Defining Online Community Management

[This is a re-post from the Culture Digitally blog. Enjoy!]

New technologies make new economies, and new economies make new jobs. As a response to this, some of the most forward-thinking academic programs aim to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, and more programs should follow their lead. Students of strategic communication–a catch-all term that includes public relations, advertising, integrated marketing communication and the like–should take note of a whole new class of jobs that has emerged in recent years focused on the effective management of online communities (see, for example, the Google Lunar X PRIZE’s recent job posting for an “experienced online guru” to manage the project’s many social media presences).

I predict we will see many more of these jobs that fall under the broad umbrella of “online community management,” and I offer this post as a first attempt to define this emerging profession and make a case for the relevance of strategic communication planning in this new domain.

Let’s take a look at “online community management” word by word:

  • Online: Online community management happens online. It may include offline, face-to-face or phone work, but it is, at its core, work that takes place via the Internet. Coordinating online stakeholders and customers is qualitatively different from coordinating face-to-face stakeholders and customers. Online communications can take place at far quicker speeds, across larger geographical expanses, asynchronously or in real-time, and under the veil of anonymous or pseudonymous cover. The volatile flows of the online mediascape require a different set of skills.
  • Community: Communities are both real and imagined. They have their own internal governance structures, lingo, and norms. They are simultaneously collective wholes with a common vision and interconnected individuals with specific needs. Members in the community may also come and go without notice, and online communities may collapse entirely with a mass exodus of participants.
  • Management: Management implies a strategic, purposeful coordination of resources to meet specific objectives. Managers are both secretaries and shepherds, taking note of the community’s needs and wants while moving the group toward a common goal. Effective strategic management also requires research, planning, evaluation measures.

The Centrality of Strategic Communication in Online Community Management

Relationships between an organization and its stakeholders (customers, clients, donors, employees, etc.) are usually “strongest when they are mutually beneficial and characterized by ‘win-win’ outcomes” (Heath & Coombs, 2006, p. 5), when they are symmetrical and two-way in the flow of communication (J. E. Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992; L. A. Grunig, Grunig, & Dozier, 1992), and when they are at the core of strategic communication practice (Ledingham, 2003).

The strength of seeing project and organizational management functions through the lens of communication is the emphasis on process rather than on preparations and outcomes or inputs and outputs. Strategic communication, then, involves investing in the process of maintaining relationships with stakeholders in order to achieve management goals. Because so many companies and nonprofits (and even government functions) rely on the maintenance of healthy, productive, and sometimes sizeable online communities, strategic communication is an apt framework for understanding how organizations can maintain relationships with these communities.

Generally, strategic communication practice follows a common campaign process. Described through a variety of acronyms, including PIE (Planning, Implementation, Evaluation) (Bobbitt & Sullivan, 2009) and RACE (Research, Action, Communication, Evaluation) (Marston, 1963), I prefer the granularity of Parkinson and Ekachai’s (2006) ROSTE method for strategic communication planning: Research, Objectives, Strategy, Tactics, and Evaluation. Adopting a ROSTE approach ensures that strategic communication practitioners follow a deliberate, step-by-step process in the planning, execution, and ongoing maintenance of a project. This approach can work for the building and maintenance of online communities, too. Here’s how:

  • Research is an important first step – and an ongoing concern – for any online community manager. He or she should know the background of the community (demographics, etc.), its motivations, its history, and so on. He or she should also know about other case studies in online community growth and management, in order to learn the lessons of other practitioners and communities. Discovering this information requires undertaking situational analyses (e.g., SWOT analysis, social/political/economic analysis), gathering secondary/background resources, and conducting original empirical studies of the community.
  • Objectives should always be in place and should be revised regularly to respond to situational changes and organizational goals. Objectives should always be measurable and have defined time frames, and they should be informed by research. An example of a measurable objective: “To grow the online community by 20% in the next 3 months.”
  • Strategies are the ways in which the online community manager will approach these objectives. This includes overall messaging or plans of attack. Strategies are crafted to meet the objectives, should be grounded in research, and should involve creative problem solving.
  • Tactics are the on-the-ground methods for implementing the strategies (in order to meet the objectives, which are based on research. See how it’s all connected?). Tactics are the tools and means for executing the process.
  • Evaluation is as important as any other step in the process. Since objectives are always measurable, evaluation plans should seek to assess whether objectives were met. Evaluation might entail passive data gathering (e.g., through Web analytics) or active empirical methods (e.g., surveys, interviews, content analysis). As objectives are evaluated as successful or not, these findings become part of the future research file, and the cycle begins again. Though a linear or cyclical process described here, these processes are frequently smashed together, are iterative, and are constantly being revised to meet changing circumstances. The point is to remember that it’s a deliberate process with discrete components that connect to each other.

Tools of the Trade

Online community managers make use of a number of tools/tactics to do their job effectively. These include using message boards and chat spaces (anywhere the community members are communicating), using the tools of traditional media relations (press releases, etc.), and using customer service techniques for dealing with issues in the community in rapid fashion. Tools also include research and evaluation tools, such as social media monitoring software (e.g. Radian6), Web analytics (e.g., Google Analytics, Omniture), and a whole host of research methods (e.g., archival work, surveys, interviews, focus groups, online ethnography, case studies).

Why Good Online Community Managers Matter

Online communities are bubbling with creative potential. Online communities may be collectively intelligent, too, able to accomplish more than a host of individuals working alone might. It’s important for online community managers to know what motivates these communities, what their potential is, and how they can leverage these communities for business purposes or for the public good. We see this taking place today in crowdsourcing arrangements, in public participation programs for governance, and in a number of other co-creative activities.

Online community managers have a duty to make the best of these communities, and I believe the perspective of strategic communication has a lot to offer this emerging profession.

Notes

Bobbitt, R., & Sullivan, R. (2009). Developing the public relations campaign: A team-based approach (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.
Grunig, J. E., Grunig, L. A., & Dozier, D. M. (1992). The excellence theory. In C. H. Botan & V. Hazelton (Eds.), Public relations theory II (pp. 21-62). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
Grunig, L. A., Grunig, J. E., & Dozier, D. M. (1992). Excellent public relations and effective organization: A study of communication management in three countries. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Heath, R. L., & Coombs, W. T. (2006). Strategic relationship building: An ethical organization communicating effectively. Today’s public relations: An introduction (pp. 1-40). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Ledingham, J. A. (2003). Explicating relationship management as a general theory of public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 15(2), 181-198.
Marston, J. (1963). The nature of public relations. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Parkinson, M. G., & Ekachai, D. (2006). International and intercultural public relations: A campaign case approach. Boston, MA: Pearson.

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