Where Does Community Sit on the Org Chart?


This is a guest post by Jelena Woehr, Director of Community at GOOD. 

As go your community managers, so goes your community: clarity, a sense of purpose, and happiness in your community team will drive purposeful, joyful member experiences.  To achieve this vision, community teams and their leaders need to understand how reporting structure affects community managers’ role, and, ultimately, their success.

Where community sits on the org chart should be dependent on specific business and community needs. Each with their own strengths and challenges for community managers and company leadership alike, there are three common organizational and reporting structures for external community management: Customer Care, Marketing, and Product.

Let me break it down for you:

Community As Customer Care

Every community manager takes great personal satisfaction in making members happy. According to The Community Roundtable’s 2014 State of Community Management survey, 20% of community management teams are tasked primarily with external customer support. It’s no surprise that within many of the world’s largest companies — including my former employer, Yahoo — community managers roll up to a larger customer care organization.

  • Works best for: A wide variety of B2C organizations; brick and mortar retailers; and companies in which community status is conferred on a member by their qualities as a customer.
  • Not so great for: Platforms, media brands, companies deriving most revenue from ad sales, and larger B2B service providers.

In companies with this type of org structure, community managers are measured by speed and attentiveness; metrics are critical. What percentage of people contacted are happy? How quickly did they hear back after tweeting you? CM are best served by understanding what their leaders define as a success condition and clearly communicating across the organization what restrictions affect how they can achieve that success.

Leaders of community teams providing customer care need to articulate clearly defined processes and visible goals for community management. Yet, while customer care solves problems as they occur, community management also nurtures community habits and attitudes that prevent problems before they happen. Therefore, leaders in the community as customer care model should provide CMs with structured, ample time for relationship maintenance and creative outreach. After all, community managers who spend all day putting out fires don’t deliver forward-looking value.

Community As Marketing

Measurable metrics are essential for best-in-class community management. Great marketing also thrives on ROI, making CMOs and other marketing execs a natural fit to lead some community teams. According to the State of Community Management report, 11% of community teams are primarily tasked with external marketing.

  • Works best for: Organizations in which community managers double as social marketers; smaller, service-oriented companies; media organizations that draw a bright line between editorial and marketing; communities of practice with CMOs whose role includes personal involvement with the community.
  • Not so great for: Companies that outsource marketing campaigns; companies that derive most revenue from advertising; and organizations in which marketing is focused on far-off future milestones.

Community managers in the community as marketing org structure are the face of a brand to its audience. As such, it’s important that they live the brand’s essential values in their professional and public life and take into consideration the impact on ROI with every decision.

Leaders of community as marketing teams are tasked with supporting their CM’s professional development as they move from focusing solely on relationship management toward a holistic understanding of marketing communications. Leaders can also set the example for their team by planning for crises in advance, with collaboration from their PR counterparts, and encouraging continuing education. (General Assemb.ly and MOOCs are useful for CMs learning marketing. For my fellow Angelinos, Trade School sometimes offers marketing courses.)

Community as Product Role

Full disclosure: This is how GOOD does things. That’s a big part of what drew me to move a thousand miles away from home to lead GOOD’s community team. It’s by far my favorite way to work! 

Community as product thrives at the intersection of better user experience and greater value to the organization. Community managers in this structure seek opportunities to improve products in ways that serve both the company and the user. Interestingly enough, Chief Information Officer (CIO) engagement is more predictive of community success than any other type of executive participation in a community, per the aforementioned State of Community Management report.

  • Works best for: Social platforms; organizations that rapidly iterate; organizations trying to build something fundamentally new; organizations where a developing technology or emerging industry is essential to success.
  • Not so great for: Less technical companies, businesses in which brick and mortar retail is the primary revenue driver, and organizations in which product teams work in isolation in order to better innovate.

For community managers reporting within a product org, results and relationships will improve when CMs develop industry-specific technical skills. For instance, community teams can earn the trust of developers by filing accurate and useful bug reports. One especially important community-to-tech translation skill: Separate problems from solutions when surfacing user feedback to development teams. When CMs hear about a member pain point, they often jump right to requesting a particular solution. However, product development works best when teams review user feedback and discuss the exact nature of a problem first, then work with you to spec out a fix. CMs who get this one right will instantly become a favorite source of “the community management perspective” in product meetings.

Leaders of product-based community teams are tasked with helping community managers understand how a strategic change will better serve the user. In parallel, they’ll need to understand that “users 18-35,” look more like “my friends, Amy, Brynna, Kai, and Simon,” to community managers. As such, leaders also lead the charge on cultivating  empathy for the user within technical and product teams. It’s often helpful for management in this type of org structure to empower community managers in assisting with user testing and to include new team members in the product development process.

Honorable Mention: Direct-to-Founder Reporting

For early stage startups, it often makes sense to have a single community manager reporting directly to a founder. When this is the right choice, it’s usually also the only choice, so this type of org structure doesn’t warrant as detailed an examination as the other options. Worth noting, however, is this: Community managers reporting directly to a startup’s founder must study extensively how entrepreneurs think and live. A good start: “6 Things Entrepreneurs Wish Friends, Family, and Employees Understood.”

With these variant org structures for community in mind, it’s no wonder that the title “community manager” can be a drastically different role from company to company. For both leaders and community managers alike, thinking cohesively about how community management fits into your team and business can be the first step toward internal clarity, personal fulfillment, and external success.

