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Something interesting has started happening when we go and talk to prospective clients about online community management services.

There are various companies which specialise in community management and moderation, and have done for a number of years, but agencies (mostly PR and communications agencies, rather than digital ad agencies) are starting to claim expertise in community management, and to be honest, I don’t think they’re talking about the same thing as we are.

It’s causing real confusion client-side. While we both work with online communities, I think we need to be clear about the definitions of what we each do, so we can work together more effectively.

Community management is the process of growing, building and nurturing an engaged and active community.

I can see why, on the face of it, PR agencies might feel this is their territory but when I’ve spoken to a client about what their agency defines as community management , it’s become clear that the PR version of community management is, roughly, this: having the idea for a community, creating it, providing content and promoting it.

This is very different from the process required to manage that community. I’m also concerned that the agencies are putting forward junior staff to fulfil what they see as the role of community manager in what is a highly specialised area.

Community managers are trained specialists, who guide and engage with the members of a community. They may get involved with setting the overall strategy for the community, working closely with the brands.

I know several cases where they’ve also got involved with promoting, marketing and creating social outposts for the community. There is (particularly in this part of the role) some cross-over with what PR agencies are doing, and this probably adds to the confusion.

To create a really successful community, all parts of the process need to work together, and all focus on what do best. The role of a community manager is diverse, but might involve, for example:

  • Setting the goals for the community, and helping a brand develop its aims for members, both long- and short-term.
  • Encouraging members to participate in a site by helping them get involved, and growing that involvement. That might include things like: encouraging them to ask questions, or introduce themselves; asking them to share experiences with other users to promote discussion; guiding them through the community; or helping them set goals (for example, if it’s an action-based community, such as a site to help people lose weight, or stop smoking). Community managers may input into the architecture of a site, ensuring it provides the optimal user experience.
  • Giving information around a specialised subject, for example on a medical or charity site, or giving support to community members, on a one-to-one basis.
  • Managing a virtual environment that children use, almost in the role of a playscheme leader: showing them round the site, answering their questions over IM, making sure they aren’t bullied and that the environment is safe. This, particularly, requires training and experience.
  • Feeding back to the brand the community's concerns and activities - helping to shape product development, customer care and strategy.  Community managers may also triage complaints and escalate them to the correct brand representatives, stopping squalls before they become full-blown storms and demonstrating the brand's concern for its customers.
  • Keeping the community fresh and working with members to keep it up-to-date and relevant. We may well work with agencies to achieve this.
  • Writing community guidelines, aimed at preventing abuse of the community, and to deter negative input such as spamming, trolling or flame wars.


Perhaps it’s that the definition of community management is changing, to something broader than was first conceived by the specialists that pioneered it.

And in this new, bigger, broader definition, there’s room for us all to work together. The roles of PR agency, brand, advertising agency and community manager certainly overlap at the point of social media, but in order to serve a community effectively, the distinctions are important.

Perhaps it’s time we all redefined our roles according to our expertise, and worked together to put this to the best use, rather than trying to be all things to all people.

Tamara Littleton

Published 4 March, 2011 by Tamara Littleton

 Tamara Littleton is CEO at social media management agency Emoderation and a contributor on Econsultancy.

26 more posts from this author

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Rachel Happe

Hi Tamara -

This is great perspective as usual and we definitely see the same thing. For a long time, I've taken the soapbox perspective that community management and social media management are not the same thing... and that many 'community' managers are really 'social media' managers. However, I've started to think, like you, that we perhaps just need to widen the definition because the bigger network is a community of a kind - just not necessarily as defined as it may have been in the past. Many, although not all by a long shot, techniques are similar. In the end, I think what is important is understanding the different dynamics and what is needed for each - whatever we call it.

