This post was originally published by Elinor Cohen on the Times of Israel in May 2015:
I recently had the pleasure to be interviewed on an internet radio program for entrepreneurs called “StartIt”. Every week the host, Ory Arbel, brings in a guest from the start-up ecosystem in Israel (the show is in Hebrew) to speak about some aspect of entrepreneurship. Having worked with a fair share of Start-ups and technology incubators in Israel, and holding a rather unique approach to the business development and the marketing of Start-ups, I naturally spoke about community management.
What triggered my participation in the show was actually my reply to the previous week’s show, where they talked about “customer service being the new marketing”. I commented that customer service is indeed one aspect of marketing (not sure how new it is) but that, as I’ve been saying for at least the past three years,community management, in the broadest sense of the word, is more “the new marketing” than anything else.
This post is basically me trying to put my thoughts and what I said on the interview down in writing, and in English for the sake of international readers.
[If you can understand Hebrew, you can listen to the interview on YouTube]
My fundamental view is that everything we do is aimed at people. Therefore, nothing in the life cycle of a product, a venture, or a service is detached from the understanding of why it is there and who it is for.
These two questions: Why and Who (in that order!) are the most important ones any entrepreneur should ask themselves. These are the very first questions you need to answer the minute you come up with an idea for a new venture. As I said on the show, we daily witness great successes, start-ups that make millions or billions of dollars, from various ideas (which we don’t always understand or even see the need for, but people likes them). However, as someone who is well immersed in the start-up ecosystem of Israel, I can also tell you that we witness many many failures.
More often than not the failure is not due to the idea, which can be amazing, but due to the application and the marketing. In other words, you can have the best and most brilliant idea ever, but you go about it the wrong way. We see entrepreneurs who have limited funds and come to us for marketing with a product, only to find out there is no market for their product, or that their product doesn’t provide the solution they thought is needed. Needless to say, at that point they lack the funds to re-do everything…
How can you tell what’s “wrong” and what’s “right”?
By answering those two questions above: Why do you do it? Who do you do it for?
The answer to the “why” is the most important one, because this is what will help you identify your community and connect with it. Once you connect with your community (even before you write a single line of code!), you will understand what makes this group of people a “community”, what they need, what challenges they face and how you can help them cope with those challenges. This is what will set your idea apart. You’ll be surprised how many times the answer to the “why” changes the entire product. It can be a change in a button or a feature or a completely new direction, but it is a change that is inspired by and meant for the community, and this makes your product relevant. It makes your solution be a good one and have added value. People like value. This is what sets apart a complex product, which may be beautifully designed and brilliantly executed but that no one really needs and a simple solution to a real problem. You can guess which one will be a hit and make money and which one will fail.
So how does this tie in to the whole “Community Management” thing?
Community Management, in the narrow meaning of the term, refers to online customer service basically. It is the difference between just posting online and not engaging, to sticking around and actually answer and provide service to your “community”. When you think about it like this, as important as it may sound, you may think it is enough to employ community management strategiesafter you already have a product, a website, your social media and all other channels. You may think it is a partof your overall marketing strategy.
What I believe in, and this is based on my experience of years of working with Start-ups and technology incubators, is that Community Management is so much more than just online customer service, and that it is not just a part of your marketing strategy. In fact it should be your marketing strategy. All of it.
I’ve already written about this: Community Management is not social media management. Social media management is just one tool and skill a community manager holds. Community Management is also not just customer service online. That too, is only a part of what a community manager does or at least should do.Community Management is about being part of a living organism and leading it. The Community Manager has to first be part of the community – equal to everyone – and then rise to the status of leadership. The leadership has to be authentic. It has to come from a pure place in the community manager’s heart in order for the community to relate to him or her. The rest are just tools.
Very quickly and pretty much at the beginning of my work with start-ups, I realized that the way I perceived and practiced Community Management was quite different, and very much broader, than the classic definition of enhanced customer happiness and engagement. I realized that I was combining all my skills of Content writing (for various purposes and of different types – brochures, presentations, Press Releases, blog posts, website pages, social media posts), Social Media management skills, Community Management approach, Strategic thinking and much more, to deliver a brand new service to the start-ups I worked with.
Think about an online marketing agency, but really focused on people and communities, which also helps with your business development. Think “CMO” who is actually a Community Manager, a content person, a PR person and a strategic thinker. Granted, it’s a lot of work, but when done efficiently, it saves you money, time and leads to actual growth. Imagine what that means for a lean Start-up with hardly any budget…
And thus was born the “Engagement Strategy”.
How do you go about building a community?
First we need to understand what makes a community. A community is a group of people who share an interest or a challenge and who are actively communicating and acting together to fulfill that interest, or cope with that challenge. Not every group of people is a community and a community is not always very big.
When you want to build your community, you therefore have to first identify the common challenge or mutual interest and address that. The answer to the “why” lets you find the axis around which a community revolves.
Once you find the why, you have to realize you may have more than one community. If we’re talking about Start-ups, you will find you have at least 3 communities: your customers of course, but also your investors and your colleagues. In some cases your competitors are also a community you have to keep in mind.
Each of these communities has a different “why”. Identifying their “why” will help you craft your story and your voice for addressing each community. Each of these communities will have its own separate and preferred channels of communication. You will have to respect each community’s preferences and adjust your message accordingly.
As you can probably realize already, this way of thinking, this “State of mind” of being focused on your community from the very beginning (answering the “why” and the “who”), affects your overall business strategy. This state of mind affects and often changes your go-to-market strategy, your branding, your message and story. Sometimes it changes your entire product or service.
More importantly it improves your chances of success. Try to imagine the difference between randomly pitching an idea to investors, and pitching it correctly to investors who share your interest or who cope with the challenge your solution is for.
The bottom line…
I realize that not everyone is a Community Manager (you can’t really learn this, you have to be it), and I certainly don’t think that every entrepreneur should do their own Community Management. In fact I think they shouldn’t. They should focus on running the business. I do, however, believe that every entrepreneur should understand what Community Management really is, what Engagement Strategy is, and adopt this state of mind from the very early stages of the venture.
You can then work with a Community Management consultant, or even decide who will be your designated Community Manager and build everything from there. The result will be a product that is commercialized properly and ready to launch and make money.