A journalist, an analyst and a customer services operative walk into a bar. They order one drink and sit on one chair. How is this possible? Simple. They are the same person: a community manager.
Indeed, the role of community manager is not easy to pigeonhole anymore. Once mostly customer service-based, it is now far more complex, with multiple responsibilities, each one as equally important as the last.
‘It’s not just about publishing content, monitoring conversations and responding,’ explains Jasmine Lyons, head of digital at Ketchum. ‘The role is part content-creator, part-journalist – they need to understand the news cycle around companies and audiences, part-customer service and also brand advocate.’
The role ‘means all things to all people’, according to Mumsnet.com, the UK’s most popular parenting network.
‘A lot depends your purpose as a site,’ says Rebecca Mears, head of community at Mumsnet. ‘Mumsnet’s aim is to make parents’ lives easier by providing a platform for them to offer advice, support and entertainment, 24/7. So for us, community management is all about keeping a constructive conversation flowing.
‘When you break it down, that involves a few strands: intervention only when required, judging each situation on its own merits (rather than being hidebound by endless inflexible rules), minimising disruption (in the form of spam and the occasional law-breaking or abusive poster) and generally being on the side of our users as much as possible. Good moderation requires emotional intelligence, nuance, persistence, empathy, a thick skin and a real talent for communication.’
If those attributes weren’t enough, community managers also have to be part-analyst, says Lyons, looking at what content works on what platforms and at what times. ‘You don’t want to use Facebook for real-time updates; that suits Twitter better,’ she says. ‘You want to look at your community. You want content to be thoughtful. It’s quality not quantity.’
One brand that uses such scientific methods in its approach to community management is car manufacturer Toyota. ‘We have a dedicated data and insight team so we have the insight and knowledge to change how we work, such as how many times we post, what times we post, how many words work on which platforms,’ explains Matt Searle, community manager at Toyota GB. ‘For Facebook, it’s fewer than ten.’
He adds that this can be hard and that community managers need to be creative if they want their posts to have an impact.
Simon Rutherford, managing director of agency Cubaka, agrees. ‘Community management has gone from a peripheral thing to become a skill,’ he says. ‘It’s gone from moderation to having a real impact on how things are perceived.
There are levels to community management that there didn’t used to be. ‘Moderation, that’s the bottom rung. Then there’s creative writing and grammar, which depends on brands (grammar doesn’t have to perfect for some brands). The third rung is social creative, so leading creative thinking. ‘Community managers are so used to working with 140 characters and platforms, that they are often really creative. I expect in the future there will be proper grown up creative teams in ad agencies, made up of people who cut their teeth on community management.’
Of course, producing clever content depends on the wider strategy of a business, but ultimately it must communicate brand values. ‘It’s not just about content, it’s also about supporting campaigns and this can be leveraged from a community management perspective,’ says Lyons.
‘We can’t take on an account without first getting our community management straight. It has to be entwined with all the other things,’ adds Rutherford.
Knowing when to jump in is a key component of community management in general. Managers should know which conversations they are a part of and in which ones they are not welcome to participate. ‘There should be a balance between planned content and agile content,’ advises Lyons. ‘Brands like Oreo are really good at agile content, real-time responses to news stories, when it is relevant to them. It’s not about forcing yourselves into conversations, when you don’t have a place, that’s dangerous.’
Having an approval process does not necessarily help community managers decide when to engage. ‘An approval process is down to a brand’s attitude to risk,’ says Rutherford. ‘That informs how we manage them socially. Financial services tend to be risk-averse, but betting companies are rather more pro-risk.’
At Lidl, clever community management helped the business grow in confidence to participate in different conversations. When One Direction band member Zayn Malik announced his resignation from the boy band, Lidl tweeted a photo of its One Direction Easter egg, pronouncing 20 per cent off the price. It was retweeted in excess of 25,000 times.
‘Community management builds confidence in brands publishing, managing and working with concepts’, says Rutherford, whose agency looked after Lidl’s account. ‘Lidl made in-roads in its confidence as a brand. Community management to some extent led that because it became famous for its Twitter feed and content they were putting out there. Confidence in community management led them to produce work that in itself became famous.
‘It’s the same with exchanges between brands – to do that with confidence needs a smart, well-organised team. It takes confidence to joke with a brand.’
‘What conversations do you own and which ones do you play in?’ asks Lyons. ‘Some brands play in the lifestyle and food space, entertainment – these are the categories that define your mix of content. It’s not just about selling a product. It’s tapping into what happens culturally, that’s going to interest audiences.’
‘Our forums are absolutely the heart of our site. Our users generate much of our content, and their conversations are at the core of everything we do,’ says Mumsnet’s Mears. ‘They also drive our campaigns on things like better care for women having miscarriages, embedding flexible working in business culture and dispelling rape myths.’
‘I work a lot with food and drink brands so there is always interest online in nutrition,’ says Daniele Frederico, social media manager at Emoderation. ‘It is important to understand what people are saying about what they are eating, whether they overly concerned about a particular ingredient in products or if there is a new diet craze that everyone is trying.’
‘You always need to be relevant,’ says Dan Slee, director of shared communications learning space Comms2point0 and a member of the Local Government Digital Group. ‘It’s okay to be specific, you shouldn’t have to worry about that. People prefer reading stuff and around themselves. It has relevance.’
