There are a lot of community management professionals out there.

There are people with 10 plus years of experience in that space, at varying levels. People like Rebecca Newton, Jake McKee, Sue John and (cough, I’m not that old, cough) me. Then there are many people with 5-10 years of experience. I would put the majority of community managers in the neighborhood of 0-3 years of experience.

Many companies are hiring community managers and there are many people who want to be a community manager or want to switch companies. There are plenty of considerations to make when choosing the right person. But, in order to quantify their experience, I believe that the most important question is this one:

What communities have you managed?

This question spawns a series of meaningful follow up questions, such as:

  • What were your responsibilities?
  • What was the size of the community when you started? And when you left?
  • How involved were you in moderation and policy setting?
  • How many volunteers did you manage? How many paid staff members?
  • What community accomplishments are you most proud of?

It isn’t that there is a right or wrong answer, necessarily, as much as this is how you can get a good sense of what they have done. And if you don’t know what the answers mean, seek the advice of someone who does.

If they say they haven’t managed a community before, that’s not to say they can’t do a good job for you, if they have the right skill set, attitude and desire to work hard. But, you just have to adjust your expectations and pay scale. You can’t expect someone who is brand new at the profession to perform at the level of a veteran. You generally shouldn’t be paying top of the profession money (which can extend into six figures) for someone who has never managed a community before. It doesn’t matter how many years they have spent as a marketer, a writer, a PR representative, etc. It is a different ball game.

No matter the answer, the question helps you to understand the level of experience that the candidate has. It sets the tone for the rest of the conversation. If they don’t have much experience, why do they think the role is for them? If they have a lot of experience, then you can verify what they tell you and proceed with the knowledge that you are interviewing someone who has a certain understanding of the profession.

This is how I qualify my own expertise. You shouldn’t listen to me because I wrote a book. You shouldn’t listen to me because I’ve done some public speaking. You shouldn’t listen to me because I author a blog about managing online communities. When you decide whether or not I have any idea what I am talking about (and opinions vary, I’m sure, heh), you should do that based on my experience and what I’ve done. Turnabout is fair play. Here is how I might answer the questions above:

I started more than 11 years ago, taking it from 0 to over 475,000 posts, 40,000 topics and 12,500 registered members. I managed for more than 11 years, starting from nothing and concluding with over 4,400 phpBB related resources from around 1,500 authors that were downloaded over 13 million times, to go with a support community that hit over 300,000 posts and 73,000 threads that were viewed over 33 million times, in addition to having over 30,000 members. In all, I have been managing online communities for 12 years and have managed several different ones.

I am or was responsible for the entire operation, including but not limited to interacting with members, answering all questions from members and dealing with any complaints, identifying trouble areas in the community and addressing them, developing community programs to honor and add value for members, software installation and customization, staff selection and management, monetization, marketing and promotional efforts, ensuring a consistent vision for the community in all decisions and a direct responsibility for moderation, creating and managing both policies and overseeing all moderation action through our internal system of documentation. I have never managed a paid staff, but have probably managed over 100 volunteers over the years, including 20 or so at one time.

What am I most proud of? There are a lot of things and the numbers above are fun, but the biggest one is simply the quality of the discourse on my communities. The way that people treat one another – their tone, their desire to help. Even in disagreement, respectful conversation can be had. It takes a lot of work to create that sort of environment, but when it comes together, it is a beautiful thing.

That is how I might answer it. But, I’m careful in that. I don’t give an opinion of myself (my grandfather used to have a saying – “self praise stinks”). I simply offer up facts. I did A, B and C. Some people might get intimidated by it or think I am bragging or something. But, my goal is to simply state facts and allow you make up your mind about me. Any legitimate community management veteran will be able to confidently and honestly answer those questions with facts.

If you ask Rebecca, she’ll probably talk about her management of AOL’s forums and community leader program in the 1990s and her work as the head of community at Sulake (known for the Habbo virtual community) and Mind Candy (responsible for Moshi Monsters, the popular online world for kids). If you ask Jake, I expect he’ll share his time at LEGO (that led to a Wired magazine cover) and work with clients through Ant’s Eye View. And if you ask Sue, she will probably draw on her 12 plus years of managing the massive, which is closing in on 10 million posts. They all have demonstrable, extensively deep experience.

This isn’t to hold people to that standard of experience. Certainly, when you have that level of experience, you have progressed past the standard community manager role. You should be moving up the chain, whether it be Head of Community, Director of Social Media or some equivalent, perhaps even moving into the executive ranks. Unless you are managing and owning your own thing. The point I am trying to make here is that people who have experience can and will be able to tell you what their experience is.

What communities have you managed? If you are hiring a community manager or a community management professional, I encourage you to ask that question.