What is a Community Manager?
Updated: Aug 6, 2020
There’s no consensus on what it means to be a community manager—but there should be.
I’ve been the Community Manager at Teachable, a SaaS company for online course creation, for a little over three years. This was my first job as a community manager, and when I was hired, to be honest, I had no idea what I was signing up for. I started my career as a public school music teacher in Queens, and after a couple of years teaching, I was looking for a change (I don’t know if you’ve heard this before, but teaching is really hard).
I started looking for entry level jobs in the Ed Tech world, figuring it would be a less of a leap given my background. I didn’t know a lot about the roles that were available at startups, but I had some friends who told me about AngelList. I mainly looked for companies with a mission that I connected to, and then scoured their open roles for any job descriptions that seemed doable enough to give me a foot in the door. The job description for Community Manager at Teachable was one of those jobs—it seemed to mainly involve writing, and stressed the need to be empathetic. I put together a cover letter connecting the skills I built as a high school teacher to this job I barely understood at a tech startup. And as you know, I ended up getting the job.
Although in the weeks before (and the year or so after) I started my new job, I struggled to explain to friends and family what I did for work, it turned out to be the best career move I could have made. And in the time since, I’ve learned a lot about what it actually means to be part of the field that I jumped blindly into. I’ve spoken to countless other community managers at companies inside and outside my industry, attended conferences for community professionals, done a lot of reading, and most of all, thought constantly about what this field is and how it’s changing.
“Community manager” means something different at every company
One thing I’ve learned from speaking to lots of other community managers, and reading my fair share of job descriptions, is that different companies look at this role so differently that it can be unrecognizable from one organization to the next. The title can be used to describe anything from an event manager to a social media manager to “entry-level-grab-bag-of-marketing-and-customer-service-responsibilities.”
“The title can be used to describe anything from an event manager to a social media manager to "entry-level-grab-bag-of-marketing-and-customer-service-responsibilities."”
Making a quick google search for “what is a community manager” exemplifies this. The first result, an article from econsultancy.com, skirts its title question “What does a community manager do?” by vaguely explaining that “the role of a community manager is to act as a bridge between a brand and the community it is aiming to create"—while not exactly wrong, this doesn’t tell us much about the responsibilities of a community manager. This article goes a bit further by giving a brief explanation of why community managers are different than social media managers (Aren’t they the same? The article asks rhetorically, then answers its own question with the less than authoritative “apparently not.”) The next search result, from Sprout Social, aims to answer the question of the difference between a social media manager and a community manager more directly. Sprout Social suggests that these two roles have a bit of overlap, but are primarily responsible for different parts of social media management—posting and engaging. They suggest that both these roles live under marketing departments, and that a key difference is that community managers interact as themselves whereas social media managers interact as the brand. Lastly, HubSpot’s attempt at answering this question suggests that “community managers are responsible for building and maintaining a brand’s community—both online and offline—and public perception.” They suggest that community management is a combination of social media engagement, PR, and customer service. Unlike Sprout Social, HubSpot emphasizes that community managers speak as the brand, not as themselves, and that community management is primarily a customer service role. (They also say that community managers must have “incredibly strong soft skills,” which personally made my wince, but that’s a different article).
All of these articles make a decent attempt at encapsulating what a community manager does, and all of them mention some things that I think are accurate. But, the differences in how each article attempts to encapsulate this role are telling, as is the fact that each article focuses so closely on explaining why community managers are distinct from other roles. There’s still a sense of confusion around this role, its required skills, and its impact, that pervades each article. This is in no small part due to the fact that community management is a nascent field whose identity is still the subject of the debate I’m contributing to right now.
Part of the confusion comes from the fact that “community” is a rather broad term that is often used synonymously with “audience.” This is tricky because when you start to think about who at an organization “manages the company’s audience,” you’ll come up with lots of different people. Email marketing managers, social media managers, affiliate managers, partnerships managers, customer service agents, and many more people at an organization work with managing a company’s current or prospective audience.
For that reason, job descriptions for community managers often end up including a dizzying array of responsibilities. Take this recent job description I saw for a community manager as an example (I won’t name the company because I think this is a pretty common mistake):
This job description has flavors of product management, direct customer support, social media management, editorial, technical writing, and email marketing, but notably, nothing that directly relates to managing a virtual or in-person community. This company is using ‘Community Manager’ as a way to mean “you’ll be working with our audience on a wide array of things.”
