Skip to content

The Definitive Guide to Online Community Management

Want to learn more about online community management or what it takes to be a good community manager? Find out here (and get 7 steps to building your strategy).

In today’s world, when we’re constantly glued to various screens and devices, it’s hard to believe that people might feel disconnected. But the truth is that this always-on, digital environment that we live in can actually feel lonely if we aren’t engaging in the right way and listening to each other. This is particularly true when it comes to relationships between brands and their customers.

So where’s the disconnect? Why don’t people feel tied to the brands that they buy, the products they purchase, or the organizations they join?

Often, it has to do with a lack of community. An online community allows people to connect with brands, the people who work at them, and other like-minded people who are passionate about a certain topic. It gives people a sense of belonging where they can share experiences, resources, and discuss the things that matter to them. It also allows companies and the people who work at them to create much more meaningful relationships with their customers or members, which can increase engagement and drive customer loyalty (as well as increase employee retention).

Businesses building communities are meeting their customers where they already are – online. They are investing in and overseeing online communities built for their customers, employees, and fans — as part of a process called online community management.

These online community management tactics help to build authentic relationships between their external audience (customers, fans, and followers) and their internal team. When businesses invest in online community management, they humanize their business and show that they care about the people who interact with them and work for them. They build something special – something we like to call Higher Love.

Let’s dive in:

Want to dig deeper? Check out our complete guide to online community.

Back to the Basics: What’s an Online Community and What Are Its Origins?

While it might sound like a new concept, in-person communities have existed for, well, forever, and online communities naturally began to form with the dawn of the internet. Online communities as we know them today really started to grow in the 1990s and early 2000s, as online forums and social networks where a group of people with a shared interest could communicate with each other. As the communities grew, people recognized the need to ensure that they were functioning, safe, and on topic – and the role of community manager was born (although it didn’t start out by this name!)

The most forward-thinking brands realized how beneficial online communities could be, and they started building their own branded communities where customers and brand advocates could discuss their products and best practices, ask for help, and learn more. As organizations in other industries noticed what these trailblazers were building, communities started to catch on more widely.

Today, there are powerful solutions built to facilitate your online community and enable you to easily engage people across the entire customer lifecycle. Successful organizations use them to create stronger relationships with their customers. Online communities allow businesses to take a many-to-many approach to engage their customers, allowing customers, fans, and employees to engage with many people, rather than just one-on-one or one-to-many.

Learn more about communities today in The Community Roundtable’s State of Community Management Report 2021.

How has Successful Online Community Management Strategy Changed Over the Years?

In short, it hasn’t. Over the past decade, the best practices of successful online community management have remained the same. It takes listening, empathy, and the ability to truly engage people in a positive way.

What has changed, however, are the tools available to facilitate the management of an online community, as well as the documentation of how to do it, how to teach it, and how it is valued. As companies see the value, they dedicate more resources to online community management, see better results, and allow community leaders to apply community in new ways to show us what is truly possible.

So what really is possible? It starts with defining the role of your community manager.

What is the Role of an Online Community Manager?

An online community manager is the person or team of people responsible for owning your online community – setting the strategy, defining the online community platform, training your organization to get involved, building out the experience, and making your community a great destination where people want to engage.

In their day-to-day work, online community managers will set guidelines for your online community, moderate discussions to ensure that people stick to the guidelines, encourage the right discussions, and foster online community engagement.

What the actual role looks like will depend on the size of the company and the maturity of the community program. For example, at smaller companies, your community manager may do everything, while at larger companies, you’ll find community managers doing more strategy, planning, and programming. They can manage moderation teams and work on the overall concept of how community members engage with one another in the community. They may not get into the nitty-gritty of moderating actual discussions.

Find tips for online community management from 13 experienced community managers.

TIP: While the skillset may be similar, it is important to note that online community management is not the same as social media management. Your social media team is responsible for managing an audience. An audience is the group of people that you primarily talk to. Your online community manager is responsible for fostering a community. A community is the group of people who talk to you. It is a small, nuanced difference, but a very important one (more on that here).

Hiring an Online Community Manager

When diving into the community building process, you’ll need an online community manager.

Every organization needs at least some dedicated community management. This is one common reason a community will flounder – lack of active management. Communities need somebody to take care of them. That being said, a small community may not need a full-time community manager. But a large organization with a lot of customers, members, or users most likely will.

