What’s Next for the Community Manager?

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What’s Next for the Community Manager? - Nikki Serapio

A Few Predictions on the Long-Term Evolution of Our Discipline

The official 2014 #CMAD theme is “Evolution of the Community Manager.” Accordingly, I wanted to offer two predictions about the long-term evolution of community management as a practical discipline:

1) We’ll find new ways to be resourceful. And we’ll find balance in our profession. The folks at UserVoice offered this amusing e-card during last year’s Community Manager Appreciation Day:


Odds are you can relate to this no-vacation, gimme-gallons-of-coffee reality. And if you work for an organization with a small community team, you’re definitely not alone in this regard: in a 2013 survey, researchers with The Community Roundtable found that “approximately 40 percent of [its] respondents [including a number of Fortune 500 enterprises] only have one community manager.”

To some extent, we community managers have set our own expectations. Rapid communication, a ubiquitous presence across social media, and an admirable habit of defying normal work schedules on behalf of one’s customers – these are some of the things that define our craft. Because we care about our communities, many of us are always or constantly plugged in.

As a guiding principle, though, I think this susceptibility—this willingness to be on call 24/7/365—must and can give way to an alternative model of balance and resourcefulness. This is where technology has an important role to play: I believe it can help community managers prioritize more effectively (and in doing so, save them time and energy), and also help them better measure what works and what doesn’t in their jobs.

Sometimes, the most foundational questions of community management—who am I really talking to?; how often am I talking to them?; how have I helped them?; what are the upshots from all of the discussions we’ve had?; with whom do I need to reconnect?—are the hardest ones to answer. The problem here is scarcity: there simply isn’t a lot of time for self-assessment and live measurement (much less true introspection) when you’re on the grind every day.

When I look at the community management technology landscape today, I see a lot of reasons for optimism: community managers are building and using tools that solve their own challenges of prioritization and measurement:

  • The aforementioned report by The Community Roundtable makes it clear that CMs are using analytics technologies that allow them to systematically test assumptions about community behaviors – e.g., most survey respondents found that the “90-9-1 rule” (which theorizes that the vast majority of internet users are lurkers) does not accurately describe their communities at all.
  • In March 2013, Tim McDonald, Natalie Rodic Marsan, and Nick Cicero brought together a group of 60 community management professionals at SXSW Interactive to develop a first-of-its-kind Community Manager Manifesto. A number of participants (including C-level executives) highlighted the technology systems they’ve put in place in order to listen to their communities; manage non-stop news cycles; promote community-generated content; and make sense of structured and unstructured social media data.

2) In learning community management, we’ll increasingly rely on a case-method approach instead of “best practices.” In its 2013 Community Manager Report, SocialFresh asked 1,047 people “Which platforms do community managers find the most success on?” In response, 54% identified Facebook (the most popular answer overall) as their best platform, while only 4% singled out email (one of the least popular answers).

Such studies and analyses are easy to find online; we arguably live in a golden age of peer-sourced and industry-specific knowledge. If you’re looking to strengthen your community management chops, there are so many practical guides, infographics, white papers, e-books, data visualizations, etc. that can help. Just a few of my recent favorites:

  • In a blog post accompanying last year’s #CMAD festivities, Jeremiah Owyang presents a great analysis on the required skills for community managers (as stipulated by hiring managers): writing talent and customer relations talent top the chart.
  • A New York Times Magazine feature (“Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?”) seems to provide a blueprint for how to thrive as an altruist in a reciprocity-fueled workplace; at its core, though, the article is really about organizational psychology and the value of creating internal community.
  • Richard Millington explains how to use behavioral models to anticipate and foster community participation. His recommendations are based on the insightful work of Dr. BJ Fogg, founder of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab.
  • The digital agency Critical Mass explores the bottom-line implications of Google+ for brands: their suggestions focus on the social network’s community discussion features, particularly Google+ Hangouts.
  • In the “Grande Guide to Community Management,” my colleagues on the Oracle Eloqua team provide some clear advice on how to convince your boss and executive leadership to invest more in community building.

Here’s the challenge, though: How does one use this veritable cognitive surplus? If anything, I think we should be grateful for yet also skeptical of this fine work: the above research has been a boon to the community management profession, but it should also be taken as a starting point. Most importantly, “best practices” must always be battle-tested. We must test them against our own context and our own messy experiences.

Rather than formalizing a set of universal community management principles, I’m finding that more and more community managers are adopting a different approach entirely (#CMAD is one inspiring case in point): CMs are creating open and welcoming spaces for sharing their specific stories, specific challenges, and specific success metrics with each other.

Think of this as building a giant library of rich case studies. Instead of saying “you must build a custom Facebook application for your community” or “you must respond to your service tickets within 1 hour” or “you really ought to build community by crowdsourcing your product innovation process,” a case method-driven CM discipline adopts a humbler yet more empirically grounded approach: here are stories of people who have gone through what you’re facing now, and here’s exactly how they achieved success.

So, let me end this post on a note of concrete appreciation and thanks. Here are a few of the people and stories that helped me become a more intentional community builder this past year:

  • Cal Newport, for helping me realize that community management can flourish via aggressive scheduling.
  • Heather Foeh, for helping me realize that effective community management is a function of relentless and creative peer recognition.
  • Dr. Deborah Cohan, for helping me realize that social technology should not just be a communication and knowledge acquisition medium – but also a medium for empowerment.

Here’s to another exciting year for community managers everywhere. Can’t wait to see what you all do next!

Nikki Serapio

Marketing Community Manager at Oracle
Nikki Serapio is Oracle’s Manager of their Marketing Community. His job is to support the work of marketing practitioners—including the community managers, data analysts, writers, and designers who are just starting their careers.

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