Episode 8: The Role Of Storytelling In Creating Community With Anthea Hartzenberg

It is one thing to reach people; it is another to engage with them. It is in that engagement that relationships are built, and meaningful connections are made. And there probably is no better way to do that than through storytelling. Anthea Hartzenberg of OfferZen joins Josh Hotsinpiller to share with us how she is utilizing storytelling in creating a community and sparking creativity. As the Head of Engagement, she also tells us how events play a crucial role in connecting communities to the brand and supporting business growth. Ultimately, engagement is all about being an active participant in the community. OfferZen takes this approach to heart, and Anthea gives us a look into how they commit to this as they connect and grow their business.


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The Role Of Storytelling In Creating Community With Anthea Hartzenberg

We are so excited to have you here with another episode of the show. I am so excited to have Anthea join us. Welcome. We're so glad to have you.

Thank you. It's great to be here.

What our readers probably don't know is we met in a digital professional community where we both work in. We have the same title at our companies, Head of Engagement. I reached out wanting to learn more about you. This is a unique title and role that you and I have found ourselves in. Tell us a little bit about you as Head of Engagement at OfferZen.

I love that and it's a unique title. Initially, I was appointed as Head of Events at OfferZen. I advocated for making it a bit broader beyond simply doing events. At the moment, I care about how we connect people externally to our brand. That is across events, SWAG and PR. I’m telling them the story in a meaningful way with the people whom we want to engage with. That's why the title of engagement made a lot more sense. My background is a bit different. I have a more of comms and PR background. I worked in financial services and then transitioned into the startup space in Africa, which was quite exciting.

Before that, I worked in a political place in South Africa, which is what my educational background was. An interesting thing probably about me is I got my first job at sixteen. I wanted to move into the news space so I reached out to a local radio station and was like, “I want to get involved with news production, news reading and those sorts of things.” Two weeks later, I was on air reading the news, compiling the news and producing it. I've been telling stories since then. I love this idea of creating unique connections with our community through engagement.

Tell me a little bit about how storytelling plays into your role of connecting people. You've been working in the digital space. I consider airwaves also in digital space. Probably the first bout of digital we've ever had in our life was radio. How does that and storytelling translate into your community engagement?

What we can all agree that is universal is that stories connect us. It is a way for us to not only bring our histories, values and personalities to life but it's also a way to ignite creativity in others, which is what I enjoy doing. For me, this is central to how you build communities, telling the story of what a community is and what it can be. One of the first major events that I did was at a financial services company where we were moving into the digital space in terms of discovering what digital means for products and services in the industry.

Stories connect us. It is a way for us to not only bring our histories, values, and personalities to life, but it's also a way to really ignite creativity in others.

One way of bringing that to life for people is to bring in people who are working on super innovative products and services to make that real. To tell the story of failure, success and the journeys of both these sorts of things to inspire creativity and get people excited about the potential for digital. For me, it's essential and integral to how we build communities, bringing those stories to life.

The challenge often is finding the stories. We all have stories to tell but how can you get the insightful question that will take you beyond the surface level of the deeper motivations and understanding deeper whys and the questions that bring in the whole spectrum of their experience and not just a linear way of telling a story? That's the more difficult part.

What's great for me is I've worked with people and continue to work with people. In the PR space, you have to fit in, listen, ask questions and find ways of getting the stories out of people. You take that and then package it in a way that can be super relevant, attractive and interesting for the people whom you want to engage with. You iterate as you go along. It's an essential part of community building and bringing people together but also sparking creativity amongst the community.

All the stories are important. We talk a lot about meeting people where they are. Being able to have everyone feel included in that, meeting you where they are, meeting you where you need to be and the information you're looking for requires a lot of different stories. What you're maybe looking out of your community is different from mine. Having those diverse voices and stories builds some inclusion. Digital is so important because it reaches everyone where they are. You don't have to rely on in-person or geographic bounds.

