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Where should Community live in an organization?

Many thanks to Tiffany Oda, Alesa Little, Etienne Nichols, and Nikki Thibodeau for their contributions to this collaborative resource, and to Jenny Weigle for being a part of the initial discussion.

Hi, Bri here! 👋🏼

I attended a panel at the recent CMX Summit and I was struck by a question raised by the facilitator, Etienne Nichols. He asked the panelists, “Where within your organization should Community be housed?” The participants proceeded to share their experiences with community living under different departments: customer support, customer success, product, and so on.

Just as they were about to move on to the next question, there was a horrifying moment where I lost control of my body and shouted from my seat in the audience up to the moderator, “What about marketing?” Etienne, thrown completely for a loop, was as terrified as I was.

We have since recovered and I invited Etienne and some of the brightest community professionals to start this conversation about where a community should live in an organization and why.

Community under Customer Success, according to Alesa Little

When it works

Community can work well under Customer Success when its primary purpose and role are to help provide value to the customer base, retain the customers the company currently has, and expand the customer base.

A Success Community contains the content, resources, and tools that enhance the customer experience, encourage continued engagement, and proactively help customers overcome potential blockers. It can also help potential customers engage with your teams and foster a sense of belonging. As Simon Sinek said, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” A Success Community is a great way to show th

e value — the why behind what you do.

What to watch out for

While a community can function well under Customer Success, it’s easy to go down the wrong path if you start building content and resources that your community does not need or want. It can also be tempting to spend your time creating the content rather than working on a community-led approach to content creation.

Embrace the proactive approach by considering and collaborating with other teams and listening to your community members to determine what tools and resources would be of the most benefit to them.

Community under Product, according to Bri Leever

When it works

I’ve found that in the startup SaaS space, it’s natural for a community to evolve out of the product team. The product team needs real-time feedback on the product and they want to hear from the community on what features they want to see next. This structure creates buy-in from the customer to co-create the product with the product team.

These communities can be really powerful when you prompt members to share how they are using the tool. This functions not only as a way to inspire current members for how they can level up their fame, but you can

use the content to attract new customers to get a vision of how they would use the product too.

What to watch out for

While this relationship can be incredibly symbiotic, communities coming out of product can start to feel like one confusing mass of product requests rather than a group of people connecting proactively to help each other. If your community lives here, consider incorporating events and prompting conversations that help members learn together and

Community under Customer Support, according to Alesa Little

When it works

A com

munity works well under Customer Support when its primary purpose is to provide self-service opportunities for the customer. A great Support Community contains a knowledge base, support discussions, and additional tools to mitigate common issues and questions your customers may have.

The role of the community with Customer Support is to reactively help customers who are having an issue. These communities are often less about connection and more about quickly solving issues and de-escalating a customer. By their nature, they help retain customers by allowing customers to self-serve on an issue and carry on with their day. Since Customer Support is much more concerned with metrics like customer satisfaction, resolution times, and reducing support tickets, a Support Community can help with all of those things through timely support, robust knowledge bases, and case mitigation features.

What to watch out for

While a community can be a great resource for the support team, support is not always the best place to foster a well-rounded community. They tend to focus on reactively solving problems rather than proacti

vely building community. If your community lives on the customer support team, consider if there are ways your community can support other departments as well to create a more proactive approach.

Community under Marketing, according to Etienne Nichols and Nikki Thibodeau

When it works

If we zoom out and think of the purpose of marketing departments, we can see that they are responsible for identifying customer needs and wants, presenting the company and its products to consumers, building brand awareness, and strengthening the product and company image — does this sound familiar?

While Customer Success loves the customer and Customer Support helps the customer, Marketing understands the customer.

There are multiple types of marketing: upstream, downstream, content marketing, product marketing. Each subsection of marketing understands a slightly different variation of the customer's pain. Most community specialists have pretty good intuition when it comes to “giving the people what they need.” But marketing has turned this into a science.

