04.14.2015

Ever since I was a wee lass, I dreamed of working in marketing. Yeah, I was that kid who stood up on “What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up Day” amidst the doctors and the astronauts and proclaimed, “I want to be a marketer like my mom and dad!”

After majoring in English and creative writing in college, I headed out into the world to become a marketing associate. And while I was working in the tech sector, circling around dot-coms and software firms, my days were filled with Salesforce data, spreadsheets, and expense reports: all important tools for cutting your teeth in the business world, but not what my dreams were made of. That’s when it occurred to me that what I really wanted was to interact with people.

So, in 2006, a good friend recruited me from the world of marketing to the community side. That’s when I became the first community manager for 2K, a video game developer and publisher.

To be honest, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into back then. It was pretty much ancient times in community management. This was me:

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Since then, I’ve run community, communications, marketing, and support departments. In the 11 years that I’ve racked up this experience, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend: silos everywhere.

So often these departments do not communicate or, worse, work at odds with one another when jobs overlap. This is a huge problem.

But it’s a problem we can fix.

Today, I make a case for you to break down the walls between your marketing, community, PR, and support departments. I’ll lay out the tools you need to play nice in the sandbox and stop siloing your work.

Here’s the Secret

It all starts with one idea: These “departments” are all accomplishing the same ends. They each exist to tell people about a Thing, get them excited about the Thing, give them the tools to use the Thing, and empower them to spread the word so more people use the Thing, too. They also exist to find out what people are saying about the Thing (be it good or bad) and tell the teams making the Thing so they they can fix, improve, and iterate.

Everyone reading this article probably agrees that these departments are interconnects. But interconnected is not synonymous with collaboration.

We need to stop fighting against one another.

We need to change how we think and work together.

How Do We Change Our Thinking?

That smiling golden retriever up above is the perfect image to show how I navigate my career: I don’t often know what I’m doing, and I certainly don’t subscribe to any notion of How It Should Be Done. Once you jettison that nagging sense that you should do things the “right” way, it becomes easier to find creative solutions simply because we have nothing shackling us to set methods or paths.

My philosophy and career has been shaped by thinking of all of these roles as the same thing, manifested differently, but all driven by the same core purpose. When you reframe your thinking from departments into purpose, you see it’s all the same.

Our purpose, no matter where we sit as community-minded professionals is this: facilitate a meaningful dialogue between the people who make your products and those that use them.

When I started at 2K in 2006, my mandate was to build a community from scratch. What that meant in practice was up to me.

Every step of the way, I went back to my gut: I was a hardcore gamer, after all, and I’d grown up with the Internet. So when in doubt, I did what I would have wanted from a company. It sounds simple, but balancing the needs of your fans and customers with the inevitable madness that’s happening in your office is far from easy.

It was this instinct, though, that resulted in me eventually moving from overseeing just the community team to also running customer service alongside it.

How Non-Siloed Community and Customer Service Saved the Day

Using the principle “what would you want a company to do if you were the customer?” as our guide, we tore down everything that didn’t help to make customer interactions awesome.

Our reasons behind every tear-down were sound: no one ever says “yeah, I got mediocre service from that company. I had a problem and they dealt with it in a meh fashion.”

We needed people who said “2K? They rock. Listen to what they did for me…”

Our goal was not just to close tickets, but to turn people into advocates of our business. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s community-minded work.

One of the single most successful things I did to help the community at 2K happened while not “technically” doing my job — and this is key.

Around 10 PM one evening (only a couple days before I was switching jobs to become the Director of Community at Trion Worlds, actually), a friend pinged me to say something was “blowing up” on reddit.

My husband and I were watching the latest Game of Thrones (You can imagine how pleased he was when I snagged my laptop and said “hold on, something bad is happening on the internet and I have to fix it.”).

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I jumped in and this thread took over the rest of the night. But the effort was well worth it (beyond the ridiculous amount of reddit Karma I got). Mashable even covered the post.

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In one single evening, we took an angry customer and made them a happy one, garnered a ton of goodwill, getting the attention of a huge swath of engaged and vocal community members, hit the “viral marketing” jackpot, and scored an awesome press piece to boot.

