jenna-woodulChief community officer is the highest job title in the land – where the land is the online community industry. Earlier this year, I wrote about the career path for community management professionals, highlighting the CCO title and the first person that I had ever seen with it: Bill Johnston.

Bill informed me that he had borrowed the title from Jenna Woodul, the executive vice president and CCO at LiveWorld. I consider myself a veteran of this space, but Jenna has held the CCO title since before I even started at point A, all the way back in April of 1996. Wow. With experience going back into the 1980s, she is easily among the earliest professionals to call this a career.

I always love talking with the true veterans of our profession, so of course I wanted to interview Jenna. We talked about the chief community officer title, its future and how far this profession has come. I appreciate her taking the time to speak with me.

Chief Community Officer

Who came up with the chief community officer title?

Peter Friedman, my co-founder, came up with the title. Until then, I’d been the community manager for eWorld, and before that, the manager for nontechnical programming for AppleLink, Apple’s online business communication system, and for the consumer version of AppleLink, which eventually turned into AOL. When he and I left Apple, determined to take our model of online community for business to the internet, our plan included Peter as CEO and me as chief community officer.

As far as I can tell, you are the first one to have the title. How long have you had it?

Yes, I’m pretty sure I was the first one. That was in April of 1996, so 18 years, which seems like a pretty long time ago, if you think about it. A lot has changed since then and plenty hasn’t.

The Future of the CCO

I have noticed that usage of the title has grown, just very slowly. What do you think the future of the title is? Should there be more chief community officers?

It’d be great to see more chief community officers if that means a solid C-level commitment to companies creating real relationships with customers, and not just using social in a fairly traditional way to broadcast messages and responses. I love that corporations are committing themselves to use social means across the organization – but when it’s not based in real dialogue, it’s really only another means to distribute FAQs, newsletter content, product info and campaign messages. In real business terms, the whole effort is more likely to yield good business results if it’s grounded in a genuine interest in communication with and learning from the customer.

Having a chief community officer means that community is important enough to be its own department and not to serve marketing or some other department. This is something I advocate for. Do you think we’ll see more of that? Should we?

It’s an interesting question. Ten years ago, I would have said we’d definitely see more of community becoming its own separate thing. In fact, I did hear about more people with the chief community officer title. Now, we’re seeing that community – social – is spreading through the organization so broadly that it’s becoming part of everything a business does. Increasingly, corporate communications, customer service, marketing and HR are all interested in deepening relationships with their constituencies through online dialogue. So we may actually see less of that title.

If that happens, what do you think it means for the career path of the community professional and the long term prospects of this profession as a whole?

I’d see more opportunities for community managers in those organizations that commit to social across the organization. If social is truly integrated for any given constituency, those who successfully improve their constituents’ experience while meeting business goals will advance as core players – whatever the group’s mission. As an example, if you’re a customer support community manager, you might significantly reduce support costs and increase satisfaction via social.

With a proven model, you may then have a path to expand the scope of social customer support, manage and train others, and eventually advance to an executive strategic level as a result of successfully serving the overall group mission. Just as you would in marketing, communications, human resources, vendor/partner Management, etc. It’s all about keeping an eye on making the business successful by committing to and improving people’s experience with it.

Defining the Role

In a general sense, what do you feel are the responsibilities of a chief community officer? In other words, when someone outside of our profession asks you what one does, what do you say?

I’d say it’s the responsibility for a company’s relationship with its customers, as designed to serve its business goals. Depending on what a company is trying to accomplish, it’s developing a strategy and then lining up resources and models to create great experiences for customers. Wherever they are and whatever role your products or services play in their lives, customers appreciate a memorable moment with a company. It makes a difference and supports business needs like acquisition, conversion and increased loyalty. To do it consistently, you need talent and technology for marketing, community development, social media, data science, analytics and digital strategy.

Now, to get more specific, as the chief community officer at LiveWorld, what are your responsibilities?

My role is also about commitment to customers and resources to support it – but in this case, our customers are large companies who want to create a social experience for their customers. I’m lucky to lead our services group – individuals very talented and experienced in what they do – who work with a variety of different of client companies, each of which has their own business goals and commitment to being social with customers. Our role is to help clients bring their brand’s voice to their customers, but also to bring the customer voice back to the brand. I work with the executive staff to set direction for our services and products and then with the services group to ensure they have what they need to carry the strategy forward.

Apple, Community and the 1980s and 90s

Your LinkedIn profile says that from 1984 to 1996, you were an online services community manager at Apple. Hard to imagine that title existed all the way back then! What did it mean in the mid-1980s?

In an assignment in late 1984, I was told to hire several writers and then gather all the Apple nontechnical information, which we would then pull into a database and “put online.” At that time, only a few people even understood what that meant; I know I didn’t. Then it turned out the database was only part of it; we also had “bulletin boards” that allowed Apple employees, dealers, VARS, business and education customers, and user groups to post messages to one another asynchronously.

Pretty quickly, we saw that both the content and demeanor of each type of board varied according to the nature of each constituency and what role Apple played for them – a cultural difference that lent a sense of a different “place.” It took very little time for the Apple community, and certainly all the employees, to depend on this “online” thing for communication across the company. “Hot Links” was one such bulletin board that became a daily stopping place for many employees – a forum, a rumor mill, a discussion venue – and it was particularly great when Apple execs would stop by to comment on a hot topic. The possibilities seemed endless.

A couple years later, we introduced another online service, this time for Apple consumers. That’s when we added real-time chat to asynchronous communication vehicles – and the whole world of online dialogue and programming became, for me, a passionate commitment. What the job had become, almost without me realizing it, was oversight of 24/7 conversational programming, moderation and strategic community development for business reasons – which is exactly what we do today. The technology has changed; but the cultural models we used then are still at the heart of what we do now. If you understand the role you play in customers’ lives, you can engage with them in a way that improves both their feelings about you and your ability to develop the business.

How did those responsibilities at Apple evolve in the 1990s, with the launch of eWorld, toward the end of your time there?

By the time eWorld was released, we better understood what online communication was about – the people. We understood that a cultural model and tone could lend a sense of presence; that online communication had the power to transform flat connections into deep relationships. Who you were was simply what you had to say – and that went for companies as well as individuals. By that time, I had the privilege of leading hundreds of eWorld users who acted as conversation hosts, creating programming on all kinds of topics that interested members of the service.

Some of those topics had to do with Apple, some had to do with technology in general, and many of them were primarily social exploration and communication. People were delighted to take part in conversations about parenting, news and books, and then move on to word games and other fun. All those conversations contributed to a tighter customer connection with and stronger loyalty to Apple. It was early times, but the models, which we still use, were compelling. And we still encourage our clients to engage more around broader social topics than their products.

Looking back at when you started, as opposed to someone who is starting in this profession today, what would you say is something they shouldn’t take for granted?

If you have good support in the organization you work for – commitment to and understanding of the importance of creating a relationship with customers – and if you are supplied with resources and budget, don’t take that for granted. It’s not always been this way. It’s taken quite a few years for business to realize that real dialogue with and among customers is good for business. It used to be a harder sell to get companies to host a gathering for their customers, talk to them and let them talk to each other. If your organization believes that, take advantage of having good support and create a memorable customer experience.