10 Feb 2017 14:13 IST

The marketer as community builder

Gigital transformation is constantly challenging marketing’s role

If you look at online job postings sites, a trending designation these days is community builder. From startups to established e-commerce players to even traditional offline companies, everyone seems to be on the lookout for community builders.

Suchi Mukherjee, Founder & CEO, Lime Road, a fashion and lifestyle portal, explains why. “Community management is one of the key growth builders in our world. We have communities of stylists, of sellers and then buyers. They all have different needs and requirements and contribute to our platform in different ways,” she says.

In fact, says Mukherjee, “The ability to identify homogeneous groups among the current users and focus on the different levers that are needed to keep them engaged is the power of the commerce world.”

While some such as Airbnb and several Silicon valley startups are hiring specialised community builders with a sociology background and giving them fancy designations ranging from Director, Community Building or VP - Community Management, for most companies this role falls into the basket of the marketer.

Take HackerEarth, a hub for programmers. It has a community of a million programmers and according to Sachin Gupta, CEO & Co-founder, a large part of the CMO’s role at HackerEarth is community management.

In short, today’s CMO’s plate is overflowing – she is not only a brand builder, an experience creator, a product or service evangelist, but also a community manager.

Lloyd Mathias, Head - Marketing, Consumer PCs for Asia Pacific and Japan for HP Inc, who admits his role is constantly changing, points out: “Marketers have had to change gears from being largely mass media-focused to tailor-made communication to smaller and often more vocal online groups.”

The veteran marketer admits his role is constantly evolving and says today’s CMO has to take cognisance of consumer conversations and ensure these are in line with the brand objectives without being overt.

Group dynamics

So what exactly does community management entail? Jessie Paul, founder of consultancy Paul Writer, an early mover in offering programmatic community-based outreach, says, “A good community manager would measure what the company is offering the community – first right of refusal, continuous learning, upgrades, and such, as well as what the community is offering the company – insights, repeat business, endorsements.” It also entails measuring what the community is generating and benefiting from on a peer-to-peer basis.

Community management, says Paul, can be easily done through platforms. “I recommend the use of a platform – we have helped set up and operate www.induscommunity.com and www.chroforumindia.com

Can it be automated through bots and AI? “ While sharing of news/content and measurement can be automated, it actually takes a good understanding of the community to keep it relevant and at present that cannot be automated,” she says.

An approach to business

Are we seeing community management more in service-oriented companies rather than product firms? Mukherjee of Lime Road says community management is an approach to business and points to automotive brands that are taking this route to marketing. She gives the example of Harley Davidson and the way it has built HOG (Harley Owners Group) taking involvement to an altogether new level.

Agrees Paul, “The difference lies in whether there is a repeat transaction or not. So firms like SAP and Sodexo are also very community-oriented as they look at their customer groups as an ongoing relationship and nurture them accordingly. This is opposed to low-involvement products where the CMO is more interested in new product launches and awareness for the brand.”

Talk to CMOs from traditional firms and they observe that this is not an online-only phenomenon. Community management, in fact, pre-dates the Internet. Co-operatives such as Amul and NDDB rely on it. Traditional dealer meets in the offline world are also a form of community management. Typically, it’s the sales head who is in charge of dealer engagement but as HP’s Mathias points out, it’s the CMOs who will ‘own’ the narrative of what is communicated to the dealers.

What has changed, however, is that community management, from being a small backroom activity has taken centre-stage in the digital world. Also as Mathias points out, serving the community becomes easier on the digital medium which offers the versatility and ability to serve different messages to different audiences within the same platform.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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