Community management lessons to help you accelerate your career (part 1)

Building community is an insanely powerful tool in the right settings and for the right reasons. It is an awesome way to spend your time and have a high growth career.

In a little over one month at Khan Academy I set up a way for volunteers to help users with the issues they were having while learning or using Khan Academy. We went from having less than 1% of our incoming help requests get any response to over 60–80% of them getting responses just through a small set of volunteers. The project took very little time to set up (a month to get going), less than 2 hours a week to manage (although it could’ve used more time I couldn’t prioritize it then) and a small budget. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a magnificent improvement from what existed before and helped us focus more on our learners’ needs.

Most organizations aren’t even aware of all of these types of opportunities that exist. We community builders know the power of connecting people together and getting out of the way. We want to help people and connect with users.

This series is for all of you out there working in community who are brand new or have just a few years of experience. Over several posts I’d like to share with you a few lessons I’ve learned along the way. Today the focus will be on getting the right job.

Part 1: Getting the right job

Ask 10 people what a community is and you’ll get 20 answers. Is it part of marketing? Support? Product? Design? The answer could be any of these things to your new boss who probably hasn’t ever worked in community before. Half of success in your role is getting the right well scoped role. So what do you look for?

Tip 1: What are your goals?

The most important question is what is your motivation to get into the field? Over half of starting community managers slip into the role because they’re interested in the product/brand/mission, not necessarily building communities. I first became a community organizer because I adored the mission of the founder. Similarly I started in online community management as a way to connect with a powerful figure in a field I wanted to work in. If you are there for the company, ask yourself if they’re ok with that? Be upfront with yourself and them and find a way to use it to get where you’re going. Develop a timeline and process so you can find another role you want quickly. If they hesitate when you ask them about that then don’t take the role.

Let’s say you do know you want to get into community management. Perhaps you’re a people person, a good listener, empathetic or want to help people connect together to improve their lives and your organization. Those are all great reasons to believe you can be wildly successful. I’d then recommend you look for the scope of the role, the resources/prioritization of the team you’re on and the tools you’ll use.

Tip 2: What’s the role scope?

Community is often a catchall, especially when you’re the only one doing it. Many of us with experience know what its like to be the one person focused on it in the organization. Its lonely and often an ineffective use of your talent. If they want you doing two disparate jobs that are two departments in larger organizations, watch out. Most small organizations looking for a community person want a generalist. That can work for you as you probably like to be a hero but it will burn you out and it won’t teach you how to build a scalable community over time. Ask them how they’ll measure the value of your work and don’t settle for squishy approaches in these small organizations or else you’ll just be the do-everything person.

The other thing I always ask is for them to map out how community plays into larger goals. If they start listing too many things and you’re the only person, that’s another red flag. You won’t be able to help the product innovate, run scaled support and grow the customer base by yourself.

Tip 3: Ask about resources

Businesses and organizations are a finite set of resources trying to achieve a finite set of objectives. Along the way the leaders get fancy ideas, some good and some bad. They generally only resource the good ones. If your team isn’t connected to one of the top 3 priorities of the organization this could be a bad role where you’ll be asked to do everything with nothing. Ask yourself these questions and if none of them are a yes think carefully before staying or starting a role:

  1. Are people connecting together central to this business/organization? (Example: Wikipedia couldn’t exist without users editing articles)
  2. Is customer support a new and well resourced key focus? (Example: Zappos loves customer support and heavily invests in it as a company)
  3. Will they dedicate at significant budget (e.g. six figures or more) to grow what you’re working on?

At one company I worked for they all knew the value of a community and wanted it, but it was always priority #5–10. That just means you’ve landed somewhere that is struggling to prioritize effectively, no one need a community manager unless it is a key priority for them or they’re spending millions on something the community could do. I’ve learned that lesson the hard way.

Tip 4: Tools will make or break a community

Technology isn’t the center of community building, but without it you’re going to be the center which will get painful if it grows too much or too fast. What CRM do they use to manage their community? How good is it at automating work? What kind of support will you get in building improvements to the tools? How much do your power users like the tools they’ve got? These are more key questions to getting the right role.

As communities scale the things you did first need to be done either by the community itself or by the technology and often times both. Good on boarding flows and automated communication systems are key otherwise your success will become a chaotic mess you can’t manage.


Those are some of the secrets I learned the hard way to find a good job in the nebulous field of community. Happy new year and I look forward to sharing more lessons in future posts.

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