Job Hazards of the Community Manager

I started out my social media career as a community manager, and can see why several community managers have expressed some concerns about our over connected world. It seems that some of them are cursed with the very technology that gets them paid.

You see, some community managers have a hard time separating their personal and their professional lives. In some cases, I’ve heard that the members of the communities they serve become so comfortable with them as a social contact that they send them friend requests in Facebook, (where some community managers may have personal and family info) follow their tweets, and connect with them in many ways.

As a result, the work of the community manager is never done, they’re now completely connected to the community they serve. While sure, an effective for way to build trust and really know your community at work, this leaves very little personal space. In some cases, I’m sure that community managers will get requests in Facebook to solve issues, or take feedback, as well as exposing their personal life to their customers.

Perhaps one of the most scary cases are those of troublemaker community members that become so livid when they are reprimanded or removed from a community that they seek personal revenge against the community manager, and are able to find out way more information than any phone support person would have supplied.

As a result, expect community managers to create more than one personal identity, withhold personal information, and potentially suffer from burnout or frustration at work and at home. These are the challenges of being connected to the community you serve –even during off hours.

Love to hear from the community managers out there, what are the other hazards of the job?

37 Replies to “Job Hazards of the Community Manager”

  1. As a community manager, your personal reputation is also tied to the company you represent, and if the company falters, your reputation can get taken down with it. The same holds true if the community is successful, so there are some benefits, but the risk is always there.

  2. It can be difficult to refrain from focusing on the negative. It is very similar to having a customer service job or a policemen. When all you deal with in the negative in can be hard to see the good in your work.

    In my case I work in casual games, a less tech savvy demographic. All they want is for games to work, they don’t care how or why. My job is done best when there are LESS comments.
    To sum up- the toughest part is to stay positive and get buy in.

  3. Assuming I can use the term “community manager” loosely, to include the community that I’ve built around blog readers and some other social environments, and NOT just a Yahoo Group, or something like that, I’ll share the one hazard that affects me the most:

    Getting deflated.

    When I get too much negativity, harshness, etc., it’s hard to do the rest of the work I have to do. Sometimes people react too quickly (after a few emails they fall over themselves apologizing for being too brash, or judgemental, etc.), but just the initial reaction is enough negativity to impact how I perform in my work for the next few minutes or few hours.

  4. I´m just starting as a community manager so I can’t really give any opinion but this post is a really helpful heads-up, I didn’t know it was this scary Thanks!

  5. Boundaries are more porous all the time, which is the gist of the problem for many community wranglers. Boundaries, as Cory notes, between a company that may be less engaged or successful in this arena and your own self as an engaged participant–just one example. I remain positive, however, that over time the wear and tear on boundaries will result in greater tolerance and flexibility. Got my rose colored glasses on today.

  6. i think this is a issue for anyone who works online dealing with the “public”. For myself as an account manager, I still run into situations where clients will e-mail me at my personal account, try to add me on Facebook and generally overstep that business/life divide. My colleague just this week had one of his accounts call him on his personal cell phone. How he got the number I’ll never know but it’s not something we give out.

    Building a community is a double edged sword in some ways. You want the members to feel as though they are valued members and that it’s a personal relationship with the community manager but at the same time respect that business/life divide. Because some people have problems recognizing this Community managers need to be aware. We in the online community always telling kids that they need to be careful about what they divulge online but I’m not so sure how many of us take that advice to heart.

  7. While I’m not a community manager, I do a fair amount of social-media engagement on behalf of my clients, and I also do a lot of education and training within my firm around those topics, counseling account teams and AE-level folks about how to do this in a respectful, thoughtful manner.

    What I find, not just in performing the engagement functions myself, but with other account-team folks I’ve trained to do this kind of outreach, is that often, the blurry lines are a little bit arresting. For instance, on a recent campaign, I had a rather positive, friendly interaction with a blogger; he was very enthusiastic and very, very nice. Then, I got a notification that he had added me on LinkedIn. Recently, one of the account team members I’ve been working with on another account program got added on Facebook by an “outreach target” (I use that term while hating it; they’re not targets, they’re people, for God’s sake). Point being, those of us executing in the social-media space face a lot of the same issues and moments of “whoa!” when the professional collides with the personal.

