So you want to build communities for a living, eh?
You’re not alone. As community-centric businesses continue to grow into billion-dollar giants, more and more companies are looking to hire community professionals and more people are looking to enter the field than ever before.
Community is no longer just an entry-level position with no clear career path. There are community professionals at every level of the professional hierarchy from Community Manager, to Community Director, to VP of Community and even up to Chief Community Officer.
Welcome to an exciting, fast-growing field. It’s a great time to become a community pro.
But I don’t want to sugarcoat it. While it’s growing fast, it can still be a confusing role. Until college programs start teaching community, there’s no well-defined method of getting into the field. So hopefully through this article, we can bring a little clarity to what community is and how to become a community professional.
Clearing Away the Confusion
The community field can be confusing because there’s very little professional training available, and most community professionals come from all different backgrounds. Some were English majors, some were in marketing or PR, some just happened to be influential members of a community and were asked to join the team. Basically, anyone can become a community professional regardless of their background.
It can also be confusing because there are different kinds of community roles.
In your first couple of community roles, you’ll be very hands on, spending your day talking with people, making them happy, listening, connecting them with each other and giving them that sense of belonging that we all strive for. You’ll get to represent the voice of your customers within your company and help employees feel connected to the community.
As you advance through the community industry, you’ll take on roles that explore more strategic-level responsibilities, building social systems, scaling up community programs to new cities or audiences, hiring teams of community professionals and driving the direction of your business.
Regardless of your role, you spend every day thinking about how to bring people together. I love it and couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Sound like the right career for you? Great! Here’s some advice on how to get started in the community field with some tips from leaders in the community industry.
1. Build and Participate in Your Own Communities
The single best way to become a better community builder is to just start building and participating in communities. That’s the beauty of community building, anyone can do it.
A great example is Crystal Coleman, the Director of Community at TownSquared who got started as a moderator on a forum she participated in, “I got my first community gig through a mod on a forum I was a member of (about Buffy the Vampire Slayer) whose company was a wiki platform looking for mods. It was for a wiki about LOST. And that’s how it all started.”
I got my first experience building online communities through video games. Back in middle school, I played way too much Tony Hawk Pro Skater 4 and started a clan with a couple of my friends. We started recruiting members and launched a forum that anyone could participate in. It became really popular and, for a while, was one of the most active THPS4 forums online.
So don’t wait to get a job to start building communities. Start now. Launch a facebook group for something you’re interested in. Organize a club or an event. Just start.
2. Write. A lot.
Community professionals have to be great writers and communicators.
You’ll likely be creating a lot of content like blog posts, help articles, and guidelines. Every time you want to facilitate conversations online, you’re going to be writing. So refine your writing skills and then refine them some more.
The bonus of writing a ton is that it will also get you recognized. Every opportunity I’ve had in my career came as a direct or indirect result of my writing. When you write about something, people will perceive you as an expert, and it gives you a huge leg up when you’re interviewing for jobs.
The double bonus is that it makes you smarter. It makes you research and think through different ideas and subjects in your head so you can better understand it, and speak to it more clearly.
3. Read and Learn
There’s a lot of information out there to help you wrap your head around how to build communities.
A. Community focused books worth checking out:
- The Culting of Brands by Douglas Atkin
- The Art of Community by Jono Bacon
- Buzzing Communities by Rich Millington
- Designing for Community by Derek Powazek
- The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (thanks Sarah Judd Welch for the unique recommendation)
B. Here are a few other blogs and publications we like:
C. A couple studies and papers written about community:
- Sense of Community Theory by David McMillan
- How Community Feedback Shapes User Behavior by Justin Cheng, Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, and Jure Leskovec
- Defining Social Capital by Eleonora Lollo
- Annual State of Community Study by The Community Roundtable
D. Some classes worth checking out:
4. Do Your Own Field Research
There are what seems to be an infinite number of communities online and offline. Find some that interest you and join them.
Explore a variety of communities to see how different companies or groups approach things. “Remember that it’s all about trial & error and the community field is constantly evolving”, recommends Berrak Sarikaya, Community Manager at Google. “Work on different projects in different fields to get a true understanding of what it means to be a community builder. It’s not a one size fits all.”
Pay attention to what’s going on. How are new members added? Are they welcomed? When does the community leader/moderator step in? What do they write about?
Caleb Gardner runs content and community for Organizing for Action and recommends looking beyond tech, “Look around at other communities you’re already a part of — churches, fraternities, community groups. What makes them work? What derails them? How can you take those human insights and apply them online?”
If you start looking for these details, you’ll start to spot a lot of trends in how successful communities are run. Interview the community managers to learn more about how they do it. Write it all down and form your own opinions about how to build community.
5. Attend and Volunteer at Events
No better way to really get to know people than to meet them in person. There are a lot of Community Manager Meetups, conferences, and other events out there for you to connect with other community builders.
If you can’t afford it, volunteer. Most events are always looking for volunteers (you can apply to be a CMX Summit volunteer here if you reach out soon!). Even if you can afford it, sometimes volunteering is a good idea since you’ll get to meet the event team and build stronger relationships.
Erika Murdock Balbuena is the Community Manager at Twilio today, but got her first community gig at TaskRabbit from being at an event, “I met the founder and other employees at a Women 2.0 networking event where I was a volunteer. Then I presented a 90-day plan during my interview about how I was going to engage their community.”
Here are just some of the events that are out there for community professionals today:
- CMX Summit
- CMX Series
- Community Manager Breakfast
- NYC #CMmeetup
- WeSupport NYC
- SF Community Manager Meetup
- Feverbee Sprint
- Vircomm Summit
6. Participate in online communities for community professionals
There are also a lot of opportunities to meet other community professionals online. Some are free, some paid, some for experienced pros only and many are open to everyone.
- The CMX group is super active right now with most of the leaders in the industry all there. It’s a great place to start to meet other professionals in the space
- The CMGR chat on Twitter is another highly active community where you can meet some good people. It happens every Wednesday at 2PM EST around the #cmgrchat hashtag
- Switchboard has been building a community group worth checking out
7. Find a mentor
Use some of the methods above to network and find an experienced Community Professional to be your mentor. Maybe you can do it with someone that you interviewed if you hit it off.
Most mentorships can’t be arranged too formally. They just come as a result of a mutual respect and willingness to learn that two people have for each other. So just keep meeting people and asking questions. Don’t be afraid to just email someone with good questions about building community. Most community professionals are going to be very willing to help out.
You don’t need it to be an “official mentorship”. It can be just someone that you can turn to when you have questions or need some help.
8. Find an internship or entry-level job
There’s no better way to learn how to be a community professional than to jump in with two feet and learn as you go.
CMX can help through our matchmaker program where we pair amazing companies with the best community professionals. You can apply here.
Luckily, there are a lot of jobs out there looking for all different levels of experience. There are some that won’t require previous experience; they just want someone who’s a good communicator and passionate about the topic of the community.
Like I said earlier, a large portion of community professionals today got their first gig through a community that they were already a part of.
The tactics can be taught but that energy and genuine interest can’t, and it’s that energy that truly drives a community.
There’s nothing stopping you. Good luck!
Photo cred: Thomas Leuthard