The art of community management

July 7, 2011
Last week, Phil Strazzulla asked me to define a "community manager" in less than 140 characters. I gave it a shot:

That screen capture is courtesy of David Noël, a community manager whom I respect tremendously.

Community management is a role that hadn't existed before the rise of one-to-many networks online. It's neither support nor marketing, although it has aspects of each. It's often difficult for companies to find experienced community managers. When they do, "experience" often means equal to or less than five years.

Nonetheless, community management is an increasingly important role inside companies that seek to build and maintain networks.

So what is a community manager precisely?

1. The external voice of the product or company

A community manager is likely to be the primary person who speaks directly to the community. He might chose to use his own identity like SoundCloud's David Noël, or he might chose to speak through the company, like @Foursquare, which was originally managed by co-founders Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai before Chrysanthe Tenentes joined the team in its early days.

@Foursquare is managed jointly by a team today. That's difficult to tell, because @Foursquare has a distinct and consistent voice. That's because Chrysanthe cultivated that voice and then institutionalized it. She's even written a style guide that is taken seriously. (It really is.)

2. An advocate for users inside the company

It is likely that the community manager spends more time watching, interacting with, and learning from users than anyone else in the company. There can be a small amount of glamour and some amount of drudgery in this work -- and that is what makes it important. Effective community managers take what they've learned from users, remove the expletives and CAPITAL LETTERS!!!! when necessary, to the product (more likely) or engineering teams. Being an effective translator requires empathy and storytelling.

Each company has its own standards for what constitutes "enough feedback." Some companies are very data-driven: Google has its support teams tag issues and delivers stats-heavy reports to its product managers, while the entire Tumblr team is expected to monitor the network within their dashboards. Some Tumblr-ers spend more time than others, and some are better at pulling threads of emerging issues, but it's a company-wide initiative.

The most effective community management teams have been part of their companies since the early days. Having a seat at the table makes it easier to build buy-in across the company, and it gives community managers the authority to engage users, rather than to broadcast to them.

Are you sure "community manager" isn't a fancy term for customer support?

Yes. Support is not community management. Customer or user support is instead one part of community management. As David says, for most companies, customer service is a cost center. Those with a community management team tend to think of it as an investment center.

Think about it this way: in an age of global networks that can reach literally hundreds of millions of people faster than anything we've seen before, "customer support" does not work. To paraphrase Sheryl Sandberg, don't do things at scale that don't scale.

Support is important, but the best community managers do not answer questions more than once. (Ideally they answer unique questions zero times each.) They instead focus on connecting users to one another, often with specialized tools. (e.g. the Quora (product) topic, meta Stack Overflow, or Google Help Forums.) Community managers are often well-situated to think about "productizing" support. After all, they're the ones who will be mucking around in those topics or forums when they're complete.

Community managers are ultimately responsible for molding the ways in which people interact on a network. Seems pretty important for anything designed for people.

If this description sounds like you, and you're looking for a job in community management, check out the open positions available in the Union Square Ventures portfolio. I can help direct qualified applicants.