What is a Community Manager?

Background

Wikipedia says that, “The origins of the term (online) community manager take their root in the computer games industry with the advent of MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games) back in 1995.”  The problem is, that history doesn’t take into consideration the other names by which community managers operated under in the decades previous to online gaming. Even before Al Gore “fathered the internet” and all the writing style guides said that internet should be spelled with a capital “I,” there have been online communities. And, there have been people managing and moderating those communities. (On a side note, the Chicago Manual of Style recently announced that Internet will be lowercase.)

In the days of old, before high speed connections and wifi, back in the dark ages when connecting to the baby internet consisted of tying up the phone line with the screeching of a 2400 baud modem, the role of the community manager was called a Sysop. His (or her) job was to focus on the community and the hardware.  A Sysop would only monitor the bulletin boards’ (BBS) discussion forum, perform all of the customer service actions that modern community managers perform, and they were responsible for keeping the machine up and running. As servers grew in complexity & bloatware of an operating system, this job was renamed System Administrator (sysadmin), but the role of monitoring what was going-on inside the growing community that the server ran was left to someone else. This is the birth of the community manager (CM). An online community manager wears many hats, including but not limited to: engagement driver, referee, coach, advocate, customer service representative, cat herder, content producer, analyst, strategist, and communicator. All of these roles overlap and complement each other, but rarely involve migrating to a new piece of hardware or upgrading memory.

Responsibilities

The responsibilities of a community manager parallel those of a project manager. For example, CMs define the scope, ideal outcomes, goals, and boundaries of their community. They manage the tools of the community, and also marshal internal (read: business) resources. Many online communities are business centric. Without a business, an online community wouldn’t exist, but this post isn’t about the business side. This is about the interpersonal responsibilities of a community manager. In a previous post, I said, “community managers are ultimately responsible for the health of their community.”  Business plans, metrics, and strategies can’t sustain a community, they give the community a structure.

According to Sprout Social, a CM “create[s] their own social persona and actively go out within the online community to connect with potential customers and advocate accordingly.”  It’s a good description of how a CM behaves, but I don’t like the fact that the people are referred to as customers. Gaining potential customers is part of the point of the community, but the members of the community aren’t there to get new customers for the company.  The members are there for the experience, support, and camaraderie that go along with being in a community.  In and of itself, the community isn’t about getting new customers, it is about the people that are already there, and finding new people to be a contributing part of the community. While communities aren’t free, meaningful connections aren’t based solely on economics; they are about relationships. Just as in “real” life, a community is all about the people who exist within it.

Glue

Vision

Last year, I created a meme based on a quote by CS Lewis to fit my vision of an online community. I said that “community begins when one person shares and another says, “What! You too?  I thought that no one but myself…”  From that starting point, a community manager strives to strengthen that sense of connection into an exchange of ideas, and relationships between people.

In a way, it helps to view an online community as a living, breathing entity with a life of its own. The CM is responsible for making sure that there is a structure to maintain the community. They also need to create a safe place so that members feel safe to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences, ask questions to learn about their members, and use that knowledge to bring their members together. The communication and flow of ideas among the community members are the glue of the community. The community manager is not the glue that holds an online community together, they are the one that applies the glue.

The next time you’re on a site where conversations between people are taking place, be aware that there is likely a community manager there.  It is their job to answer questions, give little nudges here and there, encourage positive behavior, and whatever else needs to be done make the community thrive. Take a moment to appreciate the fact that you’ll never see everything a CM does to make their little corner of the internet into a community but know that they are there.

In future posts, I plan to give more information about community managers.  Please follow me so you can find out more.  I welcome connections on both LinkedIn and Twitter.

(“Acme Glue” by Beau B is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

16 thoughts on “What is a Community Manager?”

  1. You have educated me. I never knew there was such a thing. You say one of their responsibilities is to “answer questions, give little nudges, how do they appear on the site? Would it be from “CM?” How would one know that a community manager is asking the question? Thanks for the information.

