Credit: CrystalCC BY 2.0

In June, I visited Brandon Eley and his family in LaGrange, Georgia. Brandon is one of my oldest and closest friends. We have a great time when we get together, but we also talk a lot about business, life and the future. Where we are, and where we want to go. I enjoy these talks tremendously.

During that trip, I published my “I’m Hungry for Change” post from his house. That is a good clue as to one of the topics we discussed: my future and the future of my profession. We talked about how I felt a responsibility to others in this space to accept a role that befit my experience. I laid out what I saw as the future of the online community profession, as far as how the role should fit into companies. Not where it is now, but where it should go.

After listening, Brandon told me that what I had said was akin to a manifesto; that I should publish it somewhere. If you’ve read my work for long, you know I am not big on predictions. But with Brandon’s encouragement, I would like to share our conversation with you. It may be 5 years, it may be more or less, but this is where we should be going and, I believe, where we are headed. I’ve been saying these things for years, but I see us getting closer every day.

Preface: Community is Important

These thoughts are all underscored by a common belief: community is important enough to dedicate meaningful resources to and to treat as an equal in importance to other top level departments. Marketing brings you more customers, community helps you keep those customers.

If you only interact with someone when you are selling to them (marketing) or when they have a problem (customer service), that’s risky. But if you don’t invest in community, that is exactly what you are doing. It makes you vulnerable. Another company will gladly swoop in and fix that. Community is what fills the gap between sales and service.

For example, if you are a B2B company, community is about helping clients move from beginner to highly successful user of your products. In other words, it’s about helping them to make or save the most money. Which, in turn, makes you more money. Yes, you’ll do a lot of other great things along the way. They’ll help you improve your products, you’ll build stronger relationships, and your community will do the same with one another. But all of those things move them closer to being happier, more successful and more profitable companies that use your products – and, as such, will continue to use your products.

If you are a B2C company, community is about empowering the people who love what you do get the most out of what you offer. This happens not only by talking with people, which is important, but by creating carefully planned and managed resources where they can learn, share and engage with each other. Customers that do so become supporters – they are more loyal and will be more likely to recommend your products to others.

Community is about creating the highest quality experience for the greatest number of customers and supporters.

New Companies Will Hire a Community Lead Even Sooner

Startups have been really big adopters as far as the hiring of community professionals. But I still know plenty of companies that have 10 or more employees but no community person. This will change. More companies will make a community hire sooner in their existence. Not a general “social media” person, a community-focused person. Companies who engage with their community sooner, and more efficiently, have a better chance of overcoming the bad odds of business success.

As companies seek to build those initial teams with smart leaders, they will lure veteran community people like they lure other top talent.

Community Becomes More Independent

As community manager became a hot job title, it was easy for companies to throw community under the marketing department. This helped contribute to the confusion of the title itself, as some companies tried to throw any number of unrelated responsibilities under it. But as the community profession has matured, this has shifted and will continue to shift.

It might sound like I am picking on marketing. I’m not. Community and marketing should be great friends. Community helps marketing by providing community-related insights and collaborating to help marketing campaigns succeed on a community level. But community is not a marketing role and community professionals should not serve marketing. They serve the community. Community is a discipline unto itself.

When I speak to companies, I always encourage them to make community an independent department. That’s the future. Let community work with all departments as an equal, rather than being a subordinate of a department that serves a different end. Even if it’s not officially a top-level department, give it independence.

Young companies don’t usually have departments, just individuals responsible for different things. But as the company grows, so should the community and the people who serve it. Yes, this means varying degrees of seniority. Community managers, director of community, VP of community and chief community officer. But it could also mean people in the department who complement the work that is done. For example, large community departments could have their own data analysts, who focus specifically on analyzing the massive about of incoming community data and optimizing for improved results.

Community is that important. And no matter how you sugarcoat it, no matter how savvy your marketing head is, having your community people work as a function of marketing sends a clear message of priority.

More Senior Roles (and More Chief Community Officers)

When community becomes more respected as an independent department, that will lead to even more senior roles being available. We’re already seeing this, and it’s not a fad. Director/VP/head of community roles are out there. These titles are growing slowly, which is fine because that represents more sustainable, prolonged growth. These titles will continue to increase – not decrease.

This includes the elusive chief community officer. It’s not like there will be an explosion and suddenly 100+ people will have that title overnight. But it has grown slowly and will continue. If you have 5+ years of solid experience in this industry, I encourage you to push forward and ensure your title befits your experience, the contributions that you make and the importance of the community to the business. Advance your career and you advance all of us.

This isn’t a list of dreams, this is a list of things that I believe will happen – but I won’t be the one to make them a reality. That will be the professionals in this space, as a whole, and leaders at forward thinking companies who understand the importance of community. It’s fun to write posts like this, but I’m more excited to see what actually happens.