Last week, I attended two conferences: MozCon and Community Leadership Summit (CLS). Within the span of a week, I saw what two very different communities could accomplish when they set out a vision and gathered people in one big room.

Roger, Moz's Mascot
My very own Roger bobblehead

CLS gathers community builders working on open-source projects in a grassroots unconference format. MozCon is a three-day conference in Seattle that hosts almost 1,500 marketers, who come together to learn about SEO and marketing best practices and to celebrate alongside the ever-endearing Moz mascot, Roger.

Over the week, I met people from various industries, and one thing became clear to me: all of us struggle to prove our worth in our jobs. Community professionals do not struggle any more than SEOs or content strategists. They’re just not doing as good of a job at proving their value — yet.

The best way for us to move our careers and communities forward is to shift our mindsets. You are no longer a Community Manager for your brand, or a Head of Community, or a “Community and Social Media Manager.” You are the CEO of your community. This is how great community professionals think.

And if you’d like to become CEO of Community, you have to know what a CEO cares about, and own where you need to improve. How do you do that?

In a blog post published back in 2010, Ben Horowitz outlines how Andreesen Horowitz evaluates amazing CEOs. In this piece, Horowitz explains that vision and strategy are really all one and the same and that, “The CEO doesn’t have to be the creator of the vision. Nor does she have to be the creator of the story. But she must be the keeper of the vision and the story. As such, the CEO ensures that the company story is clear and compelling.”

You, budding CEO of Community, are the keeper of the community vision and the story. You are responsible for ensuring that your community members know your story, know your vision, and are getting their needs met. You must not work in a silo to do this, but instead align all your work across the business.

What can you expect as a result? A clear career path, respect for your role, measurable outcomes, and a more successful community. Here, we carve out exactly how that is done, using talks from MozCon and CLS to push you forward.

How to Act Like the CEO of Community

  1. Lay the foundation: Align your company story with community strategy.
  2. Identify the one reason the community exists from a business perspective.
  3. Set strategy, expectations, and measurements.
  4. Create and delegate the process.

How to Act Like the CEO of Your Community

1. Lay the foundation: Align your company story with community strategy.

At MozCon, much of the first day centered around content strategy. A lot of community professionals see the word “content,” and their eyes glaze over. Or we’re just confused by this nebulous, vague idea. Isn’t everything “content” on the web? The answer is yes. Everything on the web is content. That means your community is also content.

That means every piece of what you present online as a company is content: articles, emails, social media posts, videos, your homepage, the words you use on your sign-up forms, 404 pages, even your subscribe button for an email newsletter.

So what kind of content does your community create? Is it forum posts, contributor articles, blog comments, profile pages, events? Every piece of their contribution process needs to align with the company’s overall strategy. If it doesn’t, you’ll lose your members right off the bat.

A community member won’t stick around to craft a content strategy with you. Instead, they’ll experience a few disorganized messages from your company, and then they’ll never return to deepen their engagement.

Your content is your promise. Now you have to decide what that promise is and how it is communicated. This step is crucial to your success. As the CEO, you are the keeper of the vision, and it must align with the overarching vision your company sets forth.

In her MozCon talk, Dana DiTomaso of KickPoint outlined all the pieces that make up a holistic brand. All of these pieces that make up what marketers refer to as “brand” are content. Content strategy is often seen as a part of marketing (it certainly was at MozCon), but we, as community professionals, need to realize that content strategy is every bit a part of community as it is to marketing.

MozCon Dana DiTomaso Content Brand
Image via Kick Point and Dana DiTomaso

Now imagine what happens if these pieces are not aligned. Your customer gets a warm and lovely exclusive community membership invitation, but they learned about your product through a cold and impersonal direct mail ad. That same person attends a community event with fun and colorful presentations and cute swag packs with flowery stationery, but they are a buttoned-up corporate lawyer in their 50s. They wanted to connect for serious business opportunities.