You're on the other side of the world from me. We're still connecting, engaging and building a relationship. That's incredible what you guys do. Thinking about that and your event role, how do the community and events play together in your space? You talked about how you are in charge of working with events and communities and connecting that with the brand that you work with. How do those all play together? How do you leverage your events and community and also then support business growth for your company? How do those mix?

Within the engagement team at OfferZen, in my team, there are three main leaders that we use and events are one of them. What's great about events, specifically within the community context, is it's intentional but a natural forum for bringing people together. What's great about online events and in-person events as well is that you can have different roles within your audience or community.

You might have people that want to come, experience, learn and take from your speakers or whatever the case may be. You have people that actively want to troubleshoot and problem-solve because they're coming in with something very specific. Some people are invested in making sure that the connections happen. I want to speak to as many people as possible.

Events for me are almost like a natural way to foster and grow the community. There are lots of other ways. For instance, you can have discussion forums, different event formats, different offshoots of community, whether it's mentorship and all of those sorts of things. Events are one natural way to do that. With the different roles, it's easy for people to plug in whatever context they're coming from.

Events are almost a natural way to foster and grow a community.

One other thing we do is a large marketing function but the way we look at it is to flag it as a way to connect people around shared language, ideas and craft. For us, the community element there is every single one of our designs when it comes to SWAG is co-created with the community. We have a huge investment in growing with a community. That whole ideation process for design is based on speaking to the community, conducting user chats, giving feedback, getting more feedback and iterating as you go along.

Ultimately, before you even get to present the ideas to the business, you have something that's bought into by your community that they will advocate for when it's out there. They would champion it because they feel part of what you've created. The last thing is how we create experiences across both of those interactions with the community. From an event perspective, making sure that we're able to get the right people into a room, the people that's going to help us achieve the goal for our event, get the right people to know about when we’re doing SWAG or whatever the case may be so they can advocate and share for it. In that way, it grows our community even more.

Tying that back to business metrics is a lot easier in a sense. From an events perspective, there's a traditional way of thinking about B2B events, which is you want to engage new leads and nurture existing needs. There's a brand awareness component to that as well. For me, it is understanding your personas and the people that you want to engage, whether it's a buyer persona or someone that's in the ecosystem.

Understanding them well means you can craft events and content. Get speakers that will resonate with them. In that way, you can hit the business metrics of getting the right leads into the room and then work with internal stakeholders on how to convert that to actual business value. Ultimately, for both of those, it starts with what are we creating for the individual.

If you take out all the information that you have about the persona, their likes and dislikes and all of those sorts of things and at what point they buy and what point they don't buy, you start with, “Am I creating something of value that will help this person and will help me achieve the goal of whatever this event is?” For the community, for us, it is largely around specifically on the tech community side.

The goal is how can we help you level up in your tech career. Let's start with that. Using OfferZen, find a job. That's great because that means our business keeps running and you win at getting the next job but we don't all look for a job every other month or week. In between the community building, we’re helping people level up in their careers. We’re giving them access to mentorship, helping them write about their experiences and share them and connecting at events with speakers that can inspire them and share their failures and learnings. Making sure that we are investing in community organizers who are venting.

In that way, building brand credibility, building trust within the community and getting them to like us means that ultimately, when they're ready, we hope that they will use OfferZen to find a job. The metrics are built-in. For me, as Head of Engagement, the most important thing is understanding the metrics that we are working towards to make businesses but also championing the customer and the person that we are building for. That's an individual community. It's a person with whom we are crafting content and bringing speakers. That's important. Balancing that is hard but it's more than possible if you have the clarity.

Storytelling In Community: The most important thing is understanding the metrics we are working towards to make business and champion the customer and the person we are building for.

We talk a lot about it on this show going back to your why. Simon Sinek has been mentioned many times and his book Start with Why. It's not why this is important to the business. You hit it right on the head of why is this important to your audience. Bringing that community on the journey with you and seeking their input. That's how we get to inclusivity of not just inviting everyone to be part of the community but to feel contributing to the event.