Now, I’m not claiming that I had any control over any of those results: you can’t make something go viral and getting a press hit on consumer goodwill is awesome but rare. I am saying that having a non-siloed approach to customer communication won the day here.

In a siloed organization, a response might have been delayed past the point of being meaningful as the different departments tried to figure out who this work belonged to and what bucket it fit in. Instead, I got to back up my company and be part of the community with old-fashioned legwork and a healthy dose of talking like a human.

From Community to Communications: How PR and Community Silos Break Down

This same philosophy carried over from 2K to my work at Trion Worlds, a studio that makes massively multiplayer online games (a.k.a. MMOs.) When I started at Trion, I’d been wary: I reported to the Director of Communications.

As someone who wanted to break down as many barriers between the people who made things and those who used them, I was dubious (to say the least) of working for someone in “dastardly Public Relations.” Instead, she became the second mentor in my career and brought about the realization that overlapping roles and responsibilities did not have to become a turf war.

I began as the Director of Community and, by the end of my tenure there, had taken on the full umbrella department of “Communications.”

To us, that meant everything from community and social media all the way through to the press, including the huge grey area in between where bloggers, vloggers, streamers, and everyone else with “a following” fits in.

Both Community and PR talk to people, and the people who they are talking to are frequently the same people. Instead of fighting over who gets to speak to whom, work together. Your message will be more cohesive and in the end will feel more honest and open than if everyone worked in their separate pockets, never allowing anyone to touch the other’s domain.

From there, the leap to Director of Marketing (where I got to oversee community and PR as well) seemed like a natural fit for my whole “it’s all the same thing” mantra.

Forming a Non-Siloed Support Team at Tumblr

When Tumblr offered me the Director of Support gig, I knew I’d not only hit the job jackpot, but I’d also come full circle in everything I’d been trying to tie together in my career.

Today, I summarize my team as such: “We manage and improve all touch points in the customer’s experience. This includes proactive and reactive outreach, communication, and support as well as liaising with the product and engineering teams on new and established features and processes with a focus on the customer’s desires and feedback to improve the product.”

Does that department goal sound familiar to you? If you work in PR, Marketing, Community, or Support, chances are the answer is yes. Want to know why?

Because the common denominator for all of these jobs is communication.

There’s a communication pipeline, to be sure, but with the advent of the Internet blurring the lines between Regular Joe, VIP, and Press Dude, the key differentiator in all these roles is where they touch someone in the pipeline.

And that’s why breaking out of the mold is so important to success for the whole company. If we can’t play nice in the sandbox together, we’ll never work as a cohesive team. We will never create streamlined messaging drives a single, more impactful program.

And not only that, with this kind of collaboration and knowledge sharing, every team will see the full spectrum of feedback from everyone using the product. Because that’s another thing to not lose sight of: we’re all about communication, but at the end of the day, the reason for this communication is because we’re here to support our product and make it better. 

Moving Forward: Break Down Your First Silo with a Cup of Coffee

So how do you start breaking down those walls and getting into the collaborative groove? If I say a cup of coffee, you might laugh at me. But I’m serious. That’s where you start.

People don’t break out of their silos in an afternoon, and I’ve always won the war of fenced-off departments with coffee, cakes, and smiles. As cheesy as it sounds, if the end goal is collaboration, you have to first fully commit to collaboration even to get your foot in the door. Listen (and when I say listen, I mean listen, a lot, before you even think about talking) to what your counterparts in other departments are doing, thinking about, and struggling with.

When the time comes that they are strapped for resources or ideas (or both!) offer to help and solve the problem together. By putting yourself and your colleagues in the mindset that they are working on variations on a theme to get to a mutual end goal, teamwork will happen naturally, no trust seminars needed.

The end result? You’ll all start working as a single entity, because really, you are all doing the same thing: communicating in order to make a product better. I promise, your product will thank you for it.

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Elizabeth Tobey

Elizabeth Tobey | @dahanese

Elizabeth moved to San Francisco to work at 2K Games, where she served as head of Community and Customer Service from 2006 to 2012. After that, she moved to Trion Worlds as Director of Community, then Director of Global Communications. From there, she joined Smule as their Director of Marketing. She is now the Director of Support at tumblr.