Support, Marketing, Community, and PR—They’re All the Same Thing

Elizabeth Tobey | November 10, 2015

Today I’m going to tell you why marketing, public relations, community management, and customer support are all the same thing.

No, seriously.

Although I currently lead community at Tumblr, over the past decade I’ve run all of the aforementioned departments, and in many instances, run more than two of them at the same time. My belief that these disciplines are connected really crystalized for me over a year ago when I was a director of marketing reporting to a chief product officer.

I oversaw marketing, communications, and community, and my boss didn’t understand how my teams interconnected. She asked me to help her visualize how it all worked.

So I did. One afternoon, in a fit of mild insanity, I made this for her:

Gaze into the madness and you’ll begin to see a method: each of the bubbles in the diagram overlap where they need to, with nothing extraneous.

That’s because all of these areas of expertise need each other to be fully functional. To be successful, all of them must work together as a cohesive whole.

Why Are These Departments the Same?

If you hail from one of the disciplines above, you’re apt to say, “No way are they exactly the same.” And to that I say: true!

PR folks are masters of the press release. Marketers can dominate a competitive analysis. Community managers are able to craft real-time messaging to users during a breaking issue with grace and clarity. Support teams know how to highlight danger zones before launches and triage issues during and after as well.

Each department has specific roles and responsibilities they are better at than anyone else; that’s why they exist. For a company’s success, it will always be necessary to have the best people in those roles owning the individual tasks. So what makes all of these departments the same?

Communication

All of these departments exist to tell people about a Thing, get them excited about the Thing, give them tools to use the Thing, and empower them to spread the word about the Thing, so that other people use the Thing, too.

Each department slots into at least one of the spaces in the lifecycle of a user, but they also all rely on each other to ensure that cycle is a smooth and unbroken experience.

Connecting the Dots

My revelation can be traced back to the day I put my dog in a box and posted her on the Internet. True story.

At the time, I was the head of community and support at 2K Games, a video game publisher, and we were announcing a collector’s edition for our upcoming title, Borderlands 2.

We had just announced the contents, held in a box fashioned to look like a loot chest from the game. Someone in the community posed the question “How big is this box?” so, of course, I did the only logical thing: I put my dog in the box, took a picture, and posted it online. Turns out, the Internet really likes dogs. In boxes. And lots of people wanted to see Pancake in a Borderlands loot chest.

First, the picture made it to the front page of reddit, which is a feat on its own. Then the press started to pick up on Pancake’s viral success. This was a huge win for the game: collector’s editions are, after all, jazzed up and more expensive versions of the base game.

As of today, Pancake’s photo gallery has been viewed more than 8 million times (you can see all the photos here if you’d like!)

With Borderlands, community-driven content saw viral pick up (marketing win) which carried over into press coverage (PR win). By working together and drafting off of these events as they developed in real time, distinct teams made a collective gain.

Taking the Bad and Making It Good

This cross-department collaboration can turn bad situations into good ones, too.

It’s easy to find successes born of positive things: you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who would get angry over that picture of Pancake. But we don’t always get to choose the situations we’re jettisoned into, and turning a bad situation around can yield results that are just as positive as something that is a win from the outset.

Here’s another incident that happened while I was working at 2K. I was sitting on my couch, watching TV with my husband, when I was alerted that a customer was very angry at something my company had done—the story was now on the front page of reddit.

“Pause the show,” I said, “something bad is happening on the Internet.”

Navigating to reddit, I found the thread, (rightfully) complaining about our customer service department.

Our agent had mixed up the conversion from megabytes to gigabytes, the user did have enough memory to play the game, and our response was wrong and made us look foolish.

I believe in transparency and honesty. That’s a scary thing for a company; it leaves you vulnerable, but if you do it right, you can win the respect and trust of your community, even in situations where you have serious egg on your face.

So at 10 p.m. on a random weeknight, I did the thing that scares a lot of community professionals: I waded into a thread on reddit as a company spokesperson and spent a couple of hours talking out the problem.

Entering into a community conversation as a corporate spokesperson can feel a lot like a trial by fire, but this move worked for us. The thread made it to the top of the /r/games subreddit, so when people clicked to see what the fuss was all about, they saw my response at the top of the thread and a plethora of jovial conversation back and forth.

The candid answer also won us press coverage. While this incident pertained to an older game in our catalog, we were working on releasing a new title, and I was hosting a live stream for it in a few days. This kind of event would be a difficult thing to get an outlet as large as Mashable to cover, but in conjunction with our outreach on reddit, they had a larger story that won us press coverage for our upcoming game that we otherwise would not have been able to score.

The instant replay: a customer support problem was solved with an honest answer (community win), which garnered significant goodwill and then earned us press coverage for an upcoming title (PR win.)

Making My Team Better Today

Last year I joined Tumblr as the director of support. When I arrived, it took us around 150 hours to send a reply to an inbound support request and our backlog was 7,600 tickets deep.

Whenever I share these graphs, people gasp in horror and amazement.

But within three months, we had solved this problem entirely. Within six months, we officially evolved into the Community Management department.

We now spend less than half our days doing what you would call traditional “support,” having time to act as advocates for users and focus on proactive and reactive outreach within our community to make their experiences and our product better. But how’d we pull this off?

Three important steps:

1. We dug into our help desk data, simplifying complex systems and automating tasks that didn’t require personal attention to resolve. This left us with around 33% more time to focus on issues that benefitted from the human touch, allowing us to dig deeper into technical problems, helping our product and engineering teams.

2. We bucketed our team. Instead of being 15 people in a support org, we are now three teams within a Community Management department: product and engineering liaison, outreach and advocacy, and support. The first focuses on security and technical issues. The second deals with proactive outreach, reporting, and messaging. The third helps VIPs and brands, and they continue to improve our support pipeline with technology and better processes so we can be more efficient while keeping our standards high.

3. We put a ton of emphasis on training and teaching. I’m a bit altruistic in this regard. I want to be more than a manager; I’d like to be seen as a mentor. By empowering everyone to go to conferences, take classes, and learn new things, our department has been able to grow and adapt far faster than if I had been trying to mastermind our path on my own.

How to Un-Silo Your Departments

When I talk about this topic, the most frequent question I get is, “How do you get all these teams to actually work together?”

If you’ve worked in or with these departments, chances are you’ve seen friction when roles and responsibilities overlap. It’s a fact of life we all struggle with, but it’s not an impossible task to overcome.

Here’s my solution: start with a cup of coffee.

It doesn’t actually have to be coffee. In video games, it was usually tequila. Sometimes it’s a baked good. Other times, it’s a walk outside away from the office.

Really, the best way to break barriers is by holding honest conversations.

This requires listening—and I mean the sincere kind, where you carefully take in what’s said and aren’t just waiting for your turn to speak. Listen to what those other departments are up against. Hear them talk about their pain points and challenges. And when they’re done talking, take that information, mull it over, and come back with ways you can help them. By solving problems together, you’ll find camaraderie, and out of that camaraderie, true collaboration can happen.

Once people take a step back, they realize overlap doesn’t have to end in quarrels but should instead result in a more cohesive body of work. Successfully breaking down siloes creates a seamless user experience throughout the lifecycle with your company.

All because marketing, public relations, community management, and customer support are connected by the same thing. They’re about using communication to improve the customer experience.

Seriously.


About the author: Elizabeth Tobey is Director of Community at Tumblr and has spent the past decade leading community, marketing, and PR teams for video game and tech companies.