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Why Community Managers need to be techies

Why Community Managers need to be techies

A lot of experiences lately have led me to one conclusion: Community Management, while having been around for as long as online communities have been around, is still a new field. There has been a huge explosion of newly-minted “Community Managers” in the job market, with companies big and small rushing to place a person in this “new” space. It seems like Public Relations and Marketing people have flowed in to fill the gap, and thus we have a glut of people who come from “traditional” backgrounds in these positions. The problem is, the space is inherently high-tech, but the people who are being tapped to fill these roles are often ill-prepared to deal with the true role a community manager should play.

Let’s go way, way back—back to the BBS days (before the world wide web existed). The BBS owner was the community manager. This is a person who had to know how to deal with extremely obscure technology to enable an online discussion community. Then came IRC and channel ops (another obscure and difficult-to-master technology). Eventually, most of those people graduated to forum owners when the web became the new online space. In the early 2000s, discussion sites popped up using hard-to-configure software like vBulletin, PHPbb, and IPB. Again, the community manager was also, by necessity, a relatively tech-savvy person.

Those same forum owners have grown up being Community Managers, before the role had a name or was really understood.

Now, with the advent of the “social space”, tools such as WordPress and—more recently—Twitter and Facebook, have made the barrier to entry for new community spaces nearly disappear. Because it’s so easy, communities have been popping up all over the place, in every conceivable niche. Not only have communities been created around topics, but also around brands. There are communities behind retail products, behind TV shows, around restaurants, and about being a mommy.

The problem is: many of the people in charge of these communities are not tech-savvy.

The #cmgrchat problem

Let’s use some real-world examples. I’ve been looking for jobs as a community manager and I recently stumbled across a Twitter discussion community called #cmgrchat. I was excited about this because here we have an entire group of community managers all discussing topical information. Finally, peers! I figured perhaps I could benefit from the conversation and networking opportunities presented by this group. Then, I realized quickly that it was a community built around a hashtag (which, we all know, doesn’t work).

I’m going to beat a dead horse a bit here. Using Twitter as a chat program is a major technology faux pas. I can’t blame the community managers for this—because it’s so easy, it seems to make sense to use Twitter and the hashtag system for a chat with dozens of people. The problem is, however, that unless everybody that follows you is interested in the conversation, you are now being one of those spammy Twitter users who fills their stream with stuff that is not interesting to their followers. Naturally, people will unfollow you if they find that you constantly talk about things that are meaningless to them. What you end up with is clumsy apologies (especially with the common integration of Twitter and Facebook, as in this example):

This poor guy had to apologize to his Facebook friends and family because he was forced into an awkward position by a conversation he wanted (or needed) to participate in—on an inappropriate platform.

Perhaps an anecdote will illustrate my point better.

You follow “BieberBlaster0111” because you like Bieber and they recently tweeted a news article you didn’t know about that talks about Bieber’s latest crazy caper. You think, “Oh, cool! Another Bieber fan!” You follow. The next day, BieberBlaster0111’s tweets are a constant stream of things about vegan topics. “Animals are our friends #veganchat” and then “I agree with @animallover99. Corporate farms are the number one public health threat #veganchat” and then “OMG STARBUCKS LATTES ARE NOT VEGAN? FML! #veganchat”. Quickly you realize that hey, after all, you don’t have much in common with BieberBlaster0111 and you unfollow.

What happens is that naturally, over the course of time, @BieberBlaster0111’s followers will only be the #veganchat people because everyone else will tire of the noise. At that point, you have nothing more than an echo chamber—people agreeing with each other. Twitter is a very powerful tool for meeting new people and making new friends, but alienating them with a noisy stream is a quick way to quell the effectiveness of the platform.

Case in point: I wanted to participate in #cmgrchat badly, but there was no way I was going to subject my Twitter friends to all that spam. I was hobbled by the lack of the proper tool for the job, and thus did not participate.

If #cmgrchat was taken to an appropriate venue, such as an IRC room or a live chat program such as Volusion, GoToMeeting, or any number of other tools, it would have been an awesome (and effective) way to communicate with peers about a single topic. Twitter was useful in discovering #cmgrchat, but the limits of the platform made me not able to participate.

A single tweet: “Come join us for #cmgrchat at 2pm EST in our chatroom at http://blahblahblah” would have been the perfect solution.

The lines between Community Management and Public Relations are blurry

Community Managers have a great deal on their plates. They need to be able to keep things on topic. They need to be able to deal with spammers and trolls. They need to be able to reward enthusiastic and useful members. They need to be able to do things like create contests, polls, and newsletters. All of those things are enabled (and made easier) by technological tools.

I mentioned on Twitter my thoughts that CMs need to be techies. My friend Brandon responded to my comments on Twitter with “True, but you could flip that debate and say the tech-savvy don’t understand corporate messaging and crisis management elements of PR“.