    For the record, I went ahead and accepted the LinkedIn invitation. I advised the AE who was added on FB that they did not have to accept it if they did not feel it was appropriate. LinkedIn is more of a professional networking space, so I felt that that was okay; but Facebook’s a little more personal.

    (I won’t get into what happened the day that a client added me on Facebook. ACK.)

    So far, neither I nor anyone that I have counseled has been the victim of an attack, snarky email, or other assorted public backhanding (knock on wood). I try to approach all the people I reach out to with respect, and hope that that comes across, and I definitely try to get that across to anyone I counsel. I know that the day will come where somebody will end up on the Internet Snark-A-Tron, maybe even me, so I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it.

    I have the added luxury (ha!) of being female. This isn’t said to be sexist, not at all, but I do think women generally have a little more to fear in this universe just by nature of the unknowns we face when interacting online. I realize bringing up the ghost of Kathy Sierra is, to some, tantamount to invoking Godwin’s Law, but as someone who’s been stalked online by someone who came out of the monitor and up to her front door (not in relation to my job, and it was over six years ago), I totally understood how she felt. Someone coming completely unglued for reasons unbeknownst to us is a very real worry and fear for a lot of us, and I know several women that it’s happened to; no men, however. I’m not denying that it happens, but overall, I think behaviour like that skews in one direction. When I’m working with female account team members, I always add cautionary tales and tell them that if anything like that starts to brew, they need to CALL ME for help.

    As usual, YMMV.

  8. Cory O’Brien, I agree with Cory on this. As the public face of my group I take gouging by the community for things that are out of my control. It can be difficult but you have to be EMPATHETIC. Empathy is probably the BEST attribute a community manager can have. It will always lead you to be the best advocate for your members to business owners.

  9. Hey everyone,

    great responses and lots to think about Jeremiah, so thanks as per usual.

    I am just starting as a community manager and the potential size of the community is extremely large and based in at least two different time zones.

    I have been up front with my employer about my concerns over time spent on the job, and no matter what role you are in, I think this is really the only course of action.

    If your employer understands the risks associated with being a community manager (burnout etc) then they are more likely to be sympathetic when it comes to staffing issues or any other personal/private transgressions.

    Ultimately, it’s a personal decision. I try to maintain a very hands-on approach with the communities I have worked in. They have the same access to me as I have to them, and by not spamming them, breaching their privacy and generally disrespecting them, I try to encourage similar behaviour from the community.

    Of course, setting a good example doesn’t always work, so perhaps having a process in place for handling grievances or requests from the community for friending would be a good idea.

    I wonder what this would look like? Thoughts welcome.

  10. I recently wrote someone an email explaining some of my thoughts on the positives/negatives of being a community manager…

    Off the top of my head, I like the fact that you can quite possibly know more about a community and learn valuable insights about it more than the people who built it – in that you’re the one on the front lines talking to everyone about their experiences, so you get the full-force blow of what’s out there, while a developer or founder may only get a brief summary. I find that to be extremely valuable. I like that you’re able to truly help people sometimes and shatter their low expectations of having a response from someone who doesn’t care or doesn’t reply to them at all.

    Dislikes. I dislike when people fashion responses as if they’re not talking to another human being (e.g. mean, rude, hyperventilating, etc.) – however, I will say 9 out of 10 times, when you respond to them nicely, they will apologize for coming off so brash. I dislike when a few users will decide to gang up on you personally due to their frustration with the service (my example is that I threw CupcakeCamp on a Sunday, and since Pownce performance was slow, a group decided to get together and make mean remarks like “maybe if you weren’t stuffing your face with cupcakes and actually working, the site wouldn’t suck!”). It hurts because they’re taking part of your personal life and trying to get you in trouble for it. This is just where you have to smile and say that despite your love of cupcakes, it doesn’t interfere with development.

    Best part… just being part of something that thousands of users feel so strongly about. Being able to learn a lot and have conversations. Sometimes being the one to stand up for the community in company meetings.

  11. Hey Ariel,

    love that final comment of yours:

    “Best part¦ just being part of something that thousands of users feel so strongly about. Being able to learn a lot and have conversations. Sometimes being the one to stand up for the community in company meetings.”

    That is the part of my job that I have always loved – giving a sh1t about the individuals who form a community and how they form that community.

    Too often businesses decide to form a community witht he express intention of capitalising on it and withdrawing more value than they provide. I see my job as to help get the balance right, and usually that does mean being the voice of the community in the boardroom.