The bottom line is this: It’s less about the number of hours, as it is about the experience level of the person who’s managing the community, and whether they know the right tone to use, how to interact with others, and how to handle situations maturely.

Ultimately, what you need is someone with a specific skillset, and to do it well, additional capabilities.

5 things to look for in a great community manager


Create a Winning Online Community Management Strategy in 7 Steps

A winning online community management strategy is comprised of many elements. Here’s a breakdown of some of the most critical bits to consider.

1. Select your platform

Before building out an entire strategy, online community managers first need to evaluate which platform to work with and understand which features are needed, both now and in the future. Some companies start their communities via Facebook Groups (but that’s not the ideal spot). Others invest in a dedicated online community platform that focuses on helping you build a flourishing online community. That said, not all providers are created equal.

As you look at different solutions for your online community, you want to ensure that you can make it your own. Really customize it in your look and feel, as well as your segmentation and user flows. To optimize the experience, you want to find a provider who can automate stuff for your team so that they aren’t bogged down with repetitive work – things like email triggers, automation rules, gamification tools like awards/badge management for engaged members, great segmentation capabilities, and more.

You also want to ensure that all the tools that your organization uses internally can connect seamlessly to your community management tool so that data can flow, and teams can easily get involved without having to learn loads of new systems and processes.

Then once you’ve found an online community platform you love, it’s time to get your plan in order….

2. Start with a moderation framework

With your platform in place, your first order of business is to define some ground rules, both for your online community and for its moderators. Come up with a common set of guidelines or terms & conditions for how your community should act – what’s allowed, what’s not tolerated, and what members can expect from your community.

This ensures that everyone joins with one common set of beliefs, and it allows you to moderate in the best possible way. These guidelines will also help you if any discussions start to derail so that you can toe the community line without stepping on anyone’s feet or killing your community’s vibe. Make sure to share these guidelines across your organization to ensure that all internal stakeholders know and abide by the rules.

Once your online community is up and running, be firm and consistent with the rules you set. If a member is breaking the rules, make sure to remove inappropriate posts immediately and be respectful when explaining why you removed the post – more often than not, you’ll find that the user didn’t even realize that they were breaking the rules! And, if a heated discussion gets a little too fiery, remember to de-escalate by confronting problems, not people.

Resource: 7 Essentials Steps in Any Online Community Moderation Process

3. Plan your launch

With a shiny new platform at your disposal, you’re ready to start thinking through how you introduce your online community to current and future customers. This takes some planning! Otherwise, you could end up with an empty community.

Communication: As part of the plan, you need to think through the initial launch messaging as well as subsequent content to keep your community engaged and coming back.

Content: Plan out your posting schedule for at least four weeks so that you can always be one step ahead, and make sure that you have an onboarding flow to get users familiar with your community from the get-go. Ideally, you’ll have your quarter planned out as you move forward, with room to add things in, but starting with about four weeks of content is a good place to start. Develop and document your posting cadence/schedule, and seed some content in advance so that you get the most engagement. Your content repository can help if you hit any unexpected speedbumps in your launch planning.

Try adding some of these online community engagement tactics to your content calendar!

Testing: Work out bugs by beta testing. Before launch, recruit users to help you beta test. If you have a group of community ambassadors, customer advocates, or a product advisory board, they’re great options for your beta test group. A small group will give you the best feedback, so aim for 25 people (ask about 100 as many may not get back to you) to help you test your community. Your beta test users will help you find and fix bugs, provide helpful feedback if you have any gaps in your plan, and even help you recruit new community members after launch.

Once you feel good about your plan, get potential community members excited! Hype up your launch with a series of promotional materials or plan events around the launch to drive signups and logins.

4. Drive engagement

Once your community is up and running, your job as an online community manager is to give members a reason to engage with you and with each other so that they can’t wait to come back for more. To do this, you’ll want to make sure you are properly segmenting users, delivering the right content and information at the right time, and discussing the right topics.

Having a content calendar that covers all your planned resources, events, education, recognition, and interaction is crucial so that you can see the bigger picture and plan what’s next. As is a staffing calendar – ensure that all the right people know their responsibilities to keep your online community engaged.

Check out our online community content calendar template to start your own!

As you build out your roadmap, make sure to keep an eye on the data to see which content and topics perform best and worst so that you can adjust your planning accordingly. And don’t be afraid to test out new ideas or formats!