That’s a valid point, but perhaps the lines are blurred a bit here, and I think that’s part of the problem. I don’t think CMs need to be doing “crisis management”—that’s PR’s job. PR and Community Managers should be working closely together, but I don’t think they’re really close to being the same role. If a sticky issue comes up within a community around a brand, the CM should be able to tap on the brand’s PR rep and say “Hey, we’ve got a problem, what do you think we should say to this person?” That’s not a technology tool, that’s an education issue. CMs shouldn’t have to be PR people as well. It’s a different job.

On the other hand, companies and brands that have a PR rep but don’t necessarily understand or want a Community Manager have to realize one thing: Their PR people whom they are expecting to be their CMs are going to need a crash-course in technology and the proper use of the tools. There are countless examples of poorly-managed social media flubs due to lack of education or improper use of tools.

Part of the issue is that there is money and legitimacy provided by those who can pay it—big brands and companies who are finding themselves wanting (and needing) to participate in the spaces where consumers are talking about them. Because the tools are available, communities are popping around brands (whether the brand wants it or not!), and so those who can afford it are interjecting the only resources they have—their PR teams. However, online communities have been around longer than that, and other types of communities don’t need PR people (communities built around a common hobby, for example). Sometimes it seems like there is a large bias towards PR and Marketing in community management, but the view that CMs need to be PR people is myopic and ultimately dilutes the role that CMs should play.

As with all roles and tools in the social space, we’re all new to the game. It’s to be expected that there is a shake-out of flash-in-the-pan ideas and techniques with which to use this new medium. Conversations like this are important to defining the future of the way people communicate with each other.

Image Credit: rasmin on Flickr


  1. Cliff_Forster
    Cliff_Forster Outstanding read Brian. I often wonder myself, given the newness of the medium if company's even know what they are looking for? Its kind of like the early .com explosion. Everyone knew they needed to be in the online game, but so few company's knew how to do it properly. Investment was huge, everyone enjoyed a fat couple of years, then reality set in... You actually need to know what you are doing.

    I think the analogy is good. Now we have social media, and every company knows they need to be part of it, in fact, some company's are built completely around it. There is this panic, this mad rush, they all know they need to be in the game, but they really have not the slightest clue on how this game is played. They just know they need to be in.

    Investors spent a load of cash based on half baked sales pitches, based on fear of being left behind at the dawn of the .com revolution. They were so quick to invest, they went in without a solid understanding of how they would fit in. Many lost their shirts. The same thing is happening now as brands invest in social media. So few company's do it right, they are clueless, so much so that they will place all their faith in a twenty something hipster salesperson just so they are sure they are in the game. They just don't want to be left behind.

    He who makes the best sales pitch wins the job, because frankly, nobody has a clue what they are doing yet.

    Well, forgive me for being a fanboy, I really think AMD has a good plan. I was chatting with Chris James about this just yesterday. Whats the plan, what do you look for, what are the tools? They have a grasp, a strategy, they know the tech, they know the tools, they know the skill sets, and they know how to marry them all so they can measure success.

    Great observations Brian.
  2. Thrax
    Thrax Is Community Manager the new "SM Guru?"
  3. primesuspect
    primesuspect I'll bite.

    No, it's not. "SM Guru" is anybody and everybody who knows how to use Twitter. CMs are an established role that has been around as long as online communities have been around—there was never really a title for it.

    Think about it; you know what I do, you know what we've done here. Am I an editor? Not always. Am I a "site admin"? Sometimes, but so are others. Am I a managing editor? A reporter?

    I think if you boil it down, you know as well as I do that what we do is more properly classified under the term "community manager". Just like with anything, it helps to codify it and give it a name so that you can more easily communicate it to and with others.

    "We're looking for a person that does... you know, all that stuff you do. Talking to people and social media and making sure our users are happy and keeping everybody on the same page person". It's a hell of a lot easier to say "community manager".

    I'm pretty sure I've never seen a job posting for "SM Guru" at any rate ;)
  4. Thrax
    Thrax I'm not trolling community managers. I'm trolling ill-prepared people that think they're CMs, when they're totally unprepared to undertake the position (as your article critically illustrates).

    I give you, as an analogy, the SM guru, a social media-savvy person that's woefully unprepared to handle SM.
  5. ardichoke
    ardichoke What's all this talk about S and M? I didn't realize this was THAT kind of site.
  6. mijori23 As a cmgr of an internal employee community of 17K members, I have a lot of dealings with IT and dev people, especially when it comes to upgrades, new site themes, hardware improvements and other IT niceties. PR people would be up the proverbial river without a paddle if they couldn't communicate about testing, error codes, load balancing, site stats and the myriad other technical issues that arise day to day.

