Scorecard: Should Startups Have Community Managers?

Marshall poses the question (and does analysis and conducts informal interviews) do startups need Community Managers? He points to my growing list of enterprise class companies who are adopting these roles, but we should also examine the startup.

First of all, if you don’t know what a community manager is, start with these four tenants on my blog, or read the Forrester report (aimed towards corporate, not startups) how to staff for social computing.

An excellent piece, but let’s step it up and look at the bigger question, for startups, corporations, or mid sized companies. The real question to ask is “Should companies engage customers and prospects in a collaborative nature online”. The answer? “it depends”.

Marshall’s post gleans opinions from those that agree and disagree with the notion, all of them make sense, and I’m sure I’d agree that you don’t always need one. For example, the cash strapped company, having a dedicated role to manage community relations is costly, especially when you’re trying to get the next product iteration out. Another thought is that for small startups, nearly everyone is doing community relations, it’s not one specific role. Lastly, a few reasons why it doesn’t make sense is if there is no social aspect to your product, if it’s just being consumed, and no one has questions or needs to develop or share it with others (a component part perhaps) they the need to have relations doesn’t make sense.

Of course there are lots of considerations, Dawn lists out others, for some financial companies this may be a challenge due to legal restrictions (although Mint had Damon Billian as the community manager for some time). But taking a look at most startups (as to how Marshall is referring to them) he’s often asking about the web startups.

[Should Startups Have Community Managers? It depends, use this informal scorecard to conduct self-analysis and to trigger an internal discussion]

Startups are unique compared to large funded corporations, so, let’s list out when it makes sense and when it doesn’t using this scorecard

Add Positive Points. Startups should have a community manager when:
You should tally check marks as “+1” for each of these:

  • Score one point if the startup has a thriving online discussion around their product
  • Score one point if the startup has a thriving discussion around the “lifestyle” that the product provides (different from above)
  • Score one point if the startup has an online web product or service
  • Score one point if the startup wants to improve products from direct customer feedback
  • Score one point if the startup’s business model requires third party developers to help growth
  • Score one point if the startup has a competitor with a community
  • Score one point if the startup has a strong product in the market and is ready for mass adoption
  • Score one point if the startup has a competitor that has a community manager role
  • Score one point if customers are ‘banging at the door’ with questions, suggestions from forums, blogs, and other resources.
  • Score one point if your customers are specifically asking for a community manager
  • Tally your positive score

    Subtract Points. Startups should NOT have a community manager for the following scenarios
    You should tally check marks as “-1” for each of these:

  • Minus one point if the startup is in stealth mode and the product isn’t yet revealed
  • Minus one point if the startup is small enough where everyone can participate
  • Minus one point if no one interacts with your existing products, or perhaps it’s quickly consumed and not discussed
  • Minus one point if the startup is small enough where every employee can act as community liaisons
  • Minus one point if the startup if there is no current online discussion at the “lifestyle” level
  • Minus one point if the startup’s product is failing and all resources should be focused on building the product
  • Minus one point if the product can be supported by the community at a 95% or greater threshold
  • Minus TWO points if the startup’s management and the orginization is not prepared to take in community feedback to make changes.
  • Tally your negative score

    = combine positive and negative points

    Next: Conduct your own self-analysis and have an internal (and external) discussion

    If you can suggest other additions or subtractions, leave a comment below. First, put yourself in the seat of the CEO or COO, does this make business sense?

    I’m not going to give you a single number where a startup should or should not hire a community manager, as I think there are internal factors that will set each companies ‘go or no go’ threshold number, but instead, use this checklist as an internal discussion point and conduct your own self-analysis.

    25 Replies to “Scorecard: Should Startups Have Community Managers?”

    1. What’s the point of recommending a point scoring system if you don’t provide guidance as to its interpretation? Can I take it you don’t have the data upon which to make a decision?

    2. Yup, excellent question. As indicated in the last paragraph, this is a self-analysis exercise and should trigger an internal discussion for management at each unique startup (the thresholds will be different for every startup and industry). If this were an official research report, I would certainly create a numerical interpretation based on analysis of startups that have made this decision –but for this mornings’ blog post, this will have to do.

