What is a Chief Community Officer? An Interview with Heather McNair

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This is a podcast episode titled, What is a Chief Community Officer? An Interview with Heather McNair. The summary for this episode is: <p>In this week's episode, Alex is interviewing her co-host, Heather! You'll learn about the history of community management, how the industry has evolved into what it is today, and what the future of community management might be. Heather also shares her path to becoming a Chief Community Officer and her advice to those curious about being a community manager.</p>
The Need For a Community Manager
02:18 MIN
Empaths for Community Managers
01:26 MIN
Advice to Potential Community Managers
01:25 MIN
The Future of Community Managers
02:05 MIN

Alex Mastrianni: Welcome to The Member Engagement Show with Higher Logic, the podcast for association professionals looking to boost retention, gain new members and deepen member involvement.

Heather McNair: Throughout our show, we'll bring on some experts, talk shop about engagement, and you'll walk away with strategies proven to transform your organization. I'm Heather McNair.

Alex Mastrianni: I'm Alex Mastrianni, and we're happy you're here. Hey Heather, how's it going?

Heather McNair: It's going well, Alex. How are you? It's been a while.

Alex Mastrianni: I know. I was just thinking, trying to think back to the last time it was just you and I on a podcast and I cannot remember. It's probably been a couple months.

Heather McNair: Yes. Yeah, yeah. Summer got busy for everyone, I think. So it's great to see you again.

Alex Mastrianni: You too. And now summer's... Feels like it's almost over. Someone said to me once,"Once 4th of July is here, the summer is over." But I used to think that's the start of summer.

Heather McNair: Exactly.

Alex Mastrianni: And now it really does feel like it's almost over. But what have you been up to?

Heather McNair: Yeah, I was going to say, I started seeing Halloween decorations in the store the other day. I'm like," No, no, not yet. Not yet."

Alex Mastrianni: Not ready.

Heather McNair: Yeah. Yeah, so we've been busy with the new company, trying to get the products built and hopefully taking our new, or our first beta customers live within a month or so. So that's been a lot of my summer.

Alex Mastrianni: That's huge. That's so exciting. Congratulations.

Heather McNair: Yeah. Thank you. Thank you.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. I feel like we finally turned a corner with the weather here. I don't know what it's been like where you are, but all we have is rain in July. It was one of the rainiest July's ever in upstate New York, but it's finally sunny and nice and I'm loving it. Things are very busy at work. We're starting to plan for Super Forum. If you haven't seen the big announcement, we launched the registration. So listeners, if you would like to join us for a free virtual event in October, definitely sign up, register, it's free. We're expecting a ton of people. Pretty soon we're going to be announcing the agenda and really excited about stuff to come there for Super Forum. Can't believe it's right around the corner.

Heather McNair: Yeah. Yeah. Speaking of October and fall coming up, Super Forum is always a sign of fall to me. Yeah.

Alex Mastrianni: Comes quickly. So let's get into our topic for today. Something that I don't know if you've noticed this, but it's definitely something that's caught my eye in the past six months to a year, is the increase in discussions around the role of a community manager in an organization. What a career path looks like for this role, it becoming more of a prominent role at companies, a dedicated role. What the career trajectory... Can't say this word, trajectory looks like for a community manager. And I thought it would be a great conversation for the podcast. So one of the things that we're going to start doing, we're going to kick off a series of interviews with different community managers to hear about their path to community management, how they got their ins and outs of their roles. And really who better than you, Heather McNair, to start this conversation with. I know you're not a community manager right now, but you have a ton of firsthand experience in seeing the industry grow, working with community managers and developing them, a team of them, and eventually becoming a chief community officer yourself. So let's start at the very beginning, which reminds me of the Sound of Music. Before community management, with any part of your job description, what were you doing in your career? How did you find your way into the community worlds?

