There are a lot of thoughts floating in the digital ether about online communities and social media. Those thoughts often collide in confusing ways. Some folks – most perhaps – think that managing an online community is the same as working in social media. While an online community is built off a social media platform, the role of a social media manager and an online community manager are much different.
In essence an online community is a collection of people with a common interest, or set of values. They meet online to think and share together. It could be for moral support (a community of military moms), or it could be a group of digital gaming fanboys. Or it could be a bunch of people who like the idea of being completely anonymous online.
A community manager then would be the person who corrals the community, keeps them on track. Welcomes new members and shows them around. Moderates content. Curates content that will be of interest to the community. Queue up new features that the community needs/wants. Manage the Terms and Conditions. Set up in-person meetups. And in many cases these community managers also focus on growing the community through outreach and marketing. But their goal is usually built around making the community a meaningful place to hang out. They are focused on strengthening the network of community members and ensuring that there is content that drives them to engage and grow.
Some community managers do spend some time in a marketing capacity. Any community will have a certain churn rate so you need to fill the pipeline with a steady stream of new and engaged users. And that dovetails nicely with our next topic, social media. Social media is a couple things. One is that, in its most pure form, “social media” is a digital platform that allows real people to socialize with each other in a digital way. These folks create media (messages) that can be disseminated to others in the community or beyond. So in this definition, there is a tie-in with online communities: social media is a platform on which to build an online community.
Social media is also thought of as a collection of all the most popular social media platforms – Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, Digg, Tumblr, etc. Often times businesses will look at all these channels and see the great potential for marketing their products or building brand equity. So, these firms will hire a “social media manager” to handle devising and implementing a social media strategy. Sound like marketing and PR? It is. It could also be building an online community around a brand. But these social media managers are first and foremost interested in brand equity and usually that means selling more stuff. Online community managers, on the other hand, are interested in building relationships – stronger ties among their community members.