I have been managing online communities for more than 11 years. Given my experience, I am afforded a long range perspective on the profession of online community.

I have happily witnessed the popularization of the Community Manager job title and I am always meeting people that have it. I have loved watching the profession grow because online community is something that I am passionate about and something that I believe in.

The reality, however, is that the Community Manager job title means very little, in terms of understanding what someone actually does on a day to day basis. When someone says that they hold the title, it really doesn’t help you to learn what they are responsible for. The title itself has become a giant umbrella at many companies and one community manager at one company may have completely different responsibilities from a community manager at another company.

Some community managers may be responsible for things that many veteran community professionals would not even consider community related. The title has been muddied and this leads to the word community, itself, becoming muddied.

What Else Can We Fit Under the Umbrella?

A while back, I saw a job description for a community manager position. Among the requirements was years of search engine marketing experience and years of email marketing experience. Do you see anything missing? No community management experience was required. Not kidding. And it’s not all that uncommon. It was a marketing position mislabeled as a community management position.

This is happening more and more. We are seeing a lot of people hiring “community managers,” who are really just taking a lot of marketing, public relations (PR) and customer support tasks and throwing them under a single title. PR, marketing, customer support and community are related in some ways, and the lines of communication between them should be open, but they are also not the same and it’s important to recognize that. They have different goals that don’t always align.

There are a lot of cursory tasks that some force under the community manager umbrella that I wouldn’t generally place under the realm of online community management. Community management is not some magical role that sucks up five other positions and puts them into one.

To throw some vague examples out there, I don’t believe that your community manager should be:

  • Just an evangelist or the public face. I think too many are giving the title community manager to the person who talks about their stuff all the time, writes blog posts for them, podcasts, etc. I’m not saying that a community manager doesn’t contribute, but that they do more. A community manager actually manages a community. They are not simply a content producer.
  • Responsible for developing and executing your marketing plans. They can have a voice and may be able to help the person responsible in some way, but your community manager is not your marketing manager.
  • Handling inquiries from the press, trying to place stories with journalists and booking interviews for your CEO. Yes, the community manager is a public voice and should be able to speak to the press. But, no, your press room contact shouldn’t be your community manager.
  • Your copywriter. Community managers need to be strong communicators, but do you hire them to write your website and product copy? No.
  • A data analyst. Community managers deal in people. While they can report some metrics to you, for them to spend an inordinate amount of time crunching numbers and analyzing data takes them away from what their primary tasks should be.

Providing (Some) Definition

No matter what I say, the Community Manager title will be a vague one and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I don’t want to come off as a curmudgeon here. I’m not complaining and think that, if anyone is seriously bothered by this, that they are concerned with the wrong things. In all, it’s a good thing because it means that the space is growing and becoming more important. I’m thrilled by that.

My goal here is to provide realistic, accurate expectations to those looking for a community manager, to better understand what the role was created for and what it is best suited to.

I would tend to think this sort of confusion will occur with any hot profession and that, eventually, it will sort itself out and become more defined and then it will happen to the next hot profession.

I’ve come to define community, as it applies to a company, in two ways:

  1. A specific, structured community that you host and are responsible for, such as a forum or social site of some kind.
  2. The group of people and organizations who appreciate, subscribe, purchase or otherwise support what you do.

When I write or speak about online community, I am usually aiming at one of these two definitions, if not both. To that end, I believe a community manager is, in some way, managing and engaging with these two definitions of community – or both of them.