The need for community managers

Marshall Kirkpatrick, at ReadWriteWeb wrote a piece that caused a certain amount of flurry yesterday, asking whether startups need community managers:

A community manager can do many things (see below) but the most succinct definition of the role that we can offer is this. A community manager is someone who communicates with a company’s users/customers, development team and executives and other stake holders in order to clarify and amplify the work of all parties. They probably provide customer service, highlight best use-cases of a product, make first contact in some potential business partnerships and increase the public visibility of the company they work for.

He’s writing about tech startup companies here, but I do believe that many of the points Marshall makes are equally applicable to online projects started by government or any other organisation. This certainly chimes with a comment Steph made on this blog talking about the success of the recent online consultation exercise undertaken by DIUS:

I’d underline that the value of a Community Manager to bridge the gap between officials and stakeholders or those discussing these issues online has been enormous for us. As government starts to engage in new ways, I hope we start to see more Community Managers embedded in policy teams combining the skills of strategic comms, digital literacy, training/coaching, and stakeholder engagement. I think that’s how we’ll really change government communication online.

In other words, you have to encourage people to get involved, and that uses up a lot of time and needs a dedicated resource. Interesting where Steph places this role within the org chart – embedded in policy teams – this is not a web role, nor an ICT one, nor commuications. The community manager’s eventual aim is to make this stuff a part of business-as-usual, not an add on to people’s existing jobs.

I wrote a while ago about what techniques people can use to facilitate online communities. Here’s the gist so you don’t need to bother reading the other post:

Firstly, the facilitator must encourage discussion on the platform. This can be through seeding discussion by adding background content and then asking a question to try and spark a conversation, for example.

Second, back-channels should be used to ensure the conversation is maintained. For instance, if someone you know who is very knowledgeable about a topic that is being discussed, but isn’t presently engaged in that discussion, then the facilitator should drop them an email or telephone call to get them involved.

Thirdly, the facilitator should be a guide to the platform being used – helping users find the most appropriate way of posting their content. This is especially true of a platform like that I was discussing today, where forums, blogs, wikis and document sharing are all possible, and only really the first and last on that list get used – I’m sure just because folk are used to them and not to some of the newer tools.

Fourth, get people meeting face to face. Facilitation is not just about the online, the offline is just as vital. Social networks are great for bringing people together and getting them to work together, but there is a definite trust element that’s missing until people actually get to meet each other. Facilitators need to be as comfortable introducing people to people face-to-face as they are online. It also helps to always have stuff like coloured post-it notes, sticky dots, glue sticks and magic markers to hand.

Fifth, figure out ways of using the technology to help people get the information they want. For example, hotseating is cool thing to do: find a person who is rather knowledgeable about a subject, get them to write a blog post about it, and then invite people to ask them questions in the comments. Make it a time limited thing, so there is some sense of urgency, and you’re away. Or here’s another: set the community a blogging challenge, where every member has to write a blog post along a common theme, maybe with a suitable prize for the best one. It’s a good way of generating content and getting people used to using the tools.

Ed Mitchell wrote a really interesting post on community management back in January, identifying three main ways of approaching it: centralised, de-centralised and distributed. It’s a big post: print it out and muse over it with a cup of tea. It’s worth it.

The community manager is clearly an important role in the digital participation space. It’s one of many that are being developed by practioners who can’t be sure that they are doing exactly the right thing because precedents have not yet been set. Digital mentors are another, of course, and it’s an especially interesting one because it has been coined by government, in a white paper. How does a digital mentor differ from a community manager, or a social reporter, or a buzz director? I suspect that there is sufficient overlap between all these roles that a common set of resources could be put together to help develop people in any of these roles, maybe with a few modifications here and there.

In the meantime, there are individuals around who can perform the role right now, but not that many. Did I mention I’ll be looking for work soon?