I could have sworn I’ve seen articles like this one annually for the past couple/few years. I have to admit it’s a bit odd seeing your job touted as the “next big thing”. (Especially for multiple years running.) I’m also not holding my breath. πŸ™‚

It always seems a bit incongruous to me, too, since, by necessity, community management is anything but glamorous or A-list-y. It’s one of those jobs where things are going well if people don’t really notice you doing much at all, or you can fix problems before people get loud about them.


Part of what has bothered me the last while, in my own job, is that it doesn’t feel like I do much community management at all. Of course, that then necessitated thinking about what, exactly, community management is, since I am one, and have been doing my job…

What it came down to was an imbalance in actually doing the variety of tasks and responsibilities that make up my job, or any community manager’s job. That article outlines any number of things, many of which focus on proactive or outreach-related functions. Part of the issue is that, while those are the most touted community management responsibilities, that’s only part of the story, and the more glamorous one at that.

What had been bothering me was that I’d been doing an awful lot of reactive work — customer service, explanations and documentation for things we launched, etc. I’d have loved to have time to read blog posts, leave comments, update our Facebook presence, etc. But I also wasn’t planning to start working 24/7, either, so priorities had to be chosen.

Which led me, combined with my year-end review and thoughts of how I want to develop in the coming year, to my own ponderings about where community management as a job and as a profession are headed.

Certainly, it’s still a cutting edge position. Sure, there are a few people out there who’ve been building and managing communities for years, but rarely was that their job title or what they were explicitly hired for. Nowadays it’s becoming a more common role in tech and at startups, but only beginning to be considered at many larger companies, and unheard of at plenty more traditional businesses. (And there are many companies that don’t need it, frankly.)

Bigger companies have many of their own challenges in trying to figure out how to adopt any form of community management. The issue of scale alone is daunting. To scale well you need resources, and to deploy resources effectively you need order and process. But part of what often makes community management effective is that it’s a single point of contact and it’s not bogged down by approvals and processes. What needs doing gets done.

How do you re-create that freedom and enfranchisement in a big company? I’ve no idea. I’ve been exposed to too much politicking and dick-swinging and turf-staking, to be honest. How do you develop and maintain good relations in a big company between community management personnel and other departments who couldn’t dream in a million years of having that degree of freedom and maverick culture?

It’s a catch 22 — the better you are at your job, the more resentment you potentially engender in people you rely on to help you do your job well and get better at it…

Even at small companies, like the one I work at, I see community management splintering and amalgamating with existing functions. Sort of colouring and changing things like marketing, communications, and customer service to have community management’s personal touch and holistic culture.

The proactive and reactive functions are the first I see separating. As aforementioned, often there simply isn’t time to do it all, and when a paying customer has a problem, spending quality time with your RSS reader falls off the radar.

However, again, even in a smaller company, division of responsibility weakens the community manager’s value as a catalyst and central hub of knowledge that can be quickly employed/deployed. You never have to have meetings with yourself, but you do have to consult to provide information, give approval, etc. when there is more than one person performing community management (or any department’s functions).

I think, too, for companies with more mature community management roles, the position will develop to include a lot more filtering to determine what gets addressed. This will become a critical analytical skill involving an interesting blend of psychology, communications, customer service, and business development abilities.

It’s a fact that everyone, companies included, has to say no sometimes. But it’s a huge boon to brands and business growth to have someone who knows both when to say no, and to whom, but can also do it in a way that leaves the community member satisfied, despite not getting what they thought they wanted.

Community management hiring will also become interestingly specialized. Certainly, by now, there are a few of us out there with community management experience on our resumes. But we all come from different backgrounds, in education and work experience, not to mention age, personality, preferences in company types and industries, etc. Soft skills will continue to trump hard skills or job experience in community management hiring, but being able to recognize the right soft skills, personality, and cultural fit is an important and rare enough skill in a hiring manager to begin with.

Not everyone is suited to working at a Fortune 500 company, just as not everyone is suited to the startup lifestyle and the many-hat-wearing job requirements of a single-digit employee number. But there is value in strategizing and hiring for community management at both of those ends of the business spectrum, and in between.

