Online community management is a profession that’s evolved rapidly into one that requires a sophisticated combination of analytics, project management, strategy, and business acumen. And that’s on top of needing to be engaging, write well, understand the technology, and stay calm in a crisis.
Want to dig deeper? Check out our complete guide to online community.
While community management has been around for a while, it can feel like untested waters, especially for community managers just starting out. That’s why we decided to sit down with 13 community industry experts to get their insights on key community areas. They covered common topics, like “Which metrics warrant tracking?” “How do I handle moderation?” “Am I surrounded by too many screens or not enough?”
We’re excited to share what these online community experts had to say across these 13 topics:
- Favorite online community engagement methods
- Bonus: Their workspace essentials
- Key community engagement metrics
- Key skills for community managers
- Which skills they see lacking
- Bonus: Favorite on-the-job snack
- Pointers on having tough moderation talks
- Advice for new online community managers…
- …And advice for those wanting to break into the field
- Key elements of a community engagement plan
- Best resources to use…
- And influencers to follow
- Final tips to remember
Meet Your Online Community Management Experts
- Adrian Speyer: Head of Community
- Andrew Hohman: Community Analyst, Strategic Services
- Sofia Losada: Associate Consultant, Strategic Services
- Sara Maloney: Team Lead, Strategic Services
- Paul Bradley: Manager, Strategic Services (now Head of Global Community at Agorapulse)
- Annie O’Brien: Team Lead, Strategic Services
- Jessica Long: Consultant, Strategic Services
- Lisa Agic: Community Manager, Strategic Services
- Kristen Parody: Consultant, Strategic Services
- Erin York: Associate Consultant, Strategic Services
- Bree Stewart: Australian Community Manager, Strategic Services
- Annie Moncure: Team Lead, Strategic Services
- Conor Higgins: Associate Consultant, Strategic Services
Let’s start with an easy one. What is your favorite online community engagement tactic and why is it your favorite?
- “Questions like this! Give your audience an easy human question to respond to. These can be industry-specific or just ‘What’s your favorite snack food.’ This can bring a lot of consumers into the conversation. Plus, then you get a lot of ideas of topics/interests to build initiatives around.” – Erin York
Experts also suggest: Bringing in experts.
- “Ask the Expert sessions! They are just the greatest. The experts have a fun time, they drive organic conversation, and they can be used to tease non-members into the community.” – Paul Bradley
- “I love AMAs (Ask Me Anything sessions). They don’t require a ton of effort on your part beyond identifying an expert, promoting the AMA and moderating during the event. Members see direct access to an expert as a benefit of community membership, experts get a platform to showcase their knowledge, you generate engagement on the community. It’s a win-win-win!” – Lisa Agic
Another favorite: Rewarding users.
- “Recognizing people for their effort in community – it’s my favorite because it breeds positivity, nurtures careers, and builds advocacy (not to mention motivates others to contribute similarly).” – Annie O’Brien
- “I love using targeted messaging to positively reinforce behavior, while promoting the next level of engagement. I enjoy creating the personas and finding an objective to point them towards.” – Sofia Losada
- “Gamification really speaks to me because everyone loves distinction, and the badges, ribbons, and designations are great ways to showcase those in your membership who are really involved and who love to engage.” – Conor Higgins
And finally: Personalized messages for everyone.
- “Sending out ‘in case you missed it’ content by segment.” – Annie Moncure
- “Community ‘Monthly Wrap’ which provides a high-level overview of the previous month’s activity in the community that can be used in external marketing channels to drive more users/members into the community.” – Kristen Parody
- “The automation e-mail rules. They can be tailored to be as humanistic as you like, but scaled up to reach a broad range of members.” – Bree Stewart
Bonus: What about workspace? Most essential thing for community managers to have on the desk during work? (Two monitors, good headphones, etc)
Seriously: Everyone loves their monitors.
