Industry Debate: The Value of Community Managers

Businessman Worshipping Man on Computer MonitorAs the role of communications and public relations professionals continues to evolve, PRBC bloggers Keith Trivitt and Danny Brown examine an offshoot of the profession, the community manager. Used by many websites, message boards and blogs to manage online engagement, relations and communications with key audiences, the role of a community manager is one cloaked with some confusion, particularly on the executive level.

We welcome your thoughts on the evolving role of community managers in the comments below.

Should community managers be forward-facing managers of a company’s online customer service, or should their roles evolve into more of a strategic position? In other words, are community managers anything more than glorified customer service reps?

DB: To me, customer service is strategic positioning (or has the capacity to be as much). Your main point of contact with any business during the lifetime of any relationship is via customer service. Marketing might grab your eyeballs, and sales might turn them into fitted lenses, but it’s the customer service reps that brand your company. A consumer’s experience with them is the experience with the brand; get that wrong and you get the experience wrong. Essentially, customer service is marketing, sales, PR and community management rolled into one; without the sexy titles.

KT: This is a tough one to answer, mostly because I think in certain regards, you could say that all PR and communications professionals act as customer service professionals at some point. But, I do believe that the role of community manager needs to shift more toward one of being a strategic planner and developer of beneficial long-term relationships with brand advocates and partners for a company, rather than being a digital liaison for the brand and placating online problems.

DB: Any company that thinks their community (and therefore, their community manager) has no value is probably a crap company to begin with. Swap the word community for any part of that company—customers, clients, employees, stakeholders, shareholders, investors. Every facet of a company is essentially its community; all that’s different is the wording. If you have people that are skilled in enhancing the relationships between all facets—and that can be internal or external—then you sure as hell better start respecting them and looking after them.

KT: The evolution of the PR and communications profession has seen many offshoots (publicist, spokesperson, etc.) struggle to earn their respect as strategic planners for companies primarily because early on, these positions were viewed by many as a means to keep the public away from executives and to keep information from them (the classic “gatekeeper”). From what I have seen, most community managers do a great job of not being anything like this, but they also seem to have the reverse problem: some community managers are viewed by executives as being too cozy and too personal with customers and brand advocates, to the point where they begin to lose some objectivity about how to help a company grow. When that happens, community managers lose their strategic value to a company.

How does the communications/PR profession help to keep the community manager role from evolving into a “jack of all trades” position that is lightly regarded among upper management? In essence, how do we ensure community managers are viewed as strategic planners for a company’s online engagement, rather than the people who solely rectify users’ problems?

KT: To me, this question is at the heart of what almost every communications professional—and yes, I believe community managers fall under the umbrella of communications professionals—faces at some point in their career. For community managers to thrive and to be viewed as valuable strategic assets by a company’s executive team, the role of the manager can’t be solely placating issues people have on a company’s website, blog, message board, etc. The position has to turn into a strategic development position, one that has broad oversight over developing long-term beneficial digital/online/social media relationships with clients, brand advocates, customers and potential partners. Far more than simply keeping everyone happy, management needs to give community managers the freedom to help build the business.

DB: The first thing the industry needs to do is take community manager roles seriously. Don’t plan your strategy or campaign and then say, “Oh, we’ll use a community manager for some of the online stuff,” and then bring them in once the campaign has been planned. Start from the beginning; include your community manager from the start and use their expertise and input. They do this for a living—you don’t. You want online success? Use the folks that can actually deliver it, as opposed to fumbling along and getting excited because someone shared your news on Facebook. Whoopee-do—what next, sport? How do you turn that exposure into a return for your client? A community manager will show you, and then some. You wouldn’t ask your intern to run your $10 million Gucci account; your client is Gucci, your community manager is your $10 million superstar account director.

Do companies even need community managers, or can their customer service and PR teams combine to offer best of both worlds?

DB: It depends. Is the PR or customer service person adept at online communications? Do they have the skill sets to communicate in the language and nuances of Twitter, Facebook, blog comments, forums, etc? There’s a ton of examples available where a PR agency has taken control and completely screwed up (look at the recent Nestle/Facebook debacle). So, unless the agency and the customer service team have the skills to properly manage a community, then no. Or at least not until you’re up to speed and completely comfortable in that realm.

KT: Given the evolving role that public relations is taking on within many companies, as those of us in the profession continue to show our merits for truly understanding and engaging with all brand partners—customers, partners, clients, etc.—my feeling is that a truly good PR team, one that fully understands how digital communications, blogger relations and social media work, can successfully handle a company’s community engagement efforts. Of course, the flip side of this argument is what we addressed above in that some people view the role of the community manager as a jack-of-all-trades. And if that’s the case, in my opinion, PR practitioners begin to lose some of the value in the eyes of executives that we have fought so hard to retain.

At what point does community management separate from brand advocacy? Does it, or should your community manager be your loudest voice?

