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Community Management: Marketing Discipline of the Future?

Social Media Marketing - Nike+Once upon a time, Nike was in the business of selling athletic shoes.

And sell athletic shoes, they did – capturing 50% of the market by 1980, before beginning large-scale advertising or even going public. But success attracts competitors and creates depressed margins, and as other companies got into the shoe game, Nike branched out to apparel, dress shoes (via an acquisition of Cole Haan), and niche sports (hockey, skateboarding).

But with the introduction of Nike+ in 2006, the company began selling something radically different: it began offering users a social platform, a place to connect with like-minded people from around the world. Sure, that platform will sell an awful lot of shoes – but for the thousands of Nike+ members, the social experience is the product and the shoes are an afterthought.

Beyond the platform itself, which remains extremely impressive from a technical perspective, the Nike+ community was an ingenious social marketing move by Nike: for those who bought running shoes from the company in the first place, it was an opportunity to reinforce the brand relationship on a daily basis; for those who didn’t, it was a chance to get a piece of Nike hardware in the shoe anyway. As an avid runner, I’ve performed shoe surgery on several occasions to fit a sensor into a non-Nike shoe.

We’ve noted this trend playing out across the consumer space: players in industries from music to kitchen appliances are hoping to leverage the power of their userbase to create positive switching costs.  But there’s a big risk in putting your brand in the hands of a broad community: people aren’t always nice or helpful, they occasionally act in illegal or unethical ways, and even the majority who act in good faith can be thrown off by poorly-aligned incentives or bad design.

If social platforms are the products of the future, it stands to reason that community designers and managers are the marketers of the future – the ones who make interaction with the brand a useful, fun, and safe experience.

So what makes a great community manager? Academically,  a background in social science or humanities helps. Personality-wise, tech savvy, patience, understanding and meticulousness (for enforcing, to the letter, what can be arcane rules that govern interaction on the platform) are all important. A strong eye and brain for how people communicate on the web is essential.

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more on how to design optimal user communities. In the meantime, MLC members can check out our social media resources and our work on radical innovation, which includes information on social platforms as lock-in devices.

Interested in other emerging marketing roles? Get a free copy of our profile of the New Media Ringmaster in Harvard Business Review.

Comments from the Network (7)

  1. andrew
    on February 17, 2011

    This is absolutely on-point. The subtext of a lot of conversations happening right now in this space is the following: “anyone can build you a destination, the difference will be who can help you get people there.” Community management and community building will indeed be a future discipline, as the natural meeting point between marketing and customer service. Build your audience, serve them: community management.

  2. Richard Posey
    on February 17, 2011

    I have to take (small) issue with the need for an academic background in social science or the humanities. I think academics, in and of itself, has little to do with it. A lot of things would depend on the type of community, of course. Still, I would replace “academics” with “strong writing skills,” whatever the academic background. I’d also say that having the wisdom to know when to enforce the rules to the letter is more important than rigidity. It’s harder to hire for “wisdom.”

  3. Faye Oney
    on February 18, 2011

    Great article, and I believe a marketing and sales background also helps. But more importantly I think you need to have the desire and passion to network, talk with, and listen to your customers on a daily basis. I also agree with Richard; you need strong writing skills (grammar & typos can destroy credibility). Finally, you need to learn and understand psychographics of your customers so you can better relate to them in the social space.

  4. Elliot V
    on February 22, 2011

    Sorry but I must disagree with Richard. There are many people in my field that feel just because they can create a tweet or play on Facebook equates them to being a good communicator. While strong writing skills are important, the ability to communicate well requires both experience and education. My background in journalism prepared me with the ability to understand what my audience requires, but my graduate education in communications has created a foundation to really build out our community. If you are worried about marketing and selling your product to the community, there is also a greater chance that you will distance yourself from them. A great community manager should be a member of the community, and a model of what to expect within it.

  5. Wide Angle » 7 Habits of Highly Effective Community Managers
    on April 7, 2011

    [...] Email  Print This Post Tweet In February, we gave an overview of one of the ways B2C products are differentiating themselves – selling not only a product, [...]

  6. Wide Angle » Experiencing the Brand
    on September 7, 2011

    [...] created a program – Nike Plus – that runners can use to track and share their runs.  (We wrote about it a few months back.) This has allowed Nike to build a community of runners who sign up for challenges and comment on [...]

  7. Wide Angle » Changing the Health Value Proposition
    on December 7, 2011

    [...] one of the most mysterious things in the world – the workings of their own bodies. Nike+, which we wrote about a few months ago, is a “quantified self” technology, as are more comprehensive solutions like the [...]

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