Community Managers: Whose Best Interests Do You Serve?

by Jordan Cooper |

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 the Author

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.