What is Online Community Management?

For about five years now I’ve been a professional online community manager. I’ve been doing it unprofessionally since 2001 or so when I first started working on free software projects.

There are two big misconceptions that have spread about what community management is and I’d like to correct them with these four points of discussion.

Community management isn’t marketing.
I won’t pretend to understand everything about marketing. I have written press releases and participated in interviews with journalists as part of my job. That is in addition to many other non-community functions I’ve done at smaller companies.

This is the biggest misconception I’ve found in job listings and much of the published material supports this idea that community is all about marketing. Marketing has a place, and I love working with good people in it. This is not that and the best marketing directors know it and will respect the difference.

The reason why there is more documentation on community management and social from the perspective of marketers is due to those folks being better at selling their message. I’m often glad that I am not as good at selling myself and my message, but I’ve had to become better at it to get my point across.

Instead of marketing…

Community is about building a relationship with an audience.
The most effective strategy for player or user retention is to develop real and honest friendships with the VIP/rockstars/etc of the community. That is it.

Metrics of Facebook Likes and twitter retweets have their place, but those numbers won’t keep people coming back.

Your role as a community manager can’t be solely about monitoring metrics and “engaging influencers” with cat pictures and contests relevant to your “brand”

If you are detached from the community and operate solely as a corporate entity doling out nuggets of information on a schedule your company’s biggest fans will wonder who is behind that twitter account, Facebook page, or anonymous forum name. You will never connect with them and when they leave the community you won’t know why.

Community management is about creating a space for community success.
Sometimes all you have to do is enable the VIP/rockstar community members to do what needs to be done. Then you will be able to step away and lurk for a while.

It’ll be difficult, but it is extremely important for their growth and the growth of the community as a whole.¬†If the community can’t self-moderate and let you work on the big-picture for some of the time, you won’t ever get to help them take bigger steps forward.

Some of my favorite communities have had people that I learned to trust as they could contact me when something was wrong with the product or service before analytics and operations knew about it.

It isn’t your community.
Finally, there is a dangerously stupid idea that the community is something the company owns.

The community formed around the product or service organically and will dissolve and move on with or without you and your Klout score if you fuck up.

tl;dr:
Listen to the community instead of just counting them. Relate and befriend the community instead of “engaging” with them. Empower the community and step away sometimes to let them grow.

The most satisfying part of the work is being part of a bigger community of people and helping them to continue to exist and keep their friends in the community that they have built.