Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Avoiding the Community Manager Superstar

Every time a colleague tells me her museum has just hired a "community person," a part of me cringes. I whole-heartedly support the goals that motivate the hire--to connect with visitors online and onsite in more meaningful relationships--but I worry about focusing such a broad mandate into the tiny point of a single individual.

When community managers are the sole masters of their own dominions, two problems arise. First, their efforts are not fully integrated into the overall work and focus of other staff, which can lead to conflicts between institutional and community needs. And second, the communities they manage often become unhealthily centered on the managers' personalities and abilities, causing problems if those community managers ever choose to leave.

I've been this community manager and know these problems first-hand. When I was at The Tech Museum developing and leading the Tech Virtual community, I tried to involve a wide range of staff members in the online exhibit development community, so that we could spread out the interactions and relationships built between amateurs and experts. But The Tech's management decided that spending time in the online community space was a "waste of time" for staff whose role was not explicitly focused on that community, and the engineers and fabricators who had enthusiastically engaged early on were forbidden to continue. Left on my own, I put on my best cheerleader face and cultivated a couple volunteers to help manage a growing community of amateur exhibit designers. The project was a chaotic experiment in several ways, and because things kept changing, the community had to keep relying on me as their sole source of information about how things would move forward. We started to form unhealthy relationships in which I was the cheerleader, coach, and point person to all community members. While my energy and enthusiasm as a community leader held the group together, once I left at the end of my project, the community fell apart. While subsequent museum staff have kept the project going, the community had connected with me as the focal point, and there has not been a new person who has been able to comparably rally the community to high levels of activity.

I don't tell this story with pride; I tell it with shame. It was partially my fault that the Tech Virtual community did not thrive beyond my tenure. I was a good community manager, but the system we set up to perform that management and cultivate the community was ill-considered. It's a warning sign when community members make comments like, "it was only boundless encouragement from Avi (Nina's Second Life avatar) that prevented me from giving up more than once." This is a person who was one community manager away from leaving the group. It may be easiest to quickly rally a community around one dynamic or charismatic person, but that doesn't make for a healthy, sustaining project.

Why does this happen in the first place? There are two good reasons that organizations tend to focus community activities around a single individual: it consolidates resources spent on a particular strategy, and it simplifies the interaction for community members. Let's look at each of these briefly.

Institutions are accustomed to associating individual staff members with specific projects and associated resources. But community managers, like floor staff managers, are responsible for interacting with a vast and varied group of people who engage with the institution. In one way, they are like development officers who cultivate small, targeted sets of individuals via personal relationships. But they are more importantly the face and voice of the institution to everyone online, a floor staff army of one. This is a problem. If you only had one person who worked the floor of your museum, and he was incredibly charismatic and quirky, you'd appreciate that his personality puts a unique and specific stamp on the onsite experience, one that attracts some visitors and repels others. The same is true for online communities. The more voices there are in the mix, the more the community management team can effectively welcome community members of all kinds. The Science Buzz blog, which is managed by a team of exhibit developers, science writers, and floor staff at the Science Museum of Minnesota, is a good example of diversified community management that models the inclusion of a range of voices and opinions. The Buzz staff even argue with each other in blog comments, modeling a kind of healthy scientific debate that would be impossible for a single community manager to hold (unless she is schizophrenic, which is not a recommended solution to this problem).

But this leads to the concern that diffusing the community "voice" among multiple staff members can generate confusion and frustration for visitors. This is a valid concern, especially on social sites that are not tightly aggregated. On Buzz, for example, every author is part of the same overall blog, so it is not hard to conceptually manage the idea of multiple institutional authors. But on Twitter or Flickr or across multiple blogs, it can be very hard for visitors to understand who exactly they are connecting with. Many museums are attacking this problem by hosting a central "community" or "social" page on their websites (see COSI's or the Brooklyn Museum's) that aggregates all of the Web 2.0 activities managed by museum staff so that visitors can understand at a glance what is available and who directs it.

Many organizations focus on a single individual as the point person for community engagement for clarity. If you do this, make sure that this individual is devoted to the institutional mission and not their own empire-building. If your community is focused around one person, you must plan for succession and think about what will happen if that individual leaves. Even the most well-intentioned community managers may not be able to transfer their unique personality and style to new staff. Imagine the most popular person in a friend group moving away and anointing a new, unknown person to take her place in the social network--it's nearly impossible.

