Don’t Let Your Community Manager Go It Alone

As the resident expert, the association online community manager often serves as an internal consultant to teach other staff about online member engagement. In the future, though, we may all be community managers.

For a long time, if you wondered which staff at your association interacted with the most members most frequently, the answer was the member-service staff, or whoever was answering phone calls and emails from members with questions. Today, the front line has moved at many associations. For those that host online communities for their members, the new front-line staff may very well be the person managing the online community.

I know that, if my staff isn’t comfortable using the online community, definitely their committee members won’t be comfortable using it.

That’s a challenging position for just one person, which is why community managers need all the help they can get.

In the latest “State of Community Management” report from The Community Roundtable, a membership organization for people who manage online communities, the best-performing communities report higher levels of collaboration with other departments inside the organization, across the board:

In most cases, though, it’s the community manager driving that collaboration.

“We talk to community managers all the time and we ask ‘What’s the thing you didn’t think was going to be part of your role? What’s the one component you were surprised how much time you were spending on it?’ It’s almost always evangelism and coaching,” said Jim Storer, principal and cofounder of The Community Roundtable, during a webinar earlier this month cohosted with community platform provider Higher Logic. Storer’s colleague and TheCR cofounder Rachel Happe added that the organization created a working group on the role of “becoming an internal consultant,” just to help TheCR members excel in that role.

Carly Wohlers, member retention and engagement specialist at the Society of Petroleum Engineers, is living this job of internal consultant. Wohlers is the lead staff manager for SPE Connect, a platform for SPE’s 141,000 members to meet and discuss their industry, and its multiple communities for various technical areas, subdisciplines, and association committees. She says she’s been working hard to help fellow staff understand how their work can be enhanced through engagement in the online community.

SPE’s component managers and committee liaisons were the first to begin using the platform, but, with 400 staff between SPE’s Dallas-area headquarters and six other offices around the world, “we have barely scratched the surface of that. There is a large untapped potential there,” Wohlers says.

Fortunately for Wohlers, she has experience from a previous job in hosting software walk-throughs for clients, which she says is coming in handy now. “I treat our staff just like our members, first walking through [SPE Connect] and how they would use it, because ultimately I pass on the torch to them to be a proponent for our members,” she says. “I know that, if my staff isn’t comfortable using it, definitely their committee members won’t be comfortable using it.”

TheCR report also notes that “best-in-class” online communities are more often managed by a staff team, rather than by a single person.

“Given what we now know about the complexity of—and potential for—sustained and productive engagement, the notion that a lone community manager can address all the strategic, operational, and tactical responsibilities is quickly fading,” the report states. “Implementing many of the processes and programs that are markers of maturity generally requires more resources, and best-in-class communities with bigger teams are able to prioritize community programming, advocacy programs, community management training, and other key community elements.”

Wohlers says this finding aligns with her experience. “Treating your internal proponents as just as much of a priority as your members are—I think that’s really important to gain not only momentum from your members but also a support group around you that will assist you,” she says.

When TheCR published its 2013 “State of Community Management” report, many of the findings illustrated the community manager’s crucial role in the success of an association online community, but it also raised an important question in my mind about who else ought to be adept in this new context:

“At an association … community in many ways is the core product. So, I wonder if the role of community management at an association must be more dispersed. Shouldn’t every staff member in membership and volunteer relations be a skilled online community manager? And staff in a lot of other member-facing departments—meetings, education, publications, and government affairs come to mind—probably ought to be adept at online community management, too.”

TheCR’s Happe sees a future much like this, one in which people like Wohlers face less of an uphill battle in training colleagues on community management—or, to be more exact, in which we’ll all be more like Wohlers.

“Just like we had with email, I think the whole population is going to have improved online engagement literacy,” Happe said during TheCR’s webinar, describing her five-year outlook. “I think we’re going to see an understanding that community management is a critical 21st-century skill, not just a role.”

It’s easy to forget that online networking and collaboration platforms are still a relatively young medium, and integrating them with our work is still new for most people. Wohlers says she sees this transitional stage every day. “Our staff is very knowledgeable individually in Facebook and LinkedIn and Whatsapp and different apps or technology platforms that we use personally, but on a community level it’s a little bit different,” she says. “I think we are very similar to our members in that we might be lurkers and not contributors ourselves.”

How is your association building its staff capacity for member engagement in online communities? Do you have a single community manager, or a team? Is training required for staff to use your online community platform? Please share your experience in the comments.

Joe Rominiecki

By Joe Rominiecki

Joe Rominiecki, manager of communications at the Entomological Society of America, is a former senior editor at Associations Now. MORE

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