What Does it Take to Manage a Community?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog post, Reflections on Community Management: AKA “What Do You Do”, with thoughts about what community managers do. I promised to follow it up with another post about the skills it takes to manage communities. It was Seth Godin’s post, Jobs of the future, #1: Online Community Organizer, that originally got me thinking about this topic. Godin says:

“It would help if that person understood technology, at least well enough to know what it could do. They would need to be able to write. But they also have to be able to seduce stragglers into joining the group in the first place, so they have to be able to understand a marketplace, do outbound selling and non-electronic communications. They have to be able to balance huge amounts of inbound correspondence without making people feel left out, and they have to be able to walk the fine line between rejecting trolls and alienating the good guys.

Since there’s no rule book, it would help to be willing to try new things, to be self-starting and obsessed with measurement as well.” (Quote from Seth Godin’s Blog)

What skills do I think it takes to manage a community?

  • Patience. The community manager should not be the one responding to all of the questions. She needs to hold back and let others within the community participate. This is especially true when someone in the community is being particularly difficult. It can be easy to fire off an angry response that might be regretted later, but waiting until the emotions cool a bit can make the response more thoughtful and constructive. This includes patience with newbie community members. She may have heard the question a million times from other newbies, but this is probably the first time this particular person has asked the question. Taking a little time to welcome new community members while pointing them to a list of helpful resources (nicely) can go a long way toward helping to grow your community.
  • Networking. The best community managers are the ones who seem to know everyone and have a large group of colleagues who can help in various ways. These people do not typically acquire large networks by accident; they have good networking skills and are constantly meeting new people and growing their network.
  • Communication. Community managers should be great communicators. In some communities where the interactions are primarily online, good writing skills are essential. Public speaking skills can also be required for those community managers who also spend time organizing community events, evangelizing, and speaking at conferences on topics related to the community.
  • Facilitation. I spend a fair amount of time making sure that the right people are involved and engaged in the community. No one person can (or should) respond to every question or comment, so the community manager is frequently in the position of facilitating the discussions.
  • Technical Skills. Having at least a basic understanding of the technologies used in your community are important. This varies widely depending on the community. In my case, the ability to administer the Clearspace installation, maintaining and writing web pages, bug tracking software, svn, etc. have been really helpful. I find that my background as a sys admin has been really helpful in this job. Not all community managers need to be highly technical. It certainly helps to be able to do some things yourself, but in my case, I do what I can and rely on our hosting provider, our web developer, and other developers at Jive to help with the tricky stuff.
  • Marketing. For those of us managing developer communities, marketing may seem like a dirty word, but yes, marketing skills are a requirement. The community manager needs to be able to promote community activities, solicit new members, and in general get the word out about the community.
  • Self Motivation. In most cases, no one will be looking over the community manager’s shoulder telling him what to do. He needs to be self motivated to do whatever it takes to keep the community active and healthy without much direction from others.
  • Workaholic Tendencies. I do not mean that the community manager must work all the time; however, most communities do not exist in the 9-5 work hour schedule. People from all time zones participate at all hours of the day. Community managers probably want to at least check in on the community outside of business hours and respond to any hot topics or heated debates. This ties into the self motivation skills described above.
  • Organization. Community managers should also be organized. Keeping track of loose ends, making sure that questions are answered, being able to organize events, etc. all require good organizational skills and attention to detail. This is probably the toughest one for me. Although I tend to be highly organized, I tend not to be particularly attentive to details. I’m working on it :-)

I have no doubt that there are more skills required for community managers, but I think this is a pretty good start. This list may also be a bit skewed toward those who manage developer communities or open source communities, since these are the types of communities that I have managed. I would be very interested to hear perspectives from other community managers here in the comments. What skills do you think are most important for community managers?

4 Responses to “What Does it Take to Manage a Community?”

  • Great list! Synthesizer comes to mind. The ability to take an existing conversation, and restate it so people feel heard and new conversationalists can easily grasp content seems very useful. Of course this might be context dependent. :-) Taking this a step further, from summarizing to encouraging forward movement of the conversation and related actions seems important to me too.

  • NurtureGirl,

    Excellent points as always! Being able to synthesize conversations to extract the salient points in sometimes long and convoluted threads is critical along with pulling out the next steps and actions. In my case (as a manager of developer communities), this often takes the form of summarizing technical discussions to capture the essence of the conversation in a way that can also be understood by the less technical members of the community.

  • As a voluntary community manager myself, I agree with all the attributes you list, and recognise my own abilities and also failings.

    Can I add one or two attributes, which perhaps you cover slightly differently ?

    Motivator and Guide. Essential to getting the most out of communities is active member participation. Sometimes this needs encouragement, and sometimes members need poiting towards the available facilities.

    Director: It can be the case that with a bit of focus, people realise that quite a lot can be achieved online. The self-motivation you mention often has to go towards “stimulating” members into taking part, using different stimuli, and helping members get the buzz from on-line growth that many of us now realise is possible.

    Excellent job here, and look forward to connecting with you here and elsewhere.

    Kind Regards, Peter.

    P.S. Any advice you can give on how to convert a voluntary role into one including remuneration would be welcome. I used to work as a Project Manager, which I feel fits well with the Community Moderator role.

  • Peter,

    Those are great additions to the list!

    I have a few recommendations for someone wanting to break into a job as a community manager:
    - Blog about community management, best practices, what you see working / not working in your voluntary community manager role
    - Do some real-world community management. Organize a new user group / meetup / event or organize some non-profit community activities
    - Keep an eye on the specialized community job boards. You might get lucky and find a company looking for a community manager with strong project management skills where you can combine the two skills. Two of the best community job boards are Web Strategy http://webstrategy.jobamatic.com/a/jbb/find-jobs and CommunityGuy http://www.communityguy.com/jobs

    Community management is a hot job right now, so now is a good time to be looking. Good luck, and thanks for the insightful comment.

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