- Sara Maloney: “You got me–two monitors and a good headset. Plus, calendar reminders for routine tasks (checking inbox, moderation queue, etc).”
- Adrian Speyer: “Two monitors – but if I could have 4, I would bask in their glow. Also my tunes – happy music while I work is very important.”
- Conor Higgins: “I always have three monitors up and Spotify!”
- Paul Bradley: “Several screens.”
- Andrew Hohman: “Coffee and water!”
- Sofia Losada: “I have three drinks on my desk at all times; water, lemonade, and coffee–my trinity. Staying hydrated is super important, keeps me awake, and keeps those headaches at bay.”
- Jessica Long: “Airpods, at least one additional monitor, my planner, hand cream and lip balm.”
- Lisa Agic: “Two LARGE monitors and a stand-up desk!”
- Kristen Parody: “Blue light-reducing glasses!”
- Erin York: “Headphones, two monitors.”
- Bree Stewart: “An immensely strong cup of coffee.”
- Annie Moncure: “Sparkling water (ideally Pamplemousse La Croix).”
- Annie O’Brien: “Coffee.”
When you’re sufficiently caffeinated, what are the community metrics you regularly look at on all those screens?
Everyone says: Keep an eye on conversation threads.
- “I like to look at ratio of comments to discussions. Comments on a discussion are gold, because lonely discussions are sad. However, I am also keen to hone in on critical care business metrics. For example, in a support community I like to obsess on time to solution and time to accepted solution. I try to have internal service-level agreements (SLAs) at the very minimum on response times.” – Adrian Speyer
- “Average replies per thread.” – Kristen Parody
- “Replies per thread, and the most frustratingly unmeasurable – depth of content per post (i.e. the quality of the content itself).” – Bree Stewart
- “I love to look at discussions posted and then correlate that to new membership. You never know what you might find.” – Conor Higgins
- “Subscription/open rates. How consistently is someone posting? (Or what post got the most hits?)” – Erin York
- “Unanswered threads and search terms can drive next steps often.” – Andrew Hohman
Other metrics: Looking at the bigger picture.
- “New users, logins, digest open rate, number of posts/replies, friend requests.” – Sara Maloney
- “Digest open rates, accepted Terms & Conditions, # of discussion posts, unsubscribed rates, top discussions & library downloads.” – Lisa Agic
- “Two metrics I like to focus on with my stakeholders are ‘Topic Group Memberships’ and ‘Topic Group Subscriptions.’ Before you start running marathons you need to learn to walk. Similarly, when it comes to community management, before you start motivating users to post discussions and engage with one another, you need to make sure that users have joined your groups and are subscribed to get notified of community updates.” – Sofia Losada
- “Average replies per thread, number of new members, % of membership that is active, # of logged in members and total # of new discussion posts, blogs and library downloads month/month and year/year.” – Jessica Long
- “Average replies per thread, average logins, email open rate, automation conversions.” – Annie Moncure
- “Depends on the community use case. For support communities, it’s views of solutions. For a marketing community, you want to create mechanisms to drive traffic into pipeline in a way that doesn’t fragment trust. For a thought leadership community, you want overall engagement.” – Paul Bradley
- The Community Manager’s Guide to Understanding Community Analytics
- Introducing the Engagement Benchmark Score: A New Solution for Measuring Online Community Engagement
Let’s pivot to the people side of this. What is the most important skill or skills for a community manager to have?
In one word: Empathy.
- “The social psychology of a good community manager does not differ too much from that of a decent group facilitator. Observation skills, communication skills and adaptability. Knowing when to role model the community values and knowing when to step back is key.” – Bree Stewart
- “Empathy and curiosity.” – Paul Bradley
- “The ability to see the forest through the trees, while still finding the individual trees very important.” – Annie Moncure
- “Being empathetic and developing active listening skills are, in my opinion, the most important skill for a community manager to have.” – Sofia Losada
- “Let the community lead you. Figure out what they need and provide it to them.” – Kristen Parody
Aside from empathy: Business sense.
