What is Community Management, Anyway? Eric Pitt from Opternative Explains

award-winning marketing and community management instructors

Eric Pitt, a full-time instructor in our technical marketing course, understands how to represent a brand at every level of the customer journey, and beyond.

At our fall 2015 Talent Expo Eric, alongside co-teacher Kaleigh Simmons, took home the Student Choice Award for exceptional instructors in our Chicago marketing course. Eric and Kaleigh provide incredible support to Startup Institute marketing students. Their Introduction to Marketing session is focused on a commitment to helping students find career paths in marketing best suited to their talent and interests. What is performance marketing? What role does content play? What is community management? Eric and Kaleigh work to answer these questions and continue to help students to polish marketing plans for their portfolios long after the session ends.

Only six years ago, Eric never imagined he would become a marketer. Since high school, he was set on pursuing a career in law enforcement, and worked as a private investigator for two years. Fast-forward, Eric is now the community manager for Opternative, a Chicago health tech company which offers easy-to-use online eye exams at an accessible price.

Eric joined us to share his experiences as a Startup Institute instructor and to clarify some of the haziness around the emerging field of community management within the tech industry:What is #communitymanagement, anyway? @SuperBad_ of @Opternative explains #cmgr Click To Tweet

Q: When we spoke to Kaleigh, she told us about your intro to marketing session. Anything you’d like to add about that class?

A: For me Startup Institute is all about that big transition from the corporate world or from school—it’s that segue into the tech realm.

[In developing the session], the question was—how can we create an introduction that isn’t only substantive, but also easy in the sense that everyone can wrap their minds around it; not be too intimidating? I like the idea of everyone being excited to learn more after our session—“this is what I wanna learn more about, this is what interests me.” In marketing there are so many paths you can go down, so it’s important to get a taste of everything and get some interest in at least a few areas. That’s why I feel our segment is important.In marketing there are many #careerpaths. Try to get a taste of everything, says @SuperBad_ Click To Tweet

Q: You’re not a Startup Institute grad, but you also made a career transition. Could you tell us a little bit about how that happened?

A: Growing up, I was pretty narrow-minded in terms of thinking about a career path. Once I got to school, it was law enforcement all the way. I didn’t know exactly whether it would be federal or what not, but I chose a criminal justice major and focused on lie detection and interrogation. It was a fantastic experience and I learned a lot.

Getting out of school, I joined a private investigation firm which focused on insurance fraud. That experience was interesting. It was both mind-breaking and back-breaking. I worked 72-hour shifts. Nowadays when I feel pressure to “do more with less,” I always remind myself that it could be a lot worse.

As for how my transition went down, it was all a lucky coincidence. It was my birthday and I went out for drinks with some friends. My friend’s girlfriend worked at Groupon and she was the one who suggested I apply. She thought that my background in investigations and independent research might come in really useful.

I’ve always said that she’s the best saleswoman that I’ve ever met because she was able to sell me on opening my mind in a different career path.

That day alone was one of the most interesting in my life—it switched things up. Earlier that day I’d interviewed with a police department and got an offer from them. But, one week later I’d had a phone interview, a face-to-face interview, and then I was hired by Groupon.

It wasn’t just a career change—it opened my mind.I was narrow-minded abt my career path. I had to open my mind to #careerchange, says @SuperBad_ Click To Tweet

Q: Did you acquire any transferable skills from law enforcement?

A: Yes— I’d say the lack of resources for me is huge. In undergrad and in my first job, I learned how to work under pressure and I pride myself of being able to get things done with even limited resources. I do my best work when my back’s up against the wall.

I’ve also learned to look for precedents. In law enforcement, I would look for the legal cases that set certain precedents that we can now refer to. In marketing, we look at what other companies have done. What has another product done well? What has appealed to our target audience in the past?

Understanding how to learn from history, whether chasing data, or just referring back to emails or copy or customer segments means that everything you do becomes more structured. You’re guided by logic.Learning from history means your #marketing is more structured, says @SuperBad_ Click To Tweet

Q: Let’s talk about  community management, because it is an up-and-coming field. What is community management? What do community managers do?

A: If I had to break down community management very simply, I would define it as the hybrid between marketing and customer service.

Someone in technical marketing might be chasing conversions, numbers and data, while customer service involves working on feedback to improve customer experience.

Community management is the middle ground. I work with numbers, I work with conversions, but I also work with our customers’ feedback and how it all comes together in our brand. It’s a very new position and everyone’s got a different name for it. Many people on my team have no idea what my title is. People call me “the social media guy,” “marketing guy,” “events guy”—and it always has “guy” at the end of it. That’s just the area of it just being such a new ground, just breaking in. We’re still developing a universal understanding of what the role is.Simply, #communitymanagement is the hybrid b/w marketing + customer service, says @SuperBad_ Click To Tweet

Q: So, is it the same as a social media marketer?

