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A Kick-Ass Community Manager Q&A

Written by Caitlin Struhs | on December 22, 2015 at 11:00 AM


It's time to get those community management challenges addressed. This year marked our second annual expert panel of kick-ass community managers, who all agree: communities are here to stay and offer the best engagement for members. 

But there are still an endless amount of tasks to tackle, so the panel is here to address communities as systems that must be maintained.

Our partner and community management expert, Ben Martin, CAE, led a high-level community management roundtable webinar for the second year in a row. He asked our five innovative community managers some tough questions, and they provided real answers. This is an aggregate of our webinar discussion.

The Kick-Ass Community Managers

  • Ben Martin, CAE, Online Community Results
  • James Baumann, Director of Communications & Marketing, The Association of College & University Housing Officers - International (ACUHO)
  • Matthew Coffindaffer, CAE, Manager, Volunteer Relations, ASAE: The Center for Association Leadership (ASAE)
  • Tom Morrison, CEO, The Metal Treating Institute (MTI)
  • Megan Keane, Membership Director, NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN)
  • Bethany Lister, Community Program Manager, NTEN: The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN)

Question: Tell us your story. How did you get into community management or become involved in your online community?

Matt Coffindaffer, CAE (ASAE): I started in community management by virtue of association management for eight years, bringing a really broad perspective (what you need when at the helm of communities). I was also already an ASAE member and active in its community, Collaborate.

James Baumann (ACUHO): AS a director of communications, I was interested in community as an outgrowth of social media. I took Ben Martin’s online course and found value. In 2014, ACUHO’s board reevaluated the association’s committee work and the online community concept came up—we launched in June 2015.

Tom Morrison (MTI): I’ve been in community management since 2009. I had two goals: find the smallest members in the most remote locations and give them a voice, then help get them into the general discussion. As a CEO, I wanted our members at my fingertips, so I could easily communicate.

Megan Keane (NTEN): Similar to Matt, I was already a member of NTEN and a community manager at TechSoup. Those communities were such great resources for my questions—I kept wondering, “Am I the only person going through this?” I was blown away by how freely people shared helpful information, and love returning the favor as I progress in my career. Community is the gift that keeps on giving.

Bethany Lister (NTEN): I’m naturally an introverted person, but I wanted to get more involved in the local community and events. When you have a specific role, it’s easier to get involved and know how to participate. I helped several nonprofit organizations with their events and programs, at the same time being a community member of NTEN and a nonprofit tech group. Community was a big part of finding something I was interested in, and I started as a volunteer.

Ben Martin, CAE (OCR): I started using online communities in its basic form, as listservs, about 18 years ago! I’ve also worked with associations for the same amount of time, so the two are integrally woven for me.

Q: A community manager is ____. Fill in the blank.

Bethany: A community manager is the party host, providing people with answers and connecting different attendees at the party. “Hey—you and this other person are both interested in the same thing”—that’s what happens at a great party.

James: The hotel concierge. You might not know everything, but you know where to find the right answers and make those connections.

Matt: The conductor of an orchestra. All disparate components come together to make a beautiful harmonious sound. You have to make space for both the first violinist and the guy in the back banging on a trash can. Both can contribute to the community.

Ben: My favorite is the gardener. Don’t just build but create those right conditions in order for the community to grow.

Q: How do you define community?

Tom: After studying a lot of communities, the big thing we seem to assume is members wake up every day, immediately log into our community and use it like Facebook or LinkedIn, staying tuned in all day. That’s like a Starbucks. But members are all busy with their days, which are more like a public library. Is our community expectation a Starbucks or something different? Set those expectations— are we creating our public library? Most members need something all of sudden, grab it and leave. The average time spent is short, and community managers have to remember those time constraints.

James: I’m pleasantly surprised about how much members share. ACUHO represents colleges and universities: these people are used to building community, sharing resources and making connections in the dorm/campus environments. The community is built around previous relationships and contacting individuals one-on-one. Our work sends this message: as great as it is to pick up the phone, what if you asked 2,000 people that same question? It’s a broader range of answers coming in, expanding your community.

Ben: That’s true—what is the persona of your membership? Can you adapt your community to meet those needs? Do you need to create smaller communities for certain groups, interests or personalities?

Matt: Communities are vertical networks; groups of people come together from all walks of life. Whether you’re cultivating a Starbucks or a library, people come for the content and stay for the connections they build in that space. We as community managers need to facilitate that. Community is the people.

Ben: As we say to our clients at OCR—it’s not all about the technology.

