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How to Be a Great Online Community Manager

Ron is a retired engineer and manager for IBM and other high tech companies. He writes extensively and in depth about modern technology.

When a company sells a product to a customer, that’s a transaction. But forward-looking businesses today want more than just individual transactions. They want to build ongoing relationships that keep customers engaged with the company and the brand on a continuing basis. That’s why about half of all companies now have an online community manager to serve as the organization’s online ambassador.

Although these companies recognize that the role of community manager (sometimes called a social media manager) is a key element of their outreach to customers and industry colleagues, they don’t always treat it as a full-time position. In many cases a current employee is asked to take on that responsibility in addition to their other tasks. In other words, many of those who find themselves in the community manager role are far from being specialists in that discipline.

If you have been asked to act as a community manager for your company and would like to develop a more in-depth understanding of what it takes to do the job well, here’s some information that can help.

What community managers do

A community manager advocates for the company’s brand by cultivating relationships with customers and industry colleagues. They do this by regularly engaging with members of their target audience through blogs, forums, social media, online chat, and in-person contacts. They also reach out to people who don’t yet have a relationship with the company to introduce them to it and what it has to offer.

The biggest element of a community manager’s role is to act as liaison or point of contact between the company and the community. As Krystal Wu, Social Media Community Manager at HubSpot, describes it, a company’s community manager becomes “the tone, voice, and human element” behind the brand.

Helping to shape the public’s perception of the company and its brand is just part of a community manager’s role. Perhaps even more important is fostering two-way communication that provides the company with valuable feedback regarding customers’ reactions and concerns. A good community manager is involved on an almost daily basis with interacting with customers and developer colleagues through various online and in-person platforms, and listening to what they have to say.

That means you, as a community manager, must be a good communicator. Not only must you share your company’s perspective with the community, but you must also listen attentively to what community members say about their needs and how those are, or are not, being met by your company.

10 Tips for Becoming a Great Community Manager

If you’ve taken on the responsibility of being your company’s online community manager, you probably already realize that it’s a more complex assignment than it might at first appear to be. To help you successfully navigate through the intricacies of the role, here are some best practices that will help you serve both your company and community well.

1. Have clear goals for the community

You’re putting a lot of your own hard work, as well as company resources, into building a viable online community. But to what end? Before making such an investment, you should have a clear idea of what you want to accomplish. There’s nothing worse than putting a lot of time and effort into building something only to realize, too late, that what you’ve built isn’t really what you need.

So, start by asking yourself some very basic questions. What do you want this new community to accomplish? What’s your metric for success? What would indicate failure? What impact do you want it to have on participants and on your company?

Is this simply an arm of the company’s marketing effort — an attempt to build brand awareness, or to change the image customers have of the company and its products? Or do you want it to be a DevRel (Developer Relations) forum where technical information and ideas are exchanged?

Although your goals should be clearly specified, they should also be flexible. As your community develops, you’ll need to take into account the perspectives of community members concerning what they want to get out of their participation. After all, your real metric for success is whether members find the community valuable enough to remain engaged.

2. Consider yourself part of the community

Communities can’t be built on monologues. That’s why you, as the community manager, can’t afford to hold yourself above or aloof from the community. You should, in fact, view yourself as just as much a regularly interacting part of the community as other participants. They, in turn, should regard you as a colleague who is, in a sense, on par with themselves in terms of involvement in the life of the community.

3. Really listen to the community

If community members come to feel you are just talking at them rather than engaging in real dialogue, they’ll tune you out. Feeling that you are being heard and taken seriously is a big part of any relationship. Nicole Relyea, a Senior community manager at Zendesk, puts it this way:

It’s crucial for community managers to be communicative, transparent, and authentic. People come to communities to connect, share, and help one another, so there needs to be a genuine, human feel to the conversation.

— Nicole Relyea

Not only do you need to listen to what community members are saying, you need to be seen to be listening. For example, if a reader adds a comment to an article on your blog, you should post a reply that makes it clear that such comments are read and valued, even if you don’t always agree with them. That can be an important step in building relationships with readers, encouraging them toward an ongoing involvement in the community.

4. Advocate for the community within the company

Community members can offer valuable insights into how your company’s products and services could be best adapted to serve their needs as customers. As community manager, it’s a big part of your role to gather and appropriately filter that information, and work with your product teams to incorporate it into future design upgrades.

5. Don’t ignore critical feedback

Usually one of the goals of a community manager is to help develop positive perceptions of the company and its products. But, of course, customer perceptions will not always be positive — there’s bound to be some criticism. Rather than being defensive or dismissive when such comments are made, a good community manager treats them as a valuable opportunity to interact with customers and get firsthand feedback about how your products currently align with their needs, and about the improvements they would like to see.

This kind of feedback is so valuable that it shouldn’t just be tolerated, but actively encouraged. You might want to proactively pose questions to elicit comments from community members about how they believe the company’s products or services could be improved.