For my part, I love reporting to an engaged, thoughtful CTO (#humblebrag?) while leading a community team within a larger product team. I’ve also been  happy reporting up to Marketing, but haven’t found reporting within Customer Care the right fit for me. I’d love to hear from other community managers and from company leadership: Where does your team report? What would your ideal fit be, if it isn’t where you are now? 

  • Carrie

    I work in a marketing team, but I find that I do tasks that cross all of these lines at various points throughout the day. My main tasks revolve around connecting our users offline, reaching out to power users and developing relationships with them (and then elevating them in various ways), and forging partnerships. Social good and giving back are a large focus of mine as well. You answered this question well for “Community as Customer Care”, but what do you think the KPIs are for CMs in product roles and marketing roles?

    • jelenawoehr

      I love this question! Thank you for asking.

      When community managers sit with Marketing, KPIs tend to revolve around customer retention, activation, and conversion of lurkers to active members. Churn is also important to watch. In other words, if 200,000 members come in but 100,000 deactivate, the community is “growing” on paper but over time it’s exhausting its potential future customer base by converting lurkers to members and then to disgruntled ex-members, who become much harder than lurkers to convert BACK into members.

      There are also important metrics around brand identity, not just brand stickiness. You can be getting a ton of new signups and retaining new members exceptionally well, but if they’re users who just aren’t right for the community, you’re not driving value. Of course, community management is also about role modeling and leadership; an influx of users who drive the site into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory can sometimes be the inspiration for a CM to channel that new energy constructively into a new program or new way of making healthy connections on-site. At a previous job, members of the community team were wary of the company’s acquisition of a dating site, concerned that it might make people think the overall community site was for dating — but it turned out that our power users did an amazing job all by themselves of directing dating-related conversations toward discussion of dating issues, rather than actually seeking dates in the community.

      It’s tricky to come up with community-as-marketing metrics that aren’t also being moved by Marketing itself. For instance, if you’re tracking % of new members still active in 30 days, a major marketing campaign around a giveaway/sweepstakes can spike your member activations but crater your retention if most of the new users are just there to enter the contest — the sheer SCALE of a major sweepstakes makes this happen even when the CM is actually doing a great job of retaining as many of those new users who enter for the sweepstakes as possible. It’s impressive to retain even 5% of a sudden influx of millions, but if your usual rate of retention is 25%, it looks like you collapsed… so I tend to suggest that KPIs for CMs in marketing be charted on a graph that also charts total marketing spend and marks major activations, to make sure that you’re pairing your data with the overall story.

      For community-as-product-role teams like mine, leadership tends to measure community success through hard analytics and alignment with an overall product roadmap. It’s always important to have a written community plan/roadmap, but especially so in a product organization. (Our CTO challenged me to do mine for GOOD in my first two weeks on the job! I hit the deadline, barely.) I had the opportunity to choose my team’s KPIs with input from the C-suite leadership, and I focused on metrics that I think measure relationship-building independent of product enhancements and feature adds that make the site easier/more fun to use. For instance, I keep an eye on how many users are following each other mutually, not just how many follows occur. A follow means something by itself, but it means A LOT when it’s mutual–that’s the start of a relationship which can bring BOTH users back to the community more often! How exciting!

      As a manager, I’m in charge of our support as well as community management, so I also look at metrics like response time to user from our help portal and how quickly we remove spam or abuse from the site. Those are more customer care metrics, but it’s kind of like vacuuming the house before having guests… you should be doing support well, or you can’t have anyone over and expect them to enjoy the visit.

      And of course, PURPOSE matters big-time in Product. At GOOD that’s even more so than in other places, but I think people who work in Product by and large do so because they want to make something that matters. Whether that’s as simple as “a better way to schedule meetings” or as complicated as “the single best place to write on the Web,” that’s the driver for everyone from developers to designers to PMs. For all CMs, but especially those reporting to Product, the #1 overarching metric to watch is: Are your community management efforts contributing to the product’s purpose? I could have 50 million users on GOOD and I wouldn’t feel at all successful unless I felt the community was driving action toward creative solutions for a better world. SnapChat could have Facebook’s billions of users, and I’m sure they wouldn’t be happy unless they’re driving more and more instant connections as people go about their daily lives. That’s harder to put on a graph (but not impossible) — however I really think it’s the most important.

      Thanks again for asking!!! BTW, I love Scribd’s concept. We should connect sometime and talk further.

      • http://loyal.is/ Loyal

        GREAT response! Perhaps another blog post?

      • Carrie

        Seriously, what an amazing response. Thank you, Jelena. I’d definitely love to chat with you sometime. I actually interned at GOOD back in 2008 for two whole weeks ;) Sadly, the commute was a bit too much for me while in school full-time at UCLA, but I love love love your mission.

      • https://creately.com/Flowcharts-and-Workflow-Diagrams-Online Shalin Siriwaradhana

        Very well answered Jelena. Great response. I specailly agree with the part where the community is growing on paper.

        Shalin @ Creately

  • Clem Auyeung

    This blog post counts as one of those 2 for 1 deals, right?

    Seriously @jelenawoehr:disqus, what an illuminating response! Thanks for putting so much thought into it – great point you made about churn rate.

    This totally could be another blog post. I’m interested in hearing more :)

    Also: Thanks to @carriemelissa:disqus for asking the question.