Combine that with the likely situation that marketing has the furthest reach and collaboration across the business (in order to understand your customer), and you’ve got a strong case for housing your community in marketing.

What to watch out for

There is certainly a tendency for traditional marketing folks to be too salesy or not engage in conve

rsations. Often, we see that marketing folks want to come in, drop something, and then leave, rather than take the time to foster the relationships that are required in community work. Be prepared to experience some tension here and our advice is to be a collaborative team player, but show the marketing team how their goals will be achieved when they invest in the relationships first.

Community as an independent department, according to Tiffany Oda

When it works

Community is so cross-functional, providing value and impact across the entire business. It’s clear from each of m

y amazing co-authors here that community touches everything. As such, it makes sense that community should stand on its own — that way, it can fully support its partnerships with stakeholders across the company while maintaining its own set of goals and KPIs, rather than potentially having to fit under a different team’s goals. As it brings value across the business, community should ideally be the center of excellence across the organization.

Graphic by Holly Firestone

What to watch out for

Resources. As cross-functional as community is, we still rely heavily on partnerships with stakeholders on each of the different teams. It’s important to establish this working partnership and ensure stakeholders support and contribute to community initiatives — it requires dedicated bandwidth. Also, building out repor

ts and dashboards for each team brings visibility to the impact that community has, further strengthening the relationship and justification that community is providing value across the business.

A final word

There’s no one right way to do it. Overall, there are huge benefits to Community being its own highly cross-functional team, but we recognize most organizations are not ready for this just yet. To find where Community should live in your organization, evaluate the goal for your community first. What are you trying t

o accomplish? Then compare that with the goals from each team to figure out who the community aligns the most with today.

The graphic above shows the different departmental postures towards the customer. If the goals of your community include or are reliant upon understanding and creating for the customer, then consider living under product or marketing

And finally, ta

ke social dynamics into consideration. It might make sense on paper for your community to live in marketing, but if you know that the personalities and agendas on that team are not going to support your ultimate goals for the community, then do what you can to find a team that will best support what the community needs in order to thrive and achieve its goals.

If you’re interested in hearing the full conversation that sparked this article, you can watch it here.

About the Authors

Brand Community Strategist at Ember Consulting

​​Bri Leever has been formally designing, leading, and growing communities in-person and virtually for over seven years. Now, Bri partners with purposeful brands to help them transition from being product-led to comm

unity-led by crafting a community framework to activate their top customers. When not in the community world you can find her on, in, or under the water near Hawaii island. 🌺

Community Manager & Podcast Host at Greenlight Guru

Etienne Nichols helps MedTech professionals bring safe, quality to market by connecting them with other industry experts. A mechanical engineer by trade, Etienne is currently the Medical Device Guru for Greenlight Guru and Community Manager for MedTech Nation. He also hosts the Global Medical Device Podcast.

Community Manager at Carrus

Alesa Little has over 16 years of experience in online training and education, with 10 years of experience managing online forums and communities. Alesa is enthusiastic about building engaging community experiences that drive adoption and success. She believes in the power of community building as a means to change lives, foster belonging, and augment support experiences.

Former Senior Community Strategist for Shopify

Nikki Thibodeau was Shopify's first Senior Community Strategist, helping scale their efforts across a 10,000+ person organization and for their over 2 million merchants. During that time, she helped build and scale their internal community for empowerment and psychological safety for women in the workplace: the Women's Employee Resource Group.

Director, Community Operations at Venafi

Tiffany Oda wears many hats as the Director of Community Operations at Venafi, Strategic Community

Advisor at Talkbase, and the Co-Founder of Community OPServations. She is nerdy about process efficiency and automation, data and reporting, community program management, community tools, and all the things behind the scenes it takes to keep the gears of the community turning. Tiffany is based in San Francisco and enjoys spending time with her shiba inu Yoshi, drinking wine, doing OrangeTheory Fitness, and traveling.


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