The “Wild West” of social media is upon us. Brands are staking their ground in the proverbial gold rush – it’s an all out land grab. From small businesses to Fortune 500 companies, there are new industry positions being created left and right to quantify specific disciplines. (Typically, these job titles usually end with the word “strategist.”)

In this digital age where the public/private line is intertwined and customers are so connected, brands are feeling the pressure to add a community manager position to navigate them through this tumultuous time. (A byproduct of the “everyone else is doing it” syndrome.)

Many companies have their community managers dive straight into this social abyss with guns blazing – Twitter conversations, Facebook fan pages, user-generated content portals, official forum communities, e-mail contests and any other god-forsaken way the brand can “play the part” of a customer-centric organization. But they (and perhaps we) sometimes fail to first understand the exact status of a community manager position in relation to both parties in the relationship exchange?

Who does the community manager publicly focus on serving – the best interests of the customers or the company?

Note: I highlight the word “publicly” above to differentiate the fact that privately, the answer is very clear. A community manager is employed and paid by the brand, and reports directly to the brand. Proprietary information, market research and internal communique are undoubtedly off-limits to the public participation a community manager has in regards to customer outreach.

Of course, the easiest “cop-out” answer is a balance of the two. A community manager essentially acts in many ways as a liaison, or a distinguishable face, of the brand in question. Entrenching themselves in the customer community as a reporter, connector and cheerleader of sorts, their role primarily entails that of an embedded journalist at a time of war. In that comparison, it’s obvious that while portraying the “story” to the general public is at the forefront of their mind, they also have duty not to compromise the integrity of the military operation at hand at the time.

So if balance is definitely the key objective for community managers playing on this social see-saw, what exact proportion of their mindset should be focused on each party they correspond with, though? Is a equal 50/50 split a realistic or effective ratio to maintain?

Let’s take a look at the two extremes:

A community manager serves only the brand’s best interests. (0/100)

Pros:

  • Every interaction has a strategic purpose to influence, reach, enable or pursuade current or prospective customers.
  • All community initiatives have a definable and measurable impact on the awareness and/or bottom line of the brand.
  • Positive & negative sentiments elicited from the community can be weighed and acted upon in a razor-sharp tactical fashion.
  • Legal and PR implications of outward-facing conversations can be assuaged with proper vetting of precarious communication.

Cons:

  • A defiance of the “one of them” philosophy with an underlying sentiment the community manager is merely a shill of the brand.
  • The increased likelihood of bureaucratic stumbling blocks and delay of response to customers due to constant strategic assessment.
  • Possible alienation of those not actively perceived as community leaders based on unemotive calculation of public influence.
  • A decreased participation in user-generated content due to the limited and pre-planned scope of official brand initiatives.

A community manager serves only the customer’s best interests. (100/0)

Pros:

  • An instilled sense of trust between the brand and its community with a more fallible human touch to all interactions.
  • The ability to identify intangible traits of community members outside the bounds of strict measurements of influence.
  • A rapid deployment of appreciation, damage control and support without the red tape of strategic optimization for all outreach.
  • An increased sense of customer ownership of the brand community enabling self-sufficient fan-initiated earned media.

Cons:

  • The brand community can be inaccurately portrayed using vague, overly exaggerative, unmeasured customer sentiments as a base.
  • A possible rift between the customer’s affinity of the community manager and not the actual brand they represent in their role.
  • The lack of justification for future brand community initiatives without solid metrics of past impact on sales and/or upwards trends.
  • Legal and PR implications of the perceived endorsement of community content which may not be aligned with the brand’s core values.

What should be the balance for a community manager fostering both the customer and brand’s best interests? In what exact aspects of community engagement should they focus more of their mindset on one party over the other?

No matter how you answer each of these questions, either as a community manager or the brand who employs this position, there is one undeniable and undisputable fact:

Knowing your customers is good business.

