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.