Community Manager musings: How do you define a community manager?

Community manager musings is a series of occasional posts looking at the roles and skills of community managers – usually within science. 

What do you call a professional cat herder? Adapted from original image here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rbowen/1148435913/

I’ve been having a series of conversations recently about how we define community and what different types of communities look like. As people are realising that many of the programs and activities that they coordinate have community at their core, they’ve then begun to ask: am I a community manager? What defines a community manager?

I’ve come up with the following definition:

“A community manager is someone whose role is to create and/or nurture and protect the conditions required for successful interactions in a group setting. The group may consist of an internal team, a collaboration between stakeholders with different affiliations, or interactions between an organisation and its members.

A community manager’s primary function is to broker connections between community members, leading to increased trust. This results in faster, easier, more open communication, the co-creation of a shared vision for the community and, ultimately, to the generation of new knowledge.”

What have I missed? Or have I included something that you don’t think is necessary? Have you seen an alternative definition elsewhere that you think describes the role well?

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5 thoughts on “Community Manager musings: How do you define a community manager?

  1. “A community manager is someone whose role is to create and/or nurture and protect the conditions required for successful interactions in a group setting. The group may consist of an internal team, a collaboration between stakeholders with different affiliations, or interactions between an organisation and its members.

    A community manager’s primary function is to broker connections between community members, leading to increased trust. This results in faster, easier, more open communication, the co-creation of a shared vision for the community and, ultimately, to the generation of new knowledge.”

    I think the first part/paragraph of this definition is spot on. I wonder if it would be worthwhile that these settings include both personal, face-to-face and virtual settings.

    As for the second part, I would agree that that’s one of the primary roles, but certainly not the only role, of a community manager. I think as worded now, this part also fails to acknowledge that community managers are usually hired by the organization, not the community, and that organization has many other goals with respect to its community than the brokering of connections and the catalyzing of productive co-creation activities. Organizations may expect their community managers to deliver any number of other community outcomes, particularly in the case of more hierarchically structured organizations. Things like rapid member activation in response to requests/asks/campaigns, buy-in to new programs or initiatives, new member recruitment, etc. come to mind. Long story short, I feel the second part is an important, but nevertheless very one-sided (albeit, maybe, idealized) view of what a community looks like and what, therefore, a community manager’s role ought to be.

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    • Thanks, Andy! I agree it’s an idealized definition. I also don’t think it’s entirely incompatible with some of the activities you’re describing for community managers hired by organisations.

      Doesn’t mobilisation of community members in response to requests require a shared vision through which the members feel motivated to participate? e.g. if the organisation’s ask is “Please share evidence from your own activities of why increasing funding for XYZ in science is key so that we can present it in ABC forum” then the member might be motivated to respond because they want to advance the goal for better funding and believe that they are working in collaboration with the organisation to achieve this, trusting the organisation to represent their views in their role as participant in the forum that has been convened?

      In terms of the member recruitment example, I’m more likely to join an organisation if friends, family or colleagues recommend it because they can confer some trust in it to me than if I receive a “cold” email from the organisation. Hence community managers may help to scale that trust through ambassador programs.

      I wonder if changing the phrasing of “The generation of new knowledge” might help get around this e.g by changing it to:

      A community manager’s primary function is to broker connections between community members, leading to increased trust. This results in faster, easier, more open communication, the co-creation of a shared vision for the community and, ultimately, to the generation of new knowledge or activities that likely would not occur in the absence of community.”

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      • It is certainly broad enough to cover many of these other activities and roles, I don’t disagree there. I guess maybe that’s my problem: I don’t think it’s incompatible, just not sufficiently explicit.

        Let me come at this from another perspective. When I read this definition, I immediately and intuitively understood what you were talking about (a hallmark of a good definition, so kudos), but I also immediately formed a very specific image of a very specific community in my head: that of a very egalitarian and safe space where much of what happens is member-driven and occurs collaboratively and organically, and the community manager is this benevolent background presence that connects, prompts, encourages, validates, supports, etc. While that sounds like a community I’d like to be a part of, it does leave behind a whole bunch of communities that don’t look (much) like that. Maybe it’s a bottom-up vs. top-down kind of thing, or the presence or absence of a more rigid hierarchy, or elite?

        I would argue that, where some superstructure, or governance apparatus, or hierarchy, exists, community managers also–and maybe predominantly–work in that space that (for better or worse, whether by design or not) exists between the large pool of “regular” community members and that much smaller group of officials, executives, etc. Even in member/volunteer-based organizations, say a professional scientific society, there is at least some of that dynamic, particularly as you scale up (think AGU, AAAS). I guess what I am missing in your definition is an acknowledgment that some communities are much more structured and hierarchical than a statement like “broker connections between community members” would indicate.

        Of course, one can argue that even elites, like the CEO of AAAS, or the President of AGU, are ultimately just another “community member.” But I don’t think that’s a very realistic view, as it does not take into account their outsized influence on the community’s agenda and trajectory. If I were a community manager for a large scientific organization, and much of my work involved “managing up” to the C-suite, I don’t think I would describe that as “brokering connections among community members.”

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  2. I’m very conscious of the sentiment of Andy’s comment:
    “I … immediately formed a very specific image of a very specific community in my head: that of a very egalitarian and safe space where much of what happens is member-driven and occurs collaboratively and organically, and the community manager is this benevolent background presence that connects, prompts, encourages, validates, supports, etc.”
    because from the definition, that’s the kind of idealistic community I pictured and I expected @SocialInSilico’s definition to be pretty objective. Maybe having an idealistic definition is helpful because people doing community management need to be able to see the value in the hidden trust-building work they do and understand that it can be applied to the managing-up work as well.

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