    Cheers for the insight.

  12. ‘Being apart of something that thousands of users feel so strongly about’ is definitely one my favorite aspects. I also thoroughly enjoying solving people’s problems, every email is a new challenge and a new chance to earn that persons trust.

    That in and of itself is worth dealing with the occasional prick.

    In regards to Facebook, I’m a user who really is friends with my friends (it’s funny to have to explain that, it would have made no sense 10 years ago) and therefore I keep my privacy pretty tight; not too worried about people targeting me and I’m not worried about who follows me on twitter or pownce, I do however lockdown my photo sets on Flickr.

    Finally, the fact that I’m a community manager for a site that deals with Investing, draws a fine line between what I can legally say to our members. Furthermore because I have my own website about finance/investing, I have to remember where I am and who I’m talking for; this is difficult.

  13. When I was working in the Bay area for a Community team, we felt the need to create the separation that you are talking about.
    The entire staff would post within the online community forums with an Alias, so that members did not truly know who we were. (I realize that this is not “transparent”, but it worked). When we posted to the community, our posts were “marked” as being an actual employee (other members could not duplicate the markings that we had and if they tried, they were easily found). We would also post what department that we worked for, so that the member could feel comfortable knowing what we did.
    Depending on the size and the topic of the community that you are serving, that may be an appropriate way to address the situations that you are talking about.

  14. @ethanbloch – you and I have much in common (I also manage community in the financial services sphere and have regulations to consider) and I do as you do – I’m actually friends with my friends on social networking sites and after 12 years in community management I’ve learned fully not to mix “business” with “pleasure” in this industry. All my social networking community profiles are either locked to people I know and trust, or not easily identifiable to members of communities I manage.

    I hate feeling as if I have to close off like that. However, that is how I find I can be the most effective, passionate advocate for both the community and the company – create a clear separation between my personal online life and my work online life.

    Great post Jeremiah!

  15. I used to manage blogs for a local TV news affiliate. Our bloggers would get so angry at us for penalizing their bad behavior that they would turn on each other.

    The worst cases were by far when threats were made via blogs toward our TV personalities and their families.

    Eventually we recruited some “good” bloggers to help us manage the community. We gave them the abilities to penalize and remove users who were acting up.

    As for mixing business with blogging… all anyone had to do was Google my name and our station to find my FB page, personal Web site, Twitter, etc. I like to think of my online life as a hybrid of my career and personal life. Exposing small parts of yourself to the community helps form a trusting relationship, but I keep important things to myself.

  16. If anyone needs help connecting to others here, (community manager to community manager) please let me know, and I’ll make the connection via email if both parties agree.

    I see some great opportunities for networking and group therapy here.

  17. I found my way here through a tweet by Ariel Waldman, and I’m really glad I did. I was having similar thoughts in my position at my company.

    Not exactly a full fledged community manager, but as someone who does most of my work within social media and web 2.0 spaces, I find (and excuse if this has traces of douche attached to it) that a lot of my personal brand is bleeding into the professional brand that I am developing/evangelizing.

    I find it kind of hard to separate myself since my job perfectly fits in with my own personal goals, working in comedy, new media, video, social media. But I’m just kind of scared of sort of “losing” myself and sort of putting all this time into the company brand and neglecting my own pursuits. That’s about it. I would eventually like to sort of be the official community manager around these parts, so it’s good to know of the sort of things to not be surprised that may pop up.


  18. There seem to be at least three major categories of risk for community manager folks, several of which Jeremiah already alluded to:

    * Management overhead of maintaining multiple identity roles online. Or, conversely, not having set up such a structure dealing with “worlds colliding. (Of course, even in the first case, there will be occasional overlap.)

    * The stress of being very much on the front line and not necessarily have the control to just solve the problems. Almost by definition, (mine anyway), anyone doing such a job likely has some empathy for others and wants to try to get the right thing done. This won’t always work out.

    * Real risk from the true whack jobs out there.

    In the real risk category, there’s at least these types I’ve come across.

    * Legitimate Gripes. These folks may be rational or irrational, but either way, have legit issues. Handling these – since they’re legitimate problems – may entail conflicts between needing to offer information and transparency, but having legal obligations as well.

    * Trolls and troublemakers. These folks are just loud and poke fun for fun. Eventually they get bored and go away.

