Community Manager, I have a confession. If you know me, you know I started my career not in tech, but in public high school education (it had a pretty big impact on me, and I like to talk about it!). When I did pivot into tech, I had an extremely steep learning curve not just about how to do my actual job, but how to understand the jobs of my colleagues. One of the teams that stumped me the most was product—I understood that engineering teams built the actual products, but I didn't understand enough about the complexity of building software to know how product teams came into the picture (cut to me Googling "what is a Product Manager" and still not totally getting it).
What's ironic is that of all the teams that typically work at a tech startup, product teams are often the ones that CMs have the most to learn from. I'll save you a Google search — Product Managers do everything from the research and ideation phase of creating new products to actually working with engineers to prioritize different aspects of building the feature and getting it into the hands of users. If that sounds familiar, it should — what I've learned over the years is that in many ways, community instances are products in and of themselves. Effective CMs also need to rely on research skills, project planning, prioritization, and technical collaboration in order to create great communities. So, it stands to reason that we can learn a lot from folks who work in professional product management.
Luckily, in my current role at Commsor, my boss Alex Angel, our Chief Community Officer, has a ton of experience working on Product teams as well as within Community. She was gracious enough to sit down with me to answer some of my questions about how product work can inform community work.
Alex! You have quite the storied career—it says on LinkedIn that you were once a Laser Technician?! I want to ask you all about that, but we’re here to talk about community and product. Can you tell me a little bit about how you moved back and forth between community and product roles?
Alex: There’s honestly quite a lot of overlap between Community and Product, but I didn’t know that until I made the move from a Community role to Product. I made my initial foray into product because I wanted to hone skills I thought were missing in my toolbox. As a Community Manager, I was responsible for running projects from start to finish (many of them totally zero-to-one since there weren’t many examples of brand communities to model off at the time), taking and relaying product feedback from members, prioritizing roadmaps, and conducting user research — and the list goes on.
But all of this was learned on the fly, never in a formal capacity, which is where my interest in a more traditional Product role arose. Over the years I held titles like Technical Project Manager, Product Owner, Product Marketing Manager, Product Manager, and Operations Lead. In each, I was responsible for many of the same things I was as a Community Manager.
What I ended up learning and taking back to Community roles was how to think about business goals, the big picture, and how to get stakeholder buy-in. In Product, you typically have to influence without authority in order to convince various teams and stakeholders to come along for the ride. The same can be directly applied to Community.
That makes sense that a lot of the skills cross over between the two roles. I’m curious — do you see communities as ‘products’ in their own way? I know we often think of communities as ‘programs,’ but do they sometimes have more overlap with products than we might think?
Alex: I absolutely think of community as a product, and programs like product features. You can, and should, run a product development lifecycle when building community. There are a bunch of different frameworks you can use, but I typically go through these phases: ideation, definition, research, design, testing, and launch. It’s extremely important to define the scope at this stage so all stakeholders are aligned on the expectations and requirements for the community to successfully launch. If you have the luxury of ‘launch’ being a Minimum Viable Community all the better, but you can slot that into the ‘research’ phase if your ‘launch’ needs to be The Big One.
Every product comes with features, just as every community comes with programs. Your programs may be small or expansive, but regardless of size they should go through a standard planning and ‘development’ phase. That usually involves defining the program, outlining a hypothesis and measures of success, experimenting, and iterating.
I love your point that communities need to go through the same rigorous development cycle as do products. You mentioned the research phase — I know product teams often do user research and create personas that help them design new features with real people and products in mind. Do you think there are any major differences in how community builders should create and utilize personas, or are the principles really the same?
Alex: I feel like a broken record, but like the rest of the concepts I’ve talked about, personas in community are pretty much exactly the same as they are in product. Not only do you need to understand the business goals and the ‘why’ behind your community, but you must understand who you are building the community for and their motivations for joining and sticking around. I wrote a post about how you can apply standard product persona creation to community persona creation, and I know you and your team have created an awesome self-paced course on persona development as well.
True! Our Community team here at Commsor is super interested in these overlaps. What’s something outside of persona work and user interviewing that you think product teams do really well that community managers could learn from?
Alex: Hands down, stakeholder buy-in. There’s been a theme I’ve observed over the years of community pros talking about how difficult it is to get internal support or to get the point across for how important the community is for their company. I’ve been there, too, and I absolutely understand the frustration. But working in product really opened my eyes to how you should be structuring these conversations and positioning your community, your team, and yourself.
As I mentioned earlier, product leaders have to influence without authority. They are, more often than not, individual contributors who do not have any direct leadership authority within the organization. In order for them to build the best product, however, they have to get individuals (often executive leadership) from different teams invested in the vision and committed to helping. This includes all teams at the organization – Engineering, Marketing, Support/Success, etc. Each team has a part to play and minimal time and resources to do so, and it’s the Product Manager’s responsibility to convince them to join in the fray and to trust that the product they’re building will benefit their team and the organization as a whole.
Much of this is achieved by taking the initiative and building relationships. Take the time to understand what each team is working towards and how it ties back to overall company goals, and let them know how your product plans help support those goals. Offer help preemptively and follow through, and people will return in kind.
I know you alluded to this when you were talking about your career path, but I wonder if you can tell us more about the overlapping skills between Community Managers and Product Managers? Do you think these are easy careers to pivot back and forth between, and how common do you think that is? I know you’ve done it.
Alex: This is just one person’s opinion, but the shared traits and skills that I’ve seen the best CMs and PMs share are:
Thank you so much for your time here, Alex—we’ve learned a lot from you.
Alex: Happy to help!
User interviewing techniques to create your ideal community personas.
User interviewing techniques to create your ideal community personas.