The Folly in Making a Definitive Community Manager Guide

I started in the games industry back in 2006 as a Community Manager. Looking back, it was pretty awesome because the role was virtually undefined and as a newcomer to the industry and the title, I had no idea what I was doing and subsequently made everything up as I went along. Six years later, I'm pretty confident that it all worked out.

As someone who lives and breathes communities (not just as for job but in a fairly obsessive way throughout my day) I read a lot about the topic and follow quite a few CMs on Twitter. Today, @SixOkay (Justin, for those who don't answer to handles more readily than real names) retweeted an article stating it had the definitive job guide for a Community Manager. Ever skeptical, I clicked, and now I have my response to what I read.

Before you begin, you might want to take a read at the article: http://socialfresh.com/a-definitive-community-manager-job-description/

First off, I want to say that mostly I agree with what’s outlined in the article. Community Managers do all the things listed. They write a ton, both pre- and post-launch, are crucial in figuring out what players want to hear about, what devs want to say, and making sure all that ends up happening and getting to the right folks out in the community. They are also cornerstones for both the dev team and the fans, ensuring communication is a two-way street, and in this day and age, they communicate both on official channels and also in the great wilds of the internet (many a night have I posted late on Reddit, Twitter, YouTube, and Twitch.) In that regard, social media, public relations, and customer relations (AKA customer service) all blend together. The guide also says CMs work with both analytics and biz dev, and I agree with this too. Analytics are oft overlooked and underrated: folks, if you want to be a CM or have been one and are applying for a new job, put your metrics on your resume! We like numbers. Show me them, like delicious mathematical Pokemon.

So now that I’ve detailed everything that I agree with, here’s what bugs me: the title of the article. I really dislike grand and sweeping statements that catch the eye or are meant to be derisive, particularly when they oversimplify or undermine the overall topic.

Community management isn’t new. In the past decade the field has exploded, true: I am seen as a veteran in the new wave of community management, but Community Managers have been around for years. Yes, technology and social networking has made CMs much more important and public; recent trends have made them a hot commodity for companies outside of gaming and tech where they were first prolific. And while I’m ecstatic that tons of companies now are understanding that the idea of communicating back and forth between team and consumer is vital to a company’s existence, I cringe at a lot of the buzz words so many people use and all the "definitive" articles people are writing while attempting to explain in concrete terms a role that at its core is meant to be fluid. (If you have ever seen http://whatthefuckismysocialmediastrategy.com/ you will know something that annoys the hell out of me and also randomly generates sentences that I fear I may have uttered before.)

If someone came up to you and told you they had a definitive job guide for a Marketing Manager or a Public Relations Manager, you’d probably look at it and agree it’s a great generalization and not useful for actually getting a person for one particular role. And, for those of you not in Marketing, the same holds true for a Software Engineer or an IT Manager: these are titles, and by their very nature they have a structure and base meaning within them, but titles are just the bones of a job. Details about what kind of company you are, what goals you have, and who your customers are make the job description useful. As such, anyone who would put forth a definitive guide for a particular job would be seen as foolish (at least to me.) The same holds true for Community Managers.

The rub here lies in the fact that the job of "Community Manager" is evolving much more rapidly than the others I mentioned: as I said, the role has been around longer than most people realize, but people didn’t realize it until recently, which means its evolution has just begun. Thus, the current attempts at trying to define the role make me feel like we’re pigeon holing the position and that in turn will only narrow the minds of everyone involved in the recruiting, hiring, and training process. None of that is a good thing.

I like people who think outside the box. I like people who don’t like the term “outside the box” and don’t use it except to, in the next sentence, verbally berate themselves for using it because it’s a catchy phrase that really doesn’t mean anything. I like people who go into a job with the desire to do something that they aren’t completely sure of and are slightly scared by the prospect of the task at hand (and are excited and happy about all of those terrifying emotions.) When I was first hired as a Community Manager, I spent several months awake at night, wondering what the hell I was doing and if someone was going to eventually turn around and say “I have no idea what you have going on here, but get the hell out of this office.” I approached the job both as a marketer and writer but also as a consumer, and I looked at the facts and then followed my gut: if it hadn’t been done before, I wanted to do it. If it sounded crazy and far-fetched and completely out of my realm of expertise, I wanted to pitch it. I don’t even remember what my initial job description said, but I can tell you that by the time I finished with the gig, what I did was entirely different. The same principle applies to the two Community Managers I hired at my last position: two years after they began, neither does what they were hired for.

Community departments need to be agile and able to shed their skins and change: that might mean entirely restructuring the departments, overhauling job titles or descriptions – in essense, breaking everything apart and building it back up again from scratch. This is healthy, and what should happen. If we start thinking in terms of standards, we’ve already failed. Communities are ever-evolving: customers and fans are drastically different than they were five years ago, and five years from now, they will be completely different beasts than they are today. Community departments, from managers on up, have to all sign up knowing that and wanting to be ahead of that curve. We have to identify the trends, figure out the needs, spot the problems and pounce on the “off the wall” opportunities like rabid meerkats. We can’t settle into a groove. We can’t aim to be established. I don’t ever want to feel like I completely have a handle on what I’m doing, or I know what the future holds. I don’t want to settle into a pattern, and I don’t want anyone on my team to say “well this is the standard” or “this is normal” or “this is what everyone else does.” A pox on what everyone else does. If we’re getting to a place where we feel like there’s a definitive guide to community management, we’re long past putting the blinders on and are already on the beaten path.

If you want to know what I think makes a successful community department, here goes: keep looking ahead, into the proverbial wilderness that communities make up. Be scared. Look for candidates in unfamiliar places and who come from offbeat paths. You can train a talented person to do every single bullet point in the above article – trust me, I know. I took an engineer and turned him into a thriving Community Manager in less than two years because working in community is about drive, creativity, and intuition. You can’t teach those things and you can’t standardize them into a definitive job description. Losing sight of that and forgetting what made community management so powerful in the first place will result in a proliferation of departments that pitch sentences straight from What The Fuck Is My Social Media Strategy. I want Community Management to get to a place where it is a core department within companies just like Legal and Marketing are but I never, ever want to see it stop being seen as a group made up of scrappy, forward-thinking people from disparate backgrounds and schools of thought. That will be the death of what Community Management is all: how companies and customers interact and impact each other, and that will be a devastating blow in helping us innovate for the future.

4 Comments on "The Folly in Making a Definitive Community Manager Guide"

Jul 07, 2012 at 12:11am
This article is amazing and you are amazing, KEEP BEING AMAZING
Jul 07, 2012 at 7:06am
awww... thank you.
Jul 08, 2012 at 4:28pm
Thank you for this. Please send it to every recruiter out there. I have been searching and pushing for a community spot for almost a year now and received almost nothing but negative responses because I haven't done it before. Passion and a willingness to learn go along, long way.
Nov 20, 2013 at 8:29pm
Sorry for the late comment, but I just stumbled across this blog and felt compelled to thank you for writing this. As a fresh Community Manager myself (4 months under my belt) the following sentence really resonated with me:

"When I was first hired as a Community Manager, I spent several months awake at night, wondering what the hell I was doing and if someone was going to eventually turn around and say “I have no idea what you have going on here, but get the hell out of this office.”

This perfectly captures the essence of how I've been feeling these past 4 months. No matter what I accomplish, I always feel like I should know more and be doing more. It was incredibly comforting to know that such a well regarded and talented Community Manager such as yourself experienced the same feelings.

Thanks for this, it was quite an encouraging read. Stay awesome!


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