The best community managers are people who effectively manage networks, not celebrity. They help other staff members understand opportunities for connecting with communities of interest, and they provide support and training so that many individuals across the institution can work with their communities in ways that are sensitive to staff abilities and resources. One of the community managers I most admire is Beck Tench at the Museum of Life and Science. During her tenure as director of web experience, Beck has helped staff across the museum start their own projects on several social websites. With the horticulture team, she set up the Flickr Plant Project, in which the scientists upload a single image of a flower with some information per week and then encourage communities of flower-lovers to share their own photos, stories, and questions about the same plant. The animal keepers run their own blog about the crazy hijinks of their furry team. Online social engagement is also intelligently tied into the efforts of the membership, marketing, and exhibit design teams, without Beck having to be the face of each project to the intended audience. Beck even organizes weekly happy hours for staff to promote community internally. And while she tracks and supports all of these projects, Beck's not the queen of any of them from the visitor perspective.

The ideal community manager is more like a matchmaker than a ringmaster. He points visitors to the networks of greatest interest to them and helps staff connect with communities that they want to serve. She is energetic and passionate about serving the needs of the institution's community. It's fine to have a community manager who is the "go to" person, the face of all of the projects, as long as that person is ultimately pointing visitors to other venues for engagement. After all, you don't want everyone who visits your institution to have a relationship with just one person. You want visitors to connect with the stories, experiences, and staff that are most resonant to them. A good community manager can make that happen.

18 comments, add yours!:

Martin Reed said...

Agreed. A community manager needs to be a representative - not the main focus of the community.

The focus needs to be on the individuals that make up the community. A good community manager will know that and work to ensure the spotlight is always turned away from them and onto the members.

Patricia said...

Yup, agree. Community manager should learn how to connect one member to another member who share similar characteristics or interests.

An engaging community is a place where groups of people gather. Each group exists for different reasons & have different leaders. A community manager should work to enable formation of those groups & leaders.

BarbaraJ said...

I so appreciated this post.I admit that I have fallen into this trap more than once. There is a tendency to make oneself indispensable in a job and this approach creates a false sense of security and ultimately false sense of accomplishment. It comes down to being dedicated to the sustainability of your efforts and institution, rather than to your celebrity. (unfortunately, our culture so supports the later)

Cyberpedagogy said...

I've also been guilty of this in my work, and have seen it happen so many times at other places. A bigger issue that I ran into though, was the institution's commitment and position on audience building, which I think Nina touched on. Institutions typically like to compartmentalize things, whether within department/media/discipline. They tell the staff that this is your job, and you only cross-over with the other departments for reasons A, B, or C. Anything else is a waste of time. I found myself repeatedly butting into this type of bureaucracy while trying to build a sustainable teen program for a museum, but after certain key staff left, the institution was no longer behind this project, and eventually the whole thing was abandoned. This was early in my career, and a valuable lesson.

Sue John said...

A really great article. Thanks for sharing.

In many ways a community manager is like a parent. You show them how to ride the bike, then you let go of the handle bars and let them ride of with their friends. All the time watching from a little distance away.

Conxa Rodà said...

Crystal clear, thank you, Nina.

The same way a moderator is not the keynote speaker (though some seem to believe so), a community manager is to empower and enable the community not him/herself.
But it's really a tricky role.

And truth is that in many cases Social Media are implemented due to the initiative or enthusiasm of one person. Sometimes, museum staff are not that eager to engage in 2.0 adventure. And for the institution is comfortable to have just 1 person assigned to that job. All in all contributes to create that one-person-project which I totally agree is an strategic mistake.

Chris Bailey said...

Terrific insights, here. This sentence nails it:
"I was a good community manager, but the system we set up to perform that management and cultivate the community was ill-considered."

It's so easy for executives to get hung up on the power of the individual and forget that long-term health of any initiative is built on a strong system. You poignantly note the pitfalls of how a system collapses without an internal community involvement.

Rudy The Community Manager said...

"The best community managers are people who effectively manage networks, not celebrity."

Exactly managing communities is about "social", not about "fame" !

John Buchinger said...

Managing a community. This is such a weird concept when you stop and think about it. It feels to me like reaching out to women, tweens, African-Americans, a local industry is such a poor concept. It will evntually implode as memebrs of the community move on, disperse or realize they are being pandered to. It also feels like defacto segregation. I hate going to a museum evnt and seeing special areas for socities or anything that feels too exclusive. I like the 1st fan model that is accessible for all but takes some minimum effort, kind of like a library card.
To engage communities museum leaders will have to have the courage to walk out into their communities, look around at the spectrum, and realize they are there to serve. I recentally herd from a leader from a large museum who talked about the first step to growing a thriving audiance was to become the star of the community. This was done through reaching out to where the community was, seeing who was there, and then creating events where the entire community was welcomed. I would love if museums had their community decide to be sub groups in that sub groups. Naturally placing yourself in groups in a larger dynamic I think is natural. Having it placed on you is problematic at best and does require someone saying-Hey guys- we are the cool 20 somethings at the museum - lets party and be cool!
We need a leader who sets a tone and presents our institutions as places of value, and when the community shows up asks "What do you want to do?"