I'm much more likely to show up to the event or community when I feel I have a sense of purpose there or I feel like my feedback was heard and listened. I want to keep giving back to that community. The way you approach it is so important. It’s the absolute right take on it. At the end of the day, we're all humans. What are we doing to support you?

I love that you think about, “Not just we want to help you find a job but we want to help make sure your skills are advancing and upskilling. When you're ready for that next job, you already know where to go. You've already been engaged with the brand. You have a community of people to support you.” How do you leverage technology to accomplish some of this?

With your community building, you talked about the intentionality with your SWAG, which you might be the only people that think that way about it. I've worked for several brands and we've spent more money than I would care to admit over the years on SWAG always felt cool or easy. There wasn't always a rhyme or reason to it. I love that you seek feedback from your community. “What are we doing?”

We're not just buying trash keys to buy them. Thinking about that and how intentional you are, how do you leverage technology in your events and community building to build that inclusivity? Going back to meeting people where they are, that's the best way to leverage technology to meet them. How do you approach that and sprinkle tech into your approach?

I’m going to answer this in two parts. Technology in itself is incredibly useful for finding communities that might be overlooked or underserved. When you are building communities, how do you make sure that you're getting more diverse attendees and people with different views, backgrounds and perspectives into the room? It makes your community better if you have more of that. Find them but then also, it's great for battle testing and seeing and finding different perspectives, which is useful.

Technology in itself is incredibly useful for finding communities that might be overlooked or underserved.

I'm part of a few tech communities like Slack, for example. It's great for engaging with the community where they are but it's also useful for getting that feedback like, “Where should we be marketing our events to make sure that we are bringing in more diversity and being more inclusive?” Making sure that we use technology to get feedback.

From an enabling perspective, technology can help discover where those communities are playing, what you can do, how you can reach out to them and what's effective. Oftentimes, it's not just seeing it as an outlet. I'm not just posting an event into a forum and hoping for the best that the people will come. It is being an active part of that community, contributing and sharing knowledge and experiences. In that way, you build up credibility so that when you have opportunities, people would want to support and participate.

Using technology to not only run our events but the important data and insight that we get from integrating it into our events. From a business perspective, you are reporting on titles and companies that you brought in and a lot of those sorts of things. What is the intention they want? Find a job or not, which is great and you can use that to help on the business metric side.

You can also see how people are engaging. You know whom you are attracting. You can understand where are the right people and what is the composition of the group. That's insightful. It’s where people volunteer and share their information. That's the first thing. Who's coming? How are they engaging? Are they asking questions? Are they disengaged? Are they dropping off midway through the call? You can use this to bold specific community metrics that will tell you whether you're moving in the right direction in terms of elevating diverse voices and being more inclusive.

For me, technology in that two parts is it's useful for finding the communities and attendees that you want to bring into your spaces but be an active participant, whether it's on Slack, events or whatever that forum is. Integrating technology into how you run events can give you so much information that you can use to then calibrate how you do this. Understanding how people are engaging and seeing the status background of who is attending is incredibly useful and technology can help us do that.

I was reading an article about scientific meetings. Women don't raise their hand to ask questions at in-person meetings but yet most of the meetings I go to we’re still passing around microphones and I'm like, “Why couldn't we use a technology where I can submit questions?” I'm one of those people. I'm never going to stand in front of a microphone. I'm much more comfortable asking questions online or somewhere where I'm not going to have to stand up in a room of strangers and potentially embarrass myself.

People say there are no dumb questions. There are dumb questions and I don't want to be one to ask them. That's a great point about thinking of unique ways to use technology and engage with your community. One other point you made was you are an active participant in the community. You've talked a lot about getting feedback from your community, making them part of the decision-making process, making them part of the conversation and using that as feedback. How do you do that without always asking? Being an active participant in your community, what does that mean?

