By Jennifer Van Grove, Mashable
Community management is anything but a science. But, more and more startups are figuring out early on that defining what “community” means to their business, and then working to incorporate and respond to that community is an essential element in their growth and the maturation of their products.
What follows is an in-depth look at how seven startups at various stages of development are approaching community management. For some, the in-house Community Manager is a must. For others, it’s a bit of an all-hands-on-deck approach. Regardless of technique, you’ll find that each of these startups uses a combination of support software and social media tools to ensure that even if the customer isn’t always right, the customer is always heard.
A few themes resonate throughout these examples: make users happy, listen to everything, incorporate community feedback into product development when appropriate, and stop fretting over the trolls. These may all sound like simple truths, but it’s the continual practice and adherence to these purist community ideals that make them complex.
1. Pandora: Measure Success One Interaction at a Time
With Pandora’s community ballooning in size, acting community manager Aaron Morgan has been filling some big shoes while longtime community manager Lucia Willow takes a five-month leave.
Of course, Morgan isn’t going it alone; he has the help of the Listener Support group, which fields and responds to every user email that comes in.
At Pandora, Morgan’s community management work on Twitter and Facebook, and the Listener Support team’s email efforts go hand-in-hand. There’s always constant communication between the two groups, who both work to pass down “feedback directly to the relevant teams within Pandora,” according to Morgan.
Community building is extremely important at Pandora. “Our Listener Support team and community management help facilitate relationships with our listeners, who in turn spread the word about Pandora to each other,” explains Morgan.
One would think that a startup with such a strong emphasis on community engagement and such a large online presence would have sophisticated reporting processes designed to measure success. That’s just not the case; the powerhouse streaming music service keeps things simple in the measurement department.
“I measure success one interaction at a time. You’d be surprised how a listenerâ€šÃ„Ã´s point of view on an issue can change as a result of communicating with an actual person. We call these complete turnarounds 180s or 360s depending on the turn of events,” says Morgan.
2. Shwowp: Make Your Users Happy
Shwowp is an online personal shopping tool that helps customers collect all their purchases in one place to better understand purchasing behaviors. The startup is as “early stage” as they come — recently launching in private beta at TechCrunch Disrupt — but community is already ingrained in the company’s essence with CEO Tara Hunt at the helm.
Having previously started the Internet consultancy Citizen Agency with Chris Messina (now with Google), Hunt’s name is to community what peanut butter is to the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You probably know her better as the author of The Whuffie Factor, the colorful personality behind the blog Horsepigcow or the heavily-followed @missrogue on Twitter.
“Community is a word that gets thrown around in lieu of ‘customers’ all too often. Just because you have people on your site who are interacting, it doesn’t mean they are part of a ‘community.’ To me, community denotes that people have a vested interest in the project,” says Hunt on the subject.
In growing Shwowp, Hunt plans to involve passionate fans in the process and “balance a vision with community-driven decisions.” She also wants the best of both worlds — dedicated community staffers and company-wide community engagement.
Here’s how she envisions this working:
“I want everyone in the company to be as close to being in touch with the site users [as possible]. But to make sure we don’t miss anything (easy to do if we are in a development push), I want a dedicated team with an ear to the ground, connecting everyone internally to the feedback. We are using Get Satisfaction on every page of the site and will ALL be receiving those e-mails from day one. It’s going to be a challenging task to balance this, I know. But we are building tools FOR customers, so we need to listen and respond one-on-one.”
Even with an aggressive community plan in place, friction is bound to build up with members from time to time. In dealing with the difficult types, “The first thing to do is to acknowledge … THEN try to solve,” Hunt says. She also believes that the right response approach should involve a mix of both humor and compassion.
“Don’t focus on community. Focus on making your users happy.” That’s Hunt’s number one piece of advice for startups looking to build better online communities. She credits Marc Hedlund, CEO of the now defunct Wesabe, with these words of wisdom.
His missteps with Wesabe have given birth to this sage advice that Hunt thinks all startups should embrace: “Focus on what really matters: making users happy with your product as quickly as you can, and helping them as much as you can after that. If you do those better than anyone else out there you’ll win.”
