I’ve been a community manager for around 10 years. Like most of us, I was managing communities before I knew that’s what it was called.
I’ve managed quite a few communities in my time. In all these years, everything I’ve learned can be boiled down into a few themes. From managing superusers, to developing business acumen, to maintaining drive in the face of adversity, I want to share what I’ve learned in the hope that they will resonate with you! Please note, these are my personal views and I speak from experience, not on behalf of these companies.
Seven Lessons I Learned from Managing Seven Different Communities
1. You need your own community before you manage one
If you don’t have a strong sense of community within your own team, it’s hard to face the obstacles of managing external communities alone. At Living Streets, a UK nonprofit that promotes everyday walking, my team was there to make me laugh, have lunch with me, help me with challenges, and tell me it’s okay to get upset when a member of the community (inevitably) goes on a tirade about you personally and how terrible you are at your job.
Let’s face it, we’ve all stayed in jobs longer than we would have if not for the people – our own day to day community where we feel like we belong.
2. Something magic happens at in-person events that you can’t replicate online
At The Pachamama Alliance, our community comprised of volunteer educators who ran social justice workshops in their local communities. We had an online forum, a microsite with educational resources, online training. and monthly calls; but there was something magical that happened at the annual volunteer in-person meet up. Something that sustained them for the entire year. The energy this event generated was untouchable – and I couldn’t replicate it online.
For some of us, it may not be possible to get our members together physically, most likely because of the prohibitive cost of flying in a global network, but if you can, there’s something incredible that happens, and those bonds that sustain your community go way beyond your mission.
At the very least, if you’re hosting calls, encourage members to use cameras so everyone can see each other. People find commonalities in-person they wouldn’t share online and become friends, which will keep them active long after you leave.
3. Keep your community close – and let them inspire you!
At ReachOut USA (sadly no longer running), a community forum for young people struggling with mental health problems, we trained young volunteers to offer peer support in our forums. Interestingly, we paid our first cohort and the second was purely voluntary – and there was absolutely no difference in performance, which speaks to the power of intrinsic motivation!.
Volunteer management isn’t without its challenges. But overall our young cohorts brought such energy and humor to our everyday, it really did make work a joy. In the words of Ru Paul, they gave me life! When you’re feeling tired and burned out – look to your members to give you energy. Sometimes they’re more passionate about your organization’s mission or products than you are!
4. What community members say they’ll do is different to what they actually do
Any user experience designer will be rolling their eyes at the obvious here, but this was a big lesson for me. At 10 to 8 (appointment software for small businesses) I launched a community from scratch. We were a startup and our founding customers became our community.
They were small independent business owners; homeopaths, massage therapists, music teachers, who told me in interviews that they wouldn’t use an online community. They didn’t have time and a lot of them didn’t identify with ‘online stuff’ or even running a business. They just wanted more time to do what they loved – be with their clients.
But I risked launching anyway, starting small (and free) on Facebook. Within 6 months, I had 200 small business members who were highly active! This included the handful of founding members who told me they wouldn’t participate – inevitably, they were some of my biggest advocates. Presenting an elusive concept of community is so different to seeing the real thing up online and joining the mental dots about the value it offers – realizing “Oh, here’s a place I can get support, learn new things, find other music teachers to cover my lesson during Summer etc.”
5. Your community deserves you to be confident
I have struggled with my confidence throughout my whole life. It’s taken a long time to learn to trust my gut and know that what I have to say matters. I speak on behalf of my community and so confidence is incredibly important! Your community deserves you to be confident on their behalf.
I ran the UK’s largest online mental health charity and often saw opportunities for how our community could serve other teams better. As Richard Millington says, make your community Indispensable.
I’d hear our policy and campaigns team scouring for content around certain topics (which were being discussed in the forums), I’d see emails from fundraising looking to find passionate fundraisers they were in the forums) or PR was searching for people with specific experiences to talk to the press on our behalf (…you know where they were).
I talked to my boss and sent a few emails, but I didn’t set up the meetings with the directors and high-profile leaders that I needed to, to clearly explain the opportunities I was seeing. To show them how our community could serve them better, how I could in turn, serve my community better, and how this resource was being under-utilized.
Advocating and educating other staff how to use community is something I do regularly now as part of my job at Fitbit, but at the time, it felt beyond me to draw the attention to my community (and team) that it deserved. So, no matter where you are in your career, pull out the big guns, ask for 30 minutes of senior staff’s time (find out what their priorities are ahead of time) – and show them how they can use you better. Your members deserve it.
6. The only stupid questions are the ones you don’t ask
I contracted briefly between jobs and was asked to write a strategy for a flailing community that launched because the founder, a TV personality, had a decent-sized following on social media. There was no common interest among members beyond that. No strength-of-bond beyond “I like that person.”
I tossed and turned at night, asking myself “Why?! Is that enough to sustain a community?” Per everything I’d learned and read to date, it wasn’t.
But I trained the team anyway, provided suggestions and direction whilst presenting some of my concerns, as I was paid to do. I should’ve leaned on the ample resources around me (books, articles – my network of community managers!) to build a stronger business case against investing in the community further. Needless to say, that community is no longer around!
7. Community advocacy comes from the heart…and that can be tiring.
A colleague once told me to stop taking things so personally. Naturally, I took it personally.
It got me thinking, though. Whilst I get the gist (healthy boundaries are essential), the day I stop taking things personally is the day I stop being a community manager. Because we are in the business of fighting. Fighting for people, fighting against competing priorities, fighting for what’s right, not what costs less. When you advocate on behalf of people (your community) I think you have to take things personally to maintain momentum. You need to show your community how invested you are.
And we all know, that can be tiring! Burnout is real. We’ve all been in that meeting when we have to explain the value of community again, when a feature our members want gets deprioritized, or we endure a meeting where no one mentions customers. As community managers, it can be hard for us to fathom how community isn’t always at the center of decision-making —and it takes a little personal energy to increase the profile of your community.
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