    * True disturbed individuals or those so very angry they will take real actions in the real world; whatever those may be.

    I think the most crap I ever personally took was many years ago when working at Prodigy Services Company. (Remember them?? : ) I’d been product manager for USENET Newsgroups, (Remember them?? : ) All of a sudden, one day we flipped a switch and started putting 50K per month new users on what had formerly been an open system, but nonetheless insular community in terms of attitude. Yeah, those were some fun emails and phone calls. Not to mention dealing with threats from one member to another for topics ranging from online stalking to pornography to OFFline actions of some resulting in police involvement in some cases.

    I’ve watched with great interest over the years as the few online services have morphed into what we’re starting to see now. Clay Shirky definitely has the best title for recent ‘net head must reads: Here Comes Everybody.

  19. Facebook friends: put them in your limited profile. You also have the option of pruning at a later time.

    People are naturally going to be somewhat curious. In order to protect family and friends, I also make a point not to disclose first & last names with things like Flickr photos. I also restrict certain items on Flickr to only friends & family.

    I had some moderately scary things happen at PayPal. Since then..not an ounce of trouble at Simply Hired, Mint or Tokbox. I think the type of service comes into play w/ certain customers going crazy (money, for example).

  20. I’ve been thinking about this for awhile & am going to play devil’s advocate.

    Transparency: In regard to creating an alias – what about transparency? How will your personal brand help your company & vice versa? In my most recent position, my brand is important to my employer. They wouldn’t want me working under an alias name. I wouldn’t want to work under one either.

    Inherent dangers: I’ve thought of this & am a woman. My husband has expressed his concerns. Again I couldn’t have built my brand without being me. I did read about Kathy Sierra’s challenges & pray that doesn’t happen to myself or anyone else.

    Separating work/personal life: what?!! I’m not supposed to work 24/7. 🙂 I am working on that one. But that’s my own fault/choice. I do recommend that comm mgrs step back & let peer interaction happen on a more regular basis. I think it makes for a healthier community AND comm mgr.

    Finally I’m surprised about the suggestion of keeping friending on Facebook & Twitter separated in terms of work/family. Jeremiah, I’ve followed your philosophy of befriending all everywhere & have never regretted that. Granted no one from my ‘work’ lives locally. The only problem I’ve had with FB is the FB chat – some ppl from a certain part of the world try to chat & I unfriend them. Their purpose has nothing to do with my work or presence online & that is apparent. I don’t feel threatened, but I terminate the connection.

    But I do have comm mgrs that connect with me express emotions (ranging from joy to venting). Communicating with peers is important. It is a challenging role & I hope that companies realize the value & compensate accordingly.

  21. For someone who is starting to play the role of a “Community Manager”, I want to thank everyone for their insights and advice. This post was extremeley helpful and a great read.

    Thank you!

    I would simply add that a strong customer service background has served me well with addressing issues, soliving disputes, and overall representation of the company I work for.

  22. Great post. In my 20s I partied a lot as a Goth (hey – I barely have any wrinkles from all that makeup and sunscreen, so it was worth it!)… Recently an old club friend found me on Facebook and being goodnatured I decided ‘whats the harm?’ so I accepted his friendship.

    This person immediately sent requests to my entire network which includes professionals, friends and family (some of whom are underage). It struck me as very aggressive and I told him so, eventually removing him from my list so he did not have access to my contacts.

    I rec’d an oddly worded letter from him sometime later that struck me as quite unbalanced.

    This is a reverse case of what you’re talking about but it goes along the same lines. I am getting to a point where I will be separating my Facebook and Twitter profiles from any community sites that I manage.

  23. I am a little late in commenting, but wanted to post something from a slightly different perspective. I Have been responsible for a community based around a prize competition with millions of dollars in cash prizes on the line, and I have had similar experiences. It is a much smaller number of people than a mainstream social network but they are much more intensely engaged. Almost all of the interactions are done online. When the community members lobby you for something, it is the prize they are after and some don’t hesitate from using negative commentary in public (online) about you personally as a tactic to gain your agreement. Being attacked like this isn’t fun, especially when your primary reason for doing something is to bring about technical developments that can benefit the whole world. It can also reflect negatively on the other community members.

    While a good set of community guidelines and contractual requirements can help to mitigate negative behavior, there is always the possibility that a participant severs all connection with the community and complains in public and to the media. Even when a participant shoots themselves in the foot they still tend to blame the scenario on you as the organizer, possibly naming you individually.

