The Evolution of Community Management

The first in a series on the history and evolution of community management

The first of our reports on the history and evolution of this growing field

Five years ago there were almost no community managers. Today you can’t toss a smartphone into the audience at a marketing conference without hitting one or two of them. The position is a must-have for every brand in social, but it’s also one of the most difficult to define. Depending on the company, a community manager can be an intern or an executive.

Perhaps no other role in the ad industry has so diverse a range of responsibilities, with its practitioners setting editorial calendars, reporting analytics, creating content, responding directly to consumers, handling crisis management, liaising with clients and providing insights to creative and strategy.

Every business has its own definition of the job, and as a result community managers across the industry have wildly ranging responsibilities and a disparate amount of power.

Over the course of six months, Marketing met with community managers and social executives to ask them about the importance of the position, its place within the marketing hierarchy and how marketers can empower the community managers they work with to generate the biggest benefits from social media.

From pay to the community manager’s seat at the strategy table and the 24-hour nature of the position, the following is a survey of learnings on the growing field, showing most of all that there’s a disconnect between the community manager’s influence over consumers and their power in the ad business.

The origin story

How “community manager” became a junior position
The discipline of community management was born in something of an ad land ghetto. When networks like Facebook and Twitter first broke into mainstream culture back in 2007 and 2008, brands quickly signed up for accounts at the advice of their marketing teams and ad agencies, but seldom discussed who would do daily maintenance.

Because social budgets were still relatively small, it was out of the question for senior team members to handle community management. Instead, marketers looked for junior staffers who could run the pages off the side of their desk. More often than not, they chose “the youngest niece or nephew” of someone in the office, says Alex Paquin, a strategic planning director at Publicis who has run social accounts for big brands like Molson Canadian, A&W and Rogers.

The field has gone through a boom since then. Almost every major ad campaign has a social component overseen by a community manager, but the origin of the job as a junior discipline has had an echo effect, both in terms of the power community managers have to set the strategic vision for the accounts they run and the salaries they receive.

Today smart, forward-leaning brands have brought on qualified community managers with backgrounds in digital marketing, public relations and communications. At some agencies, like DDB, experienced community managers are brought into strategy meetings and help plan campaigns, advising clients on how creative might be developed based on the data and learnings gleaned from monitoring the brand’s fans on social media.

Ed Lee, senior director of social media at DDB, has tried to replicate the seniority structure of the agency’s traditional account teams within his social team, assigning community managers coordinator, manager and director titles.

For example, Laura Muirhead, who manages the social presences for McDonald’s Canada and Manulife, has a “manager” title and is asked on a daily basis by clients for her insights into their customer base.

“As you go up, you get more autonomy, more client face time, and earn your seat at the table from a strategic and creative standpoint,” Lee says.

Career Boosters: What is a community manager?

The power struggle

Community managers fight for a seat at the strategy table
Until the explosion of social media, the keys to brand strategy lived in top floor boardrooms. Today those long, pricy talks still happen, but they run concurrently with a second conversation on social media in which each comment is a tick up or down in likability.

And that conversation isn’t controlled by a CMO or an executive committee in a boardroom. It’s run by a community manager.

For all the potential power community managers could have over brand perception, though, they’re rarely empowered to wield that influence. “The unfortunate thing is a lot of people see it as a junior role and see a community manager as someone to be told what to do versus someone who is providing the type of insights that can be gathered from a community,” says David Jones, vice-president of social at Critical Mass.

Community managers are often barred from making anything but pre-approved responses and the style and tone of tweets and posts are often dictated from above, says Jones.

Shannon Hunter, who has worked as a community manager for four years at Saatchi & Saatchi, Capital C and now Dare, where she is a strategist and community manager for Dentyne Ice, says the power of a community manager depends on the culture of the agency or brand they work for.

“Some people see you as a creative and some people see you as a strategist. But some people just see you as a copy monkey,” she says. “There’s some agencies I’ve stayed away from because I know working there would mean someone else hands me the copy, I type it out, end of story. That’s my job.”

Instead, says Hunter, marketers need to fill more community manager jobs with strategists with the clout to make strategic decisions. To keep up with the real-time pace of the social web – and to do any type of real-time marketing – community managers have to be empowered to respond to consumers as they see fit in real-time, or at least have a direct line to someone who can quickly approve posts.

Now available:
Part 2Transparency Required and Reaching Across the Company
Part 3The CM Glass Ceiling and 24-Hour Community Managers

This story originally appeared as “Community Management Fun & Games” in the Oct. 21 issue of Marketing. Subscribe today, and don’t forget to check us out on your iPad.

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