Heather McNair: It was kind of by accident and I would say a very happy accident. I started my career in marketing and it always had this technology bent to it. And I was in... I moved to the association side after various paths, and I was in membership acquisition retention, and a big piece of the retention part is making sure that you have a great portfolio of benefits, like to why members would want to retain? Why do I want to keep coming back? And I was working for the MGMA, the Medical Group Management Association, and we had listservs that were incredibly popular. And at one point in time, I think 70% of members were active on them.

Alex Mastrianni: I haven't the term listserv in a really long.

Heather McNair: I know, right?

Alex Mastrianni: I know. Yeah.

Heather McNair: If I say the company name Lyris, that's going to take a lot of people back. Yeah. Which I think they're still around. I think they still do the underpinnings, the infrastructure at a lot of these, but yeah.

Alex Mastrianni: Wow. Yeah.

Heather McNair: But yeah, we had old Lyris listservs and they were getting past their prime and we were reaching the limitations of them. And members were asking for new solutions, they were asking for additional solutions. They wanted to be able to share documents and have a more robust member directory. And so I went out in search of actually different solutions for all of these things and ended up stumbling on this brand new little company called Higher Logic.

Alex Mastrianni: So what year was this?

Heather McNair: So we started the search in 2007.

Alex Mastrianni: Okay.

Heather McNair: And then it was actually my Chief Technology Officer found Rob Wenger, the former CEO of Higher Logic. I think we signed with them in January of 2008.

Alex Mastrianni: Oh, wow.

Heather McNair: So yeah, this is... I'm starting to feel really old.

Alex Mastrianni: Cool. So you were a Higher Logic user before you eventually came to work at Higher Logic.

Heather McNair: Yeah, I've actually twice.

Alex Mastrianni: Oh, wow.

Heather McNair: So yeah, I got the community launched at MGMA and a couple years later, I went to another organization and launched one there as well, moved them from listservs over to an online community.

Alex Mastrianni: That's awesome. So then how did you make the switch over to Higher Logic? And when you did, what was your role there?

Heather McNair: It was funny. So Rob and I had talked and as well as Andy Steggles, the former President, and we had had several conversations over the years about me coming to work for Higher Logic. And through the time, the company just wasn't big enough. And then it reached a point, and it was very funny because Rob and I had been at the Great Ideas, the ASAE Great Ideas Conference.

Alex Mastrianni: Oh yeah.

Heather McNair: And we had dinner together and he was like," Yeah. No, you're on a great trajectory." Speaking of trajectories," You're on a great trajectory. You're going to be the Executive Director of an association someday. Stay with your path." Basically you'd be doing yourself a disservice to come over to Higher Logic. So that was in March, I think, of what, 2012 it would have been. And then in August I saw him again at ASAE Annual and he put his arm around my shoulder and he's like," So, remember that conversation we had? Forget all of it. We need you and we need you now."

Alex Mastrianni: Pretend I didn't say that. Yeah.

Heather McNair: Yeah. So I joined as the... And I'm trying to remember my original title, Director of Customer Success, Client Success. And I was overseeing the support team and the implementation team at the time.

Alex Mastrianni: Okay. So definitely not a community management role.

Heather McNair: No.

Alex Mastrianni: Or community specific.

Heather McNair: No, no. Although a lot of it was... The implementation team at Higher Logic is very involved in helping customer set strategy.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah.

Heather McNair: Really kind of building that foundation. And so that's where Rob really wanted my expertise in helping to make sure that we were properly setting the strategy and getting customers off the ground correctly from the beginning. crosstalk

Alex Mastrianni: Yes. Coaching the team, getting everyone up to speed. Cool.

Heather McNair: Yeah, setting best practices really for the organization, for the customers. Yeah.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. Exactly. That makes sense.

Heather McNair: Yeah. And then over the years at Higher Logic, obviously the company grew in leaps and bounds and my job changed along the way from overseeing the first customer success reps that we had to building... I think the biggest thing was building our community management team.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. That's something I want to ask you about, because I think at the time that I came into Higher Logic, you were running that team, a huge team of community managers. So how did that start and how did you find folks to fill those roles?