And while it’s ok to have jobs that touch on multiple competencies, especially at startups with small headcount, roles should have a central core competency, and community management is no exception. Community management is a specific profession that like any other, plays a specific role in an organization and requires a specific skill set to do well. Clarifying this is vital for community managers to get jobs that suit their professional expertise, for companies to hire the right people, and for the field of community management to advance as it should.
If you’re reading this because you’re thinking about getting into community management, or you’re looking for your next role, I’d generally advise against applying to jobs whose descriptions read like this. It shows that the company doesn’t have a clear picture of what community management is and is using it as a "catch-all" title—which probably means that at best they won’t know how to give you professional development opportunities and at worst that they’re trying to sell an over-packed workload as an entry level job with a lower salary. If you’re super eager to get into the startup world and a job like this feels like an “in,” just keep in mind that nobody can really be an email marketer, customer service rep, community manager, and content creator all at once—those are all different jobs. I put together a cheat sheet you can use to quickly evaluate if a job posting for a community manager is one of the good ones (that is to say, a job that will help you grow your career). You can grab that here:
What do community managers really do?
Although community managers can work on lots of different projects (and sometimes different teams—I’ve seen community managers who work under customer service, marketing, and product teams), a good way to think of community managers is that they’re the people at an organization who run the community program.
“A good way to think of community managers is that they're the people at an organization who run the community program.”
If you ask anyone on any team at a given organization to describe the community program at the company they work at, they should be able to point to a specific space or set of initiatives that define community at that company. This should be something really specific, like a forum or membership hub with a specific location, an events or ambassador program, or another organized place where members are interacting with staff and one another. Notably, social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram don’t usually constitute a community in and of themselves; that’s the generic use of community as “audience” coming into play again. If that’s not the case, or if a company doesn’t have something they consider to be a community program (outside of considering their entire audience to be their community), they probably shouldn’t have a person whose title is community manager.
Community programs can include a lot of different types of initiatives—some of the most common ones are virtual communities where community members can discuss a product (or shared trait they have because they all use the product) and events programs, but community programs can also include exclusive content for community members, ambassador programs, product testing and ideation opportunities, swag programs, and more.
Community managers are generally the people at an organization who create these programs, maintain them daily, manage relationships with community members, and analyze the success of these programs.
What business metrics do community managers impact?
Aside from thinking about the day-to-day responsibilities of a specific role, a good way to think about what a role within an organization means is to think about the core business metrics that the role aims to impact.
When people talk about metrics and communities, they often focus most closely on engagement metrics. There’s been a lot of good thinking and writing about the limits of measuring community engagement for its own sake (Community Management space leaders CMX Hub have created an extremely thoughtful and popular model for measuring communities dynamically that they call the SPACE Model). You can read more about how I think about metrics as a community manager here.
But, probably the most important thing to know about the role of communities in an organization’s metrics is that they are, the vast majority of the time, primarily a channel for retention. Communities are about learning more about your members, giving them what they need to be successful, and building affinity and identification between them and your brand. While there are counterexamples where communities are used for acquisition, I would generally not recommend that a company start a community primary to find new customers—it’s neither the most effective way to acquire new customers nor the most effective way to run a community.
Skills community managers should have
The confusion over what community managers are can make hiring a great one tough—especially if you may be thinking that you’re just looking for someone with great “soft skills.” This perception can also make honing your skills as a community manager tough.
If you’re looking to hire a community manager, keep in mind you’re looking for someone who will run, or possibly start, your community program. You are looking for someone who is a strategist, and not just an executor. Your community manager should be able to manage the technical intricacies of whatever community platform or tooling your community program runs on, they should be able to manage a content calendar with multiple different types of long and short-form content running continuously, and importantly, they should be able to articulate the impact of the community on the business, continuously setting and reporting on the metrics of that program. If you are a community manager and you’re looking to sharpen your skills, look for opportunities to do more than hone your ability to monitor a forum or respond to comments. Advocate for expanding your community program, and look to include projects within your community program that will have an impact on other teams. For both employers looking to put together a strong job posting for a community manager and CMs seeking their next role, I've put together a cheat-sheet you can use to quickly evaluate the best (and the worst) community manager job postings. You can grab that here:
Thanks for reading! If you're a current or aspiring community manager, I'd love to hear from you. There are a couple of good ways to stay in touch.
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