3. Seesmic: The Community Manages You
Seemsic makes mobile, web and desktop tools for managing and tracking your social media profiles. As the company starts to face direct competition from Twitter, Seesmic has one distinctive advantage — an unparalleled ear to the ground and a tangible desire to engage with each user.
As the man in charge, Seesmic founder Loic Le Meur is both head of the company and head servant to the community. His dedication to members can be felt through the myriad of tweets, blog posts and videos he makes specifically to help improve the Seesmic experience for application users. He employs three additional community evangelists — he calls them evangelists, “because you don’t manage a community, it manages you” — to help answer questions 24 hours a day.
Seesmic, of course, uses its own product for monitoring Twitter, Facebook and Google Buzz. The startup also employs dedicated forums — powered by Uservoice — for each product, using feedback as a public roadmap. The team regularly solicits feedback via the TeamSeesmic email newsletters that is distributed to more than 600,000 members. And for super fans, Seesmic uses Ning to create a closed community experience where select users get access to test products prior to release.
Le Meur is also a big believer in video, a media form he uses quite frequently to promote Seesmic and to build his own personal brand. He suggests startups wanting to build better online communities should get comfortable with video. In Seesmic’s case, the company’s new product release videos are now garnering upwards of 50,000 views a piece.
At the end of the day, though, Le Meur advises that startups “meet [their] community as much as [they] can.” It’s a philosophy he lives by, even recently making it a point to meet up with Seesmic users in Japan while visiting on business.
4. Disqus: Feedback is Never Lost
Disqus is one of the more widely used comment platforms on the web. If you leave a comment on Mashable, for instance, you’re using Disqus to do so. The company has two important audiences to please on a comment-by-comment basis: blog owners and blog commenters. When added together, the sum of Disqus’s community is the entire blogosphere.
As Director of Community, Gianii Calvert has the taxing responsibility of ensuring that bloggers and commenters stay happy. Calvert now has the help of another dedicated community staffer (and all staffers are encouraged to keep their ears open), but he says things were “pretty rough” when he first started back in 2008.
“In the dark days before Ryan was hired … my day consisted of waking up around market time, checking e-mail, responding to all Twitter/Facebook questions or mentions, checking Google alerts, reviewing our blog comments, and making the occasional house call,” he describes.
Now the company employs Assistly’s newly launched support tool to make the job of managing Twitter and Facebook support items a bit easier. Over the years, Disqus has also happened upon a formula for measuring community engagement with a homegrown happiness equation. It’s a “simple equation of happiness vs. unhappiness of customer feedback, measured through various channels (Twitter, Facebook, e-mail),” explains Calvert.
Calvert details that community feedback has become so essential to how Disqus modifies and improves its product, that even though the startup receives a high volume of requests, “none of it is ever lost.”
“I read everything that comes in and share the short list of the popular topics with the team every week. We talk about each one as a group and decide whether it’s something we should look into, or something we aren’t interested in implementing,” he says.
5. Posterous: Community Starts at the Top
Posterous is the multifaceted blogging platform that makes publishing and sharing all types of media with the social web as simple as possible. Product simplicity is clearly tantamount, but so too is the Posterous community — which the startup defines as both its user base and the communities created by Posterous blogs.
Their community strategy starts at the top and trickles down to everyone in the company — co-founders, brand new community managers, backend engineers, and now even college “Mobilizers” are included. In fact, the entire team took the time to pow-wow about their all-hands-on-deck approach to community management before responding to our questions via e-mail. The answers that follow represent the collective wisdom of the startup as transcribed by vice president of marketing, Rich Pearson.
A new employee at Posterous must first work in the trenches, responding to customer support inquiries for the first few weeks of employment. “We believe this is the most effective way for new team members to understand user needs. It’s a huge investment, but we find it leads to crisper feature implementation and a more delightful user experience,” explains Pearson.
The team also keeps, “a running list of feature requests that are reviewed every week,” says Pearson. And while the team does not have a formal process for responding to feedback, they do make an effort to respond to all requests with a “thank you!”
They, of course, keep a close eye on all tweets mentioning Posterous and gauge success by “how often users are willing to recommend or evangelize Posterous to their friends.”