Heather McNair: Yeah, that was very interesting. Well, initially I think... Well, so Lindsay Stark, I'll give her a little shout out. She was our first hire community manager and she had actually been a client as well.

Alex Mastrianni: Oh, cool.

Heather McNair: And was looking for a change. And she was another one who had done... Back in those early days, there weren't a lot of published best practices out there. There weren't a lot of resources to turn to. And so we kind of... Well, the wild, wild west just kind of threw spaghetti at the wall and saw what stuck. And she was one of those as well and did an amazing job with it. And so we wanted to bring her on board so she could help additional customers with that. And so we got lucky with that one, were able to hire someone who had community management experience, but that was few and far between. Frankly, it still is. And so we kind of... One of my colleagues and I, as we were looking at building this team and we saw a need that basically the customers who were not successful on the platform, it was because they didn't have a dedicated person really focused on their community. And you see people, you assume a company, a software company has lost customers because the customer lost the budget for it. Or there's these very traditional reasons. And we found through research that that wasn't the case with the online community, that it was just because they didn't have the right practices, the right foundation in place to begin with. They didn't have a dedicated person. And so that's why we built the team. It was really about making customers successful, giving them the resources to be successful.

Alex Mastrianni: Being that extension of their team that they didn't have.

Heather McNair: Exactly. A hundred percent. And so yeah, we looked at, okay, what skill set does it take to be a good community manager? And I think I still have this spreadsheet somewhere. It is massive spreadsheet. And when you look at it, you're like," Holy cow, how can one person have all those skills?"

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah.

Heather McNair: Because it ranges from... You do have to have a level of technical competence. While it may not be programmer level, to have a comfortability with HTML and even some CSS these days and that type of thing is fantastic. It helps you a lot. You are a lot of times dealing with some of the integration with AMS CRM systems. And so to kind of understand database structure is very helpful. And you also have to be a people person at the core. I think one of the biggest things we've identified is someone who's empathic. And so a lot of times you're looking for someone who has some kind of a psychology background. And that's I think why a lot of marketing people tend to go into the community management role because I think there is a lot of psychology.

Alex Mastrianni: That's so interesting. I've never thought of that.

Heather McNair: Yeah. Yes, I always used to joke that I was good at marketing because I'm a good consumer. You understand the mentality, the thoughts that go into making purchases.

Alex Mastrianni: I love that.

Heather McNair: And it's the same thing with what spurs... You have to understand what spurs people to participate in an online community and also what prevents them from doing that. You really have to be able to put yourself in their shoes. Yeah. So anyway, so we kind of figured out, okay, this is the ideal person. And then yeah, and then we started looking at all sorts of areas for where those skillsets existed.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. That's a great way to look at it because another question I had for you, which flows nicely into this, is it sounds like there's no typical career path necessarily to becoming a community manager. Maybe you come from psychology or marketing or customer success or something like... Or membership, anything really where you have that firsthand experience, a little bit of technical background. So no clear typical path really to becoming a community manager.

Heather McNair: Yeah. I definitely don't think there is a clear... It's been exciting to see that some universities are recognizing it as a discipline and have started adding courses. And I think... I don't know if it's elevated now to an actual degree, but there are at least some areas of study and certificates and that type of thing. So that's fantastic. But yeah, I think that's still pretty few and far between. So I think a lot of it has depended on where the community lives within an organization and that can vary greatly. Some of it is kind of by convenience. A lot of it, it really should be what the goals are of the community, why it exists. So whether it's the ones that I've run have been... It's about member retention and member loyalty. And so they do tend to exist in that membership realm. And so you do tend to get those, the membership type people kind of growing from there. And a lot of those people have marketing backgrounds. So yes. And customer success would be another one. And to the point about looking for empathic people, you find them in customer success.

Alex Mastrianni: Oh yeah. For sure. I feel like if your customer success people do not have that empathy, then there's a problem for sure.

