A lot of my friends have no idea what I do. If someone in passing asks me what my job is, the short answers is “Facebook and Twitter.” The long answer is, “Digital community management.” But, when you toss out the latter, people who aren’t excused to digital strategy will often get this deer-in-the-headlights look and ask for more clarification. Then, the default answer is, “Facebook and Twitter.” So, I remove the middle man.
I think the role of community management in social media is one that often goes unrecognized and unheard-of by people outside of the digital communications realm. It’s not the only position on the social media spectrum that fits into that assumption, either. In fact, there are many different roles that can be played in the social media spectrum. And while many of them overlap, both in necessary skills and mindsets, there are many different hats to be worn in the area of digital communications.
We can break this down in different ways, but we’ll start simply by looking at some of the current categories, based on the tasks and skill sets that fit into each theoretical category.
To more clearly explain what social media professionals do, we have to define “community” in the sense that I am referring to it. A community, focused around a brand or idea, can run across several different digital channels. The most common right now are Facebook (fan pages, groups, and events), Twitter (both accounts and hashtags), YouTube channels, and blogs. There are also some less-mainstream outlets such as Google+ brand pages, Quora, LinkedIn, and many more. The collective digital community of a brand includes whatever combination of digital outlets a single brand or idea uses.
Community managers are often the people running the day-to-day activities on social channels. They may reveal their personal identities, they may not. (I manage communities where I stay anonymous and only post as the administrator, ones where I post as an everyday user without revealing administration, and ones where I am very clearly and openly the community manager. It all depends on the way you want a community to be run and portrayed.) A community may have one manager, or many. Their job is to drive discussion, encourage engagement, and manage any small issues that might arise. They originate content and help meet the needs of the public who seek out these communities.
The community manager is also responsible for being the bridge between the “end product” of the community and the people who work further behind the scenes. They are often the buffer between the community users and the people and mechanisms that keep it working. In my experience, you have to be a very Type A, outgoing, people-oriented person to do this well. It calls for a great deal of enthusiasm and patience, and a measurable amount of empathy. Community managers are cat-herders, often working hard to find content to put out on their channels; people to write blog posts, links and pictures and video to share on Facebook and Twitter, and unique ways to make people care about the story they are telling. I consider myself a community manager through and through.
Strategists tend to work further behind the scenes, on the greater more overarching goals of a community. They have to think big picture and long-term, in ways that don’t always translate well to the day-to-day interactions that may fit in with managing a community. (That is not to say that community managers can’t be strategists and vice-versa. This is just a statement to the sort of thinking that strategists usually need to tap into, in order to yield the best results.) When community managers need a little added guidance, they can usually count on strategists to have some feedback.
These strategists also tend to work outside of the community, on all the various projects that interact within a single campaign on a digital scale. They work magic with tools like websites, email, click ads, long-term contests and campaigns, and a million other things. I don’t consider myself a strategist. In fact, I think long-term strategy, beyond basic knowledge of where I’d like to end up with a project, is above my head. I admire their abilities, and at this point in my career I do not have the know-how, the confidence, nor the foresight to be a truly effective strategist.
Marketers tend to focus a bit more on the business side of social media. The lines on where these end and strategists begin are often very blurry, but the difference tends to be a matter of mindset. Both play a necessary and admirable role in the overall social media world. Both are generally very creative and driven people. I’d like to say the easiest differentiating factor between marketers and strategist is that social marketers focus on monetary return where social strategists tend to focus more on community development. However, that isn’t always an accurate assumption because in many ways, an effective community generally yields a better return. Thus, why the two tend to be mistaken as interchangeable.
It’s also important to note that “return on investment” in social media is not always monetary, and isn’t always gauged by profit. Community built around non-profits or causes may yield little to no monetary return on their community, but the return on investment is actually the engagement occurring on those communities themselves.
There’s a mixed bag of other people who help make the social media world turn. Creatives aid in content generation with video, image, and audio. They also help gussy up social media channels like Fan pages and Twitter accounts. Programmers play a role in making sure everything technical is ticking as it should be and creating new digital tools to make communities even more effective. Both creatives and programmers are vital in designing websites, blogs, Facebook applications to beef up Fan pages, mobile apps to bring the brand to you, and a million and one other aspects of the digital experience. It’s also important to note that there are different positions for different work environments; this is just the tip of the iceberg of different roles in the realm of social media management.
What’s the takeaway in all of this?
Social media is meant to be social. However, it’s expanded to be much larger and more complicated than simple content sharing. Casual users can ignore this, but social media is not just a matter of “just posting” nowadays. It takes several different skill sets. It takes an interesting cocktail of personality traits. It requires a fascinating blend of careful calculation and gut instinct.
A common misconception today is that anyone in their 20-somethings that grew up in the MySpace and Facebook era are equipped to run social media outlets on behalf of their employer. While many are fully capable of it, not everyone with a Facebook account has the intuition and capabilities manage a Fan page properly. As more and more people emerge from the woodwork to display themselves as “social media professionals,” it is vital to understand that casual users are only scratching the surface of what you want out of a strategic social media campaign and community. There are balances to be struck. There are content flows to be measured and metered. There are people to connect with. There is work to be done.