How the Community Manager Role Has Changed: A Decade of Community Management

Did you know that the role of the modern-day Community Manager is about to turn 10 years old? And oh boy, has the role of a Community Manager (#CMGR) changed over the last 10 years!

Evolution of Community Management Role - Twitter

So let’s take a look at the history of the modern community management role — the one where real people go to a real job, every day, tasked with representing a brand’s online social media presence with the purpose of recruiting and engaging existing and new customers on the brand’s behalf.

A Brief History of Community Management

TL;DR — Check out the slideshow version of The History of Community Management


Sure, way back in 1995 there were professionals paid to “manage communities” in computer games and online chat rooms, but really they were just moderators and weren’t working on behalf of brands in an engagement or marketing capacity.  Plus, 2 Decades of Community Management doesn’t have the same ring to it.

It all started around 2005 — Year of the Forum Moderator

ModeratorThe job requirements: Ask Questions, Give Answers

Brands began to see the power of conversations already taking place by their customers in these topic-based communities. In some cases, these communities, often closed or exclusive forums, were even created by brands to communicate with their most loyal customers or a select group of influencers (you know, the type of people who were ahead of the curve and had a lot of clout, none of which had anything to do with a blog or a Klout score…)

Then in late 2006 to early 2007, social media marketing really started to pick up. By 2008, some brands were taking notice.

2008 — Year of the Friend

The additional job requirements: Be personable and capable of making friends online NatureMade Lisa

Say hello to NatureMade Lisa, Ignite Social Media’s first ever Community Manager. Also known as a Community Engagement Specialist, Lisa Braziel (a real person who today is our brilliant VP of Strategy & Special Programs) was the epitome of transparency.

She created a plethora of social profiles on sites like Cafe Mom, FitSugar, even Facebook and Twitter (no brand pages allowed back then…) where she served as the online representative for NatureMade vitamins. She shared tips and details about her personal life in short, blog-like updates and engaged in comment threads and one-to-one conversations that supported NatureMade’s brand positioning as a way to connect in a very real way with their target audience online.

2009 — Year of the Original Brand Influencers (web version 1.0)

The additional job requirements: Have a Huge, Established Online Following Relevant to the Brand’s IndustryBrand Influencers

Do these guys look familiar? If you were paying attention to social media in 2009 you know their faces, Twitter handles, blogs URLs, and the single brand they were associated with. That’s because 2009 was the year that brands realized real people with real social profiles had more influence than they ever could online, and they used those people to “humanize” their brands, putting a well-known name and face in front of their audiences.  Brands still do this today, it’s just that in 2009 celebrities hadn’t jumped on the social media bandwagon yet.

2010 — Year of the “Humanized” Brand

fan pages early 2010The additional job requirements: Convey empathy, personify the brand

Good ol’ 2010. I remember this year quite well. Facebook converted their profile-like “fan pages” to “brand pages” that people could “Like” and the social media world was changed forever.  All of a sudden the brand presence on Facebook went from something brands sometimes managed, to a check box required in every marketers’ annual plan.

The Community Manager role changed significantly, as it was now required that brands had someone to manage these pages and a random intern wasn’t going to cut it.  Those that still relied on the most recent college grad to do the legwork were getting left in the dust, or worse.

Community Managers now needed to be able to not only make friends, show empathy, and engage people in one-on-one conversations — they needed to be capable of creating brand messaging that the masses would connect with. In 2010, a professional was needed.

2011 — Year of the Social Media Expert

The additional job requirements: Understand (and teach really smart marketers and business people) how Community Management can impact traditional marketing efforts

Pepsi Refresh ProjectFollowing the footsteps of a few of the most memorable integrated marketing campaigns launched in mid-2010 (Old Spice Smell Like a Man and the Pepsi Refresh Project), by 2011, Social Media was no longer a condiment. Community Managers were plucked from their silos and even traditional marketers who had been fighting the fad were forced to incorporate social communities into their more traditional marketing campaigns.

Finally getting a seat at the table, Community Managers now had to be able to make a strong case for how their communities should fit into TV spots, brand websites, and even your digital media buying strategy. CEOs were even starting to ask about the ROI of Community Management (gasp!)

2012 — Playtime is over…

The additional job requirements: Optimize to improve results and prove the business value of your workFacebook Insights 2012Once Facebook got serious about their Insights tool and business execs realized we could prove whether our community efforts were improving or not the days of feel good, anecdotal stories about an angry customer turned happy fan were over and the battle for Likes and People Talking About This were on.  Of course, it was rare to see brands tie these superficial metrics back to any real business case but Community Managers were expected to try.

With a little help from ComScore’s Power of the Like studies and lots of discussion around social media ROI models, we were finally able to start piecing together a compelling business case for the work we were doing.

2013 — The Year of Newsroom Style Community Management

The additional job requirements: Be highly creative and always on

Oreo Dunk in the Dark Tweet Real Time MarketingOh Oreo, how we hated you so.  Who knew that one little tweet from one random brand could take away the work-life balance of an entire industry?!

Every brand wanted on the real-time marketing brand wagon and was desperately searching for their own “Oreo Superbowl” moment.  Community Managers spent 24/7 checking trending topics on Twitter and watching every TV “event” imaginable, in an attempt to deploy a tweet with the perfect mix of creativity and timing that would get their brand written about in Ad Age. (A strategy the Oreo team had been working at for nearly a year before the infamous Super Bowl tweet, by the way.)  Not surprisingly, most brands failed miserably but you can bet they spent countless hours every week in newsroom meetings trying to replicate Oreo’s “success”.

2014 — Year of the “Expert Generalist”

The additional job requirements: Be a jack of all trades, capable of creating genuine and empathetic online interactions, developing creative and on-brand content that breaks through the noise, analyzing your work and constantly optimizing, reacting to ever changing algorithms and the new social network of the moment (Yo, anyone?), while driving the same or better business results despite Facebook cutting access to your largest community by more than 90% in the last 2 years, all while proving how best-in-class community management practices bring real business value to the brands you serve.

Thankfully brands are finally getting over their obsessions with real-time marketing and many are starting to understand the power of what we call “Right-time Marketing”:

Right-time Community Management: Reaching and engaging your target audience with content published to brand owned social media channels that is on brand message, while being compelling and engaging as a result of being served to your target audience at the moment they most receptive to the message.

It’s like traditional day-parting but taking into consideration the conversations your target audience is having at any given time on their social channels. Most often, those conversations can be anticipated and planned for.  And this, not real time marketing, is how brands today are capable of breaking through the noise and earning the engagement and reach Facebook keeps stealing away..

Quick shout-out to our Staples client who has been doing a fabulous job of Right-Time Community Management recently with posts like these.

Right Time Marketing Examples Staples

But not all is good in the world of Community Management as 2014 comes to close.  Sadly, too many brands are confused.  Despite pleas from their super-smart Community Managers, they are being swayed by social network reps disguised as strategists who invite them to “strategic planning garages” littered with sales agendas and blurring the lines between social media marketing and social media advertising.

More to come on that topic as it could be a whole blog post in itself, but let’s just say that as we look ahead to what Community Management will become in 2015, I sincerely hope brands don’t lose sight of the power of organic social media marketing and engagement and recognize that just because Facebook took away your ability to reach the millions of fans they convinced you to buy back in 2010-2011 it doesn’t mean you can’t engage your target audiences without paying for every last eyeball.  Don’t worry guys, your Community Manager has your covered!

Ignite Social Media