Thanks for the great post -

Rachel

over 5 years ago

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Neeraj Uppal

The circumstances the author describes are a symptom of our current marketplace. The intense competition drives companies to short circuit required processes and what ends up happening is that they sell you the product they want to sell, rather than helping you help us understand what you want to accomplish and how it fits in with your company's strategic objectives.

This is nothing new, it is an age old business decision that is now manifesting in the social media sphere. There are many, many good reasons to avoid entering into a a relationship that does not reflect the precise nature of your objectives. It is far better in the long run to spend the time with a professional strategist who can then translate goals into business requirements, into KPI's.

over 5 years ago

Tamara Littleton

Tamara Littleton, CEO at EmoderationSmall Business Multi-user

@Rachel – It’ll be really interesting to see how this pans out, and I agree that a wider definition that includes all aspects of community management would be really helpful.

@ Neeraj – thanks for commenting. It certainly does make sense to start with the community objectives as a whole, and then work out who’s the best team to deliver them.

over 5 years ago

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40deuce

Great article Tamara.
As a community manager myself I do see myself spread out across a whole bunch of different roles such as PR, marketing, customer support and sales. I also see myself fitting into a few of the categories you mentioned above.
I think that the role is hard to define, because every company looks at it differently. You're absolutely right that the role of a community manager has significantly changed from the days of mere chat room moderation, but I think it's because communities (especially around brands) don't just exist in a single chat room. They now exist all over the internet and a lot of companies are looking for people that can be in all the right places to be where there community is. This is both online and off. From there though, every company takes a different approach with their community.
I think it's due to all these reasons that it's become hard to really peg down what a community manager does. Every community is different, needs to be seen differently and needs to be communicated to/with differently. Because of this, every community manager's role is going to be slightly different.

I think in my case it works, because while we were just a start up, I was the PR and marketing, so I wasn't competing with another department or worried about stepping on their toes. I can see how it could be difficult for companies that have these separate, but you're absolutely right that they all need to work together to be successful.

Cheers,
Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos

over 5 years ago

Charlotte Britton

Charlotte Britton, Managing Director at Optimum Exposure

What a great debate your article has created!

I think PR agencies have a different outlook on social media as well as they tend to see it as can opportunity to broadcast rather than to engage and listen. As social media can also be a customer services channel and so much more. So it's interesting to see a similar dynamic and tension when talking about community management.

I back your definition and understanding of the term, and role it plays. Part of the role is the content, but it's so much more than that!

Certainly an area to monitor and I think we'll have to see how it plays out. Perhaps a few more articles like this will start the enlightenment into what community management really is about!

over 5 years ago

Tamara Littleton

Tamara Littleton, CEO at EmoderationSmall Business Multi-user

Thanks Charlotte - I'm pleased you agree with the definition. It will be interesting to see how others feel. You're right about the 'broadcast' element; it definitely needs to be changed.

over 5 years ago

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Alpesh Doshi

From our experience it is obvious that community management in the forms mentioned has not always provided value - assuming that the enterprise has measured this.

I believe that, even in successful community management you need to work out the key participation models together the an adoption framework to demonstrate success.

over 5 years ago

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Angela Connor

Hey there Tamara:
You know that you and I speak the same language when it comes to community management. I have to tell you that as someone who grew an online community from 0 to 15,000 members, no one gets more frustrated than I do about the misconceptions and misunderstandings of what it actually takes to succeed in this role. Managing a twitter account and engaging with people on Facebook is not the same, and whomever says it is is completely wrong. I now work at an agency and I will agree with you that the definition varies a great deal. But because of my experience and background, I am able to help clients understand the difference and make sure they understand what will be needed for them to thrive in various environments.

over 5 years ago

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Claire

I like the speedy summary of PR agencies' version of community management. Definitely agree and find the overlap a bit confusing.

over 5 years ago

Tamara Littleton

Tamara Littleton, CEO at EmoderationSmall Business Multi-user

We certainly do Angela - thanks for the comment. It's certainly shaping up to be an interesting year.

over 5 years ago

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