As the community manager role has become a popular one, we’re seeing more and more companies and individuals try to generalize it.

On the individual side, you have a lot of people who have spent time working in a specific profession, who are wanting to become community managers, which is great.

But, it becomes challenging when they treat community management as the same thing they’ve been doing for years, when in reality they have had a completely different job function. They may have had to utilize some complementary skills, but complementary skills don’t necessarily translate to experience.

On the company side, you have some organizations who are trying to capitalize on the “coolness” of having a community manager by giving a person that title, but throwing responsibilities on the job description that are generally outside of community management. They are treating it like some sort of catch-all role, as if magically one person can do the same job of three people they used to have on payroll – not even including the role of actual community manager.

The role of a community manager is right there in the title. This is someone who manages a community of people who are engaging around a shared interest. It could be a hobby, a profession, a company, a location, a desire. But, they are engaging around it in a manner that can be managed.

As such, I wanted to briefly tackle what makes community management different from other types of roles and why they are distinct from one another and, as such, still necessary to some organizations.

What’s the difference between community management and…

… Marketing?

The American Marketing Association defines marketing as “the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.” That’s a nice way of saying that marketing is the act of getting yourself in front of people and attempting to tell them why they should do whatever it is that you want them to do.

Community management can aide marketing as a strong community will help you to understand how they’d like to be marketed to. Community management can work with marketing to accommodate or maximize campaigns that marketing plans to execute.

But, while having a strong community is beneficial to business, community management is not, in and of itself, marketing. Marketing is not the goal of community management. It isn’t about sharing your latest flavor of gum or promoting the next iteration of product. It is about engaging and creating a platform for the people who are interested in what you do, at varying levels of experience, that may or may not match with what you are trying to market at this very moment. And from there, it is managing that community, long beyond the current marketing cycle or product lifespan.

… Public Relations?

According to Wikipedia, this is “the practice of managing the flow of information between an individual or an organization and the public.” Public relations professionals attempt to disseminate information in a manner that benefits the organization they work for or, in bad times, minimizes the damage to said organization. Their efforts are often severely prioritized by the perceived importance of the party they are communicating with. For example, if someone with a million followers on Twitter complains about your product, it might be a PR crisis. If someone with 10 followers does it, PR probably doesn’t care.

Community building isn’t about influencers. Community building and management is about engaging with everyone who attempts to engage in good faith. It’s not about only paying attention to the most popular 1%. It’s about understanding that the power of the community is much greater than the power of one powerful person ever can be. While good communication skills are a must for a community manager, there is so much more to the role, strategically.

… Communications?

Traditionally, a Director of Communications will oversee public relations and manage how an organization communicates internally and externally. For this reason, what I said above regarding public relations and marketing applies here. Just because you are a great communicator doesn’t mean that you’ll be a great community manager. While the community manager role may be seen as the public face of the organization for some, the responsibilities of an actual community manager will go a lot deeper than simply communicating with the public.

… Customer Service?

Customer service is about supporting your customers and doing whatever you can to ensure their satisfaction with your company. The most skilled customer service representatives are excellent communicators, who listen and know how to deescalate. They are empowered by the company to make things right for the customer, to a reasonable extent. Good customer service representatives are commonly seen as the good guy by customers. Even when they can’t satisfy what the customer wants, they may be referred to as “just doing their job.”

Someone with a customer service background has a pretty good mindset for the community manager role. But, there are some major differences. With an online community, you have a shared space where many people want to play and feel comfortable. It isn’t normally a one on one conversation. For this reason, people cannot do and say whatever they want. Your community platform will have guidelines and policies that help to ensure that comfort and to ensure that you stay on track. Not everyone will like that. You may or may not believe that the customer is always right, but regardless, the community member is absolutely not always right. A community manager must be fair, but firm and comfortable with being seen as the bad guy by some members.

… Social Media Marketing?

See above, regarding marketing. Now, apply that exclusively to social media. Marketers have different goals than community managers and much different responsibilities.

… Social Media Management?

This is a tricky one because I believe that some people who work, at least to some extent, in community management do have the title Social Media Manager. Generally speaking, though, I see this as tools vs. people. A Social Media Manager focuses more on tools and, perhaps, more on third party tools and platforms that the company or organization doesn’t really control, like Twitter. They work more with those accounts on other channels, responding to people and accomplishing organizational objectives.

Whereas, a community manager may be more focused on the organizationally hosted spaces, that require moderation and more hands on management. They may also engage on those third party platforms like Twitter, but as part of a larger community strategy that encompasses various spaces where the company engages and facilitates member to member engagement that does not have to include the organization in the conversation at all.

… Writing?

Finally, I wanted to mention writing because I have seen people basically say “I’m a great writer, so I think I could be a great community manager!” Whether it be copywriting, journalism, blogging or some mix thereof. Now, I’m not saying that you can’t be a great community manager – I just wanted to reaffirm that good written communication skills are but one piece of a very large pie. They are essential, but then again – good written communication skills are an important skill for many, many jobs.

All of These Roles Are Real

The simple fact is that a community manager is tasked with a series of responsibilities, some of which that are very unique to it. Some that are not. This is what makes the roles unique and independent of one another.

There are many common traits that will serve any number of professionals well, such as strong written communication skills, organization skills and attention to detail. But, a role is more than the traits required. A role is the responsibilities and your experience with them. You may be a great writer, but how much do you know about moderating content? How much do you know about managing a team of people tasked with that? How about being accessible to the public, and not just to influencers? What do you know about encouraging others to contribute to a shared space? Have you started and/or managed a successful community for an extended period of time?

To say that these roles are the same and that people are interchangeable is to greatly underestimate the skills it takes to do each of these things well and to show a lack of respect for the people who do.

I’ve been managing online communities for 12 years. I’m not qualified to be your Director of Marketing. I’m just not. The qualified person has the knowledge and skills that I do not have. The same is true for a PR firm or a Director of Communications. On the other side of the coin, your Director of Marketing likely isn’t qualified to fill my shoes. These are both real roles.

Community Manager is a real role.