Q: How do you spend most of your time in the community?

Bethany: My typical day starts out with looking through online forums and various digests, checking in on how new posts are doing. I spend a long time on Twitter and Facebook groups, too. Throughout the day I like to chat with community members via phone calls and emails (and occasionally in person at big conferences).

Megan: The role definitely is really messy—there’s not a typical day! It could start one way, but then an unexpected post or new member changes its direction. You have to just keep juggling as you go. It’s a glorious mess, though.

Tom: I’m a member of every single community group (maybe a bit crazy!), so my name is in every group/community we have in our full community, with all notifications set to real time. As the CEO, I want to have my hands in the middle, as the energy that drives the association and board forward. I want to converse on a moment’s notice. I also like responding to some posts via email if it will be included in tomorrow’s digest, to give people a chance to see several perspectives.

Matt: There is no one typical day, and I also subscribe to all digests in real time. My day involves a lot of reading, writing and problem solving. Wearing a few hats, I have to rely on volunteer leaders and groups to make sure the content stays at the caliber we want and discussions stay ongoing in all communities.

Q: What’s the feature or system in your online community you think everyone should know about?

Megan: The ability for group organizers to send personalized messages to everyone in the community has been really helpful. For example, some groups have monthly conference calls and will send a reminder using this function. We’ve seen better attendance as a result!

Tom: Engagement is the key to all the communities, and making a pathway is critical. I love that when people get emails, they can respond instantaneously (and not have to log in to the website). We have three or four passwords for resources, training, etc., so this streamlines it all.

James: We killed our listservs to implement the online community, which caused a few eyebrows to wrinkle. But I explained members could respond via email (similar to a listserv), and that was reassuring for staff and members.

Matt: I totally agree with Tom about engagement pathways. Replying by email is a fantastic manifestation of that. The feature in Collaborate I’d like to spread the word on is coordinating your own events. Let’s say you’re a membership specialist and want to get together with peers—you can set that up and post on Collaborate. Last year we had 148 events at ASAE that went through our community calendar, managed by and for members. If you think about the staff resources saved, that’s a sizable chunk of ROI.

Ben: Matt’s being modest—ASAE is really pushing the envelope with things like Volunteer Manager (member profile rewards, staff easily posting opportunities) and automation rules and workflows to automate a lot of community management tasks.

Q: What are your thoughts about lurkers? Good, bad or indifferent?

Tom: When people don’t know what they don’t know, they won’t participate at all. I’d rather have 100 people participating and 1,000 watching—if they don’t watch, they’ll never get engaged. Along the way, they will slowly find topics they want to engage in.

James: I agree 100%. It leads to discussions like what can members versus non-members see, because it may take a week/month/ year/longer, but hopefully that lurker becomes a poster and is involved in the proverbial layers of the onion.

Matt: There’s nothing wrong with being a lurker—I’m a big lurker in most communities. People come in and read and you never know what will come out of that. Think about calls to action you can provide those lurkers. It behooves us to consider what our calls to action are and what we’re asking members to do. Our automation workflows can show me who isn’t engaging, so I can reach out and ask them to post in their favorite groups, for example. Using Activity Sync, we can sometimes see lurkers are downloading the most content or visiting a lot of pages. We can connect their community and association engagement together this way.

Bethany: I heart lurkers (I’m holding up my hands in a heart shape). I appreciate them.

Ben: I don’t think they’re bad, they’re just not good. The issue I have is it’s hard to measure them (unless with open rates on emails). In general, I want more content to push out, because that’s how the community becomes more valuable. I want people to contribute more and post more. I think Higher Logic even has a default automation rule that says, “Hey, we noticed you sent a private message— mind sharing that in a public forum for everyone to learn from?” Another point: once a member becomes a lurker, it’s difficult to convert them to an active member. This is where automation rules can really help.

Tom: It’s not a bad thing to have say, 100 people in the room, but it is bad if no one’s saying anything. So I can see your point in that regard.

Ben: When you can see activity that shows social proof, it also shows the powers that be the community is active and vibrant.

Q: How do you use public social media like Twitter and Facebook with your online community?

Tom: We don’t really pull all of the public social content into our community, but I’m a believer in getting 100% of our members to watch or engage with us in some fashion (it doesn’t have to be with every channel). We use Hootesuite to push out community activity into social channels. A lot goes into our weekly e-newsletter, too. It’s important to keep information constantly flowing— so everyone sees you in whichever channel they choose.

