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Community manager appreciation day: pros and cons of community management

With the second annual community manager appreciation day just around the corner, I thought it would be a good time to sit back and take a look at he pros and cons that come with online community management.

So without further ado, here’s my list:

The good

  • I get to speak to passionate, like-minded people every day. The customers I interact with on a regular basis, as well as my community mananger peers, feel strongly about the brands that they interact with.
  • As a community manager I have to be as passionate as my customers to really understand what they say and why. I’m never alone. Managing online communities is not just a nine to five job and whenever I’m up early or battling a case of insomnia I know my community is there.
  • My ability as a community manager is reflected in the success of my communities. A community that performs well is hailed as a good example of customer service or engagement and improves sentiment towards the brand.
  • I get to be the first point of contact for the brand I’m representing, so my professional and friendly portrayal is the key starting point for future brand engagement.

The bad

  • It’s often difficult to find the middle ground between chat and promotion. Being able to post a good range of content can take time and there’s a risk that I’ll be seen as too spammy.
  • A community never sleeps. I have to be available 24 hours a day depending on the needs of my community and I’ve accepted that not everyone has the same sleep patterns as me.

The ugly

  • Remaining happy at all times can sometimes be tough. There are always cases where something may rile you on your community, but you can never ever rise to it. Keeping a calm, professional face at all times can be difficult times, but maintaining composure is the sign of a good community manager.
  • Online communities come in many forms. Although the role has only come to public attention in the last few years, it has been around since message boards and lists first appeared on the Internet. Having said that, I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing queries through to the end, servicing the needs of both clients and community members and ultimately providing a comfortable place where brands and consumers can have an open friendly conversation.

Getting your community management processes in order

ducks in a row
Image via Wikipedia

As a social media agency, FreshNetworks works with clients both to manage their online communities, and also to train, mentor and coach others to help them to manage their social media activity themselves. In fact the best approach to social media for many brands can be combine experienced skills in online community management with a deep knowledge and understanding of the brand. Big online communities will inevitably find that at some stage the people managing the community change or grow. You need to be able to handle these changes without disrupting the community you have worked so hard to engage. And the secret to this is process.

Here are FreshNetworks’ four key processes to get in place on any online community when it is going through change.

1. Record all your processes

Keep a record of “what to do” in any situation on your online community. Make sure you retain the vast array of organisational knowledge that your community manager has built up over time. This could be in a number of ways, from hidden forums or private wikis online to word documents and excel spreadsheets.

It’s important that records of community activity, moderated content and guidance notes are kept up to date but they are doubly important when your community manager leaves to allow the new staff an insight into the history of the community and its development.

2. Let the community members know what’s happening

If for no other reason, it’s just politeness and common courtesy to let the members know about any significant changes that will occur in the community.

Make them part of the process, let them know in advance that you will be leaving and give them some information about your replacement, going so far as to asking the new community manager to introduce themselves in a post before they start.

3. Have a reasonable handover timeframe

This is so often neglected in employment across the board but it is crucial that you have the old and new community manager working together for some time, ideally a couple of weeks.

It’ll allow the new community manager to learn about the vibe of the community and what they consider acceptable. It will also provide an opportunity for a lot of questions and answers between the two community managers and give the departing staff the chance to share the in depth knowledge of the community they have developed and grown.
This chance to develop some good progressive outcomes should have a greater focus than a swift handover.

4. Hire skilled staff

We have written before about the skills you should look for in an online community manager. Make sure that you employ someone who will be effective in the post and continue to grow your community - skills in community management are as important as knowledge of the brand, and the perfect person (or indeed perfect team) will cover both of these.

The time will come when all online communities will grow and the people managing them will change with this growth. Getting your processes right from the very beginning will mean that you can make changes without disrupting the very community you are managing and growing.

When does the online community manager’s job begin?

Image by Compound Eye via Flickr

Many community manager positions advertised online ask for someone to help supervise and develop a newly launched community. In my opinion this is far too late to look at employing a community manager. They should be involved from an early point in the development cycle, ideally when plans for the community are still being developed.

There are a number of reasons why ensuring the online community manager is onboard from this early planning phase:

  1. They can get to know the platform the community is built on
    Knowing your platform, how to add and update content, how to moderate, how to make changes to user profiles is core to the community management job.
  2. They can be involved in the user testing
    If your community manager finds something awkward or confusing you can be certain your community members are also likely to.
  3. They can prepare engaging content
    Having time to prepare content for your community, be it forum topics, a list of future polls or a schedule of blogs will aid the smooth running of the community in the first few weeks.
  4. They can be involved in seeding the community
    Being there to seed the community with content and invite those all important first few members in allows a community manager to identify trends and get an instant feel of how the community is likely to develop.
  5. They can develop internal relationships
    Often under-rated, having the time to develop relationships with other employees who may provide content, or be able to help with questions that arise about your brand or services, provides long term benefits to the community.
  6. They will have time to develop a library of external resources
    Sourcing resources such as external blogs and relevant news articles allows you to quickly update the community and provide a talking point for community members.

When that “go live” date passes and you offer your community out to the world, having a community manager who has been given a chance to familiarise themselves with the environment and build internal relationships before the traffic arrives will only help with the long term success of the community.

Fixing the broken windows in your online community

Banksy Broken Window Theory
Image by IkaInk via Flickr

While sitting on my morning commute to work, re-reading my battered copy of Freakonomics, I came to the chapter dealing with crime rates in New York. It mentioned the broken window theory, a concept I’ve recently looked into a bit more closely as it seems to match my experiences with online communities.

To summarise the theory:

Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it’s unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside.

Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars.

Source: James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. “BROKEN WINDOWS: The police and neighborhood safety” (PDF)

The relevance of this approach to online communities seems clear. As you become lenient to the minor misdemeanours such as repetitive posts and off topic comments, you find the community taking this as a sign to slowly breach the terms more frequently and to a more serious degree. More time is spent dealing with the inappropriate content and you sit back thinking “if only I’d cleared out the comments that started all this.”

It’s tempting to let some of the smaller things go, especially if you have tight schedules for producing content, are managing multiple communities or find yourself buried deep into your engagement processes. However, this is a really fundamental part of the community manager role.

Making sure you remain consistent and respond quickly are key attributes for a community manager and I think this comparison sums it up nicely. So, in order to prevent the squatters lighting fires in your building, repair those broken windows quickly and keep the place looking tidy.