28 June 2011 ~ 8 Comments

Why I'm excited about the future of Online Community Management

It’s fair to state the Online Community Management field is going through a phase of rapid growth; as part of my weekly roundup of articles posted on the topic I see more and more being discussed. There are an increasing number of jobs about, all over the world; only today I posted one on Twitter which was based in Jordan. Brands are trying to build communities on all manner of platforms, and the topic is being debated at international conferences on a regular basis.

With this growth we are seeing points of friction and a lack of clarity in the boundaries of the role of Online Community Manager. There is still uncertainty on where the responsibilities of the Social Media Manager ends and those of the Online Community Manager begins, or whether the two roles are one and the same.

Online Communities are being built for the purpose of promoting a social cause, helping like-minded people connect, supporting a product or workforce, or simply making money. Some have grown exponentially, others have grown then eaten themselves in an orgy of splits and schisms, and others have erupted quickly before dying away once its purpose was achieved. With such an array of motivations and types of online communities, and thanks to the empowering factor of the recent wave of social tools, change has occurred at a bewildering pace as other fields have found themselves dragged into the scope of community building skills.[pullquote]We are seeing points of friction and a lack of clarity in the boundaries of the role of Online Community Manager.[/pullquote]

With this, some express concern over the direction the online community management field is going – see this example of Richard Millington’s thoughts on what is wrong with Community Management right now. While I agree with a lot of the points in that posts and alarmed opinions from others on what is going wrong with current community building efforts, I find myself making a different analysis on the end result and whether there is cause for panic.

Yes, there are glaring problems with the way many organisations approach online community right now, from poor hiring practice, through inherently flawed KPI setting, to unreasonable expectations of what an online community can provide and what is required to make it successful.

But it doesn’t matter.

No, it really doesn’t, not at this stage. And any future issues won’t matter much either, most probably.

When I compare the industry now to what it was back when I started picking up a salary for being an online community manager, I can’t being to think about the massive gulf in differences. I started out as a moderator, and after a year or so of that and progression to Moderation Manager, I felt I wanted to stretch myself and manage a community, rather than just police it.

In 2002, it took me almost a year to arrange 3 interviews (and one of those jobs was removed from the market eventually). Not because my experience was minimal at the time, but because, in the UK at least, that was how many jobs there were available in that time-frame in London at my level. I don’t remember there being much else either at a higher level, as I was so desperate I was throwing my CV around with abandon.[pullquote]So there’s an influx of inexperienced people calling themselves Community Managers, “doing it wrong”? Good![/pullquote]

Now? I started posting jobs to my Twitter feed about a year ago; I’ve almost given up as I can’t keep up. So what if half these roles are garbage, require interns, have rubbish pay (although many have eye-boggling pay too), involve working for a community doomed to failure or a company with an inflexible structure, are more Marketing/Customer Service/PR/Editorial/Technical/HR/etc?

So what? The sheer availability of roles shows we have moved on to another level, from a lack of regard and understanding of the role of the Community Manager, to at the very least an appreciation of the role’s importance, and how it fits within an organisation to promote a better connection with customers/staff/custodians/patrons, however misguided the approach and positioning is as present.

So there’s an influx of inexperienced people calling themselves Community Managers, “doing it wrong”? Good. For every mistake they make, they teach both themselves and the organisation they work for what it means to “do it right”. Actually, that sounds familiar. It sounds a lot like what the past 20 years of Online Community Building have been about. OK, so we have enough jokers to cause articles like Econsultancy’s 5 reasons not to hire THAT social media expert. But I remember hiring people 5 years ago, who’s experience was essentially “I’ve managed a hobby forum”. Some were rubbish, some were good, a couple turned out to be exceptional Community Managers.

The big difference now is that this new wave have access to the wonders of the social web, and the wealth of resources around community management that wasn’t available (with the first wave of Usenet geeks) or easy to access (with the second wave of forum managers, AOLHellers and early bloggers). Want to meet fellow Community Managers? There’s probably an event next week. Need some reading material to improve your knowledge? Pick a blog. In a panic and don’t know what to do? Reach out on Twitter.

OK, so the type of content being put out at the moment can be a bit CM Version Light, but we all have to start somewhere. Just because some of us have been Community Managers for 10/15/20 years, doesn’t mean we should ignore the natural progression people take when learning a new profession. It’s great that some community managers are near the top of the knowledge tree when it comes to this industry, and are investigating or promoting deeper thought around sociology, anthropology, and social psychology.

But for many, that’s currently a step (or 10) too far. And there’s absolutely no reason to turn round and sneer at them. And frankly, explaining the finer detail of community management can be a bit like how the Doctor explains how time works.

(stolen from Shel Holtz’s debate on whether Social Media has been around long enough to be considered a field of expertise)

By all means let’s discuss more complex issues than endlessly rehashing top 5 ways of managing a community in bite-sized, easily swallowed and absorbed chunks. But to criticise those who are seeking to both put their burgeoning understanding on virtual paper and present what they’ve learnt to their own mini community of colleagues at the same level of learning is elitist and short-sighted.[pullquote]One of the joys of meeting new community managers is to hear their own paths and perspectives.[/pullquote]

One thing I loved about this industry was that, while it helped to have a specialisation or degree in one topic, sheer body of hands-on experience tended to have more sway. And while I am all for a formalised training system or degree model to teach Community Management on a deeper level, like most other knowledge it is utterly pointless unless applied, and applied correctly whilst understanding the context in which it is applied in each circumstance.

