The Internet is filled with online communities. In fact, the Internet itself is an enormous online community. An incalculable amount of information and activities exchange daily in large and small communities, yet the proper and timely set up and management of many of these properties is often overlooked. The results can make the difference between success, mediocrity, or failure.
What is online community management?
Online community management is the building, growing, and tending of an online community (OC). These are sites where people interact with each other via forums, bulletin boards, and networks. They generally fall into self-improvement, lifestyle & entertainment, relationship, or how-to genres. Wikipedia has a great overview of communities, though community management can also mean the management of your brand across the Internet, without a stand alone community.
You might be also be surprised that your very own Facebook and G+ groups are online communities, depending on how you’re using them. Wherever online users are interacting together, there’s a need for community management, and far sooner than you may think. Even the smallest of interactive groups would benefit from proper OC management to keep them healthy and fresh.
Why do I need community management?
They say one of the biggest fallacies with online communities is the old adage, ‘If you build it they will come’. Except, I don’t feel this is really an issue. Traffic is driven via a strong community concept, good content, proper branding, networking, SEO, and diligence. While these do and should take time, the steps are pretty clear. Having done that, the adage becomes, ‘if you build it they will come’ – and then what will you do?
You may ask, “What could be better than connecting people through shared interests? What could possibly go wrong?” The answer is: Plenty. Wherever people gather, a means of government is needed.
Without proper management, communities can get out of hand. Brands often wait until their communities are at sixes and sevens before bringing in a community manager (CM). This is very destructive, and can sometimes prove fatal. Large communities can absorb occasional fray, but with a small group, or tight-knit collaborative work platform, you may be quickly and irreparably doomed.
Worse, when owners do bring on a CM, they may not understand what they don’t understand about community management. Scenarios range from assigning those unqualified, to not allowing a highly qualified CM to do their job.
I ran into this when a very well known dating company flew me to Los Angeles to help them repair their newly minted community. No longer constrained to await perfect matches delivered to their inbox, users now had free reign to meet each other spontaneously within their added community. Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?
Within months they were hemorrhaging users like crazy. Users were flaming each other and trolls had taken over. You could practically sense the bloodshed, while others cowered in the corner. The company was banning users left and right, creating a lot of ill will in the process. Hardly the harmonious romance community they had intended.
It wasn’t a job for the faint of heart and it would take some time to turn it around. When I explained what was needed, and why mass banning had actually escalated their problem, they failed to understand. They simply wanted me to keep doing what they had been doing, which was insanity. I declined the job because I valued my reputation as a CM. I watched the community dissolve into total anarchy when a senior from accounting took over. It was so bad that a disgruntled user created a site denouncing them, broadcasting their every bad move. It quickly went viral, which only brought more grief to their brand. Fail. Fail. Fail.
At what point is a community manager needed?
Ideally, a good CM is needed at concept phase, before any user ever clicks into the community. If the owner is also going to be the CM, they should consider consulting with an experienced CM before proceeding. Regardless, an owner needs a solid grasp of community management.
What do community managers earn?
Community managers earn between $50,000 and $150,000 a year. Why so much? Because a highly experienced community manager is the embodiment of your brand. They are your face, voice, eyes, ears, and heart, and managing your online community, with all it entails, is a 24/7 job.
Despite the seeming absence and obscurity of CMs, many articles state community managers are in high demand. Seth Godin pegs it at “the #1 job of the future.” However, many companies don’t understand where they fit into their hierarchy, if they even realize the need for CMs at all. But, it’s pretty simple: A CM should be in direct contact with whomever holds the voice, spirit, dream, and drive of the brand because you want the clearest conveyance of this to your users as possible.
Who do I hire for this job?
Facebook, Twitter and general social media experience is a small fraction of the skills needed. Great CMs possess a unique skill set. They have innate public relation, marketplace, communication and customer service skills. They should be mature, experienced, able to keep their own ego under control and govern firmly and fairly. The patience to watch situations, and to know what to do and when, is critical. They need a clear grasp of the user and the community life cycle, the ability to spot trouble users, as well as those who help by championing your cause – and so much more. Interns and volunteers are inappropriate choices. You need someone with proven community management skills.
What are the keys to managing a community?
One of the main keys to managing a community is setting the tone. This is important because as you teach the first incoming users what your parameters are, you’ll invoke the ‘100 Monkey Rule’. This speaks to when enough users engage, they’ll teach new users the vibe, rules and expectations of the community, which propagates the status quo.
Every community is different. Gaming, women’s health, wine connoisseurs, and garage band communities all have a vastly different feel and very different users, as well. The tone you set, and how you treat your users, will be critical to your success.
Evaluating the features you’re instituting, and how and why you’re offering them, is important. Once outlined, you’re going to want to step back and ask yourself one critical question: What will go wrong? You must look forward and back at how users will misconstrue, misinterpret, circumvent, abuse, or otherwise intentionally or unintentionally wreak havoc. Each time you add a new feature, you’ll have to repeat this process. Arm yourself by reviewing scenarios that plague other communities. Develop rules and plans of action, even change infrastructure, to prevent issues.
Example: On most sites, private messaging between members seems like a no brainer. Heck yeah, we want that! Except, it may not be appropriate for every community. Generally, established users will help newbies by sharing what they’ve learned, which is part of the much desired ‘100 Monkey Rule’. Private messaging in certain communities will do nothing but destroy this amazing phenomenon. By taking content out of the community and into a private message, you’re engaging one over many. If your content and interaction is buried in private messaging, you might be harming your community. Now, private messaging in this context doesn’t sound so awesome. Keep the content and engagement active for all.
Another problematic issue that can implode a community is banning users. Oh you will have to do this, make no mistake, but be wise. Users become friends and can form groups and strong alliances that are invisible to the untrained eye. If your management skills are sketchy to non-existent, and you’ve banned a user without any preliminary action or forethought, you could quickly have a firestorm and mass exodus on your hands. Which brings me to my last point:
While all communities and their users are different, there are common threads that should run throughout all: Professionalism and Respect.
A great CM will have their finger on the pulse at all times, and regardless of genre, work hard to create an atmosphere that makes your users genuinely and individually feel that they matter.
Yes, you’ll have your issues, but if you’ll take the time to create the proper atmosphere, and treat your users with the type of care, respect and enthusiasm that lets them know they really matter, your community won’t implode. Instead, you’ll build something very enduring and worthwhile.
Share your community experiences in the comments below, and let me know what areas you’d like to see expanded upon in future articles.
Anni Bricca is the CEO and founder of www.BreastHealthOnline.org, which is approaching its fifteenth year of meeting the needs of breast surgery patients all over the world. As an online community expert, consultant and enthusiast, she builds, runs, and directs online communities.