5 Things I Learned from My First Job in Community Management
Updated: Jun 19, 2021
Top lessons for new community builders learned from leading community at Teachable for four years.
As many of you who read this blog already know, in December I moved on from my first role in community management at Teachable. After four years building a community program I’m incredibly proud of with an amazing team (who are now hiring a Community Manager!), I got the exciting opportunity to work with one of the community teams I most admire: Commsor, the company behind The Community Club. I’ll be working with them on some projects that are focussed on developing the community career. I’m thrilled that the passion I have for the community industry as a whole, that initially drove me to start this blog, will now get to be a part of my full time work.
I’ll be sharing much more about my work and learnings at Commsor here as I head into this new chapter. But, I also believe in the power of reflection. So, I put together a list of some of my top learnings from my first role in community management. Today, there’s so much content and thought leadership in the community space to help those just getting started, but when I was starting out, I could have used something like this. It’s my hope that this helps some first-time community managers feel not only less alone, but reassured that they’re on an exciting and fruitful path.
1. Your community should evolve alongside your company and the community industry.
One of the things that’s most striking to me as I look back on my four years at Teachable is how drastically my role changed from my first day to my last.
When I started, I inherited a Facebook group that was used for ad-hoc customer service, and that was started without strategy. I don’t give this description unkindly: the initial Teachable community was started with genuine interest in and care for the audience it served, which is ultimately one of the biggest make-or-break factors for any community. Richard Millington might describe this factor as an ‘oomph’—and I think this community had ‘oomph’ in spades, which is hard to fake even with a great strategy. But, I think it’s fair to say that the program was started without a clear owner, a plan for the future, or expertise in community management. By the time I left, we had launched a full-fledged, private, members-only community complete with daily content and rituals, monthly workshops, swag, tiered access levels, curated networking matches, and more.
This arc felt like it mirrored a larger ‘glow up’ in the community industry: what started as something explored based on good instinct grew into a bonafide brand pillar with strategy, metrics, and processes to boot. It also shows that part of what makes this profession so exciting is the opportunity to hone best practices alongside the growth of not only a single brand, but the whole community industry. While there are now more best practices to rely on than there were four years ago, there’s still a lot of space to be claimed for community leaders who will shape and define our industry through the creative choices they make in their roles.
2. Online community management requires equal parts head and heart.
There’s an idea that good community managers are naturally social, bubbly, and extroverted—that to be a CM, you have to be a “people person.” While it’s true that community management is a people-oriented profession, and one that requires highly developed skills in empathy and communication, many of the great CMs I know are not particularly “outgoing” people, and their skillset doesn’t start and end with their ability to socialize.
In order to have a place at the best companies, maintain career stability, and continue to grow, successful community managers have had to get good at measuring outcomes and communicating them in a business context. I’ve talked in the past about how in my early days at Teachable, I fell into the trap of overreporting shallow engagement metrics. I did this because although I intuitively believed in the value of community, and suspected this sense would bear out if measured, I didn’t know how to measure or present my work in a format that would be relevant to leadership.
By the end of my time at Teachable, I was able to track and report metrics that were actually tied to business outcomes that were, crucially, already tracked and valued at the company. This is something I’d encourage any community manager who wants to grow their career and credibility to work toward, but it didn’t happen overnight. It actually took years and required me to make decisions that were optimized for collecting specific types of data. Ultimately, it allowed me to show that the program I built had positive effects on several key business metrics that leaders at the company already cared about. That felt great, and told me I was on the right track with my work, but it also played another important role in my success: it gave me the credibility I needed to take risks and work creatively. I learned that for community managers, ‘head and heart’ aren’t opposites to balance, they’re necessary counterparts to help you do your best work.
3. Conflict in online communities isn't always a bad thing.
Over time, as I became a more skilled community manager, I was able to make strategy decisions that improved the quality of conversation in the Teachable community. Ultimately, doing this was almost a form of “proactive moderation”: fostering productive, insightful conversations actually reduced conflict in my community. But, the Facebook group I inherited did not initially feel so healthy.
When I first started at Teachable, our Facebook group was often the site of prolonged and contentious debates. The culture was such that in-fighting between members or frustrations directed at the company were, if not the norm, then definitely not unheard of. And while I ultimately believe that in a truly healthy community, the culture will tend to support members utilizing more productive channels for disagreement than public argument (sort of like the difference between starting a fight with a family member at the dinner table versus pulling them aside), one of my first and best instincts as a community manager was not to run from conflict.