I can teach you chess and every possible winning move, but it might be a while before you know when to use which technique beat me, and a while longer before you understand why you beat me. And that’s absolutely OK and normal.

So let’s post about the psychology behind managing online communities, but let’s also enjoy the light hearted articles about why Justin Bieber would make a great Community Manager (I wonder how many trolls it would take to make Bieber cry; answers in the comments please)

Some would like to see Marketing and PR shove off and leave us best-of-breed community managers to dominate the industry with our perfect processes and unequaled knowledge. Is now a bad time to point out my own background is a bastardised hybrid of technical and editorial? Sorry, no social sciences here apart from a hobby of people-watching and a Master’s thesis in how digital pirates gather and circulate information online and offline (from back in 2000 – probably a touch out of date now).

One of the joys of meeting new community managers is to hear their own paths and perspectives – ex-marketeers helping me with my statistical analysis, ex-customer-service bods teaching me self-calming techniques, and so on.[pullquote]Any opportunity to educate has to be seen as a good one.[/pullquote] So while there is certainly a difference in being a marketeer and a “proper” Community Manager, let’s discuss the differences and provide teaching material and help people learn the skills that we picked up along the way of our own career.

With so many different types of communities, and big doubts over whether we are anywhere near understanding how humans operate offline, let alone online (see the fantastic BBC 3-parter “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace” for a great study in how the suggestion that humans can create a perfectly balanced society online is a fallacy – it’s probably floating around in a self-feeding decentralised downloading community near you), surely the more input we get from disparate fields, the better at understand what works and what doesn’t?

Conversely, any opportunity to educate has to be seen as a good one. Yes, I could turn out certain speaking gigs because the audience isn’t worthy of my incredibly intellectual ramblings, or refuse to work with a client because they are marketing heathens who wouldn’t know a forum from a BBS. But these opportunities are perfect to plant the seeds in their minds as to how to approach community building correctly. Sure, if they explicitly don’t want to know, then why bother. But if they’ve come to you it’s probably because their mind is open to being educated. So for the good of the industry, do so. Teach and cajole them onto the right path, rather than dismissing them.[pullquote]Passion is invigorating, and should be supported.[/pullquote]

And if someone truly believes being a community manager comes down to a bit of faffing around during the day, either they’ve got a perfect job for their level or they will soon discover they are lacking some skills and look to educate themselves up the next step of their personal knowledge ladder. It took me a couple of weeks to learn that community management was a bit more complex than “moderation with a bit of chitchat”. I think I did ok from it, and I’m sure it’s not beyond the ability of anyone else to do the same.

One of the reasons I am very excited about where Online Community Management is right now is the sheer enthusiasm I see in discussing it, analysing it, writing about it, arguing about it, blowing out long rants like this one in counter to other long rants. Passion is invigorating, and should be supported, encouraged, led by the hand from baby food to solids, but at its own pace and never in a condescending manner.

After all, the Online Community Management field is a community as any other; don’t we have a responsibility as community builders to help it grow at all levels, in whichever way is necessary, and with a supportive and open attitude?

[I am here for the learning revolution by Wesley Fryer]

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  • SueOnTheWeb

    …. and so say all of us. Great post Blaise. I particularity like the use of the word “faffing.” It’s one of my favourites. :)

  • 7huck

    blaisegv seriously, I want to be your shadow :)

  • http://annedreshfield.com/ annedreshfield

    As a college student with a community manager internship (every single person who asks blinks when I tell them that, and then: “what the heck is that?”), I felt myself nodding, smiling, and voicing my agreement as I read through this. I’m excited about this field, too — not just because I may be looking for a job in it in the next two years, but because I see genuine passion here. I can’t say the same about internships many of my peers have, and that alone makes me grin.

  • Jmodio

    Great bit on inspiration to up and comers in Community Management.

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  • http://blaisegv.com/ BlaiseGV

    I think you sum up my feelings. There are plenty of things wrong with how the industry is defined right now, but what a ride it is.

  • http://blaisegv.com/ BlaiseGV

    @SueOnTheWeb Thanks Sue :) I’ll have to use it more often!

  • askdebra

    Blaise, I love most your unabashed welcoming into the community of community managers. When we put walls up between ourselves and our fellow managers, we will ignore insights that only they are able to offer. I believe you are essentially calling out elitism, and if you are (am I right in this interpretation?), then I’m right behind you.

    When I was a community organizer working with a poor-people’s organization many, many years ago, I was green and right out of college. The “old pros” who were old union organizers, civil rights organizers, and tenant rights organizers welcomed me and mentored me. I surely made many mistakes, but I learned and grew. As the field of community organizing grew, I saw the same trend that you mention seeing in community management: a trend towards specialization, towards requiring degreed education, and towards snobbery. I know you don’t need a university degree to be a great community organizer (Cesar Chavez, anyone?) and I know that practice, practice, measurement, and a lot of reflection are probably the key ingredients to becoming a great community manager.

    Thanks for this wonderful post full of exceptional nuggets to chew on.