The team believes that “empathy and transparency” are the best ways to approach disgruntled members or irate users. Posterous can certainly speak from experience in this regard, as a number of platform users — myself included — were more than displeased when the service experienced extended downtime after several denial of service attacks. But the community ultimately stuck it out and even rallied to support the startup — a true testament of a job well done.
“Instead of relying on company speak, Sachin [Sachin Agarwal, co-founder] sent out a personal apology and gave detailed accounts of our actions to stop the attacks and how hard the team was working to fix the site. We definitely lost a few users during the attacks, but the response from the majority of our users was amazing. We had users sending us pizzas as we worked late in the night trying to fend off the attacks.”
If you want to learn from Posterous’s approach to community, you’ll need to make sure your entire team — CEOs and co-founders included — are cheerleading for the company.
6. Klout: Respond to Each and Every Request
Klout makes technology capable of identifying social media influencers and calculating user reach. Klout data is already incorporated by more than 750 partners including Hootsuite and Seesmic, which makes community management all the more important.
“We do our best to respond to each and every request we get — whether it be a support issue, a question about how to use Klout, or feedback,” says Marketing Manager Megan Berry.
It’s this every-request-carries-equal-weight mentality that Berry and team embrace on a daily basis. “I have personally jumped on the phone with more than one user who had questions about their score and wanted to understand more about how it worked,” she says.
Klout also creates blog content to address member issues, solicits user contributions through Twitter, hosts KloutUps for member meet and greets, and is “always looking for how we can not just reach out to more people but deepen the relationships we already have.”
Berry knows a thing or two about dealing with the not-so-rosy side of community engagement. She’s even authored a guest post on Mashable that advises handing Twitter complaints by providing quick responses, personal and off-Twitter responses, getting fans to fight for you, and knowing when to let something go.
Berry’s day-to-day routine involves using Tweetdeck, Hootsuite and a dual screen setup for monitoring community feedback.
It may sound cliche, but Berry ultimately believes that startups can build better communities by being active and informed listeners. “Find out what people are saying about you and take the time to internalize that feedback and understand your audience before pushing out content,” she advises.
7. Clp.ly: Celebrate the Community
Clp.ly is a relatively new tool for reposting web content as visual clips with backlinks to source sites.
Tia Marie, formerly the community director at Justin.tv, is now working in community management and marketing for clp.ly. Her role in a dedicated community position may seem strange for such a young startup, but Marie believes it essential for two reasons: developers need to focus on product, and early adopters are the best evangelists. Her duties keep the developers on task and give her reign to recruit those essential product advocates.
Creating the community-to-development-team feedback loop is crucial in Marie’s opinion. “Time is money and features. Streamlining early feedback into something your dev team can work with to refine, perfect and innovate is priceless,” she says.
Plus, in her position, Marie is empowered to build meaningful relationships with early members. “There is always time to foster your superstar evangelists, but early on you have a great deal more time to spend fostering good relationships with your early adopters. [Starting early] also gives you plenty of time to handle the less sexy aspects of community management.”
She works her community magic by managing outreach, feedback and cheerleading. The latter she describes in more detail as “celebrating the community we presently have and encouraging them to use our service and making sure they know they have someone at clp.ly to go to who will hear their suggestions, rants and raves.”
Clp.ly is a bit too young to be fielding negative feedback, but when the rants do come, Marie is ready. In her previous position with Justin.tv, Marie handled the critics by privately engaging users who had negative feedback, and developed a thick skin to prevent insults from emotionally influencing her reposes.
“Sometimes you can take even the most hostile of negative feedback into a rational private discussion that turns into feedback and solutions to problems. That being said, you need to be able to identify the trolls from the community members who are so frustrated they are giving irate feedback,” she advises.
Marie’s laundry list of must-have tools includes TextMate as her Mac HTML editor, Incoming! for tracking Twitter conversations, MailTemplate for email productivity on a Mac, Zendesk as the site’s support network, MailChip for email campaigns, Wufoo for forms and SurveyMonkey to build surveys.
Putting the tools aside, Marie excels in her community work because she truly embodies the cheerleader message she expounds upon. Smart startups will take her advice and live by these words of wisdom: “There’s no shame in telling your community ‘I love you.'”