Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What Makes a Great Online Community Manager?

When I first donned the title in early 2008, "Community Manager" was still a relatively new term -- so new, in fact, that when I asked for a job description prior to accepting the position, my soon-to-be-boss had to do quite a bit of research before he could formulate a cohesive definition. It isn't that the community management didn't exist until that point; it was simply known by other names, often a smaller responsibility of someone in a different department (for example, marketing).

As the web becomes increasingly social, of course, that can no longer stand. Just in the last year, the demand for (and awareness of) community managers has exploded. As Mashable author Meghan Peters put it in her recent piece, 4 Community Management Predictions for 2012:

Community management, an industry still in its infancy, came a long way in 2011. Many businesses no longer ask “What does a community manager do, and do I need one?” but rather “What makes a great community manager, and when can I hire one?”

While I can't tell you when you can hire a great community manager (after all, I won't be on the market for a while...), I can shed some light on the first part of the question. What makes a really kickass community manager fabulous at the job? I've come to believe it takes a very particular kind of person to survive--let alone excel--in this profession. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as being friendly and moderately tech-savvy.

The Anatomy of a Good Community Manager

From head to toe:

  • Farsightedness - What you do online today affects you (and your brand) tomorrow. A great community manager looks ahead, evaluating potential consequences before acting, and sets aside knee-jerk reactions in favor of measured responses.

  • Sharp nose - Nose, intuition... Call it what you will, where the internet is concerned, the ability to sniff out a rat is indispensable. Even with all the back-end tools available to you, there will be times when the evidence is inconclusive and a judgment call has to be made. In these moments, a good BS-o-meter is all you've got.

  • Silver tongue - Much of a community manager's duties center around communication, both internal (with team members and other departments) and user-facing (both on- and off-site). Delivering information clearly and concisely is important, as is the tone in which it's imparted.

  • Six arms - "Oh, come on! I've only got two hands!" just ain't gonna cut it. Multitasking is not optional. As community manager, you need to be in six places at once. Not only that, but you need to be doing six different things in those six different places. Someone who needs to work on a task start-to-finish before moving on to the next one simply isn't going to make it.

  • Strong stomach - Even if you don't work at a user-generated content site like HubPages, you're bound to see (and read) some graphic nastiness in this occupation. You need an iron constitution so you can handle anything that's thrown your way, from 1000-word expletive-filled rants against your person to explicit images of sex and violence, without losing your lunch. Leading us to...

  • Thick skin - When you become a community manager, you lose the privilege to give as good as you get. You'll still get plenty -- plenty of insults, accusations, threats, conspiracy theories -- but unless you can let it all roll off your back, you appear unprofessional and waste time that could be spent on something else. ("Oh come on! I only have six hands!")

  • Sea legs - Things change quickly on the interwebs. It can be dizzying and downright disorienting, but you need to keep your feet. A combination of self-confidence and flexibility is priceless in times of upheaval and crisis (which, believe me, will come).

  • Clown shoes - Okay, okay, so it's not really a part of your body, but this final ingredient is one of the most important: a sense of humor. In this line of work, you're not getting out alive unless you can laugh -- at yourself when you make mistakes, at difficult users you have no chance of pleasing, at the absurdity of the situations in which you find yourself. But silliness serves an even greater purpose. The internet can be cold and impersonal. Humor is one of the most effective ways of cutting through the computer screen and connecting to each other. And that is, after all, the whole point of being a community manager.