Community Management Education (and Certs) a Sound Investment –Yet Experience Trumps All

For seasoned or budding community managers, investing in a solid foundation of learning through an education program and becoming certified is a good investment –yet don’t think classroom time is sufficient, as time and experience in the field is the most important.

A Need for Capable Community Managers on the Rise
If there’s one thing I’ve been learning in my research it’s that corporations need skilled staff to use new media tools. Enter the Community Manager, part customer advocate, part product manager, part host, who tirelessly deals with customers online. In fact, Altimeter’s research indicates that budgets increase significantly for social media boutiques, and digital agencies as corporations become more advanced. Despite the increase in adoption from corporations, they are often ill-staffed, or throw traditional communicators into a new media mix –with poor results. Furthermore, we’re seeing a rise in out-sourced community management services, which raised quite the online conversation.


[As the Social Business Space Emerges, Education and Certifications Will Emerge --Yet Be Sure to Balance Your Team with Education --and Real World Experience]


WOMMA and Friends Launch Community Certificate Program
To meet the needs listed above, a group of very talented and experienced community professionals have teamed up with Womma to launch a certificate program with Community Roundtable and ComBlu, to aid education and standards across the industry. I chatted with Rachel Happe of Community Roundtable to learn that their focus provides:

“Our training helps organizations in three specific ways:
-It sets common expectations for individuals and companies about what individuals should know at different levels.
-It ensures that individuals are introduced to the issues and concepts that they will face over time.
-It consolidates learning so that individuals can more quickly ramp up and become productive contributors.”

I also like how they segment their classes for different roles:  Community specialist, Community manager and the Community strategist. As this program grows it can certainly advance the industry, as well as the professionals involved in partaking in the offering.

Risks of Certs: Best Practices are Few and Far in Between
What’s one big challenge with certs?  It’s hard to define best practices in a nascent space that may be just as much art as it is science.  In fact, Dells’ Bill Johnston who’s leading their Community Strategy told me that “The inevitable downside will be a lack of standards. I’m assuming that every association or firm that is involved with social media / community will develop their own curriculum and standards” He also writes; “Further, certification without hands on training and mentoring is not going to help advance the practice of community management and development.”

Yet, Don’t Over Rely on Education –Real World Experience is Key
Like any trade or art, from sales, PR, performance arts and beyond, real-world experience is the most important teacher of all. Unlike black and white task orientated jobs, Community Management, and the art of dealing with dynamic humans, is as much of an art, as it is a science.   I asked the CEO of Liveworld (who hires hundreds of Community Managers), Peter Friedman who says we should look broader;   “The key is to get someone with the right personality, enthusiasm and skills.  Experience counts too. Even if there were good CM certification programs around, I wouldn’t disqualify someone for not having such a certification. I’d look at the person’s other specifics”  he also put certifcations into priority order: “For example a person with 5 years real CM experience is likely to be much stronger than a person with 1 year of experience and a certification”.


Hiring and Compensating your Community Manager

  1. Look for experience match against the Four Tenants of Community Managers. In 2007, I analyzed 16 job descriptions, and published the Four Tenants of the Community Manager and we found the following four job requirements: Community Advocate, Brand Evangelist, Savvy Communicator, and Shapes Product Roadmap.  Your Community Managers should match these job needs, and have the relevant experience to boot.  For example, Dell’s community strategist Bill Johnston told me he made his two hires (Connie Benson who’s written a post covering this topic, and Cy Jervis) based on “experience & impact” and cited both of their previous work.
  2. Ask them how they’re polishing their skills, beyond the day job. Although Community Managers are often social creatures, they could be working in a vaccum, and may be missing out on greater training or perspective.  Ask them how they stay current on industry trends, as well as help them connect with their peers in groups like the Community Roundtable, and participating in online discussions such as the Twitter #cmgrchat tag.   By bolstering skills and learning through education programs (like the Womma Certification), and see this older list by CM Roundtable.
  3. Reward them based on Business Impact. As orginizations invest in communities, they must serve business purposes from marketing, increasing adoption, self-support, or even using for innovating new products.  Companies should measure based on the business impacts that these communities provide –not just raw engagement or community growth.  I asked Evan Hamilton the Community Manager for UserVoice (which in itself a community) what he thought and he told me;  ”I think employers should pay based on what their team members accomplish. I didn’t start in community management with any sort of training, but I deliver results for the companies I work for, and they pay me accordingly. Companies should always encourage employees to get more training…but they shouldn’t pay based on a piece of paper that says you’re good at something.” …well said.

