Getting back from the New Pamphleteers conference, I considered how many news organizations sites that, one way or another, are doing some sort of community building. This can mean anything from using Topix Forums to implementing a custom-built community tool (with the hopes of repeating the success of Bluffton Today.
More often than not, most of the attention and money for community sites gets spent on a tool — specifically, the community-building content management system (CMS). It’s as if the person who will actually develop and manage the community is an afterthought. I recommend flipping this around: make your top priority choosing the right person for this new job.
A lot will be riding on this person — more so than which tools are used. Your community manager should understand people well and be good at creating and maintaining relationships and ability to create relationships, regardless of which tools are available.
Here are seven things to look for in a community manager:
1. Commitment to “the cause.” A community manager should be personally committed to the site’s mission or reason for being. This commitment makes it possible to authentically evangelize the community members. Your community manager must spot and engage community members who will feel comfortable participating on the site. Consequently, if your site’s mission is primarily to drive traffic to your site, you should rethink creating your online community in the first place. Site traffic tends to be driven more by better site design and search engine optimization than by getting all interactive on the citizenry. A community manager cannot fix your news org’s bad site design or help staff write-keyword rich headlines.
2. Love people. Good community managers have an innate ability to interact with all kinds of people, both face to face and online. A good candidate might be someone in your newsroom is great at cultivating contacts and knows many people know well, then they are a potential community manager. But be sure to consider whether this person is good at developing contacts for her or his own purposes, or more generally good at cultivating a variety of contacts across a wide spectrum of individuals and personalities. (For this reason, and others, be sure you broaden your search beyond current newsroom staff.) Also, your potential community manager should be open, congenial, and can handle difficult situations with tact and diplomacy (not like a cop or Marine sergeant).
3. Must enjoy technology. These days, the tools of digital media are (or should be) easy to learn. Your community manager will understand — and be able to adapt quickly to — upgrades in tools. She or he also might suggest new tools, and will learn new tools pretty quickly. However, don’t confuse liking technology with loving it beyond everything else. A community manager’s first love must be people — because sometimes their job might be to help those pesky, complaining, people learn to use these tools effectively.
4. Must understand online culture. Internet communication is very different from face-to-face interaction. It can even be compared to moving to a new culture where you often lack vital interpretive clues like body language and vocal intonation. Someone with ample experience participating in a variety of on communities (not just Facebook and MySpace will understand the nuances of online communication and thus can distinguish between trolls, disruptors, and people who may just be having trouble expressing their point of view. A strong knowledge of emoticons is required.
5. Powers of observation. Good community managers are astute observers of community interaction and interpersonal relationship dynamics. Don’t be surprised if your community manager knows exactly what a prompted a seemingly mysterious traffic boost or decline. Over time, your community manager will know what works for your particular community. Listen carefully.
6. Flexibility. Your community manager might also be your community news editor, or your blog editor, or some other kind of editor. If a special community feature has been designed for a big report or investigative story, your community manger might be able to help your reporters talk to the community — especially walking reporters through this experience for the first time. However, any editorial work or reporting should be secondary to the community, because community work can be very demanding.
7. Life experience trumps youthful enthusiasm. Do not dump community management on your interns because they work cheap, know Facebook, and the rest of your staff is overworked and stressed. Enthusiasm is great, but it cannot replace knowing the local community, a variety of tools and trends, and human nature. Communities can be quirky and change quickly, so community management requires commitment and dedication — not just for a summer or semester, but over the long haul.