    Ultimately, you just have to maximize the positive interactions to the point where the comparatively small number of negative ones are essentially below the noise floor. This is a case where openness works in the favor of the community manager and in some ways can be your only real defense.

    All that being said, when you get past the tantrums and good things happen by way of participatory engagement of the public in a community based around innovation, it is really a satisfying thing because everybody benefits from it.

  24. Interestingly, I only paused to consider the posting credentials I used after I typed them on mental auto-pilot — is it personal or professional me leaving this comment? 🙂 (Bit of both, really, so I’ll use my community manager deets.)

    This hasn’t become a big concern for me yet, though I have had members of our community follow me on Twitter (after following my work account), and a handful add me on Facebook and such. Not 100% comfortable with that, but hey, that’s what privacy filters are for, and if it ever bothers me, I’ll remove them and won’t feel bad about it.

    Same as I’ve had a few people try to befriend me on various services that I don’t use in a work capacity. I turn those down to a one. I have no problem with refusing to cross the streams if I don’t see a valid reason to do so.

    Having worked in tech for some time, I’m used to the idea that work doesn’t always stick to 9 to 5, and that’s fine. There are, however, things that I can and should take care of asap, and things that can wait til Monday morning or whenever. Cliched as it sounds, not being a community manager all the time makes me a better community manager in general. Kinda in the way that parents need a break from the kids sometimes to just be people and grownups and couples.

    Interestingly, at this point, there’s as much interaction between our dev community and our devs as between the general community and myself. It’s cool to observe the differences. These guys are often all part of communities already (e.g. Ruby devs), and tend to be familiar with each other’s work, or can get familiar pretty quickly.

    While I have a blog and various web presences and they’re all pretty easy to find, researching me, personally, won’t really give you any useful info on the company or what we do, for example, whereas for the devs it would. The style of interaction also tends to be more direct, which is normal and expected among them, but not something I’d use with a new user, for example.

  25. +1 on everything – the pros and cons. community management is a lifestyle and one that requires a lot of energy and a LOT of passion for the business you’re in, the work you are doing, the communities you are serving.

    it’s a bi-polar kind of position – super high highs, and super low lows.

    i like melanie’s comment:
    “not being a community manager all the time makes me a better community manager in general.”

    if you’re doing it right you’ll earn your place with both internal and external audiences, based on the hard work, not necessarily the hours logged.

  26. I can see this thread struck a chord with more folks than just me. Some great thoughts here

    I walk this tightrope every day and don’t know what the answer is. I want to be able to sort out my real friends (no offense, community members) on Facebook, but I don’t want to deny friendship to my community members. Then again, there are benefits…a much larger crowd to hear your content (for example, me promoting my band) and contacts in industries you’re not immediately involved in.

    One issue I’ve ran into recently is in regards to availability. I freely offer up my Instant Messenger info and usually respond to community IMs when I get them. However, with one community member this has become an issue…they constantly message me with their latest issue, complaint, or random thought. I’ve spent whole days IMing with this person while trying to do other work. Instead of being the carefree, available Community Manager I want to be, I end up saying I have to go into a meeting. This does not feel good.

    I fully support integration of real life and community management…it’s the only real way to do things, in my opinion. You need to have that personal connection or people see you as a punching bag. But the line is a very unclear one.

    One solution I have implemented is “Community Office Hours”. While the community is always welcome to contact me, during office hours I am solely dedicated to them. They KNOW they can get me and chat with me, and I am able to point people to these hours when they contact me during another, busy time. It’s been hit or miss so far, but I definitely don’t regret it. I’d love to hear if anyone else has tried something like this!

  27. I would agree with Connie on some of her points. Since these networks are opt-in, we always have the ability to regulate our personal space; we can easily de-friend and block those that violate this space. Transparency is the key here, especially as the space becomes more and more crowded.

    As community managers, we are the filter for our company; we simultaneously hear and speak, translating crucial messages back and forth through the fire wall in a manner we know our community will understand and trust. Since this is our function, an interesting question arises: How can we speak as ourselves, but also represent the “voice of the brand?” How can we stay true to the values of the company that were there before we arrived, but also ensure honesty and transparency?

    For me, this is not an issue….but it does bring up an interesting paradox…anyone having this issue?

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