So how do you fix this? You’re not doing this in a vacuum. You must work together with others. If you want to take charge as the CEO of Community at your company, it is your job to align community strategy with content strategy. It’s your job to gather marketing, brand, design, content creators, and sales, and get everyone on the same page. If you don’t get a seat at the table with stakeholders from each of these departments, you will never effectively scale your community.

Depending on the size of your company, your next steps will vary. Here’s a guideline for moving forward.

Next Steps for Aligning Community and Company Story:

1. Startup or very small business: It’s likely that your company does not have a clear story or written values. There may be some vague idea of what these are, but they aren’t solidified yet. Heck, you may be doing the job of three people and unsure on what direction to move on each of them. But if you’ve identified a misalignment between community and company vision, congratulations! Now you’ve identified a huge problem that will eventually halt community growth because everything is disjointed. Now you have a lot of work to do, but it will be work that makes you a serious leader in your organization.

Creating Values, Vision, and Voice 101:

Here’s a nice starting point for you if you just want to get everyone on the same page quickly and then keep on moving. Start with your values and vision first.

What does your company value? What is its vision for the future? HBR has an insightful write-up on what these things are if you’re at a loss. You’re going to need your actual CEO’s buy-in on this, so bring this to them and share with them the dangers of not having a vision to begin with. This is standard practice, and the lack of a clear vision is a top reason why we see communities fail again and again.

If you want to create a voice that communicates your vision and values, your next step is to create a list of “this but not that” pieces of your voice. Here’s how Mailchimp does it, and they publish their entire voice and tone guide here. If you’re at a startup, run this by your team. See if they agree:

MailChimp's Voice
MailChimp’s Voice

2. Mid-size startup or small business: Go to someone on your marketing department and ask where the brand guidelines live. Get them. Then go get coffee with your brand manager or whoever owns “the keys to the brand” at your company. You may not know who that is yet. Reach out to front-line employees first, and find out more slowly. It may be a few people who drive the brand voice vehicle. Start there. Here’s a hint: I worked for a startup that had an Editorial Director who would help our VP of Marketing pick fonts. She also A/B tested copy on our homepage. That’s who I would want to talk to in this case. From there, you’ll have a solid guideline for how to align the community with this branding.

3. Large company: If you’re at a big company and people feel inaccessible, start small. Find one person from marketing and ask them which people have a hand in content strategy. There are likely already meetings that the marketing team has around content strategy. Make sure you get a seat at the table. You don’t want to feel incompetent or like you’re being pushy, so frame all of this in terms of how it will help them: you’ll align your marketing and community strategy once and for all. The goal here is to audit your community efforts to ensure they align with marketing’s efforts. Are you sending out similarly-voiced messages? Is the story the same? Is it communicated in the design of your community space? They’ll wonder why you had not done this sooner (I have seen this time and again).

4. A company with well-honed culture and values, no matter what size: If your community is already aligned with your company vision and values, hurrah! You can move on to step two.

Throughout, keep Dana’s words in mind: “Every piece of the experience matters. Customer loyalty is not just lip service. A lot of companies expect customers to be loyal to them, but they are not loyal to customers.”

2. Identify the one reason your community exists from a business standpoint.

Yes, I said one there. One reason, and that’s it. The problem that many community professionals face is that we want to solve all the problems in all the places with all the resources. We can’t do that.

As CEO of Community, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions. You’re going to have to be realistic about what is possible, but hopeful and eager enough to see your strategy through for several months so that you can measure the results.

Note: you can still A/B test messages in this time, but the overall community strategy needs to be upheld for at least six months in order to ensure that you’re doing it justice. Community strategy is a long-term investment.

When I worked at Chegg, our CEO Dan Rosensweig once told us that before putting together any kind of proposal or presentation, he wanted everyone to first answer the question, “What problem are you solving?”

CEOs care about solving business problems. From there, they want to know what success looks like (that’s where measuring ROI comes in). When you outline one very clear business reason that your community exists (that also serves the community’s need), you can finally measure results. You are able to say, very clearly, “we accomplished one concrete thing together.” Then you build from there.

