Online communities are often an afterthought when it comes to digital experiences.

As a result, the community managers who run these online communities can find themselves isolated from executives and co-workers as they try to create a strategy and thriving online experience.

You can end up feeling like the Lone Ranger, battling the forces of injustice and evil everywhere. Even worse, it can be tempting to revel in this persona, a martyr to the great cause nobody else understands!

That’s a certain path to isolation, burnout and cynicism.

As a new(ish) career category, online community managers inevitably enter the profession accidentally. There isn’t a formal university degree in online community building. More often than not, the people who understand what it means to manage an online community come at it in one of two ways:

  1. As an avid hobbyist, you ended up starting or taking over a Facebook Group or discussion forum about your favorite pastime.
  2. As a “luckless office junior’ (see the webinar recording), you’ve been assigned from your current role which was probably in marketing or communications to supporting the launch and growth of an online community.

Neither scenario is great. In the first instance, you came at online community with a “learn on the job” attitude and are accustomed to running a technology platform on a shoestring budget.

In the second instance, you probably have no idea what you’re getting into. And as an intern or junior employee in the organization, you’ve got no credibility, no visibility, and insufficient budget to do much meaningful.

Is it any wonder that so many online communities fail before they begin?

Naive executive expectations create community manager burnout

The idea of starting an online community usually begins with an executive who has heard of and become infatuated with the idea of connecting better with customers or employees. The executive champion may have gotten the idea that these platforms are inexpensive to start and “run themselves” after they are set up.

These assumptions are often based on an overly naive attitude towards online adoption and trust building.

The impulse to build these online communities is a good one. I do not with to impugn the positive impulse to forge better trust and connections with customers or employees.

Executive good will often goes so far as to budget for and launch an online community program, which begins as a more ad hoc implementation. If it should happen to gain some modest traction, it may even get budgeted for in hopes of identifying some sort of Return on Investment.

However, it is the very nature of a Lean Startup of Minimal Viable Product (MVP) mentality that leads to community manager burnout. The natural tendency of these projects is to pour 80-90% of the budget into a technology implementation and to assign a community manager as the last step in the process,

A better approach would be to allocate about half of the budget to the platform and half to hiring (or training) a viable community manager. It would involve taking the time to assemble a cross-functional team of leaders and department members who will have a stake in it to connect the online strategy with the organization’s business goals.

The lonely trail of community management

But the newly minted community manager gets started, often without a great sense of what to do. He or she finds some online resources, maybe takes an online training. And maybe, just maybe, some tactics click and the community starts to make a difference.

Unfortunately, nobody cares. Either the executive champion moves on or loses interest. The idea of the online community didn’t stand up to the expectations of what it would deliver. Or, it veers far from the business model espoused by executive leadership.

The community manager can easily feel bereft of allies, alone, and frustrated.

Connection and self-care for community managers

There are two key paths away from being stuck in the role of a Lone Ranger community manager. The first of these is to reconnect:

  • Interview executive leaders about their business goals for the organization and ask them direct questions about what success looks like. Find ways to connect these desired outcomes to activities you are performing in the online community.
  • Avoid the temptation to present executives with the quantitative measurements you think that they want to see. More often than not, leaders will be moved be a powerful success story that is bolstered by quantitative metrics.
  • Attend departmental meetings regularly, even (especially if!) you are not invited. Explain that you’re trying to understand how to better serve the department and listen for ways that the community can serve these groups. Some likely departments that can be helped considerably by online communities are human resources, innovation and product management, marketing, and communications.

The second way to avoid burnout is to regularly engage in self-care activities:

  • Watch for behavior patterns that cause you to react to what others want from you. These include both pressures from within your organization to perform reports that are not being used but are expected as well as from your community itself. For example, is it a better use of your time to welcome every newcomer to the community as they appear, or to improve the onboarding process for signing up to join the community?
  • Schedule blocks of time for yourself to perform deep work. Allowing yourself 90 minutes of uninterrupted work time at least once each day is a better way to develop and think through problems you’re trying to solve. For these work blocks, close your door, put a sign on it for a time when you will be available again, and set your phones to “do not disturb.”
  • Recharge your batteries by taking a walk. Instead of taking a meeting in a room, opt for a walking meeting with colleagues. Also, take a five-minute walk to relax yourself and clear your head. Movement like this will help you to be more creative and react less emotionally to stressful situations.

Conclusion

Online community management can be a highly rewarding profession. The webinar recording above provides some additional ideas and resources from my colleague Darren Gough at Island23.

If you are struggling with connecting with your executive stakeholders around communities I would love to hear from you, I invite you to fill out the contact form. I will reach out personally to set up a time to discuss your situation.

Finally, many thanks to the Knowledge and Community Network for hosting our webinar. They are a very helpful group and I encourage you to join them.