Internal and external community managers are not the same

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community managerAs time goes, businesses are getting better at understanding what a community manager is. That’s a topic I’ve not written on for a long time – evidence that we hear less land less nonsense over time – but that came back in my radar a couple of weeks ago during a discussion. The matter was to know if a good external community manager, interface between a company and its customers, could easily turn into a successful internal one, interface with employees.

Internal and external community managers don’t have the same role

Experience shows that both don’t necessarily have the same role. The external community manager is more on the forefront and happens to speak frequently to customers (which are not always communities). He’s supposed to represent the brand, be legitimate to do so. Internal community managers, as we see them, are less on the forefront and more in the background.

There’s an obvious reason to that. External community managers are made legitimate de facto by their role until their audience decide they’re not. Their legitimacy can be questioned towards the community but not towards the company and the matter. They start with  a presumption of relevance.

Internal community managers are facing other problems. Communities are often focused on specific expertise matters or on projects. In the first case they won’t be legitimate in front of seasoned professionals and won’t even think to joining their discussions so thinking that an internal community manager can lead tens or hundreds of business communities makes no sense. In the second case they can’t replace the managers or project managers. Consequently, the role of an internal community manager is rather about supporting actual community owners and help/coach managers towards new postures and practices.

How wrong translations made community management a mess (at least in France)

At this point I have to mention a big mistake that leads to many misunderstandings that often surprise foreign people talking about community management with french organizations. The english term “community manager” has been used in french for both the person that manages the whole system, in charge of the big picture, and the activity leader (the french conception being more about “emcee” in fact), which are roles that need different skills and seniority levels.

On external facing activities, the community manager will be more often like an emcee while the manager of the system will be a project manager reporting to the communication, marketing or customer service department. On internal facing ones he’ll often be one level higher, leaving emceeing to subject matter experts or managers. Of course he can speak but can’t take a stand on matters he does not perfectly master.

It’s also a matter of scale : internal communities involve much less people than external ones but are about much more different narrow matters.

If your internal community manager speaks a lot, better put your money in an intranet than a social network

But internal community managers can also speak when their profile make them relevant. For example when a member of the HR department is dedicated to HR communities management. But most of times, he’ll try to make others participate instead of being the most active person on the community platform or enterprise social network. It’s mission is to make others successful, not to be visible. He’s purpose will be to improve the overall system so that users will take the ownership and lead. He’ll be able to do reporting, talk to both IT and business people, build training and communication programs etc.

Then comes the case of more “corporate” communities aiming at engaging employees on corporate matters and issues. That’s a field in which the community manager can become the spokesperson  but, once again, with limits related to legitimacy. If the matter is an HR one, it will always be better to have an HR person speaking, same for sustainable development etc.

The job description matters more than the title

One thing is sure : if the community manages is supposed to often speak internally, maybe the company made a mistake and would have done better by improving the intranet than deploying an internal social network.

Internal and external community managers are two very different things but nothing prevents one to be successful in both. What will matter is more at which level he’ll act when moving from the one to the other. But it’s obvious that the word “community manager” covers so many need and profiles that the job is poorly normalized and one can find as many kind of job description as there are community managers. So it’s better to start with a good understanding of the need to find the right person, community manager or not.