Community vs. Social: Does It Matter What You Call It?

20 Feb

Based on articles I’ve been reading lately in mainstream and tech blogs alike, it seems that there’s a major lack of understanding around community management. I personally don’t care what you call it, as long as you do it, but various articles, contests and job descriptions make me think that most people think that community managers are “those people who tweet and Facebook”. While differences between social media professionals and community professionals can look somewhat nuanced — and the jobs do overlap quite a bit — I think there are implications to the future of the community management profession if we aren’t understood, measured or hired with the right expectations. This post is just one girl’s attempt to clarify what I see through the lens of my own understanding — in no way is this a definitive guide to anything. I have no answers, but I know that if we ask good questions together, we will arrive at something that works.

Lots of articles (like this one) describe the duties of community manager as strengthening the responsiveness of the business to the customer, creating content and analyzing fans’ response to this content, and telling the company story through customers’ stories. These are very worthwhile goals, and building a better relationship between the brand and its customers is something a social business must do — it’s not an option, it’s just how business is. Your community will revolve around content — content that’s created, iterated, discussed by the community and content that originates from the community. But are responsiveness and content community management? I don’t think so, because it mentions nothing of building deep relationships with your customers and helping your customers create these relationships with each other. It mentions nothing of the difficult work of actually increasing intimacy between a group of people driven by passion — warts and all. Social media professionals and community managers are like Venn diagrams — they are hugely overlapping (and the amount of overlap depends on your context), but they aren’t the same or mutually exclusive. Social tools help community managers scale and be more effective, build better communities and even provide conduits between communities. However, you don’t need social media to have a community.

“Would you define a farmer by the tools he uses? No.  A farmer is someone who cultivates a farm,” Maddie Rudd said in the comments below, and I think she nailed it.

Here’s how I view the different roles and the tools they use:

1) Social media marketing is using social channels to amplify the marketing message, and smart social media marketers know how to tell a brand story through customer stories. If you have done your work of becoming a more social business —  on the inside and outside — you will have an easier time rallying customers to tell their stories. They may even do it without you prompting :) That being said, you won’t go very far in your marketing efforts if what your customers are actually saying doesn’t resonate with the message you are trying to cultivate. The brilliant social media marketers aren’t heavy-handed; rather, they are facilitators. You need to give your customers an experience worthy of sharing, and help them share it.

2) Social business is about making social a process and building it into various parts of the business (this is the hardest, I think, because it really challenges existing processes and existing culture). You can’t become a social business over night, and the process is truly evolutionary. The object of a social business is to optimize around creating better customer experiences across all the different touchpoints: product itself, marketing, service, sales. It’s about listening first, creating insights with data, acting upon those insights and inviting the customer “into the fold” to figure out the future. It’s also about making your business more nimble and able to move at the speed of business, to become more proactive instead of reactive.

3) Community management is about creating collaboration spaces where various groups come together to create something greater than themselves and greater than they would create on their own. It’s about the depth of relationship that you can’t develop through casual interchanges, and it’s grounded in passion and vision. You can certainly create a community by using social tools, and it’s not about the tool as much as it is about its dynamics, its ability to solve problems for its constituents, and the amount of value created together.

From the standpoint of a company-hosted customer community.. At times, I’ve seen conflict between social media marketers and community managers, arising from the messiness that a community brings with it. Communities are made of passion, and passion is unpredictable (that last bit is homage to something I heard John Hagel say once). That doesn’t mean that a community is synonymous with lawlessness. Community management (the term with which I take issue also) is the difficult and exciting work of figuring out who the members of the community are, what their needs are and what jobs they’ve come to do, and helping the community form and evolve its norms. In the end, a healthy community will generate solutions that will drive all of its members forward — including the company that hosts the customer community. It will also result in great customer stories which can be used for social media marketing, and it will help the company become a social business through listening and working through problems together. See how it all ties together?

4) Social media itself is not really a job, it’s a set of tools — a pathway for person-to-person communications, which can be for any of the jobs listed above. Saying you are a social media manager is like saying you are a phone or email manager. Ok great, but for what purpose? Personal aside: I want to strike the word media from describing what’s now known as social media. It’s not media at all, and as long as we keep thinking of it as a broadcast, we’ll keep not meeting its full potential.

