Unpacking the Role of a “Community Manager”

Or: Baffle Any CM Using This One Weird Trick!

(Reminder: anything I say here is my opinion and mine alone.)

As a somewhat public-facing employee of Blizzard Entertainment, and World of Warcraft in particular, I often find myself in situations in which a player has some topic or another that they wish to… shall we say, “express concern” about, and have decided that I am the correct target for their frustrations. Sometimes it’s on Twitter, sometimes it’s on the forums, and every so often it comes across in one of those glorious beacons of civility and politesse we know as ‘YouTube Comments’ or ‘Twitch Chat’.

Wherever it occurs, if it prompts a discussion, someone else will almost certainly utter the phrase, “Lore’s not a dev, he’s a Community Manager.” Which I can appreciate — regardless of what inconceivable ill has befallen the World of Warcraft community, the person speaking this sentence would like others to recognize that I am not the source of that ill, and probably didn’t have anything to do with it in the first place.

The snag comes when someone takes this as an opportunity to break out one particular hard-hitting question. A real gut-puncher. The sort of query that every Community Manager is aware and fearful of, but is not, and never will be, completely prepared to give a truthful and honest answer for. It’s a question that chills us to the bone, and in all honesty, I’d probably have an easier time answering “when will Demonology Warlocks unlock flying on vanilla servers?” than this.

The question, dear friends, is: “What does a Community Manager do, anyway?”

At face value, it sounds simple enough to answer. You just list off what your day-to-day responsibilities are, right? Often, the answer players will offer each other is, “They post on the forums.” And hey, for some Community Managers, that might be mostly accurate. Throw in a smattering of social media and maybe a bit of developer feedback and call it a day. That’s usually what I do when I’m trying to answer the question without getting into a long, philosophical discussion about it.

So here: have a long, philosophical discussion.

The truth is that Community Managers often have a hard time defining exactly what it is we do. And the reason for that is that the entire Community Management industry isn’t entirely sure what it is. Hell, it’s not even sure it’s an industry. No two companies can really agree on how to define it.

I think a big part of why that happens is that Community Managers tend to kind of almost sort of but not really fill similar roles to several other well-established roles. We’re here to help people, but we’re not Customer Service. We’re here to promote our product, but we’re not Marketing. We tend to be involved in Social Media, but that’s become an entirely separate industry with its own, similar woes (just what the hell is a ‘Social Media Professional’ anyway?). And we tend to spend a lot of time working with people or organizations that have a lot of reach and want to talk about our product (often referred to as ‘influencers’ — another undefinable title), but we’re not Public Relations. Not really. But kind of. But not.

Many companies (if they have a Community Manager) will just pick one of the above departments and shove their CM in there. If they do have a Community Management department, they often give them very little in the way of real goals or directives. Community Managers in those situations often find themselves spouting obnoxious phrases like, “Well, you can’t really put a value on Community.” (Side note: yes, you can, you most likely either don’t know how or don’t have the ability to track it. But we can talk about that some other time.)

Because we’re often either defined as something we’re not — or worse, not defined as anything at all — we can pretty easily lose our ability to self-identify what role we fill. And since we kind of almost but not really fill many different roles (which vary from company to company, and even between different Community Managers at one company), we probably don’t have any one, or two, or even five things we can point at and say, “This is what I do.”

Using myself as an example, I could probably categorize most of what I personally do as the following:

  • Tutorial Videos and live broadcasts
  • Player feedback and developer communications (which BTW, although you don’t usually see my name when a post or tweet is made these days, I was almost certainly involved in some capacity. That’ll be a fun topic to explore someday.)
  • Event planning and execution
  • Influencer coordination
  • Internal coordination with other teams (e.g. Marketing, PR, Consumer Products, etc.)
  • Esports
  • Preemptive or cautionary feedback (essentially, “This is how people will respond to this thing you’re thinking of doing”)

Thing is, most of that is stuff that other departments do as well. Only possible exception is player feedback/dev communications, but Customer Service often plays a key role there. Also, note that none of those bullets are ‘manage a community’.

And here’s the kicker: that’s just me. There are a lot of people on my team. Some of what I do is similar to some of what some of them do, and some of what they do is similar to what some others do, but there’s never a complete overlap between any two team members. We all have very different roles and very different responsibilities.

This is why, when someone asks me, “What does a Community Manager do?” my go-to response is this:

I’m also just really proud of this GIF, tbh

But that’s a crappy (if not entertaining) answer. And I think I can do better.

I think trying to define Community Management by what a Community Manager does is putting the volatile, insult-laden cart before the masochistic, alcoholic horse. I don’t think the precise actions a Community Manager does are of any real consequence to their overall role in a company’s market strategy. The better metric to focus on, in my mind, is why they’re taking those actions.

You see, at the end of the day, a Community Manager may have done any number of things, but the one common thread is (or at least should be, in my opinion) that they did those things for the benefit of the community. We do what we do because we want our customers to feel happy and welcome and included. And, while I’d love to say it’s purely because we’re wonderful people and the joy is its own reward, it’s also been repeatedly proven that — brace yourself, this is a shocker — people who like things tend to give you money for them.

So there’s my answer. Community Managers do pretty much whatever we can to make you happy and excited about our product, in the hopes that you’ll enjoy it enough to stick around.

Well, sort of. But I’ve rambled enough for now. Let’s pick this up again later, eh? Cool.

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