  • Consider gamifying the community experience to encourage engagement by rewarding members for taking action (e.g. for their first post or their loyalty).
  • Build recurring content ideas like Tip Tuesdays or member spotlights so that members know to come back on those days.
  • Create a list of experts at your organization and super users who you know you can always tap for Ask-Me-Anything sessions, answering questions, webinars, and general content creation.

Looking for a complete guide to getting more online community engagement? Don’t miss this eBook, filled with tips to help you engage your users and keep them coming back.

When it comes to the tone, remember to keep it human. Your online community is a way to humanize your brand, not a wasteland for marketing jargon, promotion, or obvious automation robots. Focus on your members and how you can help them feel good.

“Start with making your users feel good — if you have that, everything else will come.”

– Paul Bradley, former Manager of Strategic Services (now Head of Global Community at Agorapulse)

One simple, but oh-so-effective tip for doing this? Smile while typing/moderating.

The more human your discussions and questions, the more engaged your members will be. They’ll also develop a much deeper relationship with your brand, and ultimately, if you’re doing it right, they’ll fall in love.

Hot tip: Looking for a better way to structure your discussions? Right this way…

5. Get other employees involved

Your online community management strategy should not live in a silo. It should be part of a wider company strategy to become customer-centric. One part of the community manager’s job is to get employees onboarded into and engaged with your community by providing guidance, trainings, and general support.

Having more of your organization engaged with your branded online community not only spreads the work and responsibilities, but it creates a more engaging experience for your community members, who might be interested in talking directly with people in different teams (e.g. product team who can best explain a new feature).

While some employees might feel a little reluctant to get involved, once they do, they will discover that engaging with customers is easy (even fun!) and that they can use the online community to make their day-to-day work easier.

Employees can gather feedback to improve product development, test new ideas to inform future communication strategies or content planning, understand how customers really use products, identify loyal customers for referral/advocacy programs, and more. All of this information makes planning more efficient.

Need guidance for how to get your employees involved? We’ve got you covered >>

An added bonus of getting your organization involved in your online community? It increases employee engagement! This improves overall performance.

  • The University of Warwick found that your happiest, most engaged employees are 12% more productive.
  • Furthermore, engaging employees impacts customer loyalty. Aberdeen Group found that companies who work to actively engage employees have customer loyalty rates 233% higher than those who don’t.

So, if you want to decrease churn, get your employees chatting in the online community.

6. Measure success

One fantastic thing about online communities is that they are rich with data. Use it. Not just for KPIs and reporting (although that’s important, too), but for the big picture stuff like informing your business about its customers or members, their evolving needs, and how your brand can best cater to them.

You’ll start to see recurring topics in your community that you can address. Or complaints that you can fix. Your community can help steer each and every department in their planning, from marketing to sales to product to support. You can even use your community as a sounding board for new ideas – just ask what they think! This can be particularly useful for content ideas, new feature developments, UI/UX changes in your product, and more.

KPIs to measure the health of your online community should also be monitored. Keep an eye on things like new users, logins, digest open rate, number of posts/replies, or connection requests to understand how your community is growing and engaging.

Not sure what to track? Here are some of the most important community metrics to measure.

7. Look to the future

As your online community management strategy evolves, it will most likely need further segmentation based on user activity. Your most engaged, most loyal community members will want (and deserve!) different treatment than those who are brand new to the community or those who only engage sporadically.

You are missing a huge opportunity if you don’t do something special with your loyal crew. For this group, consider rewarding them with special offers or experiences, and help them spread the word about your community by developing a referral program or a community ambassador program.

Ultimately, your goal here is to increase your number of loyal members, so segment the rest of your users accordingly and build plans to nudge them along toward more engagement.

Don’t forget to check out our favorite resources for online community managers.

A Final Word on Online Community Management

Developing and optimizing your online community management strategy involves a lot of moving parts and people! But once you get it rolling, all the pieces will fall into place, and it will be well worth the effort. If done right, it is the single best way to connect your brand with your customers, and it will help to build deeper relationships between your brand, the people who work with you, and the people you serve.

Adrian Speyer

Adrian Speyer is the former Head of Community at Higher Logic, and has over 10 years of experience building communities. By combining his passion for digital marketing and community, Adrian works to create beautiful and functional online communities to help brands connect with their audiences around the world.