The Smart Guide to Community Management Online

Community management online can be very intimidating when you’re getting started. After all, “community” can be such a vague concept. What makes online communities work? What can ruin them? Most of all, what should your role be in making sure the community you’ll be managing flourishes?

The good news is, we’re here to break it all down for you so you can be an effective online community manager.

Let’s start with what can feel like a silly question: what are online communities and what is their purpose? There’s a million ways to approach community management, so it’s critical to start by answering these basic questions and building on the pillars from there.

The basics of online communities

The core thing to remember here is that communities exist to bring like-minded people together over shared interests or other characteristics. So it can be helpful to start by asking yourself who those like-minded people are in your case, what do they have in common, what major differences are there among them?

Remember that every community is just as defined by what its members are not as what they are. Most writing on in-groups and out-groups is fairly academic, but it’s worth reading a basic summary of the research as the concepts are useful for online community managers to be familiar with.

For example, it might be more effective to define a product-focused community as people who aren’t willing to accept the sub-par alternative than simply people who are enthusiastic about a product. In most cases, a mixture of both will help. In any case, for a community to flourish, it requires consistent nourishment and effective facilitation from someone who truly understands the people who congregate there.

What can online communities achieve?

A great online community will create value and build strong relationships among its members. When this works, the results are amazing. These communities can become incredibly effective at sharing knowledge and insights by connecting the right people at the right time. This can improve customer loyalty, engagement, and be an incredible source of customer insights. At their best, they can even humanize brands.

In fact, many see the rise of a Chief Community Officer as a fundamental change to board rooms over the coming years. Companies are recognizing the power of communities and prioritizing their development as a result.

But getting those kinds of results isn’t easy. These days, potential members have more choices than ever when it comes to joining all kinds of online communities. Add this to all the other requests for their time from client calls to Netflix and it’s clear why online communities need to earn their members’ time. So what do you need to do as a community manager to ensure members choose the space you curate over others?

How to think about your role as an online community manager

Some communities can arise and thrive organically without management, but active work on your part can greatly increase the chances of success. So what is community management? First, let’s be clear, it’s not basic social media management. Responding to people on Twitter or Facebook isn’t community management because your company’s social media profiles aren’t real communities. This is because they’re mostly about one-way communication.

Community management is about creating a space where people want to spend time learning and interacting around a common topic. There should be two-way communication between members as well as between them and the brand. Your job is to ensure this happens on top of whatever goals you have for the community in the long term.

Often, the first step is establishing community guidelines (more on how to do that later). You might have a larger plan for your community or your role might be more focused on day-to-day management.

Either way, community management requires attention and experimentation. You need to always be asking yourself “what’s working” and more importantly “why”. In general, you can expect diminishing returns on any strategy, so you’ll need to stay on top of things to make sure your communities stay healthy and vibrant. Of course, this can require a ton of manual work, but we’ll mention some helpful tools later in this article.

Styles of online community management you should know

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to online community management, so what styles are out there? In general, there are six main types you need to know about and they reflect the various goals you can have for an online community. They’re best broken down into what CMX calls the SPACE model.

Support

This is one of the most common types of online communities. If you’ve googled for help on any number of issues you’ve probably encountered them, for example by using Atlassian. In a support-focused community the goal is for members to help answer each other’s questions and solve each other’s problems. This can substantially alleviate pressure on professional customer support teams and create a powerful knowledge base. If you’re taking this approach to online community management, you’ll want to look at some or all of the following metrics:

  • How many customer support inquiries are there (ideally these should be declining)?
  • How many questions are answered (an indication of how effective the community is)?
  • How many active users are in the community?
  • How active community members are there (how many posts, answers, etc.)?

Product

Product-centered communities are all about sharing experiences, ideas, use-cases, etc. for a specific product on the market. These communities can be invaluable sources of insights and ideas for how to improve a product (although you need to be careful as they will generally represent only a small portion of a product’s user base). For one great example, check out UiPath.

Ideally, you will use a product community as a sounding board, a space to create a useful back and forth between the people building a product and those using it. To evaluate it, the following metrics are most useful:

  • How much content is created?
  • How many product ideas are generated?
  • How well ideas derived from these groups perform (this should help you determine how representative the group is)?
  • If the group has events, how many people attend and participate?

Acquisition

Communities focused on evangelizing a product and driving awareness for the business behind it are less common. Often, these are businesses where users can also be sellers themselves. One example is Nearpod PioNears. That said, the authenticity of actual users advocating for a product is extremely powerful and can do wonders for growth and customer loyalty. If your community is going to be acquisition focused, here are some metrics to consider focusing on:

  • How many new customers are you acquiring (if you can tie them directly to the group, even better)?
  • How many active users does the community have?
  • Is the number of active community members growing?
  • If the group has events, how many people attend and participate?

Contribution

These communities are focused on people contributing their own content and enjoying what others have shared. This content can be core to the product itself or not. Usually, however, with this model the open-source content is key and therefore a major focus backed by a community team. A major example is Kickstarter, where without user-created content, the platform doesn’t have a purpose. Here are some metrics to focus on for this type of community:

  • How many active users do you have?
  • How much content are they uploading?
  • How much engagement is that content getting?

