Linchpins and Community Managers: The artists of the business world

My colleague, Jackie Huba interviewed Seth Godin about his latest book, “Linchpin“. It’s a great interview, but in particular two things stand out to the community guy in me.

Q: You talk about linchpins being artists. What’s the difference between a conventional marketer and one who thinks like an artist? Can you give an example of a marketer who is an artist?

A: Art, by my definition, has nothing to do with painting and everything to do with connecting with people in a generous way and causing a change to take place. A movie director is making art when she makes you cry. A product designer creates art when the UI is better than it needs to be and it creates efficiency or even joy. Marketers can find plenty of Dummies books and manuals and insider PDFs that demonstrate, step by step, how to follow the rules. That’s easy and not particularly valuable. A marketer becomes an artist when she goes out on a limb, does the unexpected or the risky and makes a difference. I’d argue that you two do art when you stand up and give a talk about the 1%. Or Biz Stone was an artist when he figured out how to launch and scale Twitter’s marketing. Or Scott Monty at Ford when he does a car show rollout that bypasses the cocktail parties at AutoWeek in favor of individual interviews with social media mavens. The second time someone does something, it’s a copy. The first time, it’s art.

Social engagement/community building work is absolutely an art form. You’re taking complex, deep seated business practices and personal emotions and bending them into something new and amazing. As Seth mentions above, Scott Monty is doing something pure, unique, and quite amazing. Art doesn’t “just happen”. Art takes work, work that may not be obvious. I recently attended a lecture by a well-known art curator who talked about a number of projects that he had overseen. At first glance, the projects seemed obvious: create a theme, open a space, invite artists in to fill a theme. But as he explained the details that went into the creation of each project, it was obvious that there was years of skill, hours of thought, and months of preparation that each event was based on.

And nearly all of that time was impossible to track, much less apply an ROI calculation to. And that’s OK. Look at how Seth describes the idea of quantifying this art:

Q: We love this quote in the book: “The easier it is to quantify, the less it’s worth.” Can you tell us, and our MBA friends, why this is true?

A: If you can quantify it, then probably someone before you figured out a why to grind it out. And if you can grind it out, someone can grind it out cheaper than you can. On the other hand, the really valuable stuff, the stuff we pay a lot for, is unquantified. Things like creating joy or security or happiness. No easy measurements for those, thus they are art, and art is always worth more than the predicted. We measure the quantified because we can. But we should create the unquantified because it’s so rare.

To be clear, branding something “art” and therefore giving the artist an excuse to create junk is unacceptable. I went to design school, so I know that far too many artists get away with saying “You just don’t get it” when people rightly look at a lazy piece of junk and wonder “WTF??” Amazing art is the distillation of a complex concept into a unique and emotionally satisfying form. If I don’t “get it”, the artist has failed, not the viewer.

Community management is a tough gig because it’s primary function is to create art in the form of experiences, products, or relationships that satisfy an emotional need. Even though a customer might not understand their own emotional needs enough to ask for them, the Art of Community Management is understanding customers enough to distill that emotion into an amazing form. Apple, Amazon, Zappos, Alice.com, and many others understand this and have succeeded because of it.

As with truly great artists, community management is about way of thinking that allows you to find beauty in a variety of places. It doesn’t end when you walk out of the office, nor do you ever really stop thinking about projects (or relationships or programs or interactions) you’ve built in the past.

Community management and interaction, like art, doesn’t have to always be “good” or immediately understandable. It doesn’t always have to have a specific objective beyond the process of creation. And it most certainly doesn’t discount passion in the face of measurement difficulty. Community management, like art, is simply the process of showing enthusiasm for giving joy where you can and explaining the process you attempted when you can’t. Most importantly, it’s about picking up the brush and giving it a shot.