What is an online community manager?

by Martin Reed on 9 November 2009 in Articles

qualities of an online community manager

The precise description of an online community manager varies from organisation to organisation. Some companies will describe the responsibilities of an online community manager very differently to others. Some will offer roles with very similar job descriptions but very different job titles.

The issue is this – there is no standard definition as to what an online community manager is, or does. We are all still ‘feeling our way’. In this article, I’m going to outline the role and personality of an online community manager.

The role of an online community manager

A matchmaker

The primary role of an online community manager is to encourage, facilitate and develop relationships. They need to ensure people with similar interests and objectives find each other, talk to each other and develop meaningful relationships. They need to build relationships with members and potential members themselves, and they need to continue looking for ways to bring people closer together.

A spokesperson

Online community managers are often seen as the public face of an organisation. If people aren’t happy with the business, they might take it out on the community manager. If they have a question about the company’s product, they’ll often ask the community manager before they go through the regular contact forms or customer support telephone numbers.

If your business is in the news, whether for good reasons or bad, the community will look to the community manager to speak on behalf of the organisation. Community managers don’t just encourage conversations between members. They also need to encourage communication between your organisation and its customers.

A leader

Online communities need leadership. There needs to be someone making the tough decisions – decisions that will often be made with a good amount of diplomacy. There isn’t much tolerance of authoritarianism when it comes to community building.

An evangelist

An online community manager needs to be enthusiastic about love what they represent. They need to be happy sharing and spreading awareness of the community and what it supports wherever and whenever they can. Someone who doesn’t believe in what they are doing won’t be as successful as a true evangelist.

A multi-tasker

Although much of a community manager’s time and focus will be spent on the organisation’s ‘official’ online community, they will also spend a lot of time monitoring and getting involved in conversations away from the community. They will be reading the blogs and twitter streams of influential people and potential members. They’ll be monitoring competing communities and getting involved in conversations wherever they may be happening.

A referee

An online community manager needs to keep the peace. This can be difficult when there are a number of competing personalities. It’s true that some people just won’t fit in; however, big personalities are a good thing – often, they drive conversation, activity and engagement, so you’ll want to keep them in the community. At the same time, you don’t want arguments and abuse to destroy the community.

A mediator

Similar to a referee, but different. Referees judge whilst mediators encourage aggrieved parties to work things out for themselves. The best online community managers rarely have to edit or delete member contributions – they will act as mediators and help prevent personality clashes or misunderstandings from happening in the first place, or from escalating out of control.

A babysitter

Experienced online community managers will tell you that sometimes they feel as though they are online babysitters. Something about the anonymity of the web makes some people behave as though they have barely learnt the alphabet. An online community manager needs to accept that part of their job will seem like babysitting. They’ll need to be prepared to hear petty complaints that are of the utmost importance to those complaining, but trivial to almost everyone else.

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The personality of an online community manager

This is a little harder to define and probably depends on the nature of the community and the organisation. The manager of a community campaigning for an end to the death penalty will probably need to have a different personality to the manager of a community campaigning to give sheep the right to vote.

That being said, I believe there are some generic qualities that will always apply:

Patience

Building an online community takes time. You can’t expect overnight success – in fact, I’d argue that’s impossible. Relationships aren’t built overnight, therefore a community cannot be a success overnight. An online community manager needs to be patient and focussed on long term success.

Dedication

Similar to patience. A community managers needs to be absolutely dedicated to making the community a success. Sometimes an online community will be overwhelming (in a good way). Sometimes it will be disappointing. Often these two extremes can happen on the same day. A community manager need to truly believe in what they are doing and be dedicated to the community’s success.

Determination

Community building is a battle against the odds. Most will fail. A good online community manager will be determined to ensure their community succeeds. There might be existing communities already out there that are competing for the same audience as you. The determined community manager will see competition as an opportunity, not a threat.

Passion

If there is no passion, there isn’t much in the way of motivation. Sure, a nice salary is a good initial motivator but that won’t last long. A community manager who loves what they do and is truly passionate about what they do is far more likely to succeed. You want someone that gets excited every time a new email arrives. Someone that gets excited every time your community is mentioned. Someone who gets excited every time a member makes a contribution.

Maturity

As I mentioned earlier in this article, a community manager will often be caught in the middle of member disputes. At the same time, they will often be the victim of abuse themselves. An online community manager needs to rise above all of this. They need to take the moral high ground and not be drawn into arguments or divisive issues. This can often be very hard to resist. They need to be cool headed and mature.

Proactivity

An online community needs to be interesting and fun. The community manager needs to be constantly aware of the wants and needs of its members, and respond to them. They can’t wait until your competitors are stealing your members before they act – by then, it’s too late. A community manager needs to have their finger on the pulse and always be working behind the scenes. Where are the bottlenecks on the community? How are people interacting with specific features? How can they be improved?

What are people saying about your community/product/service/brand away from the community? A good online community manager will reach out regardless of the medium, regardless of whether the discussion is positive or negative.