Heather McNair: There's a problem. Exactly. Exactly.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah.

Heather McNair: Yeah, and I think one of the other big things is curiosity. I look for people who love to learn. And because it is such a broad ranging discipline, that those lifelong learners, the people who are always curious about stuff, and they can exist anywhere. We've had community managers that actually came out of retail and they're fantastic at it. Again, it's great customer service, they're good with people. They're good at problem solving, thinking on their feet, managing multiple things at the same time, multiple work streams at the same time.

Alex Mastrianni: That's so interesting. So say someone's listening to this episode and they maybe... Maybe community is a part of their role right now or maybe it's not. What would you say to someone who's interested in having the sole title of community manager as their job description? What advice would you give to someone who has that curiosity, has that interest, but isn't necessarily running a community right now?

Heather McNair: Yeah. So I think if... Obviously if your organization has a community already, that makes it a little bit easier to kind of just make sure you get involved in it in some capacity. Even if you are not the one who's in charge of it, responsible for it in that moment, there are so many ways. Every piece of research proves that a successful community is involved, is incorporated into everything an organization does.

Alex Mastrianni: Yes.

Heather McNair: And so if you can find a way to make your piece of the organization better with that community by tying those two things together, that's a great place to start. If you do not have a community yet, get busy.

Alex Mastrianni: You've got a lot of work to do.

Heather McNair: Exactly. But no, then there's a great opportunity to make the business case for it. And there are tons of resources out there to help you do that. Higher Logic has case studies like crazy. Then there's a plethora of people out there as well who can help with that, that can help you make that business case. And I will be the first one to say, if you're the one who brings it into an organization, the chances are you will end up owning it.

Alex Mastrianni: Here you go. Yeah.

Heather McNair: Yeah. I think even after I left MGMA for several years, it was Heather's community. I'm like, I'm not even there anymore, guys. Come on.

Alex Mastrianni: Your fingerprints will forever be on it. That's for sure.

Heather McNair: Yeah.

Alex Mastrianni: So I know that you, for a long time have had quite a hand in creating resources for folks to learn more about community management, but what are other resources that folks can turn to or people to follow in the industry or groups that can help them learn more about community management?

Heather McNair: Oh, wow. Yeah. There has been an explosion of them out there, which is so exciting to see. When I started in this back in 2008, I thought I was on an island by myself and I largely was on an island by myself. I think there were a few community managers and a little bit of a community out in San Francisco. But other than that, it really didn't exist. So now there's obviously things like Community Roundtable, CMX are just solid go- tos.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. For sure.

Heather McNair: Let's see. I'm trying to blank on the guys that do the research. Oh, we'll have to-

Alex Mastrianni: Which one?

Heather McNair: We'll have to look this up and put it in show notes.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah.

Heather McNair: There's a couple of guys who do some really great community management research that are really into the data side of things.

Alex Mastrianni: Cool.

Heather McNair: And they're fantastic to follow. There are a lot of people these days talking about community sharing information out on LinkedIn, especially out on Twitter. It seems like that is more of a rich environment. That's where a lot of the community managers tend to live more than LinkedIn, I think.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah.

Heather McNair: So, yeah. So I'd say dive in out there, just look for people to follow, there are conversations to follow out there.

Alex Mastrianni: Cool. You saying conversations reminds me I'm going to give another plug for Super Forum that this year we have... We're combining Super Forum with Vanilla Conversations Event. So we do have a ton of community thought leaders that will be joining us at Super Forum this year. So just another reason to register, because we've got some really exciting folks lined up. But where do you see... There's obviously been so much growth and change in this job role over the past 3, 5, 10 years. Where do you see it going? What is it going to look like five years from now?

Heather McNair: Well, when I started in it, there really wasn't much of a community manager role period. Then over a few years, we saw it starting to launch as starting to come into an existence as really this hybrid position. As, oh, it's an extension, it's social media. So people always ended up doing, yeah. Managing the community, plus social media, plus marketing. On the association side it may also live with governance because you're working with volunteers.

