from this community, Sarah first committed to close-captioning all of Glide’s videos. She also chose to take American Sign Language (ASL) lessons from a local teacher who had studied ASL in the Deaf Studies program at Cal State University at Northridge (CSUN). And then, together with an interpreter who studied at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC, Sarah made a video in ASL asking this community for the “sign” for Glide. The response was overwhelming. Her subsequent ASL videos have gotten tens of thousands of combined views on YouTube and Facebook. She has received invitations to visit deaf communities all around the world and has already visited Gallaudet, CSUN, the Texas School for the Deaf in Austin, TX and the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, CA.
Her experience interacting with this community also led her to kick off the #WITHCAPTIONS campaign. She published a vlog translated into sign language by [more than] 10 deaf Glide users (including deaf rapper Sean Forbes, and Switched at Birth’s Daniel Durant) urging YouTubers to add closed captions to their videos in order to provide
unfettered access to the millions of video content available on the Web for the 7 million plus deaf and hard-of-hearing people in the U.S. Snow narrated the community’s frustration:
‘I've noticed that a lot of creators on YouTube don't include closed captions in their videos, which makes it not accessible for everyone because, here's the thing: We don't hear you. We see you. We're visual communicators.'
Through Sarah’s efforts, we’ve been able to successfully humanize the Glide brand. We’ve repeatedly heard from our users – in focus groups, emails, and even video messages – that they can relate to the brand because they have a real personal connection to it.” – Adam Korbl, Chief Product & Marketing Officer
Editor's Note: This article has been updated.