Curiosity

A good online community manager will be inquisitive. They’ll always be asking questions – to themselves, community members and the organisation they work for. They’ll be setting themselves goals and asking how those goals will be met. They will be asking community members how the community can be improved. They will be asking their organisation how they plan on adapting to the new challenges and opportunities the community poses. Questions aren’t just good – they’re essential.

Modesty

You don’t want an egotistical online community manager. Attention should always be focused on the online community’s members. If the spotlight does inadvertently turn onto the community manager, they need to quickly turn it back onto the members. Some personalities may find this difficult. A good online community manager knows that keeping the spotlight away from them is essential.

Empathy

An online community manager needs to be likeable and members need to be able to identify with them. The community manager needs to be a part of the community – they need to be involved in it, they need to build relationships with members and always reach out. They need to encourage; they need to be human.

Hard working

I’ve gone through a lot of attributes and qualities. So this final point should be pretty obvious – an online community manager needs to be hard working. This isn’t a 9-5 job.

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Your thoughts

What did I miss? What do you think an online community manager is? What are the essential attributes? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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{ 25 comments }

Angela Connor November 9, 2009 at 11:35 pm

Martin, an amazing post. We are so many things and you never know which will dominate your day. I had a rough day today and would say that I was about 85% babysitter. It can be very taxing at times and then it can be completely amazing. Community management is a serious roller coaster and is no job for the weak. I love the realism and honesty in this post. Thank you!

Nicole Price November 10, 2009 at 7:42 am

In offline situations, there is usually an official responsible for what is known as Public Relations. Since that particular aspect of duties, does not take up much time, she ends up being the one who does everything that no one else is expected to do. Very often they play the lubricant within the organization and end up being in charge of the organization’s internal publications, team building activities etc in tandem with the Personnel department. I should imagine that the Online community manager, ends up being similar to this breed of Managers who are indispensable.

Benoit Faverial November 10, 2009 at 9:06 am

Great post !

Do you mind if I translate it in French ? I was working on such a contribution, but yours is better than anything I could imagine :)

( Of course, I will link to your post as an original source ! )

Martin Reed - Community Manager November 10, 2009 at 10:46 am

Angela – The words just kept on coming when I was writing this article. I had to stop myself at around 1,500 words otherwise I’d have had a book at the end of it!

The big issue is that the title, ‘online community manager’ means different things to different people. I just wanted to throw my hat into the ring and outline what I feel they are (or should be). Most of this is still very much open to individual interpretation (and opinion), although I think the underlying tasks and personality traits I mention in this article are almost always present.

Nicole – Yes, I think that a community manager often does take (or at least share) the role of a public relations officer. Thanks for your contribution!

Benoit – It would be fantastic if you could translate the article; go right ahead!

Maria Ogneva November 10, 2009 at 6:26 pm

Wow, this is a great post! I think it captures how multidimensional the job really is. I’ve heard of it being referred to as an iceberg – you only really see 10% of it. I also think it’s one of the most underappreciated jobs, and I blame its relative newness and lack of awareness for that. Another important point: Because different companies define it so differently, the pay scale can really vary. And because it’s fairly new, anyone who goes on salary.com to get a comparable salary figure, mostly will get offline community managers, which are often non-profit and do not require the same skills. The personality traits are spot on!

Tom November 11, 2009 at 12:46 am

Great post. People don’t realize just how hard it is.

After 2 years of hard work I’m still not at the level I want to be, and I put it down to myself – I burn out too easy.

I got an offer for £5,000 for the domain earlier – so am considering selling and starting afresh. Tough decision.

Martin Reed - Community Manager November 11, 2009 at 10:59 am

Maria – Thanks for dropping by and contributing. I like the iceberg analogy – and it is very true. Some may think that a community manager has been slacking off if they only made a small number of public posts on a certain day; they fail to recognise or understand all the work that goes on behind the scenes.

The salary issue is a real problem; there are studies and salaries being done on this, though – so the situation should get better over time. Forum One has published a community manager compensation study – you need to pay for it, but there is a good summary of the findings on their website.

Tom – Never underestimate how integral your domain name is to your community. Is £5,000 worth all the effort you have put into building the site and value in that domain name from day one?

Jonathan November 11, 2009 at 12:23 pm

I think you provide an excellent overview of the many facets of an online community manager. I also think that undertaking such a role is both exciting and fustrating. Take for example the role of referee. At what point do you intervene and just because one individual may become offended by a remark or comment does that mean that it is not valued. Very insightful post

Maria Ogneva November 12, 2009 at 1:58 am

Martin, I wrote a post today about what CM means to me, inspired in part by this discussion. I referred to this post in my post – here it is for reference – http://socialsilk.com/2009/11/11/community-management/why-community-management-is-the-best-new-job/

Benoit Faverial November 12, 2009 at 11:32 am

And finally, here is the french version : http://online-communities.net/2009/11/12/quest-ce-quun-community-manager-online-par-martin-reed/

Feel free to enhance your french spelling Martin !

Thanks again for this great post !

Daryl Wilkes November 13, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Martin,

First of all I would like to say a big thankyou for such a wonderful site! Your site was is like an oasis in the desert! I just didnt think there would be any real information about there about community Managers & I find out there is a whole community that I am about to join!!

As an experienced I.T. Manager, who has just been recruited to be the Community Manager for a new website http://www.crew2crew.com I knew I needed to find out what exactly a Community Manager actually was! As my job description was very brief. I was amazed/shocked/blown away at what a Community Manager actually is & what it means to be one! I am very lucky that I am VERY passionate about the community we will soon be launching.

Your description of what a Community Manager should be will be my reference guide no doubt during these first initial months that I hopefully build our successful community & I know I will become a very regular visitor here!!

Daryl

Patrick November 14, 2009 at 2:34 pm

I’ve been thinking about adding a forum to our little juicer reviews site, but I’ve been concerned about the “babysitting factor”. After reading your article I realize it’s probably not the right time for me to add a community forum right now. Instead I’ll keep focusing on writing more articles and when we’re bigger, then get started with a forum.

Thanks for the article! It definitely pointed out all of the factors that go into running a successful online community.

Kim Ramsey November 16, 2009 at 10:43 am

I must say that you tackle all the responsibility of a community manager. I must admit that it’s not easy to accomplish these duties and responsibilities. However, responsible leader can get responsible followers.

Rok Mejak November 16, 2009 at 9:50 pm

Patrick you are thinking just like me. Forums usually bring the worst out of people babysitting is necessary. Likewise we could say for comments where in some cases the babysitting is needed even more than on regular forum.

Mr Woc November 17, 2009 at 8:47 am

hi there

It is interesting to see how many different jobs you are required to do when you take on a community, I didnt realise until i read it myself lol.

As some comments mention above, Forums are very hard to police properly, mainly because of spammers really, as for being offered £5,000 for your domain smiley, I wouldnt sell any of mysites for this !

Even if you wanted to start again doesnt mean you have to change ur domain name !

Woc

Frank I. Locust November 17, 2009 at 4:25 pm

Online community managers seem to be more jugglers than managers. What a vital and demanding role!! It’s incredible how fast the gloves come off in an online setting.

Nicole Price December 2, 2009 at 11:22 am

What would you say would be a good way to pay oneself a salary as a Community Manager for a self run Community Web site? Or do you think that it is better to hire someone else to do it for you?

Nicole Price December 2, 2009 at 11:23 am

Sorry to bother you again, but at what point would one look for an outsider to take over as a Manager?

Martin Reed - Community Manager December 2, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Nicole – If you have the skills or are willing to learn as you go, there is nothing wrong with making yourself the community manager. That’s how I learnt. We all have to start somewhere; and who is going to be more vested in the success of your community than you?

If you are really struggling to find success after a prolonged period of time, then you should consider hiring a community manager – at first on a consulting basis. See how you go from there.

Nicole Price December 3, 2009 at 11:02 am

Thank you Martin.

James December 31, 2009 at 5:34 am

This is a fantastic post! People don’t realise how difficult it really is and pointing each feature of the job out like that really does put it in a different perspective!

Martha Jones January 4, 2010 at 10:23 am

Tom,

That looks like a really good offer for your domain however, as Martin said, you need to think about whether selling it would be worth it (it is all about dumping losers and picking up winners, lol). Personally I had a social networking site a few years ago but it was too time consuming that I had to sell the site to a friend. Really, the time I spent on that site brought me no positive returns (yep, I was the typical “babysitter”, egg on my face :P ). Maybe I was doing things wrongly. I am glad to find this site. With Martin’s tips I am feeling a new positive energy to start another community site soon. :)

Gooser January 30, 2010 at 9:35 pm

Good stuff. CMs tend to get a ton of flack and rarely enough recognition for the job they perform. It’s a serious undertaking, and hard to do well, but can make a HUGE difference if done right.

Christina March 12, 2010 at 5:34 pm

I agree with Frank that online community managers are more like jugglers than managers. Managing is just one of the many tasks that they have to juggle. If you can find someone who exhibits all the traits listed above, you have hit the jackpot. From my experience, talented people are very difficult to find. I would feel successful if I found someone who had even half of the skills!

John June 17, 2010 at 5:49 pm

I’m glad I stuck in at school and could manage the spam protection maths! ;-)

I had a forum on my travel website and it was definitely more hassle than it was worth. Just seemed to attract every crackpot with arms length of a keyboard. I was actually threatened with violence against my family. That’s when all the whois data was made private and the forum closed down.

I guess I was partailly to blame as I made a few controversial and radical suggestions as to how our local community could kick start the tourist trade and obviously upset the wrong people.

Now blogging is enough for me. ..

Later, John

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