In the midst of these “Wild West” days of social media, let us not all jump into the deep end without a paddle. Let’s really start to understand our purpose when even the industry itself can’t clearly define the roles being trotted out in regards to community management.

Are we here to serve the customers? Are we here to serve the brand?

Are we here to serve both – and in what proportion?

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About Jordan Cooper

Jordan Cooper

Jordan Cooper is a professional stand-up comedian with 14 years experience performing in comedy clubs and colleges around the USA. He showcases his sarcastic humor with videos and written rants about blogging, social media & marketing at Not A Pro Blog. Jordan also runs of one of the web's top Football Manager video game blogs and its vibrant forum community of 10,000+ members.

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • http://twitter.com/rhappe Rachel Happe

    This is an interesting topic but I'm not sure I would call it a cop out to say it is a 50/50 split. I think the challenges is that on a daily basis it is sometimes 90/10 split and on other days it might be a 25/75 split. Where a community manager spends their energies is dependent on a number of things – the maturity of the community, the needs of various participants at a given time, and the strategy of the organization (i.e. how tightly integrated do they want the community to be). The challenge of community management is that there are very few 'right' answers and most of the job requires a high level of judgment on what is needed. Hard to learn and it can be even harder to put down on paper.

    • http://www.notaproblog.com Jordan Cooper

      I agree with you completely, Rachel. Because the community manager role is difficult to define on a daily basis, it gives brands/companies nightmares in regards to control and/or how to silo it into a specific department to handle this public outreach.

      But I think it's this supposed “need” for businesses to have policies, rules of engagement, etc. to quantify the CM role that hurts the purpose of this position the most. Allowing a community manager somewhat free reign to determine the proper amount of customer/brand focus on a daily basis is what makes it a linchpin role that *can't* be defined by a stack of papers.

  • http://flavors.me/40deuce 40deuce

    This is an interesting subject with no real clear answer Jordan.
    As a community manager myself, I like to think that I live in the 50/50 category. I support and help to promote things my company does, but at the same time I try my best to interact, help and share interesting info (not related specifically to my company) with our community.
    I was doing social media and communications before I started with Sysomos, and I was hired because of how I did that. I was employed to continue doing what I did, just on behalf of a company. The job is constantly changing and evolving, but I love that part about it.
    I like to think that I'm here for both my company and my community/customers, and I hope some of my community members would say that I'm doing that. In the end though, I am employed by a company who pays me money to represent them, so at the end of the day my loyalty may fall a little more towards their end.
    Maybe we can say I'm a 57/43 split, but I'm ok with that and I think so is our community.

    Cheers,
    Sheldon, community manager for Sysomos (http://sysomos.com)

  • http://inmedialog.com Alexandra Reid

    We are here to serve both parties, but the proportions are certainly not equal, and customers should be aware of this. As you say, we are hired by brands as extensions of their marketing/PR efforts to know their audiences. However, although we act as eyes and ears on behalf of the brand, listening and engaging with online communities serves the interests of both parties. We listen to criticisms, questions and concerns from audiences about the brand and bring the messages of importance to the appropriate ears. We also trade interesting, informative and entertaining content for the attention of online audiences – again, serving both parties. A definite proportion of brand vs audience interests cannot be defined as every situation can drastically vary. However, in clearly defining our roles it is important that we make public our intentions as community managers as maintaining credibility and trust in online communities is of the highest importance.

    • http://www.notaproblog.com Jordan Cooper

      Alexandra, you highlight a very important part of community management that isn't embraced or talked about enough – expectations. Many a time, brands start getting involved in this space without properly eliciting a distinct set of “what we will do here” parameters for customers to understand the relationship from the get-go. Without it, customers will just assume for themselves and a lot of times end up disappointed when things are left hanging – only due to the fact that the company hasn't definitively expressed their role.

      I see this quite often when it comes to social media and customer service. The community views the brand's Twitter, Facebook, etc. presence as a quick, easy way to have their questions answered or problems solved, yet the brand doesn't view that channel or have it set up in a way to handle that type of inquiry. This leaves both the customer dissatisfied as well as the brand questioning their approach (or if they should pull their SM presence altogether).

  • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

    Jordan. Damn you for making me think! I'm with Rachel on this one. I think not only is it a constant balancing act, but it can change from day to day, week to week. There are certainly days where I am 90/10 pushing out Blue Sky Factory content, “building the brand,” infusing myself into industry-specific conversations. Yet other days, I'm engaging with clients and prospects the majority of the time. Oh don't forget all of the “other” non-online stuff we do as Community Managers – content creation, public speaking, sales, etc. I know they all tie to customers/company in some way, but they are still a large chunk of the day.

    Thanks for making me think a bit today. Time to put the clown nose back on.

    (Great to meet you at Blogworld too.).

    DJ Waldow
    Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory
    http://www.blueskyfactory.com
    @djwaldow

    • http://www.notaproblog.com Jordan Cooper

      DJ, I think you're in the minority as far as working with a company that “gets it”. Based on your social media presence, I get the distinct likelihood that you're given much more leeway than most to determine your daily activities that would best serve both the brand and its community.

      I don't believe many other businesses do indeed operate this way. They either hire a low-end employee to handle the community and handcuff them from doing anything outside of a very strict set of tasks – or employ an agency to do so on their behalf, but have no emotional tie nor industry-specific knowledge to properly engage with the community effectively to begin with.

      The question is… how can we, either as CM professionals, or CMs working currently for brands, express the need for a more free, “wildcard”-like approach for our role?

      • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

        First off, LOVE that you reply to comments, Jordan. Well played, sir. You are correct. I'm fortunate to work for an organization that gets it (no quotes). I have a tremendous amount of flexibility thanks to Chris Penn and Greg Cangialosi. That being said, Chris reminds me (once in awhile) if he thinks I'm spending too much or not enough time in one area.

        To your question, “how can we, either as CM professionals, or CMs working currently for brands, express the need for a more free, “wildcard”-like approach for our role?” … I think the key is to hire people that have the following qualities (and pay them well).

        1. Industry knowledge (not necessarily an expert, but…)
        2. Great communicator (both online and offline)
        3. Sense of humor (this is critical as you can't take yourself too seriously)
        4. Flexible time (work hours can be a bit wonky as evidenced from this 11:30PM comment)
        5. Passion (must love what you do)

        That's all I've got – for now.

        DJ Waldow
        Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory
        http://www.blueskyfactory.com
        @djwaldow

        • http://www.notaproblog.com Jordan Cooper

          But isn't the overwhelming problem (at least from the spectrum in which I've experienced) that companies *aren't* hiring candidates that fit those 5 qualifications – that they're treating the CM role as a “child” position within the marketing or PR department? And even for those who do, are making CMs conform to the antiquated systems & mentalities that these departments have always operated by?

          I don't want to be the rebel that just complains & bashes without offering a solution, though. That's why I'm posing the question to those who are already working within the proper scope. How can this CM industry express the need for this shift in mindset to companies who are just “doing it because everyone else is” without understanding the true purpose of an effective community manager?

          • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

            I think we need to continue to showcase CM's and their respective companies who are doing it right – catch them kicking ass and share the hell out of it, right?

            DJ Waldow
            Director of Community, Blue Sky Factory
            http://www.blueskyfactory.com
            @djwaldow

  • http://www.margieclayman.com Marjorie Clayman

    What an interesting post! And not a swear word in sight?

    I think this question extends to everyone in the marketing realm right now. Who is your real boss, your boss-boss or your customers? Who are you ultimately answering to? Is that the correct way to go about your work?

    Definitely some great food for thought here!

  • ErinLariviere

    I agree with Rachel that we can’t totally cop-out a 50/50 split. As a Community Manager, I find a lot of the work I’m doing serves both sides simultaneously. For example, engaging with customers provides our product team with valuable feedback, while providing the customer with a point of contact for questions and troubleshooting.

