In the last five years we have seen tremendous growth in community management. Organizations large and small are striving to build strong, empowered communities that contribute to and support their work. These efforts are focused on a new form of engagement, one that builds engaged communities that are part of the fabric that achieves success.
This growth in community management has been disruptive. Engineering, governance, and other areas have been turned upside down with this new art and science. This disruption has been positive though, producing new cultures and relationships and a new feather to our collective bows in achieving our grander ambitions.
If there is one area where this disruption has made the strongest lightning bolt, it has been marketing and brand management.
Every year I run the Community Leadership Summit in Portland, and every year I hear the same feedback; the philosophical, strategic, and tactical differences between marketing and community managers. These concerns have also been shared with me in my work as a community strategy and management consultant.
The Community Leadership Summit
This worries me. When I see this feedback shared it tells a narrative of “us and them“, as if marketing and brand managers are people intent on standing in the way of successful communities.
This just isn’t true.
Marketing and brand managers are every bit as passionate and engaged about success as community managers. What we are seeing here is a set of strategic and tactical differences which can be bridged. To build unity though we need to first see and presume the good in people; we are all part of the same team, and we all want to do right by our organizations.
For most organizations, marketing operations are fairly crisply defined and controlled. You specify your brand and values and build multiple marketing campaigns to achieve the goals of brand awareness and engagement. This is usually pretty tightly controlled in terms of brand, values, mission, and campaigns, by the organization. This is designed to assure consistency across brand, voice, and messaging, and legal protection with your marks.
This kind of brand marketing is critical. We live in a world dominated by brands, and brand managers have to balance a delicate line between authentic engagement and feckless shlepping of their wares. There is an art and science to brand marketing and many tremendous leaders in this area such as Brendon Burchard, Aaliyah Shafiq, and Gary Briggs. These fine people and others have guided organizations through challenging times and an increasingly over-subscribed audience with shorter and shorter attention spans.
Community management takes a similar but different approach. Community managers seek to build open-ended engagement in which you create infrastructure, process, and governance, and then you invite a wider diversity of people and groups to join a central mission. With this work we see passionate and inspired communities that span the world, bringing a diverse range of skills and talents. Philosophically this is very much a “let a thousand roses bloom” approach to engagement.
The Spider and the Starfish
I believe the strategic and tactical difference between many marketing and community managers can be best explained with the inspiring and excellent work of Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom in their seminal book, The Starfish and the Spider. The book outlines the differences between the centralized methods of organization (the spider), and the decentralized method (the starfish).
I don’t like spiders, so this was uncomfortable to add to this post.
In many traditional organizations the structure is very much like a spider. While there are multiple legs, there is a central body that is in charge. The body provides strategy, execution, and guidance from a small group of people in charge, and the outer legs serve those requirements.
Brand management commonly uses the spider model: the parameters of the brand, structure, values, and execution are typically defined by a central hand-picked team of people. While the brand may be open to multiple possibilities and opportunities, the center of the spider has to approve or reject new ideas. In many cases the center of spider has oversight and approvals over everything externally facing.
There are two core challenges with the spider model: innovation and agility. You may have the very best folks in the middle of that spider but like any group of human beings, they will reach the natural limits of their own creativity and innovation. Likewise, that team will face a limit in agility; there is only so much the center of the spider can do, and this will impact the spider as a whole.
The other organizational management model is the starfish. Here we empower teams to do great work and provide guidelines to help them be successful. This doesn’t lack accountability or quality, but we achieve it by defining strong standards of quality and trusting the teams to execute within them. We then deal with suboptimal cases where appropriate. Many modern organizations work this way, such as YouTube, Wikipedia, and many start-ups, and this is the inherent model in the community management world.
Now, let’s be honest here. I am a community management guy. Much as I like to think I am an objective thinker and unbiased, everyone is biased in some way. You are probably expecting me to pronounce these spider-orientated marketing and brand organizations dead and to hail the new starfish king of community management.
Not at all.
As I said earlier, brand management is critical to our success. What we need to do is first understand we are all on the same team, and secondly bridge the agility of community management with the consistency of brand management.
Focus on the mission
In reality, we don’t want an entirely spider model or an entirely starfish model, we want a mixture of both; a spiderfish, if you will.
I am a strong believer in Covey’s philosophy of “begin with the end in mind“. We should sit down, dream a little, and then rigorously define our mission for our organization. With this mission in mind, every project, every initiative, every idea, should be assessed within the parameters of whether it furthers that mission. If it doesn’t, we should do something else.