- “Empathy & a drive to succeed and achieve community benchmarks & goals.” – Lisa Agic
- “Being able to listen with empathy, and communicating with authenticity ad transparency as much as possible. Also getting over the fear of analytics and numbers. Being able to tell a story and propose actions with these insights makes you so much more powerful.” – Adrian Speyer
- “Curiosity and a willingness to get into the details and to help users troubleshoot issues. You also need to be confident, knowledgeable, and data-driven enough to defend the community’s value when it’s questioned by senior leaders or when having to explain to staff why the tactic they want to try (i.e. staff posting in the community a lot) won’t work.” – Sara Maloney
And finally: Management skills.
- “Patience, managing-up, and the ability to see things from 30K feet.” – Conor Higgins
- “Flexibility.” – Annie O’Brien
- “Organization/time management. As a community manager, you have to manage a bunch of projects and tasks at once so if you aren’t organized, you’ll inevitably drop the ball. Turn your to-do lists into daily schedules of your tasks and meetings so you never miss anything important.” – Jessica Long
- “Adaptation: your online community platform may be changing, different customers focus on different components, working with different teammates, etc.” – Erin York
And what important skill do you think a lot of community managers are missing?
Don’t be afraid of creativity or experimentation.
- “A willingness to experiment. So many community managers are scared to try new things for fear of internal politics or if it fails. They don’t want a failure or a complaining member to reflect back on them, but experimenting with what works with your members is the only way you’ll improve your community.” – Sara Maloney
- “Differentiation and segmentation of approaches. So many times problems have more than one solution, and it’s important to think of a two or three-pronged approach to problem-solving.” – Conor Higgins
- “I think some community managers prioritize cookie-cutter predictable engagement campaigns over creativity and taking risks. Don’t be afraid of an unsuccessful campaign–you never know what new engagement idea will take off like wildfire!” – Sofia Losada
- “Creativity.” – Paul Bradley
Another key skill: Collaboration (with your org and your community).
- “It’s so important, but easy to overlook, listening as a skill. Listen both to what community members say and do.” – Andrew Hohman
- “Being able to create buy-in from other departments for their community.” – Annie Moncure
- “Confidence to break down silos. Don’t be shy to talk to other parts of the organization – get their support- and be curious. Build relationships internally like you do with members in your own community. There are so many amazing things that can be done when you collaborate.” – Adrian Speyer
- “Community managers can sometimes miss the bigger picture, like how what they are doing fits into larger business goals. It is important to not forget that when formulating strategy so that you can show data on how what you are doing in the community is supporting those goals and it helps you grow a support base from within your organization.” – Jessica Long
- “Front end community management. Whilst it’s important a community manager is not the only presence in the community (the intent of community after all is peer-to-peer engagement), don’t underestimate the power of validating your community members within the community itself. If a post is unanswered for more than 24 hours, a simple ‘Great question, looking forward to hearing other member perspectives,’ will not only leave the member feeling heard but pull the post back up to the top of the landing page increasing foot traffic to other members. The recommend or like button is still a form of engagement, don’t forget to click it if a post contains great content. Humanistic e-mail responses and role modeling moderation rules is also impactful. Sometimes if there’s a conflict in the community, instead of flagging the posts as inappropriate as a knee-jerk – is there scope to jump into the conversation and remind members to check out the terms & conditions? Sometimes setting the standard publicly helps all members to feel safe, supported and to learn the community values.” – Bree Stewart
- “Time!” – Lisa Agic
Bonus: Now, everyone’s wondering. Favorite community management snack?
- Jessica Long: “I believe chocolate solves most problems.”
- Kristen Parody: “Twizzlers!”
- Lisa Agic: “Banana.”
