I love watching kites skip across the sky. The dips and turns delivered by the wind are both unpredictable and inevitable. One of the most interesting phenomenon about kites is that they can catch both tailwinds and headwinds in a single flight. Compare that to an airplane. When headwinds slow its progress, either the plane is late or the pilot tries to reroute. Once a direction is set, it’s near impossible to turn headwinds into a tail wind.

Great online communities should be more like a kite and less like an airplane. Why? Communities are both organic and organized. They need to provide the right mix of expert content and tools that are easy to find and use along side community generated topics, conversations, ideas and content. There should be multiple ways to engage with the brand and fellow community members. And, the member’s experience should reflect both the information shared via the member’s profile and the activities in which they participated. The more the member accesses content, offers comments, or starts a conversation thread, the more customized and germane the community experience should become. .At the same time, it should be easy for the member to explore and discover new things outside their “prescribed” areas of interest or former actions. Like the kite dancing at the end of a string, the community offers a defined destination for exploration and exchange. The free flow magic of the kite’s moves represents the organic currents that make the community experience also one of discovery and delight. Members enhance, refine and share the knowledge gained both in and outside the community.

Communities need the control of a community manger just as a kite needs the guidance of its on-ground pilot. Without it, the kite careens out of control and quickly crashes. The community manager performs a similar role for the community. S/he is the stabilizing force that lofts the community, lets it dance in the winds of the community’s will and guides the string in and out, depending on the strength and direction of the winds. Most importantly, the community manager is the human face of the brand and makes the experience personal. A great community manager gets to know members and uses their input to guide engagement and content. S/he also regularly recognizes members who go above and beyond.

Late last year, ComBlu published a study called, “The State of Online Branded Communities.” We’ve referenced the report before, but here’s a quick review of what we did. A team of reviewers joined over 135 online communities and noted their experience from that of a consumer first joining the community and attempting to interact with the brand. They recorded both qualitative observations and quantitative data into a scorecard that captured a community’s performance against 23 best practices. One was “evidence of active community management” and a “human face of the community” To our surprise, community management was one of the lowest scoring practices in the study. This is a real missed opportunity to learn from customers as well as extend brand experience. Many people join branded communities because they want to have a more personalized experience.

We believe that many organizations equate “moderation” with “community management”. They subscribe to automated services that search for profanity and other violations of Terms of Service and think they have community management covered. Or, they hire a “celebrity blogger” to be the face of the community. The person’s blog is prominently featured on the community home page, but either the comments feature is not activated or no one ever responds or acknowledges member’s comments. Again, a missed opportunity and lots of potential for frustration. Another flawed model is the automated FAQ approach to community management. Whenever a member asks a question, canned responses are generated that may or may not actually answer a question.

Some communities let the members serve as the sole source of support and reference. While this type of community involvement adds richness and authenticity to helping people get the most benefit from products and services, it’s missing the voice of the brand. Sometimes, a subject matter expert form the company is the only one with the best way to do something or possess the latest information. Again, communities should be the right mix of organized brand experiences and organic member interactions.

One recent example of the latter is my experience with Facebook. I recently had an issue and went to their Help function to search for the answer to my dilemma. Sure enough, there were plenty of people who had the same or a very similar problem. Lots of people jumped in and gave various ways to correct it; none of which worked. This was a long discussion thread and no where, not once did a Facebook SME jump in and offer expert advice. This is a prime example where the community manager could have performed a valuable service. Instead, I went through several frustrating days before the problem was resolved by “tricking” the system. It took two of the tech wizards on my staff to help me figure out the work around. How many people have that luxury? While I still love Facebook as a wonderful way to keep in touch and follow the antics of an interesting group of people, I think less of the brand. They exhibit little respect for their users and are so large that they must not care that people leave in droves or never activate because they don’t have tech wizards to help.

Many organizations are starting to “get it’ and are adding community management as a core skill set in their marketing departments. WOMMA is working on a certification course for community managers in partnership with a major university. This is sorely needed and a welcome resource. Hopefully the course logo will include a kite!

Community management, community strategy, WOMMA, ComlBu, “The State of Online Branded Communities”,

Kathy Baughman
Kathy Baughman

Kathy’s forte is enterprise content strategy, content marketing and thought leadership. Over the past 40 years, she has worked with both emerging brands and large enterprises in developing content and thought leadership strategies. She has written several research reports, white papers and has been a key contributor to Forbes Publish or Perish Report.