Always think about where we want to get to.
When most organizations think with the end in mind they want their audience to feel a personal sense of connection to their work, and therefore their brand. The world of broadcast media is withering on the vine: We don’t just sit there and mindlessly devour content with a bag of Cheetos in hand. We want to engage, to interact, to be a part of that message and that content. If we are passionate about a brand, we want to play an active role in how we can make that brand successful. We want to transition from being a member of the audience to being a member of the team.
Most brand managers want this. All community managers want and should achieve this. Thus, brand and community managers are really singing from the same hymn sheet and connected to the same broader mission. Brand and community managers are simply people with different skill-sets putting different jigsaw pieces into the same puzzle.
So how do we strike that balance between brand and community? Well, I have some practical suggestions that may be useful:
1. Align strategy
Your marketing and community strategies need to be well-understood and aligned. Both teams should have regular meetings and a clear understanding of what both teams are doing. This serves two key functions. Firstly, it will mean that everyone has an understanding of what everyone is working on. Secondly, it will clearly demonstrate the importance and value of both teams, be able to identify positive and negative touch points, and bring balance to them.
Now, this is easier said than done. Strategy will change and adapt and it can be tough to keep everyone in the loop at once. As such, at a minimum focus on connecting the team leads together; they can then communicate this to their respective teams.
2. Your future won’t be 100% of what you expect it to be
There is a great rule of thumb in project management of “you will achieve your goals, but what it will be different to what you expect“. We should always remind our brand and community managers that part of bridging two different skill sets and philosophies means that our work will be a little different than we may expect.
Our goal here is the consistency of an awesome brand manager with the engagement of an awesome community manager. This may mean that a community manager’s work may be a little more tempered and conservative and a brand manager’s work may be a little more agile and freeform. This will feel weird and awkward at first, but sends us in the right direction to achieve our broader mission in our organization.
3. Have a flexible brand/trademark policy and communicate it clearly
One of the key challenges in balancing brand and community management is that communities typically want to use brands themselves in their work in a freeform way. This can include printing signs for events, using the brand on websites and social media, printing t-shirts and merchandise, creating presentation slides, and more. The brand is our shared identity, both for the organization and the community.
It is important that we clearly define the lines of how the brand can and cannot be used. We want to empower our community to freely utilize the brand (and associated trade dress, fonts, colors, and more) to do amazing work, but we want to avoid our brand being cheapened and diluted.
To do this we should create a rigorous brand and trademark policy that outlines these freedoms and restrictions and clearly communicate it to the community.
A good example of this is the Ubuntu Trademark Policy; it crisply states these restrictions and freedoms and has resulted in a large and capable community and fantastic brand awareness.
4. Focus quality where it really matters
As I mentioned earlier, we really want to take a “spiderfish” approach to our organizatons. This means that we centrally define some aspects of policy, but we focus those central pieces on the most valuable and important areas.
The trick is that we want to focus quality assurance on the right places. The way in which we assess the brand consistency of a keynote presentation that will be beamed around the world should be different to how we assess a small presentation given at a local community group. If we treat everything the same we will burn our teams out and limit agility and creativity.
Likewise, our assessment of quality should be around consistency as opposed to stylistic differences. We want to encourage different styles and voices: our community will present a multitude of different narratives and ideas. Our goal is to ensure that they feel consistent and connected to our central mission.
As such, focus your spider body on the most critical pieces. If you don’t, those teams will be overworked and stressed as opposed to creatively inspired and engaged.
5. Always focus on the mission
I know I have banged this drum a few times already in this article, but we have to focus on our mission every single day.
Covey teaches us that we should collaboratively define and share our missions and that these missions should guide our work every day, not just be shoved in a cupboard or stuck to a dusty wall, never to be seen again. We should assess every idea, every project, every motivation within the parameters of what we are here to do.
This is critical at a tactical level (“should project foo be something we invest in?”) but also at a strategic level (“how do we balance marketing and community management to further our mission?”).
Enforcing this is a key responsibility for senior executives. Is is senior leadership that really defines the culture and tenor of our organizations so it can trickle down, and reminding and inspiring everyone of the bigger picture is essential.
I hope you find some of this useful. My primary goal with this article was to help bridge the divide between what I consider to be two critical roles in successful organizations: marketing and community management. While the cultures may be a little different, both have much to learn from each other, and much to bring to the world. I look forward to hearing from you all about your experiences and perspectives on how we continue to work together to do interesting and important work.