This relevance, in turn, encourages people to post and interact. Even those who are more critical of Toyota, such as those displeased with new designs, are engaged with. The brand’s community managers thank them for their input, but remind them that such views are subjective.
‘People often challenge us on a current product range but we try to challenge perceptions,’ says Searle. ‘Use your gut instinct of when it’s appropriate to engage with detractors,’ says Lyons. ‘Sometimes that’s an opportunity to communicate your brand values.’
She notes, however, that anger does not always necessitate a response. ‘Often with anger, there is no open end. The person isn’t waiting for a response. Leave the comment, monitor and listen, but there is not always the need for engagement.’ Listening is the operative word.
‘Community management is as much about producing and posting content as it is listening to the community,’ says Frederico.
‘Listen to your users!’ advises Mears. ‘You’ve got a free focus group ready and willing to tell you what they would find useful, or how they want you to approach things. You don’t have to agree with them 100 per cent of the time, but it’s worth remembering that without users – for most of us at least – you wouldn’t have a business at all.’
Toyota continually engages with its audiences, embarking on a range of activities from attending owners’ club meetings with heritage cars from its own fleet to arranging a special trip to Europe for brand ambassadors to see the potential of its alternative fuel cars.
‘We designed a journey for people into alternative fuels,’ says Searle. ‘We flew people out to Brussels and gave them a hydrogen-powered car to make their way to the Frankfurt motor show. They weren’t even bloggers, just fans of Toyota.’
One such fan was Chris Pickup, who is interested in Toyota’s Hydrogen-powered cars. Whilst content from the journey was shared on Toyota’s blog and across its social media platforms, Pickup himself now has a vlog channel of his own where he talks about alternative fuels. Toyota helped by providing him with basic video-editing tuition.
‘Everything we do has to be for the customer,’ says Searle. This even extends to the brand’s tone of voice. ‘We’ve developed a tone of voice that we’re proud of. We take the time to look at people’s profiles, to understand their interests and tailor the way we speak to them.’
‘As a community manager it is crucial to get to know the brand and its story,’ says Frederico. ‘A community is passionate about the conversations it is having about a brand, so you have to be able to bring out the brand’s personality.’
‘As the company voice on digital channels you have to follow the guidelines set by the brand in order to ensure the voice is consistent across all channels and that you are presenting the brand in the way it wants to be seen.’
Searle agrees and notes that, although he actually works in community management for Cubaka, he considers himself an employee of Toyota, which helps him understand the brand well enough to communicate on its behalf.
‘We are employed via Cubaka but we’re embedded in the business,’ he explains. ‘We feel like Toyota. We get in-depth, hands-on product training which gives us an understanding of the brand and is a huge part of the knowledge we have. Full familiarity with the business allows us to provide the service we do.’
Community management is not just something that happens in the social media department. ‘Awareness of the Mumsnet community runs throughout the organisation. Our chief executive spent much of her first few years after founding Mumsnet moderating the site, and still gets involved when needed,’ says Mears. ‘Everyone in the company is aware of how important our users are as stakeholders and we wouldn’t make any major decisions without consulting them first.’
Searle likewise notes that Toyota’s senior leadership understand the importance of managing a community. ‘Otherwise we wouldn’t be here,’ he says. ‘Our managing director Paul van der Burgh is very interested in our work, he came down to spend some time with us, he was very impressed with the lengths we go to.’
Searle adds that the community management team, which sits in the press relations team as opposed to marketing, adds a social insight report to the weekly press cuttings document sent around the business, demonstrating the work of the social media team.
Similarly, Searle has been invited to speak at an event during Toyota’s annual Quality Month, which focuses on the brand’s commitment to ensuring that customers and quality service are always at the heart of its work. Searle has decided to speak about his team’s response times: 70 per cent are under ten minutes. ‘We’re promoting ourselves throughout the rest of the business,’ he says.
However, Rutherford notes that community management doesn’t necessarily have to be a priority for chief executives. ‘If [community management] backfires, [the chief executive] would know about it pretty quickly. A brand needs to have proper checks and balances in place, but it’s not something the CEO needs to know above all else. If you want to normalise it, the CEO doesn’t need to know.
‘Marketing directors, on the other hand, and heads of communications need to know about it to understand it, and customer services too. All three departments need to get together to see how they’re running it. If customer services are good, but they’re not being creative enough, marketing can help. Similarly, a PR focus can come in handy.’
Community management, then, like all communications, is about protecting a brand’s reputation. Again, like all communications, how it does so continues to change. ‘Community management is almost as old as the Internet,’ says Rutherford. ‘The earliest forums had simple moderation. Now community management is a professional career.’
‘It is always changing,’ says Frederico. ‘Before I secured my first community manager role I was a heavy user of online forums and could see the potential for brands. Around 2008, brands started to the potential and began to dip their toes in using forums to share their news. Facebook then became a game changer. At first with its company pages, that were a second website for brands, and now with a complex, always evolving community and ad platform.’
‘The channels that people use is always changing and brands need to adapt to that. Millennials especially want to use chat platforms and visual-based apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp, WeChat and Telegram. Today a brand can’t solely focus on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, it needs to be where its community is.’