- Adrian Speyer: “Pepperidge Farms Goldfish – Three Cheese. These are dangerous, but oh so delicious – and Smarties – (I’m Canadian – these are a chocolate treat up here – they look like M &Ms but are far superior :p). If you see me at a conference, I’m usually carrying a box and willing to share :)” –
- Sara Maloney: “Iced coffee.”
- Conor Higgins: “Poke bowl!”
- Andrew Hohman: “Chips and salsa.”
- Annie Moncure: “Pita chips and hummus.”
- Bree Stewart: “Marmite on toast (blame my New Zealand upbringing).”
- Paul Bradley: “Chomps turkey sticks.
- Sofia Losada: “Fresh fruits and vegetables!”
Yum. The perfect fuel for powering through tough conversations… Tips for when you have to have a hard moderation conversation with a user?
- “Be honest and stick to your guns.” – Paul Bradley
Basically: Confront problems head on, not people.
- “If needed, acknowledge the frustration or anger from their post on the community but take the conversation off the community as quickly as possible to try to solve the problem. This doesn’t need to play out in front of the whole community and cause drama, it can be between the one member and yourself.” – Jessica Long
- “Assume good intent and always offer a phone call.” – Annie Moncure
- “Make sure you remove inappropriate posts immediately and be respectful when communicating with that user/member as most of the time they didn’t mean to breach the Terms & Conditions.” – Lisa Agic
- “Remember that you both want the same thing, and that’s to move forward peacefully. Make sure that best practices are reiterated regularly on the board you moderate.” – Conor Higgins
- “Be honest. Be firm. Rely on facts, don’t let emotions cloud the conversation.” – Kristen Parody
And always: Cite your terms and conditions/community guidelines.
- “Always put it back on the community guidelines and assume positive intent. Most people don’t even realize they broke the community guidelines and are apologetic, so definitely come from a place of saying ‘We know you may not have meant to do this and we can’t wait to see your posts in the future as they follow our guidelines.’ Leaning on the guidelines also helps make the infraction about the action rather than the person so they won’t take it personally and see that you are just keeping the community a safe and engaging space for everyone.” – Sara Maloney
- “The legs you stand on in that conversation are your Terms & Conditions and the purpose of the community. Make sure they’re firm before the conversation. Stand on them in the conversation. After that conversation, revisit both of those legs and redefine/adjust them as needed.” – Andrew Hohman
- “Be honest and direct with your users — explain the issue directly, explain how and why whatever the user did goes against community guidelines, and clearly delineate the next steps. Be 100% clear and always refer back to the Community Guidelines.” – Sofia Losada
Any advice for a newbie who wants to get into community management?
The best teacher: Experience.
- “Get your friends together and start a group. Instant community manager.” – Kristen Parody
- “Create communities in your personal time. Use any platform, focus on something that interests you and go from there. I have hired people with purely personal (non-professional) community management experience.” – Paul Bradley
- “Join some! See what is happening on other communities. Take note of what you liked and what you didn’t. Be your own test subject.” – Annie Moncure
- “If you want to get into community management, odds are you are probably already a part of a couple of groups on various social media platforms. In my opinion, the best way to lead a community is by first participating in a community. I would encourage you to not just lurk, but to be an active contributor. Observe how that group is being run. Get comfortable posting your ideas or opinions. Try different types of questions and notice what type of questions get responses. The more experience you get as a member, the more ideas you will be able to pull from your toolkit later on down the line when you’re leading your own community engagement strategy.” – Sofia Losada
- “Just do it. Start by being involved in something you are passionate about, be a great contributor – and help others.” – Adrian Speyer
- “I got my start in community management by accident when I created a female-focused networking group on Facebook. Starting a group about something you are passionate about is a great place to start! Also absorbing as much community content as you can will help you catch onto best practices and industry trends quickly. There are a bunch of podcasts, books, newsletters and events out there, I’d recommend checking out CMX for events, FeverBee’s newsletter and the Community Club Slack channel and newsletter as a starting point.” – Jessica Long
Other options: Research and reflect.
