Community Management: What Is It?

Startup workers in the community support field have a lot of different titles. Some are called Support Agents, others are called Community Managers and others still go by their company’s own quirky name, such as Happiness Engineer.

My current title is Community Experience Manager at Airtime, though I’ve had a few others over my past eight years or so of work in this field.

There isn’t a guideline for knowing when you’re a community professional or not, so every personal definition seems to differ. For me, all of those titles describe someone whose motivation is to assist users as they make their way through the online platforms they love. Community professionals strive to give users a positive experience of the platform through one-on-one interactions that carry over to the user’s general perception of the company.

I’ve found that it’s common for community support team members to have had an entrance into the field that was semi-accidental. They come from far-flung professions, too, like retail or the food industry, and I’m no exception.

My first full-time job was as an editor, a title I’d been after since I joined my high school’s newspaper. I had gotten into the world of interactive projects in my free time, though, so I applied to a graduate program called the Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at NYU and, amazingly, I got in.

In 2008, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area for a paid internship. I was still enrolled in ITP and figured I’d only be there for the summer. I was offered a job at the end of the internship, which I accepted instead of going back to NYU. Student loans are soul crushing and making money sounded really nice compared to taking out another loan to wrap up my Master’s degree.

That decision put me on the career trajectory that I’m still following today. I’ve worked in community management for five startups now, including Tumblr and others you may have heard of in spaces like bloggingpayments processing and e-commerce. Right now, I help users of the Airtime iPhone and Android app, which lets people easily group video chat and much more.

Because it’s Silicon Valley, I attended nerdy tech events while I lived there. It’s a requirement. Because I’m a woman, at least one person in attendance at these events would inevitably assume that I was in PR. So, I found myself telling people about my role fairly often. Then, I received an expression of pity in return. They seemed to picture me in a call center somewhere, wearing a clunky headset, the moment I uttered the word “support.”

I’m sure that word still conjures a similar image for many people now, but I’m relieved to see that changing. We’re entering a time when both being a community support professional and being a woman at a tech event are not as unusual.

Phone calls have not been a part of my deal, though (but I’ve been known to hop on the phone with a user if the situation seemed like it could use it). I mostly help people by responding to “tickets,” which you’ll know of by the way it lands in your inbox, which is as an email. I’ve personally replied to tens of thousands of tickets, so far.

But there’s also much more to it than responding to messages.

Community professionals are uniquely positioned to advise their colleagues internally on customer needs. Their day revolves around fielding feature requests, questions and complaints from real-world users. It’s not just a side-effect of their other work or something they do now and then. Support agents’ performance is measured on how quickly and how well they do this.

Managers of and individual contributors on community support teams tend to spend a good amount of time analyzing their ticket data. They flesh out the bigger picture of the community’s sentiment and problems through reporting out to other internal departments. They prepare themselves to deliver metrics for colleagues in Engineering, Product, leadership and more, and they create bug reports when patterns appear in complaints, too.

These teams can tell someone exactly how many users have had a problem with a new feature within the past x days or weeks. They can throw in demographic data like which language those requesters speak. They have technical details, too, such as which browser those users used to write in. Highly valuable information like this is often neglected by other teams, but good Support teams are willing and ready to collect, analyze and share it out!

Few community support departments have a dedicated set of engineering resources, though those that don’t usually wish that they did. If the team discovers a trend in how users are getting stuck or confused they instead fill users’ gaps in platform fluency through non-technical means. New help documents for an official Help Center, a collaboration with Marketing on some social media content, a blog post describing a feature or an email announcement to the entire user base are all possible outcomes of their effort to make users able to understand the platform, achieve some level of virtuosity with it and feel cared for by the company.

Community teams do see praise from a platform’s most passionate users. They more often hear from those who are critical of it, in comments that range from simply upset to extremely hateful words that attack the platform or, worse, pick on the support employee as an individual. It’s the internet, it happens, but this part of the job sucks, even for people with tough skin.

If your company’s community team also has content moderation as part of their gig, please go hug them right now. No, really. I’ll give you a minute.

You know about Rule 34. They’re required to look at all of that, plus some truly horrible things that are even more disturbing than your mind allows you to picture. It’s gross and upsetting and it’s their job to look at it. Even the toughest of all tough cookies will have nightmares because of it. Hence, the hug that you just gave to them.

Recently, Community is starting to feel much more like a distinct industry, with its own unique and interesting set of challenges and rewards. I’m so glad to see lots of resources and tools for those in this field. Here’s a few: