Catching a sunset with some Couchsurfers on kauai

Caught between a Qualitative and a Quantitative place

The evolution of Community Management as I’ve seen it in recent years.

After being laid off from Couchsurfing this past July, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my career, while I’ve also spent a lot of time interviewing with companies. This is the longest period of time that I’ve ever been looking for a job, which has been a source of both introspection and lead to some observations about the changing landscape of Community Management as a career and occupation. I’ve written this blog post to help describe some of the challenges that I’m currently facing and what I’m seeing with the current crop of Community Manager positions that are open these days.

To reference the title of this blog post, I think I’m caught between the transition from community being largely focused on qualitative data, and now to a place where quantitative data is more and more important. Many employers are looking for data and success metrics that prove an applicant’s success in past roles, which can sometimes be hard to provide. On the flip-side, some companies don’t focus on or ask for these metrics and they are looking for other qualities in an applicant.

Though the growth of the job market has increased opportunities for a community professional, it hasn't brought much clarity or consistency to the role, leading to a number of different challenges to those in the market. More specifically, I've noticed a few different specifications that Community Managers can get into, while the line between community and marketing continues to blur.

Build Relationships with Users

For a long time, much of the focus of community was to build relationships between a brand and its users, as well as connecting users to eachother. It’s often the goal of a community team to build brand advocates, increase positive sentiment, create community connections, and gather and process product feedback from users.

Most of my career has been spent doing exactly this, where I’ve spent countless hours talking to users, running user meetups, getting product feedback, and making sure that development teams are aware of what users want and need in the product. Many small companies focus on this process because they are trying to build a product pre-traction, or they’re trying to figure out how to evolve and grow. You may see big companies have their community manager focus on these tasks too, since they probably have other employees that focus on audience growth and user acquisition.

For the most part, I think community is still largely about building relationships with users, but I’m seeing more and more that companies are putting emphasis on marketing related activities. My most recent example of this split is my time at Couchsurfing, where I was 100% focused on helping support the product development teams and our VIP user programs, while we had someone else that handled all of our Twitter/Facebook/blog stuff. While this was good for me because it allowed me to focus more, I think the break from social media may have caused me some harm in terms of keeping up with the latest social strategies and techniques.

Social Media Specialists

During the same time that Community Management has changed, so too has social media management. Social media is no longer just an aspect of community, it has grown into a fulltime focused position that requires vertical/platform specific strategies and content generation experience. Each platform has its own weird ins and outs, with different communities requiring a different approach and unique platform uses.

It’s no longer good enough to just be on social media, it’s important to make sure you’re creating the right content in the right places. It’s also important to make sure that you’re measuring all of this activity and how it affects outlet growth, as data can indicate what tactics are working and how you need to adjust your strategy. The evolution of social media management is where I’ve seen marketing have the most impact on community.


Other observations:

  1. Writing and content creation is increasingly important for some roles. Creating content rapidly and using it as a means to drive traffic and user acquisition is often rolled into Community Management.
  2. Specialized CM’s for subject matter communities. The need for a community manager to be an expert in, or very familiar with a subject matter has become very important to employers.
  3. Make sure you’re documenting all the success you’ve had in your current role, especially metrics and data. I’ve sometimes made the mistake of not taking notes of various numbers, percentage increases, etc. that were the result of my work.

The need for people-people

Through all of this change, it’s still very important that a community professional is a “people person”. It takes a lot to be able to work with a community of users that just went through a bad product launch, or address a community that has received a buggy marketing promotion. In past jobs I’ve been described internally as the “meat shield”, and I’ve had to join the frontlines of the community to help address a prickly situation. Since the community manager is often the most public touch-point for users, it’s very important that the CM is good with people, especially when the company is in a tough position.

A community manager is someone who has to wear many different hats and work with most departments across an organization. I’ve found that most CM’s enjoy this variety, but I think it has lead the “Community Manager” title to become a catch-all term for anything that doesn’t fit into product or marketing. We’ve also seen the requirements for a successful community manager continue to expand and evolve, which can make it tricky when you’re transitioning between roles.

As I look for a new role, I’m keeping all of the above in mind, in hopes that I can find the right role for me while also making sure that I pick up the skills needed for a more successful future.


What do you think? Let me know on twitter @SamHouston or by leaving a comment. You can find me on Linkedin if you would like to learn more about me — let’s connect!

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