- “Think about your work style before leaning into community management. If you’re the type of person who can multi-task, are decent at prioritization and can work in a fast-paced environment then you’ll fit into community management.” – Erin York
- “Make sure you understand the industry and what the users/members value and need support with.” – Lisa Agic
- “Start by looking at how you interact with other communities (virtual and in-person) in your life. Are you the person who drives conversation and helps cultivate a better experience for everyone? If not yet, a great place to start would be by engaging a Facebook group you’re a part of more. Get comfortable being uncomfortable posting questions and starting conversations.” – Sara Maloney
- “Learn everything, even if you do not think you are going to use it. The more you know, the more knowledge you can leverage to help your client.” – Conor Higgins
And what’s your best advice for a new community manager?
- “Since I’m new, this would be me, and I would say learn by doing, ask those who have been there before, and do not be afraid to fail.” – Conor Higgins
- “Start with making your users feel good — if you have that, everything else will come.” – Paul Bradley
The main advice: Try things out.
- “Don’t overthink it. Trust your gut. Test out new ideas and see how the community reacts.” – Kristen Parody
- “Don’t be afraid to try different tactics in your community and see what works (and what doesn’t)!” – Sara Maloney
- “Be open to taking on new projects and responsibilities and testing new tactics on your community even if you aren’t completely comfortable. That’s how you learn and grow!” – Jessica Long
- “Be curious about your community, avoid becoming too prescriptive too soon.” – Bree Stewart
- “Community management is a science–maybe your campaign wasn’t as wildly successful as you thought it would be. That is okay. The cool thing about community management is if your first hypothesis doesn’t work out, try something else. Be creative and don’t be afraid to take a chance.” – Sofia Losada
Other advice: Stay grounded; keep learning.
- “Protect your well-being by not taking everything personally. Also understand no one has all the answers, we are still learning like you.” – Adrian Speyer
- “Use your data and metrics to understand your users/members.” – Lisa Agic
- “Talk to as many people as you can. Talk to the people that can affect what happens in the community, the people using the community, and the people impacted by what happens in the community.” – Andrew Hohman
- “In the wise words of Ron Swanson – ‘Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.’ A lot of times community managers can be pulled in a lot of different directions. Focus on completing one thing and completing it well, then move on to the next.” – Annie Moncure
- “Ask questions and ask them twice. It’s likely that no two community managers will have precisely the same answer and having those opinions to draw from your toolbox is super helpful since no two organizations are the same, either.” – Erin York
Great advice. On the backend, what are some key components of a community management plan?
The consensus: Be thorough and know your goals.
- “Don’t forget your Roadmaps! Even more important than knowing what is currently happening in your community is knowing the future of your community–the overall focus on direction, goals, etc.” – Sofia Losada
- “A successful community will have plans for solutions, events, education, access, recognition, interaction, humanization.” – Paul Bradley
- “Setting up join/view permissions, managing subscriptions, coordinating moderation plan, planning a content calendar, defining KPI’s and assigning metrics.” – Erin York
- “Having a community content calendar is golden. I also like to ensure the community situational playbook is updated quarterly – so we are consistent in moderation and ready for most situations. The time to plan is not when the house is on fire.” – Adrian Speyer
- “Staffing plan (who is in charge of what), regular metrics tracking (monthly, quarterly, annually), executive and internal staff buy-in. Moderation plan and content calendar are great too!” – Sara Maloney
- “Recurring content ideas, like Tip Tuesdays or member spotlights. Something that I’ve found helpful is to have a list of experts within your organization and community super users who you can tap for Ask-Me-Anythings, answering questions, webinars, and general content creation (this list can start out small and grow over time). Having key performance indicators (KPIs) (even if they are super informal) based off the member actions and behaviors that you want to see adopted and a strategic plan of how to reach them.” – Jessica Long:
Other components: User management.
