Your first marketing hire

I work with a lot of web startups. Often, when I see their financial model or discuss their growth plans, the “Community Manager” is the first hire they plan for in terms of goto market. Maybe I’m old and I don’t get, but this just seems wrong to me.

Generally speaking, startups are founded by creative / product people. People that can build and code. Most startups don’t have marketing strength in house. So, when it comes to making your first hire in marketing, shouldn’t you be thinking about more than community?

What does a young, promising startup need in terms of marketing fundamentals?

  • Clear, simple value proposition
  • Clear features and benefits
  • Complete website copy that can effectively sell your product or service
  • In house or subcontracted SEO
  • Active blog
  • Clear outbound communication with users tied to usage flags in your database
  • Periodic newsletter to keep users up-to-date
  • Someone who understands the landscape and can support partnering /  business development efforts

I’m missing some stuff for sure, but you get it. And when you look at this list, it should tell you that you need a good, and relatively senior Marketing / Communications person. Not a Community Manager.

The Community Manager is a recent phenomenon. Community is important, but thinking about it before you have your basic goto market messaging and building blocks in place is misguided.

I also question whether most users consider themselves to be part of a vendor’s “community”. I use many freemium services. I’m a user, not a member of a community. I don’t really care about other users  except that their presence helps ensure that an app that I love sticks around.

So, the receipe is simple: Give me a great application. Make it easy for me to understand and use. Drop everything and solve my issues if and when I have them.  If you are a community manager don’t try to be my friend. I didn’t sign up in order to get another friend. Just provide me with a kick ass product and back it up with similarly kick ass service and support. And if you’re a startup entrepreneur, walk before you run. Get the marketing essential in place before you think about staffing for community.

  • Nicely said Mark.

    Never be afraid to state the obvious I have been told. When you are starting out you don't have community and IMHO what you need to do is get attention. The best way to get attention through effective marketing.

    For a community manager to be effective you need a community to manage.

    • Your community to "manage" first and foremost is your internal community and the parts of the larger community that exists around your industry/product type who can become enthusiasts – One of the first brand enthusiasts I ever "recruited" was in the market for a new service and after i reached out and built a relationship over twitter, they became a customer and eventually an agent for the service

      Another was a personal contact on twitter who already used the service and loved it. I gave him access to beta features we were playing with and he tweeted about the experience and prodcued content for his blog and other news sites around the company.

      Being active on other communities (including twitter and facebook) from day one is important and must be part of your first marketing hire's responsibilities because relationships – as "soft" as they are will make or break your business

      Your first marketing hire should also be a connector, a maven and a salesman (as defined by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point, point 7,8 & 9 here:
      Typically, a good community manager is all three.

      Marketing itself has changed – yes, it's still about getting noticed but it's *not* about pushing your message anymore. You have to be willing to enagage in conversation.

      • So in your books, Community Manager fills the jobs that I would expect a founder / CEO and Product Manager to do. Initial outreach, recruiting marquis users, getting early product feedback are all things a founder should do.

        And don't get me started about pushing messages. Are you really telling me that people on Twitter are not promoting themselves? Are you saying its all authentic conversation?


      • There are some very basic and fundamental theories around sales and marketing that are timeless. One that stuck out in my mind was the AIDA formula; Attention, Interest, Desire and Action. I generally structure my sales funnel around these four stages from first to last:

        1.Attention you must have this and marketing usually drives getting attention
        2.Interest, people have to understand and like what you offer
        3.Desire; they have to want to buy
        4.Action; congratulations someone bought your product or service.

        1 = marketing
        2/3 shades of grey sales and/or marketing/ product management
        4 = sales

        A community manager IMHO is more a post sales job rather than a pre-sales job. Until you start to close a few deals and win business you cannot afford a community manager. To get to the point where you have developed a minimum viable product, launch it and gain traction is 12 – 24 months. The start-ups I work with on a daily (probably 10 of them) basis are 2 – 6 people and not one of them has a dedicated community manager.

  • The Community Manager might not be your first Marketing hire, but you'd do well to make them your first Customer Service one 😉

  • Hi Mark, I think there's a large degree of variance in what the "Community Manager" title means. I've seen community managers who are involved with product strategy and positioning, driving customers/partners and traditional PR. And I've seen community managers who spend their whole day chatting on Facebook and Twitter without any strategic objective.

    It all comes down to how you define the role, what the objectives are and how you measure them.

    • I'll take the former one, not the one on FB and Twitter please.

  • Here's a really great post called: 10 Community Manager Responsibilities that Dont Involve Twitter and Facebook

    And let's not forget that an important part of a community manager's job is OFFLINE as well as online

    • Interesting. Though the fact that this post exists illustrates that CMs need to be a better job showing what they do and more importantly showing the results they bring.

      • Thanks Arie for posting that–saw it too and it is bang on to my view of a CM.

        Mark-the difficulty is the outside world only sees things like Facebook and Twitter and that's where it comes from. Again, it's the same with public relations-most people think of it only as getting publicity, which is actually a tiny slice of the pie.

