ASK: How do I become a Community Manager? (Working Pro)

(This is part of Ask the Community Guy, an ongoing series of questions posed by readers for Jake, the Community Guy)

Question: via yndygo: “How do I become a Community Manager? Honestly, there are many of us ‘not so young’ folk who are completely enamoured of the Social Media and Online Community development, but without the entre to break into this field even though we would, given the opportunity.”

Answer: This question extends the conversation earlier regarding how to hire a community manager [1][2], and the “How do I become a Community Manager (college student)” edition. For the purposes of this entry, I’m going to focus on the corporate/strategy type of community manager, versus the community manager of the forum facilitator/moderator style.

So you’re looking to change careers and “community manager” seems like a fun option, eh? Good for you, it’s a great job. But before we jump into the tips for getting such a job, I have to ask the question…. are you sure you really want the job? Don’t get me wrong, I love community work and my community manager time was some of the best of my career. But it’s a tough gig for several reasons:

  • It’s a 24/7/365 job -with most communities, the members tend to participate more when they’re not working… which is also when you aren’t working. In 5 years of community work, I’m not sure that I had a 3 day weekend off… that’s when the community had time to put on events!
  • It’s a beating – It’s a fun job, but it’s a tough job. There’s a strange vibe where the company members don’t quite think you’re focusing enough on the business, the community tend to think you’re focused too much on the business. Remember Night at the Roxbury? Yeah, you’re the girl in the club.
  • It takes time to make an impact – There are no quick solutions, and tenacity is a massive must-have.

Still here? OK, good. Maybe you have what it takes after all!

This question is harder to answer specifically because of the all possible scenarios the question may be asked under. Are you moving laterally in your current company? Are you trying to get into an entirely new company? Do you have some connection to community in your current job but are looking to do that work more? I’m making some bold sweeps here, so your mileage may vary. Pay attention to the key point and adjust for your own situation.

Remember the #1 Community Manager Skill
Above all else, a community manager has to be tenacious, chipping away at concerns that both the customers and the company might have about community work. Show that you have tenacity, that you’re going to make this happen whether “they” like it or not.

(This skill is irrelevant without fantastic communication skills, however, so be sure to temper your tenacity with your communications skills. Keep reading for more on communication)

Pick a goal
Being a great community manager is predicated on believing in the work you’re doing. It’d be hard for me, a very anti-smoking person, to be a good community manager for a tobacco company. Pick a company/service/community/business/industry that hold some interest to you personally. Set a goal in your head of what kind of community work you’d like to do and the type of company/industry you’d like to do it for. Narrowing your focus helps you increase your effectiveness at learning new skills and thus getting a new job in a new field.

Learn the Landscape
This may seem obvious, but once you’ve chosen a goal start digging into the busines. If you’re trying to make a move inside your current company, start learning about the existing community or the potential for community. Understand the business from the perspective(s) you haven’t been as involved with.

If you’re looking to change companies, get up to speed on the industry. Read the trade publications, met people already in that space, join industry associations. Basically soak it all in.

Prove your own knowledge
Whether you’re looking to change industries or simply move to a different group inside the company, it’s crucial that you prove your skills. Anyone can say they are ready for a new career or position, but the only ones that make that move are the ones who show they’re ready. This means you’re going to have to find ways outside the scope of your current position to make this happen. Here’s a few methods:

  • Volunteer for cross-functional team projects that connect you to areas of your current company you wouldn’t normally work on. (This doesn’t necessarily need to be “community” work… being able to show that you’re able to effectively take on new challenges outside the scope of your training)
  • Start a (business) blog that showcases your interest, knowledge, and understanding of online culture and community building. This isn’t the place for anything other than a brief glimpse at the personal side of your life.
  • Look at your current company (or the company/industry you’re trying to get into) and develop some ideas about how you can add community/social components to the existing business. Share the internally or via your blog.

Figure out what employers are looking for
The first step is an easy one: figure out what employers are looking for. I wrote about this earlier, as have others. Check job descriptions for similar positions, keep an eye and ear open for what employers are talking about, and ask other community managers how they found their current position.

You’re likely to face one of two situations:

  • Your target company understands enough about community to know what they need. You need to first figure this out. Try to connect with people from the company (hopefully the specific team) via LinkedIn or Facebook. (Do NOT rush into this until you’ve done your research)
  • Your target company has no clue that they need a community manager, or they don’t quite understand what community management is all about. In this case, you’re going to have to start building your profile as a knowledgeable person; start a blog and write about the industry, maybe even the company and suggest some ideas for how they can use community management to further their business goals. (Again, don’t rush into this, do your research first. Maybe even have an insider vet your content first)

Get involved
Being able to tell an employer specifically how their related community functions is a crucial piece of selling yourself. Since you’re likely changing careers or getting into an area you don’t have a lot of experience in, you want be able to sell yourself as a subject matter expert. How better to do that than actually becoming a subject matter expert?

One note of caution, however: don’t hit too hard with “I’m a member of the community and therefore I know everything”. That vibe can be a real turnoff to a potential employer, making them wonder if you’re just a crazed fanboy/girl who has no interest in finding balance between community and company needs. You get involved so you can drop tidbits that show you “get it”, not to bash them over the head with your knowledge of who the community trolls are and what the inside jokes mean.

Be willing to work like you’re 25 again
If you’re changing careers, you’re in for one hell of a lot of work. Prepare yourself.
Be sure to check out the classes that I recommended to college students. Whether you actually take those classes at a local school or simply head to your local bookstore to stock up on the subjects, start learning.

Join a practitioners group
There are plenty of places around the web where you can listen in (and join in when the time is right) to conversations from industry practitioners. Here’s a few of my favorites:

Build your online persona
It’s suprisingly easy to convince many people that you’re a community expert – make sure you’re everywhere they might look for you. Create profiles on all the major sites (or have an answer ready about why you skipped signing up for a particular service). Use them regularly, keep them up to date. Share them in your email footer and your business card. Here’s a few of my must-use services:

This list is just a few that I find important, but don’t stop paying attention to what new cool sites and services are popping up.
Start a fan club
Nothing shows an understanding of community development like actually developing a community, and nothing teaches you group dynamics like being part of one. Find something you’re interested in, whether photography or collecting antique throw pillows and start group focused on the subject.

If a group already exists around the subject you’re interested in, join and volunteer to help out. Plan an event, organize the members, start subject matter conversations, and/or build some online support tools. Just get involved.

Volunteer
Pick a charity, local event, concert, or anything else where you can pitch in. Building stamina for being on your feet all day long, talking, interacting, smiling, and remaining positive is a crucial skill to learn. This is another place where you can learn a metric ton about group dynamics, especially as relates to volunteers and volunteer work. Managing and working with people don’t have to be there is radically different than managing and working with people who are getting paid to be there.

Speak publicly
I don’t care where, and I don’t care what about… just start getting up in front of crowds and speaking. I’ve never been to Toastmasters, but I’ve heard fantastic things.

MC a concert or poetry reading. Present a topic to high school kids. Give a group presentation to your current colleagues. Just get out there. Speaking publicly does several things for you:

  • Removes your fear of speaking in front of audiences, and helps you learn how audiences (both online and offline) react to different messages
  • Teaches you how to simplify ideas into bite sized chunks
  • Gives you confidence in yourself and your message

Read, Read, Read
There is more online content about community development than you could ever read in a lifetime. Start reading; this is your textbook. Start with these blogs (in addition to this one, of course!):

But whatever you do, find the part of community management that gets you all giddy and do more of that. Don’t lose your passion!


If you’d like to submit a question to the Community Guy, check out the submission details.