A new community manager in an existing online community

by Martin Reed on 20 July 2009 in Articles

new community manager

We don’t all get to enjoy the luxury of building our own online communities from scratch. Sometimes, you’ll take on the role of community manager when a community has already launched. Sometimes, the existing community will already be huge. Who knows, it may even be out of control! Either way, you need to be very careful when moving into an existing community as a new community manager.

Unknown territory

When you join a new online community, you know very little about the people, their culture or their shared interests. When you join an existing community as the new manager it’s even more important you learn and respect that community’s norms.

New members are given a lot of leeway when they join communities (or at least, they should be). When you join in an official capacity, you need to show even more respect to the current way the community works. Shake things up at your own peril!

Community members are resistant to change

When I purchased Soap Forum in 2006, it was running on Invision Power Board. One of my first actions as the new owner and manager was to convert the software to phpBB – this was because I was more familiar with it, and I preferred it to IPB. I was lucky that the community was pretty much dead – it could have been a disaster. I didn’t consult the members, I simply presumed that because I preferred phpBB, then converting the entire basis of the community to that software was the right course of action. What a mistake. Luckily, I got away with it – you might not be so lucky!

On a less dramatic level, you may be replacing a previous manager that was popular and well liked (big shoes to fill). Maybe the previous manager acted badly (you’ll need to break down the barriers members have raised). Regardless of the circumstances of your appointment, you need to be aware that this is a big change for the community – and members of online communities do not like change.

The process: A new community manager in an existing community

1. Listen

Register an account (use a nickname, or your real name according to the existing culture). Spend time (days, not minutes – depending on the size of the community) reading existing posts. Read the profiles of your power members, and the more reserved contributors.

2. Learn

How do people communicate in the community? Is there plenty of playful banter? Are discussions lengthy and in-depth? What is the culture of the community? If someone makes a mistake are they derided or helped? What do members like about the community? What features do they use?

Who are the under-rated members? Who are the ones who value themselves more than the rest of the community?

3. Understand

Don’t step in yet. What you may see as abusive behaviour may just be sarcasm – remember, you don’t know the culture of this community. Be patient. You don’t want to go barrelling in, breaking up long-standing traditions. You could end up destroying the very foundations and values of the community.

Don’t take what you see on face value. It will take time for you to fully understand what you see, what you read, and what you think you know.

4. Respect and relationships

Start to get involved in the community. Whether or not you want to announce yourself as the community manager at this stage is up to you – it depends on what you have learnt up to this point. All online communities are different. You need to formally introduce yourself at some stage, though.

Engage in genuine dialogue. Add value to the community. Build relationships. This takes time – you’re now into the ‘nitty-gritty’ of being a community manager.

5. Acceptance

If you follow these steps and ease your way in, you should be accepted into the community. Some may have their reservations about a newcomer being given the task of managing and improving the community – it’s up to you to prove to them that you are up to the task. Why not specifically target the more reserved members and get them involved in decision making and the evolution of the community?

6. Back to point 1

All good community manager know their job is never over. You should be continuously listening, learning, understanding and building relationships. You’re in this for the long haul.

Whose community is it?

Don’t jump in from the outset, announcing yourself as the community manager and listing all the changes you are going to make. It’s not your community – it belongs to its members. Without them you have no community. You are there to help them. You are there to improve their community. Make sure that when you formally introduce yourself, these are the messages you convey.

Never forget who you are serving – it’s all about them, not you.

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Sue July 20, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Great post, Those are all excellent points. Slow and steady is definitely the way to go.

I also think if a CM is a replacement for an outgoing CM that they need to “court” the moderators and admins. Make them self known to the mods and admins; ask them how things have been done in the past, what they think works, what they think does not work, and if they feel any changes need to be made. The moderators can give a run down of some of the prolific members, and of course the run-down on any community trouble makers. Moderators/admins are the ones on the front line, and their thoughts and opinions are invaluable.

Mr Woc July 21, 2009 at 5:24 pm

Hi there

Having never taken over a site that was previously owned I dont have an experiance of this, but its quite interesting reading

I agree communties are very resistant to change, I wouldnt let this put anyone off changing something though to be honest, as if you dont change people get just as upset anyway lol !


Nicole Price July 22, 2009 at 11:11 am

A very interesting post that just shows to prove what I think about the similarities between offline communities like businesses and online communities. In the former too, new managers need to follow the advise given here if they were to settle down to be effective.

Tom Fiberblend August 1, 2009 at 12:01 pm

It is really important to consider the points raised here, you can’t just take over and start making changes – as mentioned in your previous posts a community is a group of people that essentially ‘own’ the forum – you are just there to steer them – everything should be done in consulation with them

Nicole Price August 5, 2009 at 6:17 am

One of the communities to which I belong, has just taken on a new Manager, and he invited me to assume one or more new identities and post! I have of course declined, but this dovetails into your latest post on pseudonym posting!

Tom August 6, 2009 at 7:47 am

Ah, this is a really useful article for me to return to. As I’m thinking of buying a currently failing chat community – but looking at it, it could be really good if things were turned around. Ie: inefficient staff, inconsistent rules etc. I think if I implemented my policies and my way of staffing it could become a nice little earner.

But as you’ve said – people don’t like change. So it’s something I’ll have to give a lot of thought to.

Nick August 12, 2009 at 6:50 pm

Uknown territory — Misspelling. =]

Martin Reed - Community Manager August 13, 2009 at 1:52 pm

Nick – Thanks for the heads up! Fixed :)

Edward August 14, 2009 at 10:58 am

Great points raised in this article, Martin.

I agree with Nicole – there are lots of similarities between on- and offline management.

Many of my experiences with new offline managers involved someone coming in and making sweeping changes because that was how they liked it. Nevermind if it upset the process in place. In one retail job, we had 7 (or was it 8?) store managers in under 4 years. I have not-so-fond memories of never, ever knowing from one manager to the next where the office supplies were. :)

I have seen less of that online, but the potential is still there.

Paul November 20, 2009 at 12:45 pm

Although community members dont like change, a new community manager may ignite a spark in your community to help get things going again.

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