Keepers of the Fulcrum: Community Management and the Future of Digital Engagement

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I first entered the world of community management in 2007 as an exit strategy from the safe harbor of the nonprofit sector—where I’d taken up a career after the dot com crash. I wanted to bring what I learned back to the for-profit world: the value of philanthropy and companies being engaged in the community around them. Ignorant of the many definitions of the word “community,” I was looking for a “community relations” job. I wanted to help companies with their charitable strategies by assessing how effective non-profits were at meeting their triple bottom line. So when I got the call for a community manager position at Cisco, I was excited.

Many Faces of Community

Today, the word “community” is even more diluted than it was back then. People think social media channels are communities (they are not communities). We live in communities. Community also describes that feeling we get when we have harmonious interactions with people who live around us or interact with us online—perhaps through social media. A community can be a tribe or gathering of fans or supporters for an idea, cause, or sports team. “Community” is that nebulous word that even sits in the resume of our nation’s leader. Obama’s roots are in community building.

Obama's Roots are in Community

Photo credit:  US President Barack Obama taking his Oath of Office – 2009Jan20 by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo, U.S. Air Force.

Give them What They Care About

Those first few Cisco years were packed with learning. I drew on my experiences as a marketer, writer and project manager to understand and give the audience something it cared about. Cisco’s community was championed by executives who wanted to give people learning about information technology a place to convene; its agenda was to influence people to get Cisco certified. It began with the right “shoes” of intent. It had a clear “why” behind it. Building a space where customers have a place to share their voices, however, does mean letting go of traditional command and control marketing experiences. It means letting go of owning the message, maybe even taking a different approach to the brand. That’s the challenge every company who launches a community will face. Those were the waters I swam in for close to 5 years.

Observers of Random Digital Acts (and Non-Acts)

Community management is like being the fulcrum between two huge forces:  the company hosting the community and the members who choose to participate in it. Depending on the host company’s objectives, some days community management feels like walking a train track; other days it’s like a tightrope. Community managers who listen for what’s said and done (random acts of digital engagement) and what’s not said and not done are the engagement experts of the the future. Community managers must understand the humanity online all around them. Because ultimately, when people are passionate community contributors, their actions will reveal the clues a community manager needs to keep them happy and returning. That’s why this nascent profession is so exciting and potentially disrupting to many areas of a business:  marketing, support, product development. If there is any job worth watching, it’s community management. Anyone who creates digital experiences has something to gain if they follow along.

Rachel Medanic

Rachel Medanic is a consultant who works with companies in the areas of online community and content strategy, social media and engagement programs.
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