Based on articles I’ve been reading lately in mainstream and tech blogs alike, it seems that there’s a major lack of understanding around community management. I personally don’t care what you call it, as long as you do it, but various articles, contests and job descriptions make me think that most people think that community managers are “those people who tweet and Facebook”. While differences between social media professionals and community professionals can look somewhat nuanced — and the jobs do overlap quite a bit — I think there are implications to the future of the community management profession if we aren’t understood, measured or hired with the right expectations. This post is just one girl’s attempt to clarify what I see through the lens of my own understanding — in no way is this a definitive guide to anything. I have no answers, but I know that if we ask good questions together, we will arrive at something that works.

Lots of articles (like this one) describe the duties of community manager as strengthening the responsiveness of the business to the customer, creating content and analyzing fans’ response to this content, and telling the company story through customers’ stories. These are very worthwhile goals, and building a better relationship between the brand and its customers is something a social business must do — it’s not an option, it’s just how business is. Your community will revolve around content — content that’s created, iterated, discussed by the community and content that originates from the community. But are responsiveness and content community management? I don’t think so, because it mentions nothing of building deep relationships with your customers and helping your customers create these relationships with each other. It mentions nothing of the difficult work of actually increasing intimacy between a group of people driven by passion — warts and all. Social media professionals and community managers are like Venn diagrams — they are hugely overlapping (and the amount of overlap depends on your context), but they aren’t the same or mutually exclusive. Social tools help community managers scale and be more effective, build better communities and even provide conduits between communities. However, you don’t need social media to have a community. Here’s how I view the different roles:


1) Social media marketing is using social channels to amplify the marketing message, and smart social media marketers know how to tell a brand story through customer stories. If you have done your work of becoming a more social business —  on the inside and outside — you will have an easier time rallying customers to tell their stories. They may even do it without you prompting.  That being said, you won’t go very far in your marketing efforts if what your customers are actually saying doesn’t resonate with the message you are trying to cultivate. The brilliant social media marketers aren’t heavy-handed; rather, they are facilitators. You need to give your customers an experience worthy of sharing, and help them share it.

2) Social business is about making social a process and building it into various parts of the business (this is the hardest, I think, because it really challenges existing processes and existing culture). You can’t become a social business over night, and the process is truly evolutionary. The object of a social business is to optimize around creating better customer experiences across all the different touchpoints: product itself, marketing, service, sales. It’s about listening first, creating insights with data, acting upon those insights and inviting the customer “into the fold” to figure out the future. It’s also about making your business more nimble and able to move at the speed of business, to become more proactive instead of reactive.

3) Community management is about creating collaboration spaces where various groups come together to create something greater than themselves and greater than they would create on their own. It’s about the depth of relationship that you can’t develop through casual interchanges, and it’s grounded in passion and vision. You can certainly create a community by using social tools, and it’s not about the tool as much as it is about its dynamics, its ability to solve problems for its constituents, and the amount of value created together.

From the standpoint of a company-hosted customer community.. At times, I’ve seen conflict between social media marketers and community managers, arising from the messiness that a community brings with it. Communities are made of passion, and passion is unpredictable. That doesn’t mean that a community is synonymous with lawlessness. Community management (the term with which I take issue also) is the difficult and exciting work of figuring out who the members of the community are, what their needs are and what jobs they’ve come to do, and helping the community form and evolve its norms. In the end, a healthy community will generate solutions that will drive all of its members forward — including the company that hosts the customer community. It will also result in great customer stories which can be used for social media marketing, and it will help the company become a social business through listening and working through problems together. See how it all ties together?

4) Social media itself is not really a job, it’s a set of tools — a pathway for person-to-person communications, which can be for any of the jobs listed above. Saying you are a social media manager is like saying you are a phone or email manager. Ok great, but for what purpose? Personal aside: I want to strike the word media from describing what’s now known as social media. It’s not media at all, and as long as we keep thinking of it as a broadcast, we’ll keep not meeting its full potential.

I didn’t write this post to split hairs about definitions — anyone who knows me knows that I don’t care what you call something, as long as you actually do it. But words have meaning, and we need to be deliberate in how we use them and transfer this meaning to others. Neither job is better or worse, but they are different, and so are the skills necessary for them. It’s entirely possible that in some companies, social and community are performed by the same person. In my job, I used to do both, and have since transitioned the day-to-day social activities to another employee (although I still oversee processes and internal training and education). I now focus on creating better processes, designing better communities and making sure that all stakeholders — employees and customers — are well supported when they tell their stories.

Photo credit: D Sharon Pruitt