      For enterprise class companies (my primary clients), yes, I do have data on role adoption, role purpose, projected budgets for communities and social software.

      (I’ve updated this comment)

    3. Having previously worked at a start-up and now a community manager I found this discussion very useful. If it really delivers what your users want then yes to a CM.

    4. Great list to make you think, Jeremiah. Something else to consider could be the interim step of a listening/outreach role for some companies to help assess/assist the growth of a community around a product/industry. This would depend on where the product is at within its market life cycle. At the early adopter/early majority stage the community may be forming and a listening/outreach role may fit better. This role could then evolve naturally into the community manager position. Your set of questions provide an excellent checklist to determine whether the next stage has been reached.

    5. Great list, especially the very last item:

      “Minus TWO points if the startup™s management and the orginization is not prepared to take in community feedback to make changes.”

      This is VITAL. If you’re not ready, willing and able to take user feedback and adapt to it, instead of trying to make it adapt to you, you should save your money and not hire a CM.

      I just took on the role of CM for, and articles like this are really helpful for me when explaining my work to colleagues. Thank you.

    6. Good question. Start-ups in the enterprise technology space should definitely establish a “community manager,” if you will. Their role may be broader than F1000 community managers — in my view it should include optimizing the entire digital ecosystem, from search to website and everything in between:). In some sectors community managers and digital programs will not make sense.

    7. There’s another situation where it is beneficial to have a blog and start building a community. If you are a company which was formed around an idea which clarified itself through conversations with many people. Quite a few of these people are strong, potential visionary customers who need to wait for the right situation/timing to come up in their company.

      Blogging and engaging them in the community is a way to keep them engaged in what is likely to be a six to eighteen month sales cycle.

      Balancing this with working with customers who are paying for and directing development is a challenge, but that challenge *hopefully* seeds future sales.

      So, there could be great uses for a startup to invest the time, though not necessarily to have a dedicated role.

    8. whoa! – we’re blogging on the same topic AND article today Jeremiah!

      I created questions – backlink is above

      The add’l one I have is – Are customers creating product related content around the web?

      My question is: should the ‘positive’ questions all have the same weight? Are some more important than others? For example – I think if the community is asking for a comm mgr (& it’s a plea based on problems they want addressed) then that should be +2. I used ‘red alert’. 🙂

    9. Start-ups should have customers, community will follow, mostly of its own accord. Any “management” of community is not even real, it’s forced, fake buzz.

      Most companies definition of “community” usually spells out support, so all customer interaction is usually represented by overworked and underpaid support “engineers”, but that’s backwards, a good community lessens support requirements, customers helping customers.

      Please your customers, and support the community that follows it, but don’t manage it, as no matter how well-intentioned, the company needs never match the community, and you will spend more than half your time putting out pointless ego-fighting melodramatic wars.

    10. Chris Coulter

      We’ve discussed this many times in the past, the thing is, HR latched onto this title, and thus is stuck.

      We all agree, communities can’t be managed.

    11. Having worked at four startups now, I would say the correct thing is to view the Community Manager as a Community Advocate. The primary reason is that a good company will balance the needs of the customer base against the needs of the company. A secondary reason is that a Community Advocate is a good person to have when a firestorm erupts over a particular topic.

      The only caveat: Not all companies actually require one. Some products suit themselves well to community involvement, whereas some other ones do not.

      It is also one of the few times I will agree with Chris on anything:) Some of the comments he makes are spot on…

    12. But even “building” is ownership and such needs to be “managed”…and glad “we” agree, but sure seems like most actual practitioners don’t.

      A community is relational, it has glue around a common interest, but it only sticks when real friendships are formed. And once forged, the actual “common interest” becomes less and less important. Which is paradoxically why a good successful community, eventually kills itself, so if you don’t want it to salt up, always have a river of new inputs.

      The easiest way to “build” community is the junket and entitlement route (the Microsoft model), key members, called “influentials” as an ego boost, are sought out and coddled, instant community, but such is fraught with heavy downsides, as such creates an elite, which becomes immediately resented by the rest of the community, and the elite become an entitlement drug of sorts, constant freebies, titles and special events are not only expected, they are demanded. Additionally this elite, no longer mirrors the community at large, which prevents real growth, as no one wants to play in a closed shop. Plus the “Community Managers” never have to do any real work, just hold parties and talk with the yes-men, all without leaving your laptop, community without getting hands dirty.