That question speaks to the heart of how we think about community and how we approach it at OfferZen, which is that we invest a lot of our money in making community happen. Whether it's sponsoring community events or creating events where people can come together. Tech communities come together, play with new tech and build new things. Firstly, it's putting your money where your mouth is. It's not just about we want to build communities but you don't have business intent behind it.

When you do that and you show up consistently, it creates a level of trust between you and the community, which is invaluable. Start with building trust, putting your money where your mouth is and making that how you think about community within your business is essential. In that way, you feel a lot more invested and the community also.

If they're saying, “We are investing in days,” it's an opportunity for developers to come together and build new tools, whether it's Wi-Fi enabled built-on machine, which is like a dried cured meat or a self-watering plant. It takes a lot from us as a business to invest in these things but we know that this resonates with our community. Therefore, they feel like we've taken the time to create these spaces and they are a lot more invested. That's important.

Make sure that we action the feedback. Being consistent in how you do that and intentional about how you do that is also a way of showing up for your community because they feel heard, seen and included in the decision-making around the business. I cannot tell you how many times we've maybe done an ad or released a new feature on the product.

We have people from the community in a channel or a public forum who give us feedback and say, “This doesn't work.” Our CEO is there. He monitors that. He'll engage and comment. That is not one way. That is like, “I'm feeling like I'm part of something. I'm invested in growing this.” What's been great for OfferZen is we started doing this from the start of our business.

Our founders are both developers. They exited a few startups before they founded OfferZen. They deeply understood the challenges around building tech communities in South Africa. The initial stages of our business were them showing up at events, listening and asking questions. When we started doing SWAG, we are showing up with a bag of t-shirts. Being there wanting to show that they want to understand and help grow, instead of making it a one-way thing.

We've seen that journey in South Africa where the community has grown over time and you have a lot more people that are way more invested in you and your business. They feel part of it in some way. They probably found 1 or 2 jobs using OfferZen. That way, we deliver on our brand premise. It's like it’s this circular system in which we invest.

We believe in community so we invest in the community. We value the feedback and optimize for that. Our people are present, whether it's the Head of Engagement, CEO or Community Managers. In that way, you have the buy-in and you can foster the buy-in from your community. It's not a one-way street. It is a living breeding organism.

We use the word ecosystem quite a bit here in Juno and that's exactly what communities do. Organizations when we think about community, events are part of that ecosystem. Community members are part of it. Also, your branding and SWAG. Your company community is that whole ecosystem and all that you do. It takes all of us internally and as community members to make that a success.

The thing that often gets lost when you talk about community is it's almost like we see our one community as something that needs to be protected and kept tight in terms of audience and all of those sorts of things. We are part of the ecosystem. Beyond building our community, we spend a lot of money investing in other tech communities, enabling community organizers to do more of what they do. A thriving community ecosystem is great for tech. More people are learning, connecting and sharing. Ultimately, that's great for the broader ecosystem.

Storytelling In Community: Beyond just building our own community, we spend a lot of money investing in other tech communities, enabling community organizers to do more of what they do because a thriving community ecosystem is great for tech.

One of our taglines here in Juno is advancing the world for good through human connection. That's exactly what you guys are doing. At the end of the day, we're all humans. The more we can embrace ourselves as individuals and humans, we can build inclusive communities. We can use digital and tech opportunities to connect people around the world. I love that.

As we're wrapping up here and closing out, here’s a final thought. You took an approach to the community from the very beginning. When OfferZen started, that was part of your mission and what you wanted. Not everyone does that. If you were to give a piece of advice to someone wanting to start a community, want to dive into this and have an existing brand, where would they start? What's the first thing that they should do to think about building a digitally inclusive community?

I'll give them the 1st thing and 2 bonus things. The first thing is to go and spend time in the spaces where the people that you want to make part of your community are currently hanging out with almost no intent. You want to go and learn. You want to experience and understand. When you get a community, which is built on trust, shared goals, shared mission and people investing the time and effort to keep it going, if you get that right, it's a huge source of understanding, whether you see a community as customers or part of a larger ecosystem.

