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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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.