Defending the Community Ambassador

I just wrote the following frenzy of text after reading this on Kevin Gamble’s blog:

“It’s not a community if everyone doesn’t feel free to participate as an equal. As soon as you make this someone’s job you devalue the contributions of everyone.”

I think the heart of Kevin’s post is in the exact right place. However, I think it’s entirely incorrect to say that making community work someone’s job devalues it; it doesn’t change the value at all, it just focuses it in a more useful way for the company.  While Kevin’s “conversational” aspiration is fantastic (and I think can be part of the community job), I think it’s idealistic to think that almost any company can have their best possible relationship with their community without someone focusing on it, at least part time.

For the record, a few things: I work at Flock as a Community Ambassador.  I am certainly biased.  I will refer to the position that we’re discussing here as Community Ambassador, but it has also been called Community Advocate/Evangelist/Manager (I’ll state my take on the “Manager” title later in the post).  I think Kevin’s heart is in the right place, but I truly believe in this position.

Here’s why this job is important:

Community is important
I don’t think Kevin denies this, but I think it’s important to state: your community is what keeps your company afloat, and (hopefully) the goal of your company was and is to make the lives of your community better in some way.  If you don’t listen to your community, you are either going to fail or you will have to get very lucky.  Methods may differ, but for the most part you’ll find that successful companies listen to their community.

Companies are not inclined to state what they’re doing
Companies like to have big unveilings, to surprise their audience, and (frankly) to keep their ideas secret so they don’t get ripped off. Communication between releases is not in their nature. However, it is part of human nature to want to know what’s going on and part of human nature to talk about things they’re excited about.  I know people who are just short of physically upset when they don’t know what Flock is up to, even if it’s as simple as “planning our holiday party”. I mentioned our new Twitter account on our blog last week and within 5 hours more than 70 people had started following it. People want to know what’s going on, and employees want to talk about it…but companies are built by default not to do this. Unless you’re blessed with an executive staff that is open-minded AND takes the initiative to make the time to write and/or approve posts, this isn’t going to happen on it’s own.

Customer feedback is, by it’s nature, raw and biased
Of course my feedback about a product I use is going to be biased…I bought it for me, and it should work for me! But how is Apple supposed to treat my feedback that the new iPod Nano doesn’t fit in the mini-pocket of my jeans? Alongside (probably) millions of other pieces of feedback, where does this factor in? Again, time becomes an issue: does Jobs have time to read and absorb all this feedback and do his regular work?  Unlikely. While I’m fully in support of employees at all levels of a company reading community feedback (which we do at Flock, from QA to CEO), it’s unrealistic to count on this. Having a Community Ambassador to absorb, categorize, and interpret this feedback is key. Nobody at Flock would have guessed that Picasa was important to our community, but through gradual collection of votes (on our site, blogs, and via direct feedback) it became clear that Picasa integration is much more important to our existing community than any other service.

That said, I totally agree that the Community Ambassador should not be the single point of failure. Going back to the point about feedback being biased….even if 20 angry people like me write to Apple asking for iPod Nanos that fit our mini-pockets, that’s ignoring the millions of people who don’t care or even like the size. Both the Community Ambassador and the company they work for must take this all into consideration. User testing should be done, and ideas from directly within the company shouldn’t take backseat to community feedback…they should ride together, as equally viable ideas.

People like to get pumped
I understand where the inclination to stay “hands off” of evangelism comes from. Nothing is grosser than an employee (especially an executive!) putting on a big fake smile and blabbing on about how great the latest product is. However, I think that if you accomplish what Jeremiah suggests in his post on the topic, you are part of your community as much as your company. Once you are a legitimate part of your community, you are taken seriously by them (though you can easily compromise this by not being honest). If you truly are excited about your product (which you should be, or you should get a new job), you should express this to the people whom you know are excited about your product. If I care about, say, the band Queens of the Stone Age, I might join their Street Team or mailing list. If their Community Ambassador then contacts me telling me about how awesome the new album is (especially if it’s “insider” news), I’m going to be stoked! If he tells me they’re going on a new tour that is going to be wild and crazy and gives me the link to buy tickets, I’m not going to feel advertised to…I’m going to click that link and look at the tour dates! It’s all about being honest and genuine and only evangelizing to those who opt-in in some way.

Everybody should be part-time Community Ambassador
I agree with Kevin…the position of Community Ambassador absolutely does not absolve anyone in the organization of interaction with the community. As we do at Flock, the executives should blog, read feedback, respond to customers, and meet the community. This is essential to your organization, and the position of Community Ambassador should not affect this one way or another.

In the end, I understand where these anti-Community Ambassador posts come from. The position is often called Community Manager, which is a gross mischaracterization and invokes scary undertones. Many people claim to be interested in “community”, but describe it as a sort of asset (“Oh yeah, we got one of them community things. I hear they’re good for business.”) And the intrusive, look-we’re-cool-too style of advertising is so pervasive that it makes me physically angry when I hear a 40-year-old on the radio talk about how “sweet” and “stylin'” you’ll be with some “urban groove” on your “sweet mp3 player”. That is not community work…that is lame, dishonest advertising. The Community Ambassador is not an advertiser…he/she is simultaneously a member of the company and the community, and the guide for communication between them. He/she is not the be-all, end-all. He/she is not the single point of communication. He/she is not always right. He/she is just helping the flow of communication between those who make and those who use a product.  And if that’s not an important role, I don’t know what is.

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