Go and find out where these people are. Spend time getting to know them, understanding and learning. What's great about that is often you can find organic opportunities from there. Either work with the existing community or you can see where the gaps are. When you are attending an event for instance, use these opportunities for gathering as much information as possible to inform how you build community.

Firstly, go and play where they are and make sure that you go in to learn and understand as much as possible. The thing about organic opportunities that come out from that, be ready to jump on those things. It's sometimes hard to build internal buy-in for community activities but that becomes important. One of the worst things you can do when starting a community is doing it in fixing start and being inconsistent. Essentially, those are birth people that you'll engage because maybe you've recognized there's a gap for whatever and bringing in speakers who speak about their shared failure, whatever the case may be.

The worst thing you can do when starting a community is to be consistent.

You see that this doesn't work and it's not bringing the right kinds of people. You then give up and then try something else. Have that internal buy-in that we might not win at this but we're going to give this 1 year or 2 years and see how we can be consistent and build that over time. That's important. Over-optimize for trust because when you are bringing people together around shared vision and goals and you have clear rules of engagement for how you show up as a community, the trust that you will deliver on that is essential.

If I'm signing up for a community and I want space, I want to connect with other first time manager in a safe environment with no judgment. You as a community organizer are responsible for holding and creating that space and for being clear about how we operate when we are in the space together and then making that happen. In that way, they’re like, “I'll come back next time because I know what to expect and it will happen.”

For me, it's being there, making sure that you are gathering the lessons, taking the insights and finding the opportunities to create shared value or added value based on what you know. That might be organic but make sure that it's consistent and you give yourself time to run with it. Over-optimize for building trust. People know what they get. It's predictable. They will make sure that you honor the rules of engagement, people feel safe and all of those sorts of things, especially in a world where we are becoming a lot more fractured and hard to have connotations in spaces that equal fitting. If you can get that right for your community, that's a massive win. Those are the three things.

I preach all the time trust and consistency. I love that that's where your answer went. Consistency is the key to building a strong community. I can't tell you how many people are like, “We have a community.” I'm like, “What'd you do with it lately? What have you done to engage your people?” It's not just if you build it, they will come. If you build it and engage them, they will stay. I love that and that's a perfect place to end.

I want to add one more thing, which is what I 100% believe. If you can get that trust right and you create spaces where people can connect and come together around that, the potential for impact and the things that can come out of that is limitless. When you put people in a room that is intentionally created for them and work towards things that they share, that connection that’s enabled from that is phenomenal. New ideas, organic collaboration, new innovations are the lifeblood of the community.

I couldn't have said it better myself. It’s amazing. Thank you so much for this invigorating conversation. We talked about a lot of different things but you wrapped up a perfect sentence about the unlimited possibilities when you build your community and create that safe space. At the end of the day, what we're all trying to do is connect people, advance people and make sure that they have a place to meet like-minded people around a shared goal, vision, opportunity, interests or whatever it might be. Thank you for joining us. It was such a pleasure to have you. We're very much looking forward to doing this again sometime in the near future. Make sure you guys read the next episode. Thanks for being here.

Thanks for having me.

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About Anthea Hartzenberg

As a passionate storyteller who landed her first radio news producer and reader job at 16, Anthea has been part of creating narratives that move people ever since. With a degree in Political Science, Anthea believes in the magic that happens when you bring people together around shares stories, values and purpose, and spends most of her time creating spaces and content that enables this to happen IRL and online. She has worked at corporates and scaleups in Africa, and is currently trying to build developer and recruiter communities in EMEA through PR, events, partnerships and swag at OfferZen, a tech talent marketplace. In her spare time you’ll find her in the outdoors, geeking out on camping gear and country hopping in Africa for months at a time as a digital nomad.