James: Getting into online community grew out of activity on our social media. Some people are more inclined to use Twitter or maybe just the community, but what I do is try to open the gates among the channels. If thereis an active conversation in the community that week, I’ll reference is in other channels and also keep an eye on people who ask questions using hashtags, to focus it back to the community and link to that relevant section.

Megan: I’m glad Tom brought up the cross pollination factor. Sometimes you can bring in Twitter experts or community experts to contribute to active conversations. We’re unique in that most online communities are publicly open (besides logging in). What we typically find is we have an active presence on Twitter, so that’s a real gathering place for our audience. If they want a long form answer, they’ll use our discussion groups.

Bethany: Social media is a great way to tag people you know have good answers. Encourage them to come into the community to answer questions.

Ben: We advocate for our clients to see social media sites as invitations to your party (i.e. the online community).

Q: How do you communicate success or ROI to management, the board or those who don’t participate in the community?

Tom: Our board understands the concept of networking, and that the future is coming up faster than we can keep up. They understand the impact of posing a question to 1,000 people, rather than a few managers. How would you like to have 24-hour access to information?

Our number one metric is live change—you have to have social media in order for people to truly engage outside of meetings. And 60% of our members never get to a live meeting, so the ROI when we launched is that 60% engaged, in some fashion, online. We needed an outlet for members to express themselves and not feel alone in experiencing a problem. Is it changing the way our members connect and are we solving their problems? The answer is yes.

Matt: At the end of the day, data rules. Social media was always just going to be the cost of relevancy: what’s the ROI of pants or your mom was the old mantra. I could say community is the future of association membership, but I need the data to back it up. ASAE has done research to prove members are 23% more likely to recommend ASAE to peers if they’re active on the community.

We broke down the math from those 148 member-led events—it was $3 million saved. And now we’re conducting community research alongside Ben with Online Community Results and Higher Logic, to track and measure the effect of automated onboarding processes for first year members, and how that improves retention.

James: What is important for different associations is there needs to be some ROI dictated, and we need to understand the best way to convey that message to a particular organization. Some are more inclined to see hard data like ASAE, or maybe smaller associations may need it later, but early in the process it’s good to collect anecdotes like “Volunteer A had a problem, and it was solved by an answer in the online community.” This can carry big weight as well. What’s important is to know who you’re talking to.

Ben: We always push our clients to find dollars and cents from the community. Higher Logic’s 2015 Community Benchmarking Report found between 4-12% higher retention rates for organizations with an online community. That’s a real bump in revenue.

Q: What’s the single best kick-ass community management tactic you use?

Megan: I have to say one of the best things is to practice random acts of thanks. Take an extra step to make someone feel really welcomed or appreciated. If you’re talking with someone about administrative tasks or a heavy topic, reach out and make it more personal. It goes a long way to fostering the feeling of community.

Tom: Two things we try:

  1. We force every committee to have its own community, for private discussions and to help lurkers get engaged, centralizing documents and conversations.
  2. Everyone has questions about their industry on nearly a weekly basis, so we’ve been trying to pose a “Question of the Week” every Monday, crowd-sourced from members in our open forum. We’ll hit topics everyone has an opinion on. We hope it’s a kick-ass thing for 2016.

Ben: Mine is super simple: auto subscribe. Far and away, auto subscribing members (into an open forum, a micro community for a special interest group, etc.) and making sure they get those email digests on a daily basis is critical. I got to bat (and war!) with senior executives to convince them this is in their best interest. I think I’m batting close to 1,000 now, since I advocate for it so vehemently.

Tom: We did the invite thing at the beginning, and only got about 5% subscriber rate. After a few months we decided it wasn’t working. Members don’t know what they’re missing until they see it.

Matt: This is one of the battles I’m currently fighting. The risk is probably about 7% of members disengaging. So you will reach 93% of your members—that’s pretty compelling, isn’t it?

Q: What’s the most surprising success you’ve had as a community manager or in your community?

Matt: Coming into community management, I perceived moderation like the wild west, with boots and spurs reverbing off hard-wood floors. But the members themselves are the most defensive of their communities, and they self-moderate well. It’s fascinating to see them move across those roles. The CEO network also is interesting—it’s a safe, private space they have and one of the most engaged of all communities in Collaborate.

James: In retrospect it shouldn’t have been so surprising, but the amount of work in preparing and launching those smaller sub communities was heavy. Each month we added a few more based on activity we saw. You might think getting involved is intuitive, but not for everyone. The members asked to serve as community champions were so thankful to us for setting up advice/seed questions/discussion generation guidelines—it’s not something that comes naturally to everyone. So whatever you can do to prep them in advance, the payoff is ten times better.