        And on that note, I have a quarterly report to finish up, so I'm out of here. Thanks for prompting such an interesting discussion!

        • At the risk of not knowing when to stop, all I have to say is:

          I'm not the outside World. I'm inside. And if the value is not apparent to people like me (insiders who make hiring and strategy decisions then CMs have a communication gap to close.

          Given the background and role of CMs you should be uniquely positioned to close that expectation and communication gap.

          Have fun with the quarterly report

  • Mark,

    For once I agree with you 😉 with a couple of comments:

    1- for most of the tasks you listed, I would recommend against hiring any permanent employee. Get an experienced marketing contractor instead (disclaimer: I am biased, that's my business). I have been the 1st marketing hire at a web startup and for the most part felt like I could do what I was asked to do in less than 20% of the time I was paid for… So the next time around I decided I'd only do this as a contractor (or a founder). The business model of a startup will change rapidly so you don't want to get stuck with someone whose skillset was great for your previous business model.

    2- The list pf tasks you provided is definitely better than just doing "community management", but apart from the first 2 or 3 items, it's a one-size-fits-all that will not fit many startups. For example, in my experience newsletters and SEO are a waste of time and money for a majority of them. It really depends on what you do. In my practice is put together a tool that let me quickly pick and choose a set of marketing initiatives out of a database of about 60 typical ones, and adapt them based on the situation of the company. I can show that to the management, with various metrics on what we anticipate to achieve with this marketing mix, and have a good discussion. Then we detail each initiative and track results.
    It's a bit more sophisticated than what you might do for a young start-up but it's quickly done through automation of the core tasks, and it has shown that the most effective marketing mix is not always what you think. The key question is where does your target audience gets its information from?


    • I do see a business case for using subcontractors early on for sure. And out of the gate you better bang for your buck with a really experienced person that you can't afford to hire full time.

  • Active blog? I don't think so. Please spare us from yet another blog that's there just to fill out a check box on a list. Nobody reads them anyway, so they provide little value.

    • Sorry. Wrong. I can point to many companies where their blog is a big source of qualified organic traffic. Your business if you want to read them or not. But they work

  • While I agree that a community manager cannot do much if the branding and objectives haven’t been sorted out I think it is wrong to think that community managers are limited to managing social media accounts and blogs or that community in this sense is about connecting users to each other
    The fact that people have your brand in common makes them your community
    The opportunity to expand your reach by establishing and maintaining relationships with enthusiasts of your brand/product/industry is part of a community manager’s role
    For the most part the community is not from the users’ perspective but from the company’s
    Keep in mind though that marketing is most of how a customer experiences a company
    In a startup it will not usually be a distinct role for a while but community management is important from the get-go
    At least half your examples of things a startup needs are community oriented (blog, newsletter, outbound comms etc)
    Community managers have been around for a lot longer than social media has been around Most started with forums in the 90s but I would argue that all business owners have participated in community management The best example is a restaurant owner who welcomes his patrons, remembers their favourites, let’s them know what’s fresh and good and makes them feel at ease
    Forums are an invaluable tool for customer relations and tech support and while at first it is best for the moderation to be done in house
    All in all a community manager who can’t also help you with branding and goal setting shouldn’t be your first marketing hire but don’t confuse community with social media fans and followers or assume that it is a new discipline

    • Hi Arie,

      Thanks for commenting. Have to take issue with a few things:

      "The fact that people have your brand in common makes them your community ". I don't buy this as a general statement. I am not part of Heinz or Coca Cola's community. Yet, I consume their products.

      "establishing and maintaining relationships with enthusiasts" – sounds soft. Also, I'd prefer my product managers to do this directly.

      I like your restaurant example. That shows tangible experential benefit. I'm not sure today's web community managers meet that standard. Perhaps they can't given the volume of users and less intimate medium (online vs. in person).

  • Mark–I think you are assuming that a community manager is a young inexperienced social media savvy person and in that respect I completely agree that it shouldn't be your first marketing hire. Though what I really think is you have a misguided view of community management.

    With most of the community managers I know, myself included community management is a heck of a lot more than playing around on Twitter and Facebook.

    I'm using myself as an example, but I've found most community managers have an eerily similar background, so it's not just based on my own experience but many other CMs I've met.
    I went to school for public relations and have extensive experience in marketing before I ever was called a community manager. The community manager role (at least how I've experienced it) is high level–it's managing strategic relationships around the startup to push the company forward (this is PR and can involve dealing with publics including the media, investors, customers, industry experts and more). It also involves marketing and that's where my experience in email marketing, SEO and conversion optimization has come in handy. Being able to bring the fluffy "community" stuff and tie it into business goals and ultimately sales is a community manager's best weapon.

    It can and often involves customer communities, but it's so much more than that. While larger companies are employee community managers as glorified online customer support, I don't think that flies in a startup, however I do think that superior customer service skills (such as empathy, the ability to think quickly and on your feet and communicate effectively) are very important.

    So basically I absolutely think a community manager *should* be a startup's first marketing hire, so long as you know what the role is and hire the right person.