      The second way is just basic PR, be seen, be visible, attend all the “special” events, talk to all the “important” people, stroke their ego, be the contact person, party, lobby, influence, party, influence, lobby. Fun for the “Community Manager”, but actual results vary from nil to ineffective, whole lot of seeming activity however. Blogs (and even conversations) are not communities, and most corporate blogs are pure pap.

      The third way is “sharing the wealth”, getting a “community” in on the take. But influence peddling works much better, with a lot less activity, in the political arena, just apply raw “donations”, i.e. cash, access granted already. Easy, but once real money is in the game, the community will destroy itself, as it’s no longer a community, it’s a business.

      So what to do? No set formula, just case by case common sense, and flexible at that. Advertise, host, overall support, be available and visible, but in an inclusive way, no sneak peeks, no invite betas, no exclusive freebies, no early adopter pandering, if not for everyone, not for anyone. But if the product isn’t the best of breed, and can’t outdistance the completion, all is moot anyways. The buzz should come AFTER the product is used, not before.

    13. “Additionally this elite, no longer mirrors the community at large, which prevents real growth, as no one wants to play in a closed shop. Plus the Community Managers never have to do any real work, just hold parties and talk with the yes-men, all without leaving your laptop, community without getting hands dirty.

      Ok, now I can disagree with Chris:)

      The strength of the community at sites like eBay, even though eBay is no longer the star it once was, was that there was (is) a large number of regular people there.

      Since you’ve obviously never worked with me, or worked in a serious community job on your own, I think your comments are a little off in some ways. You also seem to blanket your statements based off of what you feels happens in the blogosphere.

      I don’t attend geek fests.
      I don’t attend Valley parties.
      I don’t throw parties for customers or others.
      I don’t make it a point to hang with the elite. My friends are my friends, that’s it.
      I don’t seek the spotlight.

      A community will evolve around strong products. A community manager won’t save a crappy product. And a good community manager will highlight product concerns before a product is launched, or they will make sure that customer feedback is funneled up after a launch so that they can address the needs of the customer.

      I don’t know what your fascination is with Jeremiah, or Scoble for that matter (no, Scoble is not a friend of mine) , but Jeremiah’s a pretty cool guy that I’ve known for a few years (well before he became a blogging celebrity) & I don’t entirely understand why every post you make is pointedly negative on his blog. Instead of criticizing people, why don’t you actually offer an alternative solution?

      P.S. If you don’t think I do any real work, you’re more than welcome to sit with me one day.

    14. Damon

      Chris is trying to push your buttons (and anyone else’s he can) to get a reaction.

      just an FYI, he’s really good at this. When you meet him in person, he is so gentle, docile, and almost passive, it’s quite a flip.

    15. Hi Jeremiah,

      My contention with Chris is that he is blanketing a number of people with pre-conceived notions. And, almost as important to me, I don’t like seeing someone make critical statements w/o backing it up with some sort of alternative (I will also aid friends when I think something is unfair…a critical, perhaps fatal, personality trait of mine).

      If he focused half as much time on pushing buttons as he did on actually doing something, he would probably be quite a success. I would just like Chris to post what his vision of a community is, without the b.s. about what he thinks it isn’t.

      A lot of people I know that have worked in community really do believe in what they do, and they are actually very interested in servicing the needs of customers first. Like any organization ,however, you can run into a bunch of political garbage present in any organization…

    16. Since you™ve obviously never worked with me”

      Actually it was meant in the overall generic market, not sure where you thought it went personal. I post in many many places, just in the geek-social media sites the skin seems way thin, and it’s “pushing buttons” or “trollish” if you go off the ranch or take strong stands, muddled middle is the best you should hope for.

      But I disagree that you can’t criticize without offering up an alternative solution or lucid-dreaming “visions”, some things are just bad ideas regardless, and most of everything, since we are dealing with emotional human behavior, has no solution, life is absurd, but work on it anyways.

      It’s not a “fascination”, it’s an opinion, or a comment, nothing more than that. And if you want my “visions”, show lots of green-folding stuff, please.

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