Bethany: I’m regularly blown away by how generous folks are in the community. So many people take a lot of time to answer questions (even lurkers) with a ton of resources. It’s pretty amazing.

Q: How do you manage risk in your online community? The rules change often, so how do you keep up?

Megan: Regularly looking at analytics is key! These can help indicate when there are drops or increases in engagement. Now that Higher Logic has activity data that we can synch with our AMS, we can get a clearer picture of how our members are engaging with us, and respond accordingly.

James: For now, it is a question of just monitoring the space and seeing what happens. Our members are not likely to behave badly, but they may inadvertently violate fair-trade language, etc., so I watch for that. We had one potential political pothole pop up recently, but even that conversation was civil and productive. We did have to do a little convincing to let it run its course without staff interference.

Matt: Don’t look at your rules as absolute, but rather guidelines for behavior within the community. Be fluid and responsive to your members’ unique needs and tolerances.

Q: What advice do you have for new community managers?

Megan: Be responsive and be yourself. Truly listening to your community and answering their questions promptly is one of the best ways you can establish trust. It’s one of the key ways to build the reputation of your community as a valuable resource. I highly recommend Feverbee, The Community Roundtable (especially their newly published report!) and CMX Hub for online community resources.

James: Read everything you can so that when something new first happens, you have some reference point to help you make a decision about what is the “best” thing to do. Lots of people are going to have opinions about how to set up rules, features, etc. In this emerging world, be as prepared as you can be.

Matt: Network with your peers, read and hone your listening skills. Check out Higher Logic’s HUG, Online Community Results, FeverBee, CMX, Community Roundtable, ASAE materials, HBR—Harvard Business Review, a litany of blogs, such as “Cultivating Communities of Practice, Entienne Wenger”—the social utility of community, strategy and business case. It’s all there. Excellent resources.

Q: Do you have a tip for aspiring community managers?

Megan: Be a community member yourself. Great community managers sometimes start as super users. You gain a lot of under-standing of community dynamics and the culture of the community by being on the user side of things.

James: You can dip the proverbial toe in the water with social media. But in addition to that, participate in online communities or lurk around them to see how they ebb and flow. You want to learn how to speak a new language? Go to that country. Want to learn how to improve your writing? Read good writers. Want to learn how to be a community manager? Participate in online communities.

Matt: If you’ll indulge my arts background for just a second—“This above all—to thine own self be true…” Be yourself! Communities are all about the people, and those unique personalities make communities more rich and vibrant. Your unique approach, perspectives and voice will serve you well in community management. A truly genuine, empathetic quality is infectious and will really shape the culture of your community.

Q: What’s the top challenge you’re facing in your community and how are you addressing it?

Megan: Keeping community group momentum going when a key leader steps down. We’re addressing this by having our communities of practice have a minimum of two organizers with a six-month commitment. Towards the end of that period, we check in to see if folks would like to continue or step down from their role, and think about “succession plans” for a new leader to step up, as appropriate.

Matt: Community awareness and education among ASAE membership. Since we do not auto-subscribe, the campaign to bring members into the community is critical in converting members to Collaborate users. Developing a curriculum and holding routine training webinars for members is critical to ensure they’re able to effectively leverage this powerful resource.

James: Same as nearly everyone—just trying to get those members who haven’t signed up to check out the community, to get the lurkers to become posters, and the posters to become repeat posters. It takes a lot of little victories to make that happen—there’s not a silver bullet.

Q: Tell us more about your plans for the future of your community. What does 2016 look like?

James: Come 2016, I hope the online community will become more a standard part of our association experience and not just something new. Along with the increased engagement that would bring, it would also empower us to use it for more features, such as volunteer management and mentoring; both of which we are considering for 2016, if they match up with other strategic association initiatives.

Megan: We’re excited to be formalizing a badge system, and creating clear pathways of engagement for folks that may come to our organization through different programs. We’ll continue to increasingly integrate community with our online educational programs.

Matt: The next year for ASAE and Collaborate is going to be very exciting. I’m focusing on breaking down barriers to entry (reply by email, mobile optimization, education initiatives), integrating automation across multiple business lines, and preparing to scale up regarding ASAE’s quickly approaching hybrid membership model (launching January 2016).

Want to see the replay of this Kick-Ass Community Manager Roundtable webinar? Visit our follow-up page for access to the recording, Slideshare and additional resources.

Topics: Online Community Management, Online Community

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