6 Things I Learned about Community Management (from the 2009 Online Community Unconference)

by marycw on June 19, 2009

This year’s Online Community Unconference (West) was held June 10 in Mountain View, CA with 200+ attendees.

Six things I learned:

#1) We are still  in early days with online communities – especially communities related to corporate entities — communities sponsored by, or of interest to,  corporations.   Companies are gingerly figuring out how to build online communities, or how to interact with the communities that already exist.

#2) Many people are figuring out the basics. The fundamentals of how to launch and manage a community is the main focus of today’s Community Managers (CMs).  Learnings are out there, but the knowledge base is new and unevenly distributed. Much of the knowledge is in people’s heads (not codified into articles or books yet).  Thus, CMs have to proactively learn on-the-job . Many CMs are first-timers in their role, and often there’s nobody in their company who can advise them on CM.  So they have to look outside and self-educate.

#3) There will always be tension between the social dynamics of online communities and the objectives of the corporations that interact with them.   Community managers have to navigate this tension and advise others in their company about how to manage it.

#4) Many companies and CMs struggle with ROI for communities.  Many CMs have not had to think in terms of an ROI analysis before, and many of them have had limited interaction with Finance and executives who think in terms of ROI.  See here for notes on how to do a good ROI (including things like cost avoidance and increased average value of customer).

#5) CMs have an invaluable front-line perspective on customers — but companies are just beginning to figure out how to effectively leverage the CMs’ experiences.  Most CMs are producing scheduled report-outs, but it’s unclear how effective they are at getting “heard” by the rest of their organization.  This is an area for skill development for many CMs.

#6) Business communities differ from consumer communities. (Business online communities = developer communities;  product support/customer help communities; business partner communities; etc.)  Participation patterns and other behaviors vary greatly across the range of business communities, and from consumer communities.   Yet much of the popular wisdom  is still based only on the better-known consumer communities.

See here for notes on B2B communities.  Impact Interactions is a consulting firm that’s developed some expertise in online business communities.

Related links:

The list of sessions is here.  Most sessions have summaries / notes posted.

Forum One (the conference sponsor) has a number of articles about online communities on their website.

Jessica Margolin posted her top five takeaways here.

Mike Mace with Rubicon Consulting wrote this post about online communities from the corporate perspective.

Useful presentations on online communities for business: overview presentation on Enterprise 2.0, Top 10 Reasons to Build an Online Community, Building a Robust Online Community, The Business Case for Online Communities, a step-by-step overview for building an online community.


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arvind 10.28.09 at 11:27 pm

hm. community "managers" is an interesting choice of words, don't you think? it seems to presume that a community is a thing that needs management (or else…? bad things will happen?), that a community 'belongs', in a manner of speaking, to the corporation. that seems like it's a prickly issue that needs thought.

you're right about the lack of scholarship/research around business-to-business communities – much of the research so far has been about informal, non-commercial communities. i remember spending time on the motorola developer forums – they were badly designed and the representatives did not, to say the least, paint a very flattering picture of the corporation – and the forums never evolved beyond the shouting match and denial stage. and now we have all this social media madness, with liberal doses of snake oil… ah well

Mary Walker 10.29.09 at 12:46 am

Hey Arvind – thanks for commenting — yeah, it's still very early days in our understanding of online communities — and even earlier days in terms of businesses having any clue of how to interact with them effectively.

Per the title "Community Manager" — you're right about the misleading connotations of "Manager" — but then, job titles serve multiple purposes, so job titles are often rather laughable when read literally. I mean, my current job title is "Senior Director" which sounds like I'm either 80 yrs old, or running a old people's home.

Job titles serve as status signals to people within an industry — certain words become seen as having a specific meaning within that industry — so the companies really have to use those "code words" — or their jobs get misunderstood, they attract the wrong kind of applicant, etc. So most companies are very unadventurous in how they do their job titles. The exceptions are the creative industries where creativity and uniqueness is expected.

For example: in the industries of banking and of market research, the title "Vice President" is a very common title. It is applied to many professionals who are considered seasoned or fully trained in that business — you can easily become a VP before you're 30 yrs old, for example. But in Silicon Valley — VP is only an executive level title — there aren't many of them in any company. So the VP title signals different things in those different industries.

The job title "Manager" is often used to signal that the job is considered a "professional level" job for a person with some level of experience –it's not a job for a newbie — and it's not an administrative-level job. Whereas if the job had the title "Community Coordinator" or something — it might sound like a not-for-profit job, or more of an admin-level job. And we know the connotations (pro and con) of "Community Organizer", because of all the discussion around Obama's having had that job.

also note that inside organizations, job titles are tied to pay grades and rankings — so "Manager" jobs across the company are linked to a salary range of $ to $$. Thus changing the title can cause confusion and put the salary level into question.

arvind 10.29.09 at 3:17 pm

That's interesting – I hadn't thought to make that connection with organizational culture – but which only serves, for me, to increase the contrast all the more. The intersection of an equal-access, flat-earth style of engagement with what is, in most cases, going to be a hierarchical culture.. should be interesting to see how this territory is navigated. Like you said, I expect it will happen differently in different orgs and industries (Microsoft, for example, divorces job titles from pay grades. I would not expect to see some of the same encoding problems, for instance). Perhaps we need new terms? Chief Community Officer? Community Senator?

Thanks for the expansive reply

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