A: That’s a piece of it. One of the things I do is run all our social media and PR. But that’s just one element of community management.

In a company like Uber, community managers are heavily focused on customer service and outreach. They’ll occasionally run experimental marketing campaigns.

As a community manager at Opternative, I’m one of two marketers on a team of 15, so we have a lot more overlap in job functions. I handle all our email strategy, automation, copy, social media, PR, all of our incentive, referral-based programs and relationships with our patients. That also branches out into events, job fairs and so on.

It’s a great opportunity to see our brand as a whole—from the marketing side and from the client side. As a result, I have a strong understanding of who we are at all times and what our tone is. If that’s lost, we’d just be a product. We’d lose the human element.#CommunityManagement allows you to see the brand as a whole, says @SuperBad_ #cmgr Click To Tweet

Q: It sounds like you’re ensuring customers have a voice, and then bringing feedback back to the company to optimize your brand. Is that accurate?

A: That’s very accurate.

We do have a patient support team as well. They handle a lot of the prescriptions and feedback. But, if we have a patient who is curious about alternatives, and they’re chirping away on Twitter, that’s where I come in—I guide them into our brand and experience.

After that, we follow up with our patients who want to share the great experience they had with their friends. You need to manage that customer loop the whole way through.

Community management falls under “marketing” in a lot of ways, but there is a lot more interaction with the customer.You need to manage that customer loop the whole way through, says @SuperBad_ #cmgr Click To Tweet

Q: What would you say are the qualities of a good community manager?

A: Flexibility is huge. You need to be a people person, and you need to have empathy. You need to understand what customers need and want.

A big part of that is just being damn fine at customer service. If you’re able to empathize, you can really create great solutions. That’s why I have such an appreciation for great customer service and I am so harsh on bad customer service.

Caring about your customer is the most important part. If you don’t care, you’ll never be great at it, even if you do everything else right.Caring about your customer + empathy for their experience is key in #communitymanagement—@SuperBad_ Click To Tweet

Q: How do you see your career developing in the next five or ten years? Is this a field you’ll stay in?

A: That’s an interesting question. I enjoy the human interaction and my ability to empathize—I don’t think that I’ll ever lose track of those traits. I want to have that with my customers in the future. This role is a really nice fit for me—I’d like to stay in community management in the future.

Especially in startup community management, there are so many job functions being balanced in the role that it becomes hard to specialize in just one aspect. Community management is so undefined right now.

Q:  Do you see the discipline itself evolving, perhaps becoming more defined? Encompassing more or less?

A: One direction I can see community management evolving in is specialization. As a community manager I’ve done a lot of different things: managing an online community, managing referral programs, managing a brand, I think that’s the very simple definition of the role. As the discipline evolves, people might specialize more—any one of the things I mentioned could be a full-time role at a company.As #communitymanagement evolves, I think we'll see more specialization, says @SuperBad_ #cmgr Click To Tweet

Q: Are there any misconceptions about community management you’d like to dispel?

A: Most often, it’s just that people don’t understand what a community manager is because it’s so new. People try to put you in a box and confuse it with customer service or social media, but it’s not that black-and-white.

Q: What advice do you have for people seeking community management jobs in Chicago?

A: My advice is talk to someone in that role. Ask them questions and gain an understanding of what their journey has been. Like I said before, learn from the precedents.

Finding a manager that you like and a brand that you like is also important.

A lot of the skills you’ll need can be learned on the fly and through experience, but speaking with community managers and understanding what the customer experience is all about is the most important and enlightening thing.Want to be a #communitymanager? Find a mentor in the #cmgr community, says @SuperBad_ Click To Tweet

Want to learn more about community management and marketing in the innovation sector? Download your free copy of our marketing syllabus for our full-time marketing course.

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Photo credit: CloudSpotter

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Christine spreads the Startup Institute magic as Marketing Manager. The lead editor in charge of The Whiteboard, Christine's main goal is that our media hub be a digital reflection of our remarkable community—celebrating lifelong learners, innovators, and difference-makers. An alumna of the full-time program, Christine transitioned her career into marketing after four years of teaching high school English in the US and in Thailand. She is an avid contemporary and jazz dancer, a lover of cheese, and believes wholeheartedly that a life without risk is a life without gain. She is always cold; if you stop to visit her at her desk, she'll have a blanket with her—guaranteed.


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