    Maybe some businesses outsource all the IT management side of their communities. If not, then a community manager needs to be able to speak tech talk. The more hats a community manager can wear the more effective he can be at serving the various needs within the typical online business community.
  7. BuddyJ
    BuddyJ I'm of the opinion that to be a CM, one must have a strong PR background. It's a rather narrow definition but if one is to truly manage a community, they've got to understand the message and medium and how to shape both to achieve some predefined end goal. Without that understanding of communication theory, tactics and best-practices, and the professional application thereof, you're just a moderator, sys-admin, or whatever. CM implies a higher standard of operations to me.
  8. UPSLynx
    UPSLynx Good read. And we thank you, Brian, for not polluting our streams.

    though I LOL'd in my little interaction with the #cmgrchat peeps. "hurr durr you can filter!(^_^) "

    and any inclination of tech savvyness would have shown them that I was indeed using tweetdeck, most popularly known for its filters/columns, and just how ineffective that is, (not to mention, the complete lack of filtering on my phone, which is 70% of my twitter reading)

    Why should I pander to their pollution? And can they honestly expect every user to filter - let alone all those out there who are incapable or don't understand it?

  9. Paul Nicholson for the record, only using poorly concieved, badly designed twitter chat tools are a faux pas. Using something like ReTweetBot (which is in the process of being rebranded as Twitfinite) works very well. You can see the @PredFans and @NashTraffic accounts as good examples.

    But agreed - that's a good example of why someone needs to know what they're doing before trying to hop in an "join the conversation!!!11!1!!"
  10. primesuspect
    primesuspect Paul, I don't understand what you mean: How would me using a good Twitter chat tool prevent my followers from seeing spam/off-topic tweets?

    If all you DO on Twitter is participate in chats, and all your followers do the same, that makes sense; but ultimately, Twitter is a microblogging platform, not a groupware solution.
  11. ardichoke
    ardichoke Then again.... Twitter provides a platform for asynchronous communications. The other methods (IRC, et. al.) are synchronous. The people you want to talk to have to be online at the same time as you. Not always convenient for busy people. This is probably why they resort to using Twitter to converse.
  12. primesuspect
    ardichoke wrote:
    Then again.... Twitter provides a platform for asynchronous communications. The other methods (IRC, et. al.) are synchronous. The people you want to talk to have to be online at the same time as you. Not always convenient for busy people. This is probably why they resort to using Twitter to converse.

    Good point...

    Caveat: I mean organized, real-time chats at a scheduled time, such as "Join us at 2pm est for #cmgrchat" which is what happened.

    To be pedantic: This is all in reference to using Twitter as a real time, synchronous chat.
  13. Shannon Paul prime, the tool Paul is describing as a "good Twitter chat tool" is a lot different from how people think of Twitter chats... I for one don't think there's a huge problem with the whole hashtag chat participation -- in most cases, people follow enough people and begin enough tweets with @replies to not be extremely intrusive or seen as spammy to followers who don't participate. Also, most Facebook integration apps can be configured to exclude @replies from being imported as status updates.

    Anyway, the tool Paul notes -- @predfans is a great example -- works very differently. When you follow @predfans, any tweets that begin with @predfans are automatically retweeted by @predfans to all of its followers. This prevents those who don't follow @predfans from seeing your replies, and ensures that those who want to stay updated with other Predators fans' tweets (I can't imagine why) can easily do so.

    Paul, correct me if I'm wrong on any of the details here :)
  14. Shannon Paul Oh, one more thing -- I totally agree that CMs should be somewhat techie -- I'm floored by how many people in my industry don't understand basic technical language, Gantt charts and listing requirements... I was asked recently what a URL was. Huh?
  15. Sledgehammer70
    Sledgehammer70 Brian great read but also missed a few points. While CM's are the outlet for customers to contact or make contact with, We are still PR folk at heart. CM's develop programs and do outreach across the board in regards to their brand and or products. PR is a high level of outreach. The CM slot is a grass roots effort. We are the ones who truly go to bat for our company and then again for our consumers /community every day.

    If an issues arises that isn't picked up on CNN or some major outlet, some companies treat those issues as a non-issue. It is our job as a CM to bring those issues to the table and make the argument of why it is an issue and why it needs to be fixed.

    In fairness I think CM’s and their roles vary by industry & than by being company specific. The things I do daily at EA would not tie directly to the same things let say a CM at Ralph’s Groceries is doing daily.
  16. Richard Millington Completely disagree.

    First, CM's don't need to be techies - they need to work with techies - sure - but being good with people is more important than being good at technology.

    Second, you're judging #cmgrchat by whether you like it rather than whether it works. If it's popular and being used, I'd say they picked the right tool for Twitter.

    Third, the biggest challenge isn't that many CM's don't understand technology. Technology is getting easier to use every day. The challenge is they don't understand people.
  17. Sledgehammer70
    Sledgehammer70 @Richard... It is not that they don't understand people, it is that most do not understand how people are using current technology.

    CM's must be ahead of the curve, not following it.
  18. I-need-a-better-name
    I-need-a-better-name I'd like a community manager to have been tried by fire in either IRC or forums where they deal with trolls regularly. Sending some PR dude into the wild west of forums or communities without a little bit of battle hardening is a recipe for disaster. Also, much of the stuff that goes on in a community is pure meta and there's a certain type of person who can put up with that bs without going insane.

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