    • Hey Kelly, I think we are going to have to agree to disagree. Note: I did not say CMs should be abolished or that they don't add value. I just said they should not be the 1st hire. You don't start a dev team with an automation specialist. That comes later. So too does CM.

      As for my view. It is formed from the 16 startups I currently work with, the many more that I know and the 11 years I have spent in leadership roles at startups. It is an informed view.

      What CMs need to do better for folks like me is show their impact. What is the quantifiable impact of this role? Do they drive engagement? If so give them targets? Retention? Conversion to paid? If they meaningfully impact some aspect of a company's conversion ratios, then they should be responsible for that. No fluffy, unquantifiable jobs.

    • Me again. Rather than debating CM merits, here's how I look at it: unless a CM is the person that will do the inital positioning, messaging, features/ benefits and copy. And unless that person is charged with *building* the community and owns targets for that – they should not be the first marketing hire.

      • I'm definitely agreeing with you there, and if you look at your original list of what the first marketing hire *should* be able to accomplish those are all things I do and/or have done at various startups. I speak from the perspective of someone who has been the first marketing hire at four startups (my entire career in fact) and what I've learned (often from trial and error) is you need someone with:

        -Diverse skill set that covers various areas of marketing/PR (i.e. marcom, SEO, copywriting, journalistic writing, social media, basic graphic design/HTML)
        -Strategic thinker
        -Superior communications skills
        -Knowledge and well-connected in the industry you serve
        -passionate about your business

        I'm not sure what role you would call that, before community manager I was called a communications manager, and pretty much did exactly the same thing (of course with social media it's a lot easier to do the connecting/community bit, hence the title change, it's also the most visible part of the job). My point is many of the community managers (at startups at least) often fall into the same category, we often chat about how eerie it is that our backgrounds are similar because it seems quite random.

        So if it's not a community manager, what is it? I don't see it as a senior role (i.e. VP/CMO) because you need someone who's going to jump into the little details and get their hands dirty…

        • I don't think your title reflects the breadth of your responsibilities. Manager or Director of Mar / com would be more accurate

        • Well technically I'm Manager of Marketing & Communities right now, so suppose that makes sense. I still identify first as a community manager. But I don't see community as simply managing an online forum, I see it as the evolution of PR (when PR is properly defined as managing an organization's strategic relationships.).

  • As someone who's held both roles I completely see your point as it not being hire number 1 and wouldn't recommend it for a product that doesn't have an already defined product and marketing strategy.

    Community managers are essential when the product or service itself requires a person on the front lines to respond to the users needs, when there is a volume of user generated content or moderation requirements. There are community managers that come from customer service backgrounds, those who are social media 'machines' and others like myself who have marketing, advertising and public relations experience.

    Sadly, as I have come to see in my own experience, many companies lack the funds to hire or retain a senior person with experience in both marketing and social media skills.

    Much of this desire for hiring a Community Manager comes from seeing this as a 'sexy title' that many of the bigger name 'sexy startups' have added to their roster.

    • Hey Tanya. I was hoping some CMs would show up. As you said user needs = support. Moderation is not support, but is it truly something you can scale in an internal role, or do you have to enable members to moderate (a la Slashdot)?

      It does have its place, but only as 1 aspect of a fully baked marketing plan.

      • I think the problem that many people have is thinking that community management is marketing, that marketing is only social media and that community management is and only uses social media.

        All of this comes out of the organization not knowing how these roles differ as well as those who hold these roles not making the appropriate distinctions.

        As for moderation, and whether it should be by an internal hire vs managed by the community, I've seen lots of forums and sites where there's been no community manager present and it's no place I want to spend my time due to severe troll infestations. That's not to say that community self-policing isn't effective, but if no one (community manager, CEO, PR rep, marketing services, intern, etc) from the company itself isn't interested enough to check in on their user / customer activity and respond, then I'm not really left with an impression of involvement aside from pushing marketing messages at me.

        Thanks for the interesting post Mark.

        • Great comments and you're absolutely right – to just assume the community will police forums demeans their importance and says a lot about a company's priorities. In full agreement with that.

          And in full agreement that community does not equal marketing and vice versa. Though I do maintain community is a subset of marketing.

  • Hi Mark, having been "the first marketing hire" at more startups then I'd like to admit I thought your post was pretty good roundup of what that person needs to deliver. I'd also add some product marketing experience to the mix as being able to convert the founder's vision/product into compelling sales tools is key at this stage.

    As for The Community Manager, maybe you and I are too old school to endorse that as role as hire #1. Like you, I use all kinds of web apps (paid and freemium) to run my business and my life. While I may read their blog posts and Tweets, I don't really give a rats ass about the community. At the end of the day, it's the quality of the product or service that keeps me engaged.

    • Robert, product marketing is a big element too. For sure. Thanks

  • All I can say is Amen. Social media is important but it's part of the toolkit we use to engage with our customers, not sufficient in and of itself.

    • Exactly. Too many people think social media is some *new* thing unto itself. Its another marketing channel. A great one, but the same principles apply