When I talk to Community Managers, one of my favorite first questions is, "What does Community Management mean to you?" It's the holiday party test. Can you describe what you do succinctly and clearly enough that Aunt Mary or Random Neighbor Bill know what you do?
Listen. Describing community management is hard. Let's admit it, it's actually pretty annoying. But... why? What makes this job so difficult to not only describe, but to sell organizations on? I think the reason is because the role itself is so intrinsically human, nuanced, and complicated. It's an understanding. It's a mindset. It's less a tangible language than code. And trying to explain a philosophy is always harder than explaining a strategy.
So how can we break down 'Community Management' into digestible strategic areas to help us better explain our goals to not just Bill and Mary, but to our organization's leadership?
Truthfully, it wasn't until I started Google's Internal Community Management team that I was able to put enough structure around what a CM does that I felt fully comfortable describing our work - which feels like a pretty wild thing to say as someone with ten years experience in community, but it's honest. I learned that articulating the goal of community management isn't some marketing-inspired, corp-speaky one-liner or some impassioned, emotional plea to empathy. It's more precise than that: set enforceable standards across communities, amplify prosocial contributions, and advocate for your users to decision makers.
If a Community Manager can do those three things, they will be effective.
The foundation of any community is a shared understanding of the commitments members have to each other. Once defined and shared, the norms need to be enforceable. Moderation is a necessity of any scalable community and, without it, all communities will fail as they reach a certain size. There is no successful nation without a strong culture or laws, and there is no successful online community without moderation.
Lack of moderation is often an organization's primary concern with hosting any community. They may ask, "How will we be able to react to content that violates our principles and reduce our risk?" Community moderation, and the tools that make it happen, empower communities stay true to their cultural norms. It means providing ways for a community's purpose to be discovered - usually through posted guidelines. It means providing the technical infrastructure for community members to report content or behavior that goes against cultural norms and reporting (aka, flagging). This foundation ensures that communities can stick around.
Moderation is, sometimes uncomfortably, many people's first introduction to what Community Managers do. But, in really great communities, moderation is something that all members are a part of. Moderation isn't JUST content reporting. It's when members take charge of their spaces by defining them and saying, "That is/isn't what we do here." A strong sense of purpose means communities will much more naturally stand up for their described purpose.
You can't have sticks without carrots. If moderation is the tool CMs have to stop or prevent negative content, amplification is the tool CMs have to reward the awesome shit our communities do. It's award systems, power user communities, rewards, curated content, featured users, and events. It's where CMs find opportunities to create exemplars from communities operating to their fullest, most productive potential.
The thing about amplification is that it will, ultimately, affect more users than moderation - but without the baggage of "censorship" or reprimanding users. While moderation can make communities safe, inclusive places more people want to join, amplification creates reasons for people to keep coming back. By generating rewarding cycles for frequent returns - or even just by creating the opportunity that great content will be promoted - communities can get into a cycle of thriving.
Amplification isn't just warm fuzzies though. It requires a good amount of technical support to be successful - just like moderation. You can't scale amplification without being able to give your members the tools they need to reward what was personally valuable. You can't curate content at scale without some smart operations. You can't be truly successful if you can't created strong partnerships with your eng team. Finding and defining this strategy relies on provable improvements to engagement metrics, satisfaction, and content quality.
Okay, I know, I know. You've been dying for me to say, "A CM is the liaison between a company and its users. They represent the needs of the customer to the company and the perspective of the company to the customer." There! I said it! I just call that advocacy.
As CMs, we need to ask ourselves how we can be continually closing the gap between users and decision makers. When we do that, we increase understanding in two directions. Turning broadcasts into bidirectional communication not only creates new avenues for dialogue, it increases engagement and trust. This can look like trusted tester programs, forums / blogs to increase transparency, or reporting to key stakeholders about what your community needs.
The most difficult aspect of advocacy is knowing when to push for who. Advocacy takes exceptional judgement and professional maturity. Determining when an issue needs to get to who, while balancing expectations from either your leaders or your users, is an immensely difficult undertaking. CMs will catch flack for either not doing enough or making too big a deal out of something too small. But that's where all the work understanding users' needs comes into play. Knowing when to host an AMA and when not to is an emblematic test of whether or not a CM knows how to best connect users to those who can help them out.
My intention with this post was to give CMs the language they need to define why their job is mission critical. It was born out of years of (personal and observed) frustrations explaining why organizations need to have a Community Management strategy. Instead of trying to find a quippy one sentence description for "why" we deserve a salary, I want more people in our field to feel more confident describing the "what" and "how". By sharing how our team is structured, I hope that CMs everywhere can apply that format to their roles.
But, tell me, what do you think? Is there a strategy that you've been using that fits into the above? Is there one that doesn't? Answer below in the comments - and I look forward to chatting about it.