What is a community manager?

Fellow IBMer Kevin Czap recently took the position of the community manager for the developerWorks Cloud Computing Central group. DeveloperWorks is IBM’s central external resource for developers and IT professionals and Kevin defined his role as follows:

The Community Managers act as an advocate for the Community. They are the eyes and ears of their respective communities, kind of like a intermediary between developerWorks and the group, listening and acting upon requirements, suggestions, feedback and ultimately making the group one that thrives, flourishes and is valued by the Community. Some examples include lining up Subject Matter Experts to blog,contribute, and connecting group members to the appropriate IBM contact when needed. Basically we’re here to help the community in any way we can.

Why do you need a community manager? As Kevin points out, he has a clear objective to make the group one “that thrives, flourishes and is valued by the Community“.

As the 2010 World Cup draws to a close, I can’t help but think of the coach/manager gesticulating wildly to get the most out of his team. I see the community manager role as somewhat similar even though the linkages between members of online communities aren’t necessarily as strong as between players on the same team (especially given that members work for many companies, some of which can even have competitive relationships). Having said this, having someone on the sidelines who can bring energy and verve to the group, marshall team members when needed and deal with any questions or conflict that arises, is a useful function.

I’ve been involved in a number of social media or community initiatives over the last few years, and by far the most successful are those which have a clearly defined community manager. To those of you that work in this space, this may be a no brainer. This role appears to be more commonly overlooked when these communities are set up by marketing departments (given that I work in marketing, I can’t help but point a finger at myself too here).

The problem comes when you sit down to plan the initiative. Quite often this starts with thinking of a platform or application. ‘We need blogs and forums’. ‘We need a Facebook page’. ‘We need RSS capabilities’. Sure, at some point you will need to consider these aspects, but as analysts like Charlene Li have been pointing out for some time, step back and think of the people involved before you get near the technology. And the people for your prospective community need a value prop, guidance and occasionally gentle persuasion if your community is to become a success. Just because you build it, this does not mean they will necessarily come.

So spend the time and think of who will manage the community. I’d suggest this not being a field marketing or demand program manager who may be 1) overworked and 2) have competing interests to overall community development (ie. swamp the community with their company’s promotional content). So, what should this person ideally be doing? Some examples of the role a community manager can play:

  • Establishing an editorial calendar to make sure a blog is constantly fed with relevant content
  • Finding an expert who can answer comm0n questions posed by newbies
  • Tactfully weeding out trolls and threads that could diminish the overall value of the community
  • Devising appropriate rewards for the most valuable members of the community (My Media Labs takes this a step further and talks about setting up a leadership team consisting of super users)
  • Posing questions to help shape discussion
  • Monitoring the community to understand where most activity occurs

This is just for starters. You should make sure you have someone who has the requisite skill set to carry out these tasks. They should be knowledgeable but not overbearing. Tactful but forceful when necessary. A good planner yet flexible. Get the feeling that this person may be as rare as a sunflower in Antartica? You’re probably right. However some parts of the organization may already be inculcating these kind of characteristics in their employees. Check out the support or customer service department. Investigate the technical sales team. Mine the depths of your R &D department. These departments give you a better chance of locating community managers. I’d suggest that the traits are more important than the experience. There is much that can be learnt on the job.

Finding the right person is invaluable for the success of your community. A recent debacle on Nestle’s Facebook fan page illustrates how bad things can get if there’s dissonance between you and your community. Shel Holtz and Neville Hobson discussed this subject at some length on their FIR podcast and Shel has this excellent follow-up on questions you should ask before setting up a Facebook fan page.

So, if you are about to setup a new community, or are wondering how you can breathe new life into an existing forum, make sure you have a community manager in place. Just as the fortunes of many a world cup squad has hinged on the influence of the manager, so can a community manager make or break an online community.

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