Somewhere, in the stillness of the night, an online community manager rolls over in bed, reaches for his iPad, and checks to see if anyone in his online community needs help, if there are messages that need attention and to make sure the site is running fine.

Extreme behavior? Not really. This is commonplace for a B2B community manager. The role of the community manager has been well-covered lately but, as I read through the articles, reports and post, I notice they are slanted towards describing a consumer-facing online community, and rarely offer an accurate description of the life of a B2B online community manager.

What Makes A B2B Community Manager So Special?

At first blush, these two different kinds of online community manager roles may look the same. Each community manager oversees the community, moderates discussions, assists members and reports metrics. But there are some fundamental differences in the B2B role that vastly change the nature of the job.

For starters, in many B2B organizations, the primary goal of the community is servicing customers, deepening the understanding of their needs and buying requirements, and ensuring customer retention through intimacy and thought leadership programs. While they often generate revenue, these communities are focused on listening to and engaging with customers. And in a B2B organization, the buying decision price point is a lot more than a package of Skittles or a music CD.

This means the community manager must offer the customer a higher level of service. The online hand-holding and concierge-class attention successful B2B communities provide their members can rival or exceed that of the finest hotels in the world.

It doesn’t stop there. Not only does the community manager need to operate as a center of excellence, but she also needs a deep understanding of the industry, culture and issues facing members of the community. Many B2B communities are gated (private) communities with a select, even elite, group of product or service customers. To facilitate discussions, ask proactive questions, resolve issues, generate new ideas and collaborate with community members, the community manager had better be knowledgeable, relevant and quick-thinking to engage on a peer-peer basis with members and retain their respect.

Oh ... did I mention subject matter expertise and thought leadership? The B2B community manager is often in charge of curating and creating content for the site. From sourcing the good stuff from within the company to generating fresh content by interviewing members and soliciting articles from the community, the community manager guides the presentation of thought leadership for the community.

A vibrant B2B community generates lots of customer ideas, new product suggestions, industry trend data and innovation exchanges. The community manager must make sense of this information and, to be successful, will be the information liaison between the community outputs and the different lines of business that could benefit from the voice of the customer.

The Agent of Change

In progressive organizations, the B2B community manager is a highly sought-after individual for insights and opinions. At the same time, she is also an agent of change, and may not always be the most welcome person at the interdepartmental meetings.

Think about it. Sales “owns” the customer relationship in most B2B firms, so they are naturally protective of their customers. The product organization has never had 24X7 customer feedback continuously introduced into their roadmaps. Marketing has their own ideas about messaging to the customers, not reshaping their materials and thought leadership agendas based on customer insights.

Needless to say, it ain’t always easy being the voice of the customer within an organization -- unless that organization is prepared to listen.

The B2B online community manager role requires many communication skills, a willingness to be a master-servant to both the customers and the organization. They are often a sole practitioner -- B2B online communities are typically understaffed, so their success depends upon their ability to make and sustain connections within the community and the organization. An ability to get online and check on how things are going while on the road, before breakfast, after dinner and in the middle of the night is also a plus.

Before you run out to hug that community manager and shower them with gifts and higher pay (a good idea in any case -- the burnout rate for community managers is very high), you should know that despite the challenges of the job, it is very rewarding. I wouldn’t have changed much about my 15 years experience as a B2B online community manager, and am thrilled to be running a company that helps firms succeed at B2B online community strategy and operational excellence.

I've been talking to a number of community manager colleagues lately, and thinking about the state of their role. In a supportive environment, a community manager can achieve great job satisfaction, and for someone who thrives on thought leadership it can be a dream job. The ability to experiment, try new techniques, spend the day in meaningful idea exchanges is priceless.

Perhaps most important, this is a job where the measure of success is helping a member or someone within the company access the ideas, data or people they need to succeed. It is running a membership organization within a larger structure. When done correctly, the connections the community manager makes within her membership will have a lasting impact no NPS score could accurately measure.

For more information about the role of the community manager, the Community Roundtable has just issued a report on the State of Community Management.