And even among people suited to community management (thick-skinned, articulate, fond of helping, patient, organized, good memory, social…) there are vast differences in the required roles and hard skills companies are going to look for.

Is the community management external- or internal-facing? Is it a social network, non-revenue-generating user base or paying customers? Does it serve an individual department or division or the entire global employee base? Does the community exist already, or is the community manager’s first and biggest challenge to build it? Who does the company want to attract? Whether fledged community or just a group of employees, what is the mood or culture among them? Is there camaraderie and positiveness, or division, resentment, and resistance?

That’s just the beginning of the people questions, not even touching on determining where the community chooses to live and interact online, what technologies they embrace, what modes of communication they prefer, how much interaction with the company they want, and in what formats, what their response expectations are, etc.

And have I mentioned trying to figure out how to define community management goals and success yet?

So no, community management doesn’t tend to bring a lot of glory or recognition. Firstly, there simply isn’t time. And secondly it’s a job that’s often like being a parent — you’re there to get things done, help people learn, help users and the business develop, fix problems, etc. — you’re not there to be everyone’s buddy. (And since community management often requires saying no and/or enforcing the rules, you never will please all of the people all of the time.)

Now, unfortunately the lack of visibility of a lot of community management makes it hard for those who want or need to learn about it to sort things out. Sorry about that. However, at the same time, the folks who get into community management are, conveniently, precisely the kind of personality that will answer questions or help solve problems extensively and in detail — just ask.

Also fortunately, some excellent community management professionals do make the time to blog, speak, and otherwise shed light on this developing profession. I mean to from time to time as well… And hey, if 2010 really is my year, maybe I can negotiate for some minions… and a star on the Walk of Fame, of course… πŸ™‚

5 Comments on Will I get a Time magazine cover photo?

  1. Just some thoughts here Melle, hopefully they contain something you can use.

    “It always seems a bit incongruous to me, too, since, by necessity, community management is anything but glamorous or A-list-y.” See: Sprouter, ReadWriteWeb.

    …On that note you then you just as easily have guys like Jono Bacon who have less glamour, but instead more cred as their currency. But it's a different job, managing the existent/large community as the main course, rather than a side to other needed promotional activities etc… The differences just come as a consequence of community maturity and brand I think.

    Just based on what you are describing it seems like community manager being head support is a pain, and not the best strategy to take. Growth creates the need for change. Maturity of organization vs. maturity of community vs. maturity of community management should be aligned as well, while we're at it. Easy enough πŸ™‚

    When thinking about the internal situation of a community manager in a business. There should be a clear distinction of roles, but necessarily of people, in solving the customers' short-term issues, and the one to be the voice of the customer and solving their long-term ones.

    Thankfully that's one place where open source works out well because most of the time the support for short term issues comes from the community. The difference is also especially important as in OS the community plays a big part in driving direction of product, but in reality it's only a small subset of the community that does this.

  2. See: Sprouter, ReadWriteWeb.

    I'm afraid I'm missing what your point is supposed to be there. I don't see glamorous community management in either of those entities. Sprouter does a lot of events, and Erin does a lot of personal brand building work. Maybe that's your definition? (Plus, quite frankly, the struggle to figure out how to monetize community is anything but glamorous, as many of us know.)

    ReadWriteWeb is a well-known publication, and we know a number of the staff well, but I don't know much of anything about what they do community-wise. As they get more into events and other aspects of business, I suspect that will develop.

    But it's a different job, managing the existent/large community as the main course, rather than a side to other needed promotional activities etc… The differences just come as a consequence of community maturity and brand I think.

    Different lot of things, really. Some community building is intended just to create community, some is intended to develop customers, and some is intended to develop customers for third parties. Over time, I imagine these are all going to split out because the community work required will mature completely differently.

    I would think developing community for third party promotion would be the hardest to develop with credibility. People are increasingly savvy and cynical online, and getting them to believe you really love the stuff you're shilling…? God luck. (I get BzzAgent emails, and pretty much just ignore the “the product is so awesome” parts for that reason.)

    Just based on what you are describing it seems like community manager being head support is a pain, and not the best strategy to take.

    The community manager heading support isn't necessarily a strategy. In a small company, there are only so many bodies, and it's not the kind of role that's going to fall to the CEO or a developer, most likely. Clearly you need more startup experience under your belt. πŸ˜‰

    But yes, it does create balance challenges, and not just for the support side. As business grows, so do marketing needs, communications needs, etc., and one person can only scale so far. Then the challenge becomes adding bodies and trying to maintain the community culture, as I mentioned in my post.

    Growth creates the need for change.

    Getting dangerously close to marketingspeak here. Careful, or your credibility will be what's at stake… πŸ™‚

    Maturity of organization vs. maturity of community vs. maturity of community management should be aligned as well, while we're at it. Easy enough πŸ™‚

    I presume you're saying that tongue-in-cheek, seeing as it's not easy, and they all mature at different rates, if at all. Plus you're flinging around more marketing words like “aligned”.

    When thinking about the internal situation of a community manager in a business. There should be a clear distinction of roles, but necessarily of people, in solving the customers' short-term issues, and the one to be the voice of the customer and solving their long-term ones.

    I think you have a typo there, since it doesn't entirely make sense. Really, in reality, you CAN'T have “clear” distinction of roles when it's the same person doing everything. Doesn't happen. And one of the main values of a community manager, especially in a small company, is having fingers in many pies and knowing all the facets of a situation. It enables for better communication and faster response.

    Re. the distinction between short-term and long-term issues, what you need to develop there is good process and documentation, usually between community management and development, since “long-term issues” is likely feature requests and the like.

    Thankfully that's one place where open source works out well because most of the time the support for short term issues comes from the community. The difference is also especially important as in OS the community plays a big part in driving direction of product, but in reality it's only a small subset of the community that does this.

    Couple of dangers here, though. It's harder than people might think to find, use, and maintain one or a couple tools to handle all this, especially with a development-driven organization and the latest shiny coming along on a weekly basis. (Or tools being bought and added to other systems, or companies going out of business, etc.)

    As for the community driving product development, certainly that's a big goal, and yeah, the squeaky wheels are something to remain cognizant of. That's where you get into the filtering I mentioned. It takes time to develop the ability to determine who to listen to, where people are on the adoption curve, and other considerations, and the more the company grows, the better you have to get at saying no.

  3. Melle,

    What an in-depth and accurate portrayal of Community Management. I agree with so many of your points. First, I agree with your point about reactive work – as much as I do spend time building our presence on social media sites I would love to spend time with my RSS reader, both discovering and commenting on relevant blog posts and articles. But it certainly does take low priority.

    I agree that Community Management at a large company must take a very different shape than at a startup. There simply isn't the same sense of creativity and freedom, and I think those moving from startup to Fortune 500 would find it a real challenge. I think as the role evolves at larger companies the traditional executives are going to have to adapt their way of thinking to accommodate the reactive nature of CMs.

    I also agree that the role will involve filtering what gets addressed. It's simply not feasible for a CM to do it all – I've tried to solve this by getting the help of interns, and just plain old prioritizing – it's clear that spending my time on customer service is more effective than perusing blog posts.

    Your point about soft skills is so true – I'd rather have a CM who was outgoing, ambitious, and well-versed in new media than someone who took a similar field in school. Much of what I learned was on the job, and I think being plain old smart is half the battle.

    The only point I disagree with is this one: “It’s one of those jobs where things are going well if people don’t really notice you doing much at all, or you can fix problems before people get loud about them.” I think that establishing yourself as the face of the brand is almost necessary as a Community Manager – it gives a human face to the company, and it helps build relationships and trust. I think many people associate me with Sprouter, and rightfully so. But definitely true about solving problems before people get loud – or at least reacting in a timely and effective manner if they do get loud.

    Great post, and looking forward to seeing how the role evolves in 2010!

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