Alex Mastrianni: Oh yeah.

Heather McNair: Yeah. So there's... Yeah. And the great thing over the last couple of years, and I think the last year has really brought attention to the importance of having that dedicated online forum for members to talk to each other, for members to share resources with each other. And I'm starting to see more and more that it is a standalone job. That it's finally being recognized as at least a full- time job, if not a team of people, depending on the size of the community. And the great thing is when you do have a team, even if it's a couple of people, that that's leading to more... What's the term? It's advancement opportunities.

Alex Mastrianni: Oh yeah.

Heather McNair: You have different levels. You can come in as a community assistant and community manager and we're seeing more director level positions. I think especially over on the corporate side, within bigger associations, they are having teams now. And so you get that director level position. The Chief Community Officer title, when I got mine, it was inspired by the Chief Community Officer, the former. He's retired now, but the former Chief Community Officer at Lithium.

Alex Mastrianni: Okay.

Heather McNair: He was the only one that I knew of at the time who had that title.

Alex Mastrianni: Wow. And that was not that long ago.

Heather McNair: It wasn't. It was four years ago, five years ago maybe.

Alex Mastrianni: So hopefully there are a lot more Chief Community Officers in the future of community management.

Heather McNair: Yeah, absolutely. And it was actually funny, is when I was making the very hard decision to leave Higher Logic and move to the new company, I knew it was like, okay, I'm going to change my job title and this really stinks because all of a sudden I have all of these people reaching out to me about this title.

Alex Mastrianni: Really?

Heather McNair: Yeah. Like," Hey, I want to become a Chief Community Officer. How did you do this? This is exciting." I'm like, I have been a Chief Community Officer for four years and no one's ever paid attention.

Alex Mastrianni: You're like, what are the chances that this happens now?

Heather McNair: Exactly.

Alex Mastrianni: Well hopefully they can find this podcast and listen to sort of some of the... I would say it's not a straight path for sure and it wasn't just starting at a community assistant and making your way to Chief Community Officer. There's definitely been some different turns that you've taken through the years to get there. But it's really made you so well- versed in community because like you said, there's so many variations of such a variation of skills that go into being a really great community manager that you pick them up in different ways.

Heather McNair: Yeah. Yeah. And I do think, one piece of advice, big piece of advice in moving into that director level, C- suite level is that you really do have to understand the business side. As much as I've talked about empathy and the touchy feely side of community management, really to elevate your career to that next level, you do have to understand the return on investment. Like those ROI metrics, the impact of community, how it touches other places in the organization, the potential for it in other places. And that's really where I always screw up this expression about separating the wheat from the chaff. But that is where you see the distinction. crosstalk

Alex Mastrianni: And that comes with time. Once you've been so invested in the ins and outs of the day to day management of it, and you start to see its impact as it grows, it's easier to make those connections and then prove the point out to executive or board leadership at the company.

Heather McNair: Yeah. Yeah. And yeah, expose yourself to as much of the other workings of your organization as you can. Yeah, I think that's one of the biggest issues that I see, is people staying in their silo and just this is what I do, I'm keeping my blinders on. But the more you understand about the way other departments work and other facets of the organization work, the stronger you're going to be in that role.

Alex Mastrianni: Yeah. Yeah. Well this has been a wonderful conversation. Heather, it's great to be back just the two of us, but I think our next episode will be the next one where we start talking to a bunch of different community managers. So thank you so much for sharing your story today.

Heather McNair: Absolutely.

Alex Mastrianni: Hope you have a great week and we will be back next time for another episode of The Member Engagement Show. Thanks everybody.


In this week's episode, Alex is interviewing her co-host, Heather! You'll learn about the history of community management, how the industry has evolved into what it is today, and what the future of community management might be. Heather also shares her path to becoming a Chief Community Officer and her advice to those curious about being a community manager.