KT: From my perspective and experience, the person who should be the loudest voice for your company and brand is your CEO, or whomever is truly leading the company. From a public-awareness perspective, the CEO/company leader sets the tone for everything that the brand emulates, including the brand’s online community. Having a community manager serve as the loudest or most public voice only serves to muddle the company’s message, as it appears that the company is being led by a traditional executive team on the non-digital side, and then when it comes to what takes place within the company’s online efforts, consumers may be confused that the brand is being led by someone else. That can be taken care of, however, if it is explicitly clear throughout all communications that the community manager is serving as a liaison for the brand. But I’m not sure I’m seeing enough of that explicit differentiation, which I think leads to issues down the line.

DB: I’d disagree on the CEO being your loudest voice. Just because they lead the firm doesn’t mean they’re right for leading the public face (think back to BP). And many CEO’s have absolutely no idea how to deal with this “new world” of communication—you’re really going to trust them to not screw up and make the brand look like an idiot? Even the best PR briefing can’t silence an ill-advised comment from a CEO. To me, brand advocacy and community management are two very different beasts. Brand advocacy is purely dealing with the positives, and can be employees, customers, clients or simply folks that like your brand. Community management is dealing with both positive and negative, and turning into a positive (or at least neutral and showing your side). That doesn’t necessarily mean that a community manager needs to be your loudest voice—but they will be the ones dealing with all the other voices, while the CEO goes fishing. So, who would you trust?

KT: Great point re: BP. I’ll be curious to see how this issue plays out in the years to come as more CEOs and key company executives continue to become more social media and digitally savvy, and some may even come from the digital PR/community manager side. I think we’re going to see a better blending of community management, brand advocacy and CEO/executive communications in the future where the ‘loudest voice’ becomes a blending of several voices, all on-message with each other, and all acting as broad brand advocates.

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  • Laney

    Hey guys,

    This is a great post and both of you have really interesting perspectives. I wonder though how a community manager’s role will change based on the industry. Take for example (if this ever happens, PLEASE FDA!!!!) an open online disease state community. A place that was built by a pharmaceutical company but really serves as an online support group for patients or caregivers. I am thinking about something like ADHD Moms, but more evolved.

    The CM could potentially serve liaison at Keith put it, but somewhere down the line the CM becomes the face of this particular offshoot. They are the strongest voice for the company in this community and everything they do will be directly linked to the success or failure of the community.

  • That’s a fantastic question and example, Laney. I think in that regard, it will be even more vital for the community manager and executives within the company that is managing that online community to see the role of the CM as coming from within the greater communications umbrella of the organization and having a broader strategic plan. And the reason I say that is because when you start dealing with something on the level of, say, an open online disease state community, that will require someone within an organization who knows how to connect people and build relationships with a variety of advocates, people within that company that can help them, potential partners/sponsors, etc.

    In that regard, the CM position begins to morph back into what many of us would consider more of a digital internal comms position, where they are managing the community, yes, but they are also helping people within that community develop strategic partnerships and relationships with others around them who can help.

    Terrific question and one that I think will be very, very interesting to see how it plays out.

  • Hi Laney,

    As Keith says, great question and one that needs to be dealt with differently from, say, a tech or service community role.

    Funnily enough, last year I worked with a Canadian pharmaceutical company and district health board on this very idea. Due to the red tape and legal involved, it never got beyond the planning stage.

    Pharma is a crazy industry with immensely strict regulations on what you can and can’t say. At best, you can act as an educational resource to correct fallacies and erroneous statements; but not a lot more.

    If the FDA (or any similar organization in other countries) opens up and allows one of the major pharma companies to have a more active role educationally, then it’s an industry that would change overnight (and for the better).

    Until then, there are a ton of self-regulated groups crying out for official statements. And they need someone to bring them all together. Over to you, pharma.

  • I’ve been thinking about this post all day, and I keep coming back to one of your first sentences: “Used by many websites, message boards and blogs to manage online engagement, relations and communications with key audiences, the role of a community manager is one cloaked with some confusion, particularly on the executive level.”

    I think the first misconception that companies need to get over is the fact that to have a Community Manager you need to have an “online community” – defined as a central place for people to go to connect (like a support forum, for example).

    A Community Manager is also strategic role. If it’s not what you’re really just hired is a Community Moderator, and that’s a horse of a different color completely.

    I also don’t think that the Community Manager should always be (or not be) your loudest voice. I think of it this way… if I call a company and always speak to the Community Manager first, I’ll probably start to form a relationship with them. They may be able to answer my question, or they may pass me on to someone that better can. We may talk on a regular basis and they may help me out, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t take notice if the CEO (or CMO, or PR person, or another public-facing person) makes a speech or chats with me at an event I attend. Community Managers may have a more consistent voice (in terms of frequency of participation, and it’s usually more one-on-one contact) than some other people inside the org, but that doesn’t mean that they have to be (or should be) the loudest voice.