    One thing you touched on, which I think needs more discussion, is measurement. It’s one thing to set goals and benchmarks, but not everything can be measured. What’s the real value of helping one customer troubleshoot an issue? Where’s the ROI in responding to tweets? These aren’t things that can be effectively measured (yet), which presents a real challenge to the industry.

    Thanks for posting this! Definitely a lot to think about here.

    • http://socialbutterflyguy.com/ DJ Waldow

      Hi Erin.

      • ErinLariviere

        Hi DJ. I should give you credit – it was your tweet that brought me here :)

  • http://insightsandingenuity.com heatherrast

    I find myself re-reading Rachel's comment and nodding along. I think she brings up a great point about the maturity level of the community – which folds in aspects like widely held expectations for brand interaction and attentiveness, and common means of resolution (the degree and methods). Those things set up a sort of standardized (or institutionalized) modus operandi which new members come to understand as they gradually assimilate. I may not be surprised by Brand X doing so-and-so because that fits with the perception I have in my mind, and how its behaved in the past.

    I also think the community manager shoulders a feeling of great responsibility to the groups he/she serves. The people within the groups hold common interests and goals and as the CM internalizes and empathizes with them (which I think is part of due diligence), I believe they feel personally compelled to provide support, a feeling that may at times supersede the more de facto responsibility to the brand's business objectives. A struggle to find balance each day.

    • http://www.notaproblog.com Jordan Cooper

      Heather, I think the responsibility-factor comes from a company that inherently tends to hire “from within” as opposed to outsourcing it. Of all the community manager's I've dealt with, the ones that truly go above and beyond for the customers tend to be those who were customers of the company themselves before getting hired to serve them.

      Depending on the maturity level of the community, I believe the best hire for CM depends more on their natural affinity to the brand and less on their resume experience in marketing & public relations. The latter can be taught, the former cannot.

  • Nic Wirtz

    I would have to agree with Rachel. There's so much information for both company and customers that is out there that filtering on a daily basis sees the job move from pro-customer to pro- company, sometimes within a matter of minutes.

    When you're fighting fires the initial swing is very pro-customer but you're also collecting data and opinions of the consumers for the company which help to influence policy and post-mortem changes.

    The judgement Rachel mentions is especially hampered if there is no coherent policy on what to do with the community. Some people will always appreciate it, some always slightly fearful of it but there needs to be something stable in place.

    The community manager's job is very much an ear to the ground, observing role, punctuated by fighting fires and dealing with customer issues, with marketing, presence building and influencing thrown in. It's a very flexible role and a 50:50 split doesn't do the justice that flexibility demands.

    One day I may be publically explaining company policy, ten minutes later I'm soothing customer issues, that 50:50 entirely depends on how the workstream goes. Although I'd like to think that whomever employed the CM in the first place did so on the basis of some knowledge of their customer base and products. Learning on the job is definitely in at the deep end stuff.

  • Oana Sandu

    I think your question for community managers is one that has been asked for public relations professionals for a long time as well. Where do they stand, on whose side? And I believe the answers applies to both. They are indeed a liaison. They are there to best serve the brand of course – but best serving means that they interact with the public to an extent that is far more personalised than a brand or corporation would be able to do and this interaction gives them insights about the consumers. These insights should then be used by the community manager to best advise the brand on how to serve the community better. This may sometimes not be so profit oriented, but more on the social, human side. It is however the community manager's duty to fight for “corporate goodness” and “brand fairness” because s/he knows that only by applying this on a long term s/he can make the brand a love brand and build a trust-based relation with customers which will bring about profit in the end.

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  • http://theoffbeatreport.com Lauren

    Great post.

    It's definitely important to work toward the balance between serving the brand and the customers at the same time. Hopefully, we work with brands where customer service is priority so the synchronization isn't as much of a challenge. Most of the time, I find staying neutral is the best tactic, and accomplishing brand goals alongside customer ones.

    Lauren Friedman
    Lauren@contextoptional.com