This is what content strategists and SEOs have done incredibly well as professionals. They have formed hypotheses about how their content will meet customer needs as well as business goals. This has come after many years of advocating and writing case studies and successes.

Here, for instance, is a content strategy case study to write home about: Facebook’s first content strategist Sarah Cancilla reported in Content Strategy for the Web and echoed in this blog post that with just one tweak to a sign-up call to action on the Facebook homepage, net traffic to key conversion pages on the site skyrocketed 56% overnight and 6 million people connected on Facebook as a result.

These are the results CEOs care about. And the professionals who can report these results have reaped the rewards: growing content departments at companies like Facebook and Marriott, increased conversion for their businesses, and job promotions for themselves.

How Does This Apply to Community Professionals Specifically?

During day two of Community Leadership Summit, I attended a session on “grassroots versus astroturf” communities hosted by Mary Thengvall, Community Manager at Chef. This session centered around whether it was better to join other grassroots communities or to throw a bunch of money at creating your own branded community.

This is the eternal question that many of us face: do we need to own community? The truth is that question misses the mark entirely. The question should be: As CEOs of Community, are we solving our members’ problems? When we solve member problems and align them with one clear piece business strategy, we build lifelong trust and loyalty. This is something we can measure through retention.

The final takeaway WordPress Community Wrangler Josepha Haden shared at the CLS session was to “cater to the problem rather than chase after the solution.” This is true not just for any community meetup you attend or build yourself, but for any community effort at all.

As CEO of your community, it is your job to immerse yourself in the pain points of your community members and cater to their problem. It is not your job to shove a solution in your members’ faces.

And what if the solution you are posing is not what your community needs right now? You must empathize with your members to avoid making erroneous assumptions and doing a disservice to your entire organization.

3. Set strategy, expectations, measurements.

One of the most actionable talks at MozCon for community professionals had nothing to do with community at all. It was from Digital Marketing Specialist Purna Virji about how to sell SEO to the C-Suite. The talk was packed with insights into what the C-Suite really cares about, and Purna created a roadmap for setting expectations and proposing your strategy to higher-ups. Her talk was the impetus for me to write this piece in the first place.

True, the strategy she set forth centered around SEO. But you could simply replace “SEO” with “Community” in all of her slides, and you’d have all the tools you need to become the CEO of Community at your company.

So now that you’ve aligned your vision and set your sight on why the community exists, you’re ready to begin selling the value of the work you do to the C-Suite. At this stage, you’ve got some big-picture thinking to do. This is what separates the good from the great.

You’ll want to create a comprehensive strategy for your community that includes the following six elements:

  1. Goals: What are your goals for business in growing your community?
  2. Strategies: What strategy will you take to reach that goal?
  3. 6-Month Growth: This is not community growth; this is business growth as a result of community growth. What can you expect to see if you take the above-outlined approach?
  4. Growth Attribution: Where is the business growth coming from?
  5. Potential Risks: What risks are involved in this strategy?
  6. Resouces Needed: Who will you need to hire? What developer or contractor resources will you need to take on? Don’t just put a dollar value on it. Put a face on it.
  7. Annual forecast: Give an overall idea of how the business will grow over a year if the community strategy is successful.

Here is the 6-step system for setting expectations from Purna Virji:

Image via Purna Virji

Most important to illuminate here is to outline your core strategy (2), growth projections (3), the risks you face (5), and all the resources you will need to move forward as the CEO of your community (6).

Why does a consistent strategy matter?

When you’re building a community, you have to say no to opportunities constantly. With a set strategy in mind, you’ll be able to say no to more campaigns and one-off ideas so that you can say yes to the right opportunities that drive your community forward.

CEOs have to make decisions constantly without all of the information. How will you, as CEO of Community, make decisions without knowing every single community member? The answer is your overarching strategy, grounded in your company’s vision and the one problem you’re solving for your members.

Why are growth predictions so important?

