There may be nothing more frustrating than being a passionate, talented community builder stuck working for a company that does not understand your value and is not ready to invest in community.

In these unfortunate situations, you might end up treating your community like users, clients, or machines. Sometimes this can feel utterly misguided as a community professional, and it can lead to burnout and resentment for everyone involved.

Having recently experienced this at a small tech startup, I wanted to share what I learned about being a good community professional and the circumstances required within a company to facilitate community success.

To truly have a community (and thus actually be or hire a community professional), you and your whole team need to put in constant effort and resources towards building and maintaining relationships. This is not for everyone, and timing and trust matters.

If you find yourself doing any of the following, know that these do not fall under a community management job description:

  • Content marketing/PR or extensive social media management
  • Growth hacking or customer acquisition
  • Product or project management
  • Sales, client relations, or account management

What does it mean if you are not doing community-related tasks?

You or your community manager should not be spending too much (if any) time writing content and copy or press articles, composing tweets and social media content, finding or repeating processes to attract new users or attendees, or reaching out to major influencers.

These are not key community management tasks; these are distractions. The job title should be changed or a new team member should be hired to handle or assist with these tasks.

Your community manager should be interacting with your community with the vast majority of their time. This requires a lot of focus and balance to actually execute, so if your team is poorly structured or unclear on the business model, it’s probably not an appropriate time to hire a community builder.

Who is my community?

This can be half the problem for any company: your team can’t correctly define who belongs in the community and who does not. A good way to think about this is to figure out if there is a group of people being sold as products at any point within your business.

Ask yourself: Have you promised investors a huge number of users that will eventually be the main way to monetize your business? Your community is those users you promised to your investors.

Are you creating a two-sided marketplace where your value is derived from connecting otherwise-separated people? Your community is both sides of that marketplace.

Are you facilitating an event or experience where sponsors are paying to be placed at your event or on your web page? Those sponsors are not your community — the ones participating in the event are. Without them, you’d have nothing to sell.

In all of these scenarios, you’re selling a community as a product to your investors, customers, or clients.

Thus, in just about any industry, your community is the group of people who don’t pay your bills (or perhaps not yet), but whose support and loyalty will either allow you to become profitable or will keep your company sustainable.

Here’s a hint: your community is probably not interacting with your sales team.

This is why it’s often hard for companies to quantify the value of a community manager. It’s hard to quantify the value of relationships. Hiring a community manager is inherently a long-term play, and their responsibilities should be built up slowly over time as the community manager learns the business and masters the art of relationship building within your specific community.

What does a great community environment look like? The 2 clearest indicators.

The company or organization never views community as a zero-sum game

Great community builders understand that there is infinite possibility in the ability to partner and collaborate, so specific platforms are mostly irrelevant. Connecting with people meaningfully in a way that associates with the brand is all that matters. The method and medium by which you connect with your community can and should change, but doing the hard work to make meaningful connections with the brand does not.

Ideally, every team member in a company should be encouraged to build their own community as an individual with a unique background and interests, in order to represent the company at large externally.

Red flags:

  • Your boss gets mad or suggests conflict of interest when you write and promote personal blog posts
  • Your boss doesn’t have a strong network of her own
  • No one on the internal team (note: who works full-time; part-time hires are to be expected to have side projects) runs their own casual meetup or group gathering for fun on the side

How you can tell:

  • Ask your boss about the last thing they wrote, spoke, or shared with the community. Did they create it themselves? Why did they do it? How long ago? Is it a regular habit?
  • Does this practice seem to be ingrained within the fabric of the organization or do team members have a hard time recalling community interactions?
  • How many names of and facts about important community members can the team recall from memory?

Green lights:

  • Your boss runs his or her own personal community outside of the company brand, and/or enjoys sharing industry ideas and best practices on blogging platforms and in speaking engagements. He or she knows and cares about individuals within the community and demonstrates this as a significant portion of his or her daily routine.

The company or organization has solid team structure and a clear business model 

Outstanding community management is an incredible, but fragile, balancing act between your internal team and external community members, and between representing your personal values and representing your brand values, amongst others.

If you or your community manager feel unexpected or unwarranted demand to compensate for mis-hires, poor team structure, and firing of employees, that will be extremely unproductive for a team member whose most crucial task is to sit balanced in the center of these groups and teams.

In these kinds of circumstances, a community manager should not be blamed for being too involved with one team and not supporting others in the event the company roles are not structured properly. Nor can they be blamed for honestly communicating the ongoing feelings and concerns of community members.

If you’re willing to trust and listen, a community manager can serve as a crucial thermometer of your culture and the value you provide for everyone involved with your business – and that’s an invaluable perspective, even if it’s painful to hear sometimes.

Red flags:

  • Does the company have a high turnover rate (Don’t ask this outright in an interview. Instead ask: who has been at the company longest and how many people have been at the company that long)?
  • Who was the last person to leave the company and what were the circumstances with which they left? It’s easy to find this information on LinkedIn.
  • Has there been any co-founder drama that you can find on Google?

How you can tell:

  • What is the package and terms that the company offers to new hires? Are they providing a competitive contract for your industry and being professional about the offer or are they being overly casual and chaotic about hiring and onboarding?
  • Sloppy hiring, onboarding, training, and firing is a clear sign that culture isn’t a priority. Culture is the foundation of how relationships can be built and maintained, so as a community manager, it’s extremely important to understand the culture of the company you might be joining.

Green lights:

  • The founders and management are approachable, generous and caring about offering benefits like equity and health insurance.
  • The company blog has a portion of it dedicated to culture, values, vision and HR practices.

Overall, it’s best to be up front about your community values, priorities and metrics when it matters most – as both an employer and a potential employee. Trying to haphazardly throw community into your company when it’s too early, too late, or not a priority can be painful for everyone. There are plenty of examples of startups and leaders who are doing this right: Ryan Hoover of Product Hunt, Tina Roth Eisenberg of Creative Mornings and Tattly, or Joel Gascoigne of Buffer. They ensure that the culture of their companies mesh well with the products and communities they’re building.

Image Credit: Kevin Dooley

Kamrin Klauschie

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