A wise man once said that “time is a flat circle” meaning that “everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again- forever.”

In the social media landscape this is manifesting itself in a way that reminisces the early days of the internet where chat rooms and forums reigned supreme.

Indeed, people from all over the world across every social medium are increasingly abandoning open virtual spaces in favor of more intimate places like Facebook-groups, Whatsapp group chats, subreddits and Discord-servers.

This is not to say social media is dying, but it’s a clear sign that the age of abundant public sharing is coming to an end.

Even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged this. In a note published on his profile earlier this month he announced that Facebook will fundamentally change its products and business model to accommodate to the increasing demand for more privacy by its users.

It’s unclear what these changes will ultimately look like, but industry experts believe we should expect less emphasis on the news feed and more focus on private communities.

So, less shouting on the town square and more chatting in the living room.

Is this the point where brands should start to get worried?

Like with many of these fundamental changes, brands shouldn’t be hastily making abrupt changes to their strategies, but ignoring this looming paradigm shift would be unwise as well.

People and by extension companies often think they can outsmart change, but experience learns that fundamental change cannot be outrun and that reality catches up eventually.
Few B2C-companies that ignored social media back in the day have survived and even fewer companies will survive this new shift that will put even more emphasis on (digital) personalized interaction.

And what better way to monitor these interactions and connect with your fans than with some good old fashioned community management?

The ‘comeback’ of community management

Community management isn’t exactly new. In fact, people taking up organizing and mobilizing their respective communities is a practice that goes back millennia.

Christ and the 12 apostles
One of the very first community managers (30 bc, colorized)

But actual ‘community management’ really came into vogue when the first digital platforms started to emerge. And while it has been used in a lot industries for many years, it’s poised to become even more important.

Which is why we wrote this guide. Every community may be different, our experience with #SaveTheExpanse and Whim has given us many insights that we believe can be useful for brands that are looking to start with or want to double-down on community management.

Community management isn’t exactly rocket science, but it’s often a delicate balancing act that heavily revolves around personal interaction and emotions which makes the proper preparation and mindset all the more important.

An ad with offensive copy is quickly forgotten, but a bad exchange on Twitter can haunt a brand for years.

1. Community management is more than customer service

Community management is often reduced to customer service or conversation management. While handling customer questions through social media and other digital platforms is definitely part of the job, managing a community entails much more.

Interacting with your community isn’t just about answering their questions on Twitter, it’s also about joining the conversation on the platforms they use, listening to their input and offering authentic and real access to your brand.

Unfortunately this is where it usually goes wrong.

2. Communities can’t and shouldn’t be controlled

Everyone likes to be in control, especially when there are big budgets and high stakes involved. So from the perspective of a company it’s not unreasonable for them to want some form of control over their community.
They often do this by setting up native platforms that nobody uses and determining a short-term outcome that’s uncertain at best, in the hope the community will fall in line and tell them what they want to hear.

But the thing with communities is that they cannot and shouldn’t be controlled. Nothing wrong with drafting up rules and mapping out goals, but communities often have an unique dynamic that doesn’t respond well to corporate interference.

Even in very niche communities like user-testing groups set up by companies themselves, the autonomy and independence of its members is something that should always be respected.

Respecting this autonomy isn’t only the right thing to do, it will also yield much more valuable and authentic feedback since they don’t feel pressured to say what a company wants to hear.

3. Empowering your communities is the best way to get return-on-investment

#SaveTheExpanse – community management done right

When we helped run the #SaveTheExpanse-campaign back in 2018 to save our favorite TV-show from being canceled, the production company could have easily attempted to interfere with our campaign and told us what to do. After all, it was their jobs and livelihood that depended on the success of this campaign.

But instead they stayed out of our hair and trusted in our ability to run this campaign. This trust from their part coupled with the knowledge we could count on them to fine-tune and help spread our campaign elements (like our petition and hype video’s) is what made this such a successful fan campaign.

Apart from not interfering, they also never attempted to take ownership of the community.

4. Embrace the communities that already exist

This urge to control very often manifests itself as a desire to build a native platform.

With platforms changing as often as they do (rings a bell, Facebook?) or simply being cancelled (anything comes to mind, Google?), it’s easy to understand why brands would consider building their own platforms.

The simple truth, though, is that almost nobody uses external platforms and that developing them is a gigantic waste of money.

But isn’t the trend of people looking for more private platforms a golden opportunity for companies to develop their own? Not really, since chances are people will just flock to another VC-money funded platform. Case in point: when Facebook had its biggest downtime in its 13-year old history on March 13th, Telegram gained more than 3 million users ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ .

The best way to connect with your communities is by joining the channels they’re already using or creating a channel on the platforms they’re already on.

ANTWERP. POWERED BY CREATIVES., the community for creatives from the Antwerp region, started off with a native platform back in 2014 but eventually switched to a closed Facebook because people were already active on Facebook so it made no sense trying to make them go somewhere else.

Blizzard Entertainment is another interesting example of a company that embraced platforms like Reddit.
Even though they still actively maintain their native forums, mainly because they’re relics from the pre-social media age with a still active user base, you can often find their community managers and developers interacting and and troubleshooting on the respective Blizzard subreddits.

What’s even more interesting is that these companies have learned how to engage with their different communities without upsetting any pre-existing power balances.

5. Respect the power balance

There’s nothing more humbling for a company than seeing a community grow and thrive without having to lift a finger.
But that lack of control can also be quite intimidating since there’s no way of predicting how that community will respond to, for example, new products or changes to existing ones.

From our experiences we have learned that most communities are quite welcoming towards a representative of a brand joining their platform as they see it as recognition and validation of their work.

But they’re a lot less welcoming and forgiving for brands that try to impose their will or upset the established order.

Communities built around a certain niche often have administrators & moderators that have been running their respective communities for years and none of them are waiting for some ‘new guy’ telling them what to do.

People being skeptical about the very brands they built their community around may seem a bit contradictory, but it actually makes a lot of sense when you consider that communities simply don’t want to give up the control they worked so hard for.

The desire of companies to control their communities is inverse proportional to the desire of these communities to give up their control.

6. Status is the most important currency on the internet right now. Leverage this.

Social capital is the networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively, and is directly tied to status. The more social capital we gain, the higher our status.

Since social media is all about networks of relationships, it has never been easier to gain status. And if you look at how important online validation has become for so many people and how many platforms have built their algorithms and business models around this principle, one could say that status is the most important currency on the internet right now.

What people want to scream when they’ve posted something on social media

When applied to community management this means that the members of your community will always be looking for ways to contribute and subsequently improve their status.

So, really the only thing a community manager should be doing is supporting their community and leveraging their efforts. Appointing moderators from inside the community is often a good place to start.

The less work a community manager has to do, the better they are at their job.

7. Take it offline every now and then

We’re obviously not talking about shutting down any platforms, but rather about organizing real