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    1. Each site handles it differently, but all managers and moderators have something that acknowledges their role. Usually, it’s in the form of a public facing badge that says “admin” or something like that. In my current position, my avatar has a note that I’m the assistant community manager. My last job also had a notation on my profile that I was a site moderator, but otherwise I looked like a normal member when I posted. There was a reason for that though. On that site, all official correspondence was handled “off-line”, through the members’ regular email accounts.

      Let me know if that answers your question all the way. I don’t want to leave you hanging, but I don’t want to overload you either.

      Thanks for reading my post!

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  2. This is an interesting blog post! Your comments about the innate nature of online communities makes a lot of sense, mainly, that these online communities are primarily about making connections with other people on the internet. I thought it was inspired to bring in a quote from the legendary CS Lewis, which points to the fact that even before the advent of the internet and even the computer, these type of communities have been around for a long time.

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    1. Thank you for the compliment. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I am also thankful that you liked my reference to CS Lewis. He’s one of my favorite authors. If you come up with any questions, please let me know.

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  3. This post was great! I’m wondering about what examples you would give in regards to more popular communities that you’ve managed or been a part of. I feel like I “get it”, but I do have questions. I’ve been a part of many Facebook support groups over the last five years or so. One group that has changed my life has about 1500 members and eight administrators. Would you consider an administrator of one of these groups to be a “community manager”? If you would, do you plan to specifically address community managers of more organic and grassroots groups, like the gazillions that pop-up on Facebook each day, or are you reaching out to a different breed of CMs?

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    1. Hi! Thank you for reading and for your question.

      You’ve asked a tip of the iceberg type question. In fact, you may have inspired another blog post or two! 🙂

      Unfortunately, there is no singular definition for community managers. It’s all a continuum. Each community is different and the

      In broad terms, I’d say that community managers guide the community while moderators guide the individual members.

      In my view, a moderator is one who only keeps an eye on threads, keeps conversations on track, and manages the little arguments that are bound to pop up. A CM is one who makes administrative and business based decisions about the community. They are generally also responsible for social media promotion. Please keep in mind that these are very simplistic definitions and I don’t think that the roles are actually that delineated. There are nuances galore!

      I’d like to be relevant to all CMs and moderators, regardless of the size of community. I think my focus will be less business oriented than other blogs out there in large part because I simply don’t have the business background. As I gain experience and mature in the field, I imagine that I’ll be able to talk about the business side more, but I want to be accessible to everyone.

      I hope that answers your question. Let me know if you have more. I’m enjoying this.

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  4. Piper, thank you for explaining what a CM is so well. I thought that the author of a post was also the de facto moderator since they appear to be responding to the comments. However, I suppose it could be different people who wield the avatar at different times. Is that the case?

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    1. Sandhya,

      I’ve never seen a community where the original poster was consistently the moderator. In my experience, posts can be started by anyone but only those with administrative permissions are moderators or community managers. More than one person can have administrative permissions. Does that fully answer your question?

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  5. Dear Piper T. Wilson, This post has a lot of information, so I might have to read it again. Please leave it on the internet for another day or two if you can. I think it’s great that you are taking care of everybody’s website, cuz somebody has to do it!! I will say that I think the old name you had “Sysop” is really cool and way catchier than community manager. It’s your choice, but I would go with Sysop. Ok, let’s see…what else? Oh, I looked at your meeem that you made up. I don’t really understand why you are pointing a gun at that guy. Like I said, I think I need to read your post again to understand everything.

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    1. Hi Benji,

      I’m so glad you liked my post. Don’t worry, I’m going to leave it up so you can come back whenever you like. I see your point about “Sysop” being cool but I’m afraid the powers that be aren’t as interested in cool as we are. 😦

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    1. Hi Lyssa,

      Thank you for the compliment. Yes, I’m able to work from home. The community I’m currently working with is based in Australia, and my supervisor is in New Zealand. It’s one of the things I love about this field. That being said, not all positions are remote. In fact, more of them require an in office presence than a remote one. It tends to be the world-wide based communities that offer remote opportunities.

      Let me know if you have any other questions.

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  6. Love it! Makes me appreciate what my sister-in-law does. She owns and runs her own role-playing site and she is always so super busy. Besides making the code and keeping the server gods happy, she also takes care of the role-players themselves. Thank you for the enlightening post. I need to go hug her soon! 😀

    Like

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