Even in my early days as a CM, I always viewed community conflict as an opportunity to learn and build trust. I would rarely remove a member or shut down a disagreement unless I felt that it rose to the level of abuse or truly violated our norms. I asked lots of questions and usually kept engaging respectfully until I felt common ground was reached. Through conversations with other CMs during my career, I’ve learned that this comfort with conflict, and ability to embrace it to build genuine relationships with members, is often what sets you apart and allows you to become a unique asset. It runs counter to traditional business instincts that might favor ‘controlling’ narratives, but it prioritizes finding the root of an issue and advocating for change internally where appropriate.
4. Community management shouldn't be a 24/7 job.
I’ve written in the past about how I got into community management sort of “by accident”—I was actually so clueless that when I was preparing for my interview at Teachable, I did my fair share of Googling what a community manager even was. My memory of how vague and disheartening some of those articles were is part of what prompted me to start this blog. My very first post was all about defining community management, and I always aspire to use this outlet to encourage community managers to thrive in their career. One of the things that discouraged me the most was the prevalence of the idea that you shouldn’t become a community manager unless you’re prepared to work around the clock. This is a fear I still hear from folks who are interested in getting into the field, many of whom I believe would make amazing CMs.
When I first started, even though achieving greater work-life balance was one of my top reasons for leaving public education and transitioning into tech, I didn’t play an active role in pushing back against the harmful perception of community management as a 24/7 job. I remember spending an entire family celebration dinner standing outside the restaurant on Slack, trying to diffuse a community conflict. There was an entire summer where I refused invitations to the beach for fear of being out of range of an internet connection.
There are a few reasons shifting away from the 24/7 mind frame is an incredibly important learning for professional community managers—some professional and some personal. First and most actionable: if your community can’t function a day without you, that’s an issue in itself, and changing that should be your highest priority. A good interim solution if you’re dealing with a community that’s still in the process of becoming healthy and requires near-constant monitoring, is to train a few team members as ‘deputy CMs’ so that they can perform crisis procedures in your absence.
I’ve also learned that if you’re getting pushback from a leader who expects you to work outside typical hours, it can actually be an opportunity to draw their attention to how much they value community and advocate for more resources. Try saying something to the effect of: “I understand you believe the community is an essential part of the business, and that it should have wider coverage. Since I only work about 40 hours a week, let’s explore some new staffing proposals or loop in our existing team members for an on-call rotation so that we can achieve that coverage.”
On a personal side, I also know that if I hadn’t learned to defend my own time, I wouldn’t be working in the community field today. I believe the field of community management will lose its best talent if we’re not able to squash this myth. And, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say: I shouldn’t have to spend paragraphs explaining the reasons why a job shouldn’t be 24/7, or justifying why this is actually beneficial to a company. Being expected to work all the time is inhumane, and employees and employers alike should push back on expectations like these regardless of field.
5. There are big opportunities in growing your career in community management.
The last and most exciting learning I’ll talk about here (I learned too much about community management in my first role to cover in one blog post!) is something I never expected to say: community management is an incredibly promising career path, especially for those looking to get into the field now or who have a few years of experience. I remember in my first year or so as a CM, when I would hear colleagues talking about their career aspirations, I noticed they always wanted to become things like engineers or designers. I’d never hear people say they wanted to be community managers—and I kind of got why. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked my job. But, it was sort of a nebulous field: it didn’t always have clear responsibilities, pay expectations were lower, and there wasn’t an obvious path to career advancement. I remember feeling at the time that if I wanted to grow in responsibilities, seniority, or compensation, I’d probably have to do it by transitioning into a different role.
I’ve been incredibly happy to find that that’s not the case: as we head into 2021, it’s clear there are big opportunities for community managers, and that the field will only continue to grow. There’s been an explosion of new technology to power community building, more companies are hiring for community managers (especially in senior or even C level roles), and there’s now more clarity around expected compensation for CMs. And, today, I regularly hear from talented individuals and top companies looking to get into community building. I may have stumbled into this career path accidentally, but it’s ended up being a perfect fit. I expect to stick around.
Want to take all this a step further?
I work with clients 1:1 to help with big community projects (like launches or community strategies) or coaching over the phone. If you’re a founder launching a community project that you could use a hand on, or a first-time community manager looking for an experienced coach, check out ways we can work together here. I’d love to hear from you.
Lastly, you can get free resources on community building straight to your inbox —like a templatized guide to a community launch, a cheat sheet for community management job postings, and more—by clicking the button below:
Thank you for reading—I’m looking forward to continuing to share my learnings with you as I head into my new role at Commsor and the next chapter of my career. Here’s to a new year of community building in 2021!