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.