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A Guide to Hiring an Online Community Manager

5 minute read

April 22, 2020

So, you need to hire an online community manager. That’s a tall order, no matter what your industry or company size. If you have never hired a community manager (also known as a CM) before, it can feel overwhelming.

I have worked with hundreds of online community managers throughout my career. As a hiring manager, I have interviewed community management candidates. As a consultant, I have helped teams write job descriptions and source talent for their open community roles. As a coach, I have mentored and guided online community managers through crafting their first strategy and navigating organizational pivots. 

From these years of work, I have learned it can be helpful to have a guide for the process. It helps to remember that you’re not the first person with this challenge and to write down all the steps to take, decisions to make, and the signs that you have found “the one.” 

I wish I had a reference guide just like that many years ago. It would have saved a lot of time and misdirected efforts. But, from my own mistakes and wins, I created my own guide through the process. Here it is: 

The Process

The process can be broken down into four stages: creating and vetting job requirements, recruiting, vetting, and making the offer. Each stage builds on the next, so if you get clear as you move through the stages, you won’t have to go back to the drawing board at any point. 

Requirements and Vetting The Job Description 

First, write the requirements for the individual(s) taking on the role.

If you must guess what these requirements should be, stop. Take a deep breath. Think through this framework to decide the level of hire you need given your existing resources, and then go from there:

  1. Do you need someone who will not require much guidance, who can own the community fully and evangelize it throughout the organization? You need to hire a Strategist or Director-level hire (or above), with at least five years of experience. Prepare to pay them accordingly. 

  2. Do you have a strategic lead on the community, but you need help with all things implementation? Hire a community manager. This person ideally should have successfully run an online community prior. You need evidence that they have done this work before and can apply their past learnings to the current situation. 

  3. Do you have an existing leader running the community who needs added support? You need to hire a community associate or similar level hire. It’s okay if the person has never run an online community before. Still, they should be part of communities they can use as reference points. 

Draft a job description once you’ve decided on the level of ideal hire you need. I won’t rehash the details of this process here. CMX has a guide to writing a job posting and another on the nine skills that a community manager needs

Finally, vet the job description. Run the job description by anyone that would be working with this person to ensure that the requirements are precise and agreed-upon. Don’t accept “Looks great!” for an answer here. Ask for specific feedback on the role and for team members to imagine the kinds of projects they would work on together and write out their edits accordingly. The initial job description should be torn apart and nearly rebuilt from scratch after the first pass unless you’re the only one working with the new hire. If that’s the case, try to gather feedback from people who have been in similar positions, within or outside the company. 

Recruiting and Sourcing

There is no “best” way to recruit a community manager, but there are several pathways you should explore as you get started: 

  1. Existing employees within the organization. 

  2. Existing members within the community. I have written about the benefit of doing this before. Sometimes (with many caveats), it is best to launch the community slowly and see who your most active members are. These members can make incredible hires. 

  3. CMX and existing community managers - especially those who have been building communities for 5+ years. CM’s tend to stick together and know who is looking for new roles.  

  4. Tech Ladies. If you are hiring a tech-related CM, this is a fantastic job board. 

Vetting 

Always start with a few quick intro calls with potential hires. 

  1. Ensure you gather salary requirements early in the process. You may want to use this to adjust your budget for the hire or to validate your budget. Never ask about past salaries. Not only is it tacky, but it’s also illegal in many places

  2. Gauge why the candidate has a particular interest in the role. Community managers and strategists do not need to be experts at the community topic. However, they should be passionate about addressing the community’s value proposition. 

Then conduct more in-depth interviews. 

During interviews, you will want to look for ways that experience can translate into the current role. For example, how might an associate who has run book clubs translate that experience to the current role? How did she think about designing those book clubs? Did it seem thoughtful? Or was it thrown together? 

Their experience need not translate directly into the immediate role; your chances of finding someone who has done something very similar is slim to none. Besides, communities are about building connections, and if the person spent much time in a similar role, they will feel weird creating a competitor community that would attract many of the same members. 

Always ask them to tell specific stories about their past work. Do they give credit to their teams (a good sign), or do they take all the credit (a sign of a narcissist)? Do they admit to making mistakes and learning from them? How has their work matured over the years?

Do not skip calling references. I have seen significant avoidable bad hires due to neglecting to call references, who easily could have explained what that person’s skills really were. This point may seem obvious to established firms, but I’m continually surprised by the hiring practices I see. 

Do not have prospective hires do free work for you as a part of the “interview process.” This practice is extractive (unless you pay them to work as a contractor first) and doesn’t indicate how they would perform after their first few months anyway. If you insist on doing a working component, create a hypothetical challenge. Ensure they can complete the work during the interview process. If they can’t, pay them to do work outside the process. 

Making the Offer

Congratulations, you found the right person to manage your community! Way to go! Now you need to prepare for proper onboarding. Community managers must work cross-functionally and collaborate with many departments. Ensure that their first weeks give them permission to meet with and attend meetings of other departments. 

Also, do not expect them to come in and build a strategy from day one. They will need to focus on relationship-building and authentic outreach to members first. They can certainly begin to create the skeleton of a plan, but it is a red flag if they move too fast.

Unless, of course, they’ve already built many relationships with people similar to your ideal members. That, my friend, is a great hire. Hold on to that one. 

CMGR Survival Guide

Carrie Melissa Jones

Written by Carrie Melissa Jones

Carrie Melissa Jones is a community leader, entrepreneur, and community management consultant who has been involved with online community leadership since the early 2000s. As the founder of Gather Community Consulting, she consults with brands to build and optimize communities around the world.

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