The Bottom Line: The emerging Community Manager education and certifications are a good thing for all professionals –yet be sure to balance them out with peer to peer learnings, and real-world experience.


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  • Kathysierra

    I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, certifications can be a useful way to evaluate someone’s overal *knowledge* on a topic, but unless there is a practical component to the exam, even the best certification is still assessing the least-useful attribute of a professional: knowledge. The way “experts” are defined by those who study expertise is this: experts are what they DO. In other words, given a representative task in a given domain, experts are those who consistently/reliably *make better choices*. The fact that experts do know more about the domain is not what matters when looking for predictors of performance.

    But in this domain, I have a bigger concern. In certifying “community managers” or other forms of social media professionals, there is an implicit and overwhelming assumption that “social/community” is THE way to solve problems for a company including “engagement”, for example. It starts looking more and more like a “when you are a certified hammer professional, EVERYTHING looks like a nail scenario. Then you end up with the problem we are already seeing so much of today: companies out-social/community/engaging their competitors, when they SHOULD be focusing on fixing the reason they even need theses things in order to compete (assuming the business is not itself a social media product or service).

    The thought experiment is something like, “assume a future where every one of your competitors has an equally awesome, certified, capable community manager/social media
    strategist. NOW what? And what if “increased engagement” is not what the company — let alone their users — really needs? As a user, my attention is not scalable. My ability to engage is not scalable. The companies that may “win” in the near future are those who realize this, and make products, services, and marketing that frees my attention for doing things I love to do rather than competes to attract it back to the company. For example. I do not want to spend time “engaging” with Apple… I want to spend time editing in Final Cut Pro. And when I DO engage, it is with a local non-Apple community user group.

    Any of use can look around our home and professional workspace and name some of our most beloved and most-used products, and realize that we would nearly kill for some of the things we own that come from brands with which we have never engaged. If you look to most hobbies, for instance, the communities we are involved with are NOT from a specific brand but from the far more compelling context in which those brands are used. I might attend a snowboarding club, not a Volcom group. A photography club, not an Adobe meeting (though Adobe might sponsor part of it, and it might even BE an unofficial Adobe user group). A horsemanship club not an Astund saddle-maker group. A maker/DIY group, not the Radio
    Shack club.

    Not that a brand cannot use community in this way — to support the bigger, cooler context in which their products are used as opposed to trying to suck users into engaging “with the brand” (whatever that actually means). Sooner than later, we must recognize that users are not All About Us, and if we deeply care about our users, we will not try to seduce them into spending more time with us. The best community manager, in my opinion, is the one who asks, “what the hell are you doing clicking around our site and posting content when you SHOULD be out there kicking ass USING our product…” and then putting all of their resources into enabling users to do just that.

    So, yes, I fear that too much emphasis on certifying social media professionals (including community managers) will only harden the view that user engagement is about engaging with US / the brand, rather than the far more sustainable and user-healthy view that users have far better uses for their precious time, including actually USING our products and services to do something amazing *for themselves.”

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  • http://www.unionsquaresoftware.com/ Rachel Cooke

    I admire new strategies in learning. Learning from just the four corners of a room is not actually enough. There are different kinds of people who need different kinds of learning environment. And experience leads to that. Thanks for the article.

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