You must set expectations and projections for future growth of the plan that you are setting out.

Even if growth is not in terms of revenue, you need to be able to measure success. You can speak in terms of probability, not certainty (whew, what a relief!). After all, most CEOs have to make decisions based off of very little information. They have to go with their gut and make decisions that feel right after seeing high-level predictions and making sure the decision aligns with their values as a company leader.

Design is important here. You’ll want to design your growth predictions very nicely. Why? Design is trust, and we’re talking dollar signs here. You’re asking for an investment, and you better have thought through why you’re asking for it. Below is a sample of what Purna suggested sharing with the C-Suite if you are building up an SEO program. Replace this revenue figure with referrals to the business or with the diversion of marketing spend away from advertisements that are not keeping customers around and towards lasting community programs.

How to Set Realistic and Optimistic Expectations for Growth via Purna Virji
How to Set Realistic and Optimistic Expectations for Growth via Purna Virji

When creating these projections, we can take a cue from the content marketing world. “It takes 12-17 months to see if a content strategy is working. You need loyalty,” argued MozCon speaker Matthew Brown.

In order to see what is working, you’ll want to be sure you’re tracking what actually matters for you. Google’s Adam Singer shared some sample metrics in his MozCon talk.

The real key here is that you must measure what matters for you. Are you solving the problem you set out to solve above? Are you sure of what business value your community is creating? You have to start with a hypothesis. This is what all the best professionals do, and it’s time us community professionals caught up with them.

Some ideas on how to "collect what matters" from Google's Adam Singer
Some ideas on how to “collect what matters” from Google’s Adam Singer

4. Create or delegate the process.

Now, most CEOs don’t actually have to get into the weeds and do the work. Part of your proposal as the CEO of Community may involve hiring more community-minded folks to delegate the pieces of your strategy to. Even if it doesn’t require that work at this stage, you still need a process for what you plan to do next.

You need to run a tight ship. Whether you’re at a startup or a huge company, creating processes and optimizing them as you go will be key to your success. You will make mistakes. That is certain. But you can hone your strategy (without scrapping it too soon!) as you move forward alongside your team, empowering them to offer better solutions as they reveal themselves.

As you were working through your strategy, processes will have started to take shape. You’ll realize that in order to optimize your contributor section for experts, you need a little development help to bring contributor profiles to the forefront, for instance. You’ll realize that you need a designer to help you with re-creating the invitations to your community events.

Now is your time to solidify your process, delegate pieces of it to team members and new hires, and identify where extra hands are needed.

Here’s your framework for creating a process:

  1. Throw out all your ideas on the table.
  2. Scrap the ones that do not align with your strategy.
  3. Under each idea, write out all the tiny subtasks that need to get done in order to complete the overall task at hand.
  4. Start to flesh out how long each task will take and who will own what task (this is where Gantt charts come in handy).
  5. Use a task management tool (Asana, Trello, your own company-wide system) to begin to assign tasks and put the process in motion.

We’ve been doing this across the board here at CMX to improve every piece of work we do for CMX Summit and our online hub here, and the results have spoken for themselves: a huge increase in our member base, partnerships with amazing community companies, and bring on board our content strategist, Clem Auyeung, who has helped to push all of our work forward in a way that makes sense to our members.

If you want to get really nitty gritty with getting things done, we recommend Scott Belsky’s CMX talk on building creative communities and his book, Making Ideas Happen.


The only way to get the results you want is to do the work. There is no getting around it. But the funny thing is, as you start to do all this work, the path before you becomes crystal clear.

If you take the lead on your community strategy and think of it as your responsibility, it becomes increasingly harder to do subpar work. This is what separates good community professionals from great community professionals. This is what separates indifferent, passionless communities from communities that skyrocket and grow over time.

As your community grows, your responsibilities grow, the business as a whole grows, referrals grow, and you get to hire people underneath you and move right on up.

All this starts with a simple change in your own mindset.

You’re now the CEO. What are you going to accomplish today?

Carrie Melissa Jones

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