Engagement

Engagement focused communities tend to be less central to a business’ main goals because they are simply groups of enthusiasts coming together. For example, if your company makes pet toys, this might be a community of pet lovers. This is why this type of community can be useful for increasing customer loyalty, getting feedback, increasing sales, and even turning customers into brand ambassadors. Here are some metrics to look out for with engagement focused communities:

  • How many active users do you have?
  • How much content are they uploading?
  • How much engagement is happening (both between users and of content)?
  • If there are events, how many people attend and participate?

Success

We mentioned customer support communities above, but customer success communities take the same concept a step further. Instead of being focused around helping customers find answers to problems, they are more proactively focused on empowering users with best practices and other tips.

As a result, they’re great for increasing customer lifetime value and gaining product insights. They can even be a place to source talent from! Perhaps no company has done this better in recent years than Salesforce with its Trailblazer Community. If you’re looking to manage a customer success focused community, here are some metrics to consider monitoring:

  • What is your overall customer retention number?
  • How satisfied are your customers (and how might this be linked to your customer success community)?
  • What is your current Net Promoter Score (NPS)?
  • How many active users do you have and is this number growing?

Some best practices to help you succeed

Now that we’ve walked through the basics of what types of online communities are out there and how you can work out which type is best suited for your needs, let’s run through some best practices.

Community rules and guidelines

As mentioned above, starting with a clear set of community rules and guidelines is key. These are about more than empowering you to remove problematic community members. They should be designed to create the right kind of community culture (so think about them as being akin to the guidelines used to create a culture at a company).

These should include a description of the mission of the community, how it will be moderated, generally what’s expected of members, and what will happen when they’re violated. Try and make these sound human and inviting, not harsh and punishment-focused. They should also be easy to read and understand. Then, just be sure you’re consistent in applying the rules. If you’re unsure where to start, just look through some guides with examples.

Be authentic

A community built around transparency, authenticity, and empathy has a much better chance of success. If community members sense that there may be ulterior motives or even just meanness in the community, they aren’t likely to stick around for long. This approach also makes it easier to recover from mistakes and evolve the community over time as members will be more understanding if that’s built into the community’s culture.

Listen to your audience

Remember when we mentioned that real communities are built around two-way communication? That’s one reason why it’s so critical to listen to your community members. They can be a fantastic source of product insights, but they will also be the first to tell you when something about the community isn’t working and should be changed. After all, it’s not wise to ignore a canary in a coal mine…

Develop a strong brand voice

Building an online community you’re going to interact with regularly means it’s essential to cultivate a strong and consistent brand voice. Otherwise, you risk seeming inconsistent and creating an unpleasant space. Ideally, you should create a set of brand voice guidelines to make it easier to follow them.

Always be thinking about new ways to engage

As mentioned previously, you can never just rest on your laurels. You need to always be on the lookout for new ways to engage with your community and keep things fresh. Fortunately, as a community grows it becomes easier to source ideas from what community members themselves are doing.

Use the right tools

Managing a community obviously requires a lot of work. That said, there’s no use tormenting yourself when many tools exist to make the job easier. Look through this enormous list of community management tools and find which ones can take some pressure off you.

Tips for maximizing your impact as an online community manager

We’ve hit you with a lot of information here, so to wrap up let’s just go through a step-by-step guide to getting started. You can incorporate everything we mentioned above into executing these simple steps.

  1. Decide what you want your community to do
    Refer back to the SPACE model to choose the mission for your community. Just be sure to keep it focused because the more goals you have, the less effective you might be at each of them.
  2. Identify your audience
    Once you know what your community will do, you need to figure out who will join it. Building something like a customer persona can be useful here. Just be aware that your community will evolve and your audience might change, so it’s best to be flexible over time.
  3. Choose the right platform
    This is a critical choice as moving platforms later will be very difficult with a large member list. You can refer to the list of community management tools linked above for good examples of platforms you can choose.
  4. Choose goals and metrics to track them
    Once you know what you want your community to achieve, you need to figure out how to measure that. Refer to the suggestion lists above and be sure to avoid vanity metrics.
  5. Build a strategy
    Now that you know what you want to achieve, who your audience is, what platform you want to use, and how you’ll track success it’s time to build an initial strategy. Initial is the key word because your strategy will need to evolve as your community does. Ask yourself how you plan on engaging with your community: will you host events? Will you share exclusive content? How will you attract new members to your community? These are all questions you should answer early on.
  6. Engage with your audience
    Once you actually create the community, you need to help drive engagement by modeling the behavior you want to see. If the community feels vibrant with lots of engagement, people are more likely to mimic that behavior. Nobody wants to join a community that feels dead.
  7. Measure results and adapt
    We keep mentioning it, but this really is essential. You have to constantly be measuring, learning, experimenting, and adapting as you go. Otherwise, the risk of your community becoming stale and declining is simply too high.

Empowering yourself for success

There’s a lot that goes into successful online community management. But starting off by following these steps will already put you well ahead of the game and give you a better chance of success. Starting with a solid strategy and using the right community management platform can turn what can seem like an impossible task into something achievable. So get educated, equip yourself with the right tools, and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve.

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