Eric Siegel said...

Good management in general can be informed by the same insights.

John B, I find your comments very useful, I am forwarding them to some colleagues as we work to become more of a community facing resource. But the last sentence disturbs me. "and when the community shows up asks "What do you want to do?'"

It disturbs me from three points of view. First, the answer could be entirely unrelated to the mission or focus of the museum "we want you to start a daycare program." Second, it could be fiscally impossible/imprudent "we want you to be free." (pace Elaine G) Finally, my experience in community engagement in exhibitions is that you need to be pretty clear about what you are intending to do to get useful response. You can't simply say "we are doing an exhibition about sustainability, what do you think should be in it?" It needs to be much more of a dialogue, and the museum needs to lead the dialogue until there is a sense that the participants catch on to the ideas and are moving in a direction that is useful.

I know this is pushing a bit against the stream, but I increasingly think that without smart, creative, energetic "curatorial" minds, we will not have engaging, interesting, or challenging exhibitions/programs/museums.


Dean Krimmel said...

In "Built to Last," Jim Collins and Jerry Porras contrast the charismatic, visionary leader who is merely "telling time" (amazing us with their talents in the here and now) with the "clock builder" whose efforts live on long after they are gone because they have concentrated on building the organization. Seems to me that we need to spend more time up front--articulating broader (deeper?) goals for our initiatives, programs and institutions. Great stuff, Nina.

ABC said...

Just like Dean I immediately thought about Jim Collins while reading this. A great and sustainable community is like a great and sustainable company, I reckon. This article, however, made me realise that when starting out with a community, it might be very useful to stick to Jim Collins' rules. My thoughts are triggered.

I guess the most important thing of a community member is to be virtually invisible. If only few people in the community know the manager's name, s/he has done a good job in making the community the centre of attention, not her/himself.

Thanks a lot Nina for sharing this. Food for thought.

John Buchinger said...

So sure, if the community shows up and says I want to start a meth lab, we know that isn't for us. ;)
I taught middle school for six years. It was in a student directed curriculum. I asked my kids almost everyday "What do you want to learn today?" Some times I asked this directly but more often than not I created self directed situatiuons where I scaffoled the learning. Sometimes I helped them discover new things about topics I determined they needed to learn about, afterall I was the expert.
I do think leaders need to act more proactively to invovle the larger community. They are the experts on their institutions. They are the ones that know how to scaffold the mission, to bring our visitors seamlessly to the places that our missions and objects lead us.
I also think I need to stop ending my posts with pithy little phrases.

Unknown said...

Hmmm...Great post, Nina!

I happened to pick up Jono Bacon's book, The Art of Community" this morning. What a coincidence! :) He defines what community managers do on p. 14: "'I help enable a worldwide collection of volunteers to work together to do things that make a difference to them.' Twenty of those twenty-one words are really just filler around the word that I really think describes what we do: enable."

Billy Brown said...

awesome write up. As somebody who is very new to community monitoring/fostering this is essential stuff.

Maria Mortati said...

Eric said: "I know this is pushing a bit against the stream, but I increasingly think that without smart, creative, energetic "curatorial" minds, we will not have engaging, interesting, or challenging exhibitions/programs/museums."

I couldn't agree more. That's WHY people come to museums. They'd just like to engage more, and face a chasm of exclusivity less.

Beccav said...

Loved the piece on being a Community Manager superstar so much have started to regularly add Nina's blog to our website. We are having a debate next Thursday (12th November) from 10am to 1pm GMT about social inclusion and cultural heritage stretching from ideas about a museum's social responsibility to the idea that the very nature of who decides what is cultural heritage remains exclusive and devalues others. Would love to know your thoughts on the matter. Do join us or post a comment in advance (it may be midnight your time!) at

felixshelsher said...

That's true that community manager needs to be a representative because he is the leader of whole community. A good community manager should know all the aspect relevant for its community. His work to ensure form them and other member. Community manager is like a parents. He should be take care of his member and know the requirement of the member.

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