- “User segmentation (but that doesn’t necessarily mean separation), user onboarding (at launch and beyond), continuing feedback.” – Andrew Hohman
- “Expert escalation matrix & onboarding communications.” – Annie Moncure
- “Open Forum moderation that makes people feel welcome and safe to jump into a conversation.” – Conor Higgins
- “1. Engagement tactics. Bringing in the human element. 2. Thinking of the community as a part of your planning process. What’s the initiative, how can we use the community to drive it before, during and/or after? 3. Flexibility, adapt to the current conversations.” – Kristen Parody
You’ve all been a wonderful resource, but our time together’s almost over. What are the best resources you’ve come across for learning how to be a great community manager?
- “The Higher Logic Strategic Services Team.” – Annie Moncure
- “Just connecting with other community managers. Not to promote our own community, but HUG [Higher Logic’s customer community] is an amazing resource not only for files and training info, but you can swap ideas and examples/templates with other community managers.” – Sara Maloney
- “There are a lot, but you can honestly learn to manage a community from scratch using the resources page @ In Before the Lock.” – Paul Bradley
- “The In Before the Lock podcast is really great. Erica and Brian are true community experts and they share so many great resources that you probably wouldn’t have found on your own.” – Jessica Long
- “My Strategic Services team lead, Annie O’Brien, as well as Annie Moncure, Kristin Bednarek, and Kristen Parody have been invaluable to me thus far. I would say that the best resource to become a great community manager (which I hope to be one day) is to learn from other great community managers, and they are the best.” – Conor Higgins
- “Australian Community Managers, FeverBee, Community Roundtable.” – Lisa Agic
- “FeverBee, Higher Logic’s Strategic Services Toolkits.” – Bree Stewart
- “I am a big fan of CMXHub and Community Club content. There are also great course from Carrie Melissa Jones, Jono Bacon and Richard Millington to check out. We also have some awesome content at vanillaforums.com/learn I hope you check out :).” – Adrian Speyer
On that note, got any picks for community management influencers to follow?
- “The usuals: Richard Millington, Brian Oblinger, David Spinks.” – Sara Maloney
- “Shannon Emery, Lindsay Starke, Allison Able!” – Paul Bradley
- “Venessa Paech from Australian Community Managers (ACM), Richard Millington from FeverBee, Kelly Schott from Community Roundtable.” – Lisa Agic
- “Rich Millington, Venessa Paech (Australia).” – Bree Stewart
- “Erica Kuhl and Brian Oblinger, Jono Bacon and even though they probably aren’t “influencers” in the traditional sense, Higher Logic alums Lindsay Starke and Allison Able have influenced my community management style greatly.” – Jessica Long
Thanks so much everyone! For your final words, any other tips you want to share?
- “Managing community is about them, not you.” – Paul Bradley
- “Create an Ambassadors/Champions/Founding Members program prior to launch as these ‘super users’ will help drive community engagement and be your brand advocates.” – Lisa Agic
- “No community builder knows all the answers. We keep learning every day, so don’t beat yourself up too hard if you get stuck. Most of us are happy to help our fellow community builders, so don’t be shy, reach out :).” – Adrian Speyer
- “Everyone comes from a different place, and it gives you a unique strength as a community manager. Find someone with different experience to partner with and learn from!” – Andrew Hohman
- “Be nice and treat people like people.” – Jessica Long
- “Shadow your colleagues as often as you can, and have conversations about not only what interests you, but about what you don’t yet fully understand. Not only will you learn the job faster, but you’ll learn the nuances with how to effectively deliver information, as well.” – Erin York
- “If you think you know everything, you will never learn anything.” – Conor Higgins
Content Marketing Manager
Elizabeth Bell is the Content Marketing Manager at Higher Logic. She’s passionate about communities, tech, and communicating about both effectively. When she’s not writing, you’ll probably find her cooking, reading, gardening, or playing volleyball.
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