6. Set clear moderation standards

Your online or social media community cannot be a free for all — it’s not Reddit. You can’t allow a negative, destructive environment to develop. In a technical community especially, allowing participants to “flame” one another with destructive comments will quickly drive members away. The same can happen when discussions veer off into politics and other sensitive or irrelevant topics.

From the beginning you should have clear guidelines that are prominently posted so that members know what’s acceptable. But it’s also critical to strike a balance. If your guidelines are too loose, you risk inviting divisive comments that can destroy any sense of community. If, on the other hand, your guidelines are too restrictive, some members may feel excluded. Within proper limits, members should be allowed to express what’s on their minds without feeling they must walk on eggshells to avoid being moderated. Angela Connor, WRAL’s managing editor/user-generated content offers the following advice:

Stand by your guidelines, but don’t make them so rigid that they turn people off. There are too many other fish in the sea for them to stay loyal.

— Angela Connor

7. Be honest and transparent about what’s going on in the company

To other members of the community, you are not only a fellow participant, but you are also the face and voice of the company toward them. They need to have confidence that you actually speak for the company to them, and for them to the company. If they ever get the sense that you habitually engage in obfuscation or spin when relating the company’s policies, intentions, or plans, trust can disappear in an instant, and be extremely difficult to reestablish.

If something is going on behind the scenes that you cannot yet talk about, be up front about that fact. If real deficiencies in the company’s products or services are pointed out, don’t try to paper them over with marketing spin.

Community members should have the sense that you are not just a company representative, but are also on their team, looking out for their interests. And they need to know that when they pass their input on to you, it will be heard and seriously considered, not just by you personally, but by the company. If they perceive you as nothing more than a company mouthpiece, they’ll have little incentive to continue putting their own time and effort into a community that’s not really responsive to them.

8. Put in the time required to build and maintain the community

Let’s be honest – building a vibrant online community takes work. You may not have anticipated the amount of time and effort it will take for your community to take root, grow, and thrive. That’s especially the case if you’ve taken on the community manager role in addition to your other duties in the company.

Don’t expect the community to grow overnight! It will take time and a continuing effort on your part. Are you committed for the long haul? Building a successful community will require you to continue reaching out to potential members and engaging with participants on an ongoing basis over a significant period of time. It may take a year or more before you see significant growth. Are you prepared for that possibility, and committed to sticking it out until you see results?

9. Don’t try to do it all online

Nothing strengthens a sense of community like actual face-to-face engagement between members. Of course the most effective way you can encourage such interaction is by organizing events and meetups that allow community members to meet one another in person. But even when that’s difficult or not possible, online alternatives such as Zoom meetups can be a valuable tool in building a sense of community.

10. Don’t measure success by the numbers

When it comes to having a healthy community, size is not the most important metric. Instead, ongoing engagement and interaction are better measures of the vibrancy of the community. Rather than focusing on numbers, aim at ensuring that the community provides such added value to members that they are motivated to continue participating on a regular basis.

Good community managers make a difference!

The community manager role is not only an increasingly vital one for many companies, it’s also one that can bring a great deal of personal satisfaction to the person who carries it out. Hopefully the tips we’ve shared in this article will help you build an online community that truly benefits your company, your industry colleagues, and yourself.

© 2020 Ronald E Franklin

Comments

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 16, 2020:

Very valuable information. Seems like every company should have an online manager, and even those of us who only write can use some of these tips to help build our community base. Thank you, Ron.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 13, 2020:

Thanks, Lawrence.

Lawrence Hebb from Hamilton, New Zealand on September 13, 2020:

Ron.

Great article here, I think all of us who interact online could learn something from this.

Lawrence

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on September 01, 2020:

Thanks, Barb. And you're right - it can be a bigger responsibility than some who take it on are prepared for.

Barb Johnson from Alaska's Kenai Peninsula on September 01, 2020:

Hi. Ron,

Very helpful article for any manager who finds themselves in this "hot seat". The volume of people that they may need to interact with is staggering considering just social media alone. The advice of Moses's father-in-law to Moses when he was in a similar situation can without a doubt apply today, as Heidi mentioned where larger groups are concerned.

Even if a manager has had a really bad start, they can go through your tips and begin again, hopefully with better success.

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on August 09, 2020:

Thanks, Heidi. Hopefully this article will help some of those "invisible" admins be more effective.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on August 09, 2020:

Being a community manager, or a Facebook group admin, can be a lot of work! I've seen some just set up the group and then let the group manage itself, with the admins almost being invisible. For larger groups, multiple admins can help address that. But they all should be committed to the same goals.

Great tips for the way we do business now!

Ronald E Franklin (author) from Mechanicsburg, PA on August 09, 2020:

Thanks, John. It is a growing role that most people are not yet aware of.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on August 09, 2020:

This was very interesting and insightful, Ron. I am sure There is an ever increasing need for “Online Community Managers.” Thanks you for sharing.

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