I didn’t write this post to split hairs about definitions — anyone who knows me knows that I don’t care what you call something, as long as you actually do it. But words have meaning, and we need to be deliberate in how we use them and transfer this meaning to others. Neither job is better or worse, but they are different, and so are the skills necessary for them. It’s entirely possible that in some companies, social and community are performed by the same person. In my job, I used to do both, and have since transitioned the day-to-day social activities to another employee (although I still oversee processes and internal training and education). I now focus on creating better processes, designing better communities and making sure that all stakeholders — employees and customers — are well supported when they tell their stories.

Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt

  • Hillary

    I agree Maria. There are definitely moments where getting caught up in semantics isn’t worth it, but generally speaking, it’s important to continue this conversation. I think roles continue to delineate as social matures and there will also continue to be overlap based on individual organizations.

    • themaria

      Absolutely! Your organizational context is key and trumps everything else. It’s not about definitions, it’s about how willing you as an organization are to do the work. Thanks for the comment, Hillary!

  • Trisha Liu

    Bravo Maria – great post! I agree that social and community overlap yet are different. And yes, we must be careful of titles, labels and the expectations associated. As more companies start to hire for social and community, these definitions are especially important for the hiring managers to understand. Nothing worse than a mis-match between the advertised job description and what the business actually thinks it wants to accomplish.

    • themaria

      Great seeing you, Trisha, and thanks for the comment! You nailed it — it’s that mismanagement of expectations and wrong people for the wrong job that I’m concerned about. If we all do our part, we will ensure that we as a community and as “corporate America” keep asking the right questions. Another reason why these kinds of things concern me is because I think it points to unwillingness of some companies to go deep and transform — “oh we’ll just throw some person on Twitter and FB to do this community management thing” and then everyone will think we are so awesome and social and customer-centric. It’s a wee more complicated :) 

      Thanks again, and I’m flattered that you took the time to comment here:)

      • Trisha Liu

         Oh! Gosh Maria, I’m flattered that *you* are flattered! <3

        And yes, it is complicated. Even my own thinking is shifting. I am responsible for community management at my company, and have no public social media monitoring responsibility. A year or more ago, I discovered the weekly #cmgrchat on Wednesdays (11am Pacific, I think). The first few chats I joined were focused on community management, the discussions were so dynamic, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. 😀

        And then the following few weeks, the focus shifted to social marketing, such as scheduling tweets, managing FB pages. And folks discussed teaching their coworkers how to tweet. And I got confused and annoyed… what did that have to do with community management?

        But now I have come around… I now see that getting employees to be comfortable with social media must happen if a company is to become a social business.

        So yes – it is much more than "Let's have a community" or "Let's get on FB" or "Let's have someone tweet". It is "Are we willing to co-create our products and services, with our customers and employees?"

        • themaria

          Not much to add here, but that you nailed it re: the introspection of “what does it actually mean” and “what are we willing and ready to do”?

  • Jennifer (Jem) Janik

    There definitely are subtle differences and I think your definitions are a great start.  For most to understand what the two roles do those of us involved in social business will need to get down to concise definitions to explain.  I don’t have the answer either, but agree with your premise that we’ll all come up with something if we do it together.

    • themaria

      Thanks, Jennifer! I think that’s the crux of a community — to ask each other good questions and to create something that’s bigger than all of us, benefitting all participants in the end.  What are some questions that you are struggling with?

  • Sarang Brahme

    Awesome post Maria!!! I totally agree to the point the community management is not a new concept out of Social Media and it exist without SM too. SM has given this concept a glamor. Also liked your point about company hosted SM channels…. 

    • themaria

      Thanks, Sarang! I think community management has evolved a lot, which is great! I believe that if you aren’t changing, you are becoming obsolete and eventually dying. It’s this “Glamour” that I’m worried about — it reduces our ability to really dig deep underneath the cosmetics of it. When you think about it, the work of community managers is demanding, exhilarating, full of passion, laughter and tears, and way more questions than answers. Someone told me once that community managers are CEOs in training, and I think that’s pretty accurate.

  • Danielle Morrill

    Just sent this to our community manager, who works for me, and let her know I never think of her as, “the girl who updates Facebook”

    • themaria

      That’s amazing. Thanks, Danielle! Kudos to you for seeing the forest through the trees.

  • Maddie Ruud

    Would you define a farmer by the tools he uses? No.  A farmer is someone who cultivates a farm.

    I’m so glad somebody wrote this.  I was meditating on this very topic last week.  The emphasis should be on the community, not the tools used to cultivate it.

    • themaria

      I friggin’ love that quote. I’m going to include it in the body of the actual article, I love it so much. Yes yes yes! Thank you!

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