    A bit of a ramble, but I have a lot of thoughts about this post. I welcome a continuing discussion!

    Community Manager | Radian6

  • Hasn’t that already happened, or are the multiple social media channels of Pfizer — — considered fringe?

  • Pfizer is doing a decent job, but much of it is information that is freely available already, Pfizer is helping folks find it.

    Where I was relating to the red tape of pharma is in the access to physicians and in-depth medical information/support. There’s still only a certain amount that is allowed to be shared, and it’s reactive information. Where the industry needs to open up is in the pro-active use.

    Get beyond the public info; have a velvet rope community where physicians of practice and pharma companies can really get into the nitty gritty with patients, carers, etc.

  • Hi Katie,

    I think the reason most connect the term “Community Manager” to the online aspect is because this is where they’re needed the most. Offline, we have a more focused audience watching or listening to us; online, that’s multiplied to the power of X.

    I agree that you don’t discount the CEO, or CMO, or anyone else in a similar position. But take it to another question – at the AGM of a company, would the CEO really go into specifics of the annual report, or leave it to the CFO? Would the HR Director go into the great results from the previous year’s marketing campaign, or leave that to the CMO?

    So to me, you use the best person for the needs of the company at any given time, and for the majority of that time online, that’s going to be the Community Manager.

    Cheers for some great thoughts!

  • Katie – Thanks for chiming in with some really great, high-level thoughts on this, particularly from your role as a community manager. Here’s where I differ from Danny a bit in that from my perspective, I would prefer to see the tone of a company’s strategic voice – whether online or offline – come from someone who is actively engaged in strategic planning, whether that is a community manager, PR person, CEO, whomever a company designates. That’s why in my responses in this post, I was very adamant that community managers need to help themselves more by demonstrating their strategic value to a company, rather than just being used as someone who placates problems people have online. Though I completely agree with you that that role is different in a sense than a community manager.

    To me, this is where I find the whole notion of corporate communications – PR, external relations, community managers, internal comms – very fascinating because it will be very interesting to see how companies handle broad, strategic communications with their key audiences differently from the online world to offline. Or will they handle them differently? I imagine that some companies will, and some won’t.

    How does it work at Radian6 in this regard? Who handles strategic communications with online audiences or the company’s online community, and how, or is that, any different than how more day-to-day or tactical communications are handled?

  • I suppose I’ll tackle Danny’s comment and yours in the same reply 🙂

    Danny – I totally see your point about going to the most appropriate person. I think my initial reaction was based on the fact that it seems like there has to be “a loudest” person… it really depends on the situation and you’re right – in a lot of circumstances, the Community Manager may be the one communicating with people. I suppose that I see them as parts of a whole, rather than a black and white distinction.

    Keith – Honestly, we’re involved in both the strategy and the tactics. From “what’s our strategy?” to begin with, all the way through the execution of the strategy on a tactical level. I think perhaps that a lot of companies view the CM role as more of a tactical role, and perhaps hire as such. That kind of sets the stage for what you’re talking about, which is the CM being shoved to a completely tactical level and being used as just someone who placates problems people have online. To me it starts with the company’s vision for the role, and a lot of the things you note come out of that.

    Thinking out loud here and I’m loving the exchange – more thoughts? 🙂


  • Fascinating discussion.

    The real issue is that we are in an era where neat and tidy labels do not really apply. What a community manager does is part customer service, part brand cheerleader, part customer advocate, part policeman.

    It’s not an easy role to fill, as it requires a deft touch and as much art as science.

    Clearly, this is a strategic role, but how many community managers have a seat on an executive board or steering committee. How many marketing, public relations, or customer service wonks are on those committees?

    What I am seeing is band aids put on “the social media problem”. A reactive response by companies to anoint a PR person as a Community Manager to manage a forum, a Facebook page, or a Twitter account so the company is “part of the conversation.”

    To really be effective, community management needs to be better integrated into strategy formulation, not just execution, for it to be really effective in growing and shepherding a company’s community.

    I do not think many companies are there yet.

  • Having managed several large communities I can tell you that the CM role goes beyond just an extension of customer service. As a CM you are at the very pulse of the community. This gives you the chance to help create events, activities, and additional levels of engagement that may not have otherwise been considered. Being creative is just as important as being a strong communicator.

  • Couldn’t agree more, Justin.

    The amount of times I’ve had client meets where the “higher ups” like the idea of social media, but not so much the fact they have to relinquish decisions and “power” to the “lower tier”… GAH!

    Changing mindsets is the first step in any change of business. Without that, what’s the point?

  • We once used a CM for a huge project for one of our biggest clients. They weren’t sure of the value – until they saw the brand love and sales that followed. Now they look at every project to see if a CM can be involved, and they do so from the very start.

    Here’s to more following suit.

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