So what's community management anyway?

28 Jul
2009

photo-online_communityAs I am learning the art of community management (it’s not the kind of thing you can learn in the classroom, so it’s a bit of a baptism by fire), I am trying to crystallize what community management means to me. Working with different clients from different industries and at different stages in development, I hope to bring you a more complete view.

On the one hand, community management is easy to define, because the end result is always to build a strong(er) community via a) community growth, b) increase in engagement and c) the betterment of the user / community member  experience. The end result of all of this should be a business goal, such as increasing revenue / pageviews  /  profit / etc.  However, I am starting to discover by working with my clients, that community management varies hugely in methodology and goals, depending on the type of community you are building.

1. Type of company:

Is it a product-driven company or is it a destination site? The product that your community is centered around matters a lot in your approach and the tools that you will end up using. Regardless of the product, you will be spending time on external sites, getting the word out about your community, and building mini-communities on social sites like Twitter and Facebook. One caveat here: remember to be where your customers are: if they aren’t on Twitter, you probably shouldn’t tweet, regardless of whether or not Oprah endorsed it as the “next big thing.” If you are a destination site, you will need to focus on creating an experience around kick-ass content, for which your readers will feel compelled to travel to your site – not a small task, given the fragmentation of the World Wide Web. These days, people won’t go to your site just because you asked them to; you need to give them a compelling reason to go. You will need to figure out what works for your community: contests, events, original content. Of course, if you expect users to participate, you will need to incentivize them to do so – whether it’s via points, giveaways, bragging rights – it will depend on what works for your community.

If you are creating a community around a product, especially a tech product, part of your job, in addition to the above, will have to entail taking feedback from your customers and relaying it to the product team. A good community manager will know well what the community thinks of the product, will be good at curating this information, and will be influential in ultimately affecting product decisions. A community manager should also be the first point of contact when a customer service issue arises, relay the issues / bugs to the product and development team, make sure that the issue gets solved and relay the solution back to the customer. Tools like GetSatisfaction are great for this purpose, as they allow users to start a conversation thread  / bug report, track the status and interact with other users who have the same issue.

2. Age of company / product:

If this is a nascent company (with presumably still nascent traffic), a majority of your actions will be centered around raising awareness of the brand / product / company. Your efforts will be mostly spent on external sites, guest blogging, commenting, building a community on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other sites. You will want to bring some of these users over to your internal community, while realizing that you also need to be comfortable interacting with your members wherever they are. People will come to your site when they feel compelled by the content, but it may take a couple of interactions on “outside” sites for some users to come “inside”. You should be patient and not expect them to click through the first time they see your name. You should be focused on building relationships vs. being transactional.

If the company or product is a bit more established (or has at least launched), you will also be monitoring mentions of the product name in the blogosphere / twittersphere / across pretty much the whole WWW. You will probably want to set up Google alerts and Twitter updates (via Twitter search or whatever client you use) at the very least. If you can spend some money, there are great premium tracking and anaytics tools like Radian6 and ScoutLabs. With an existing product, you have an easier job gaining legitimacy with your community, but you will have more work tracking, listening and acting upon your discoveries. Your task will be to neutralize and diffuse potential and existing customer services issues, making non-believers  into believers and believers into brand enthusiasts and evangelists (I wrote more about this in my previous post on Listening). As described in part 1, you can probably benefit greatly from a feedback and customer service platform like GetSatisfaction.

3. Age of community:

Are you building a new community from scratch or are you “inheriting” an existing community? If you are building a new community for an existing product or site, you will be doing a lot of the same stuff as #2. If it’s a product that just launched, you will be relaying a lot of feedback and bugs from early users back to the product team. You will be setting up the social tools for the first time on many external sties, identifying outreach strategies, creating buy-in among first community users to participate, as well as providing customer service. It’s up to you to set the tone of interaction with your community: are you lighthearted and casual or more formal? The brand and type of product will dictate a lot of your approach. If you are inheriting the community, you will still be responsible for all of the above, while also learning existing dynamics of the community and keeping the tone and frequency of interaction consistent with the expectations.

Obviously, there are more than just these three dimensions, and they will certainly be future topics, once I crystallize them better in my mind. Here are some basic tenets to remember, regardless of where your community falls on any of the above dimensions:

  • Be engaged, be human. It’s OK to make mistakes, as long as you admit them.
  • Emphasize and care. Acknowledge the problem first, never point fingers. Then go solve the problem, but keep the customer appraised of the progress.
  • Be consistent in tone and frequency of communication.
  • Be a great communicator. Communicate change diligently and gradually.
  • From time to time, you will have to moderate inside of your own community, and some communities are more passionate than others. Make sure to keep your cool and never lose sight of the big picture, which is to provide a stellar community experience. Never pick sides when moderating a conversation between two or more community members.

The filed of online community management is still developing, although the individual elements of it have existed for a long time. My understanding of it will be shaped by my future experiences, which I will capture them on this blog. What have your experiences been as a community manager? Any key lessons / DOs and DON’TS you would like to share?

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