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Back to the basics of good community management

As the use of social tools in the enterprise has exploded over recent years, the role of community management is being talked about more and more. Yet confusion remains about exactly what it is, and whether it’s really needed. Social media purists argue authentic online communities should be as completely self-organised and un-managed as possible. Others take a more pragmatic approach, suggesting effective facilitation and management helps the community to develop so that it meets its intended purpose.

In this special guest post for Intranetizen, Sam Woods, Community Manager for a global financial company’s social intranet sets out what makes community management work.

What makes a good community manager?

Some companies seem to be finding good community management tricky to define. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame them – the title’s so new to most places that, even if they understand its importance and can list some general competencies, they often fail to capture its essence. Community management is more than just establishing user guidelines and deleting stuff that breaks them, though that’s part of it. It’s more than just being able to present statistics and summaries of community activity, though again that’s part of it.

Really, at its core, community management is all about bringing people together. Everything else is secondary. Whether it’s colleagues on the intranet or customers on the internet, a good community manager needs to be able to cultivate an environment where users feel comfortable and enthusiastic about taking part. Users need to feel it’s worthwhile, and they need to be confident that their voices will be heard.

You know what else? You, as a community manager, need to be the one they come to if they’re not and fix whatever’s broken.

However, I’m a community manager myself and my role profile barely even scratches the surface of the things that I do. It’s nearly all about the other side of my job – internal communications.

Sure, the ability to write and edit solid copy is pretty handy, but lots of my day-to-day community management work doesn’t have a home in the ‘required outputs’ column of my job spec. It’s also pretty difficult to explain why I do what I do in an appraisal.

Irresponsibilities

So, you know what? Let’s ditch the format of ‘required experience’ and ‘role responsibilities’ for now and just look at a few of the most important qualities that good community managers need to have. I’m going to focus mainly on internal community management in my examples since that’s what I know best, but this stuff applies everywhere.

Buzzwords and corporate lingo are unavoidable I’m afraid… and also, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be using some words that make me cringe.

Passion

If you love your community, you’re doing something right. If you’re managing a community that you don’t really care about, if it’s just a job to you, then you don’t deserve them. The community deserves better than you. It’s as simple as that.

Yeah, right off the bat. I cringed.

Still, I chose passion first because it’s the most important quality a community manager can have, and it also ties into everything else I’m going to list. Community managers have to be passionate about what they do. It’s not just a job you do. It’s more an art than a science, and to be good at it you have to love it. I’m not being hyperbolic.

Seriously, if you’re a community manager, you have to love it.

You need to want what’s best for your users, even if that means arguing their side against senior management or implementing an unpopular policy to keep community heading in the right direction – and the courage (and freedom) to do that is something I’ll touch upon later.

Being realistic, you’re also going to need this passion when you’re working way outside normal hours. I don’t stop being community manager when I head home, or even at the weekend. If there’s a problem in the community you manage, if someone’s posting offensive pictures at 11pm on a Saturday night, you need to deal with it then and there – it won’t wait until 9am on Monday after you’ve had your coffee.

Oh, and passion for the topic that your community revolves around is important, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that it’s enough. You need to be passionate about managing a community around the topic you love, because you’re going to sacrifice the ability to take part as freely as everyone else.

Courage

Management: “Someone’s said something negative about our new adverts on the forum. Can you go ahead and delete that for me?”
Community manager: “No. Here’s why…”

I mentioned this above: courage to advocate for the community is essential. I’m not implying that you need to be truculent (even though I love that word) but you need to have the courage – and be given the freedom and support – to influence and educate stakeholders in how they should interact with (and in) the community. Sometimes that means telling people why deleting negative comments is a terrible idea, sometimes it means explaining why some new campaign being aimed at your users is actually pretty dumb (though try not to use those exact words) because of xy and z.

This is why I always oppose the idea that community manager is an entry-level position. Effective community managers really, really need to be in a position to influence and guide policies.

It’s possible that you’ll need to make a decision that’s best for the community in the long run, even though you know you’ll get a lot of criticism in the short term. You need to be able to stand by that decision (if you still feel that it’s right) and not bow to the pressure of complaints. On the flip-side, if you realise that it wasn’t the right call after all, you need to have the courage to put your hands up, admit that you were wrong and apologise. That can hurt, but the alternative is worse.

Something else that requires a bit of courage, depending on how confident you are – you will be the face of your community. You’ll also be the face of your company to your community. That’s the job, and you’ll need to be comfortable putting your name out there, to be the first point of call for people, and to put your own reputation on the line. If you ever post something that looks like a prepared statement…well, just don’t.

Empathy

Ah, now this one is tricky. If you’re managing a community, you need to really understand them. When your users get riled up about something, you need to get why and not just what they’re annoyed about – and the community needs to know that you get it. All your interactions with your users or members need to really make it clear that you understand them and have their best interests at heart.

You’re probably going to hear the same questions all the time. You’re going to get the same complaints (“Why can’t we swear? We’re all grown-ups!”) After all, you want new people joining the community all the time – whether that’s new staff, or old staff who’ve finally been convinced to join in – and with new users come the old questions. Being empathetic (and passionate!) will let you engage with them with just as much enthusiasm the fiftieth time as you had the first time.

It’s not just about being empathetic towards the users though – you also need to put yourself in the shoes of senior management, because when you boil it right down, they’re as much a part of the community as anyone else – even if they tend to take part a lot, lot… lot less.

You might understand the benefits of having a happy and thriving community of people participating in your intranet forums, talking about their favourite TV programmes or how the catering facilities suck, but chances are that some people aren’t quite on the same page. You’ll need to understand where they’re coming from when they say “this lot must not have enough work to do,” but you’d also better have the facts and figures ready to back up the value of your community.

People who don’t see the value in communities aren’t stupid (well, they might be, but not for that reason), generally they just don’t understand the benefits to be gained – understanding how to get it across to them effectively is something a community manager needs to be able to do.

Humour

This is so important to me that I was tempted to put it at the top, but it’s actually a subset of passion and empathy. To pull this off, you also need courage because it’s the most controversial one of these qualities I’m listing.

My community has in-jokes, and I play to them. I play to them a lot. I hide jokes in otherwise serious stuff, and my blog on the intranet homepage is my blog, not a stuffy communication channel. I encourage people to respond with joke answers to my questions if they want to. I try to be engaging and open, I make it light-hearted even when I’m dealing with serious issues – basically, humour humanises a community manager.

I admit it can vary from community to community, and from company to company, but personally I think that this is where the great community managers shine and the lacklustre community managers show…well, they show their lack of lustre

Thick skin

No matter how well you get on with your users and how much you promote your guidelines, moderation’s always going to have a place. And you may not be popular for it.

You’ll probably be called the fun police. Someone might call you Hitler, or just a garden variety Nazi. It comes with the territory. Mostly it’s not serious, but in the course of enforcing community guidelines you’ll ruffle a few feathers – a good community manager needs to not take it to heart, and they’ll minimise it by being fair, consistent and accessible. They’ll address complaints and defuse situations like this calmly and not let it affect their judgement.

Bringing it all together

People aren’t stupid: they know when they are being condescended to, mollified or lied to, but they also know they’re being genuinely considered.

In larger companies, most of the rank and file tend to have an innate distrust in managers and, y’know, also vice versa. Good community management can bring everyone in the audience together in ways that can completely change the culture of the company as a whole, and change it for the better.

For my community, I’m a person rather than a corporate mouth-piece. I think that’s how it should be. It builds trust and, genuinely, it creates friendships. I can’t think of a better position for a community manager to be in than to be trusted and liked by the community. It gives my community the feeling they can come to me outside of official channels, to ask questions, to bring up concerns, or even just for a chat.

Encouraging a community manager to do some of the things I’ve mentioned can be a real challenge for a company. I buy that, sometimes a lot of what I do and what I suggest can seem ‘unprofessional’. I totally recognise that. It has value though. This means it often falls to the community manager to make the leap themselves unbidden and hope that they can demonstrate the benefits to everyone. Even the ones who sign the wage slips. It’s worth the risk.

If you’re a community manager, then I’d love to hear what you think, whether I’ve missed anything or if you disagree with anything I’ve said. If you’re looking to hire a community manager and you’re not sure exactly the type of person you need, then hopefully this will help you narrow it down.

 




There are 7 comments

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  1. Nigel Williams

    Brilliant blog Sam. As a Community Manager you’re a bit like Google; you won’t necessarily have all the answers but will be most likely to know who to go to, who else is facing the same challenges, and who has already got the scratches and bruises from doing it.

    You are generally acting a bit like the Olympics Games Makers (volunteers), you don’t need to be able to run as fast as Usain Bolt or having the swimming prowess of Ellie Simmonds to be one but you need to be passionate about it because for every excitable Usain Bolt fan using your services there will be a cynic prattling on about Ben Johnson. If you don’t care about your Community you are indeed doing a dis-service to it.

  2. Sam Woods

    Hi Nigel, thanks for the kind words. I’ll admit I’ve never thought of myself as a human version of Google, though it’d explain why I’m invited to so many pub quizzes.

    Seriously though, you’re right. Community managers (internally at least) should be able to put people in touch with other people – whether that’s to get questions answered or just to share ideas/interests. Like I say, when you boil it down, it’s all about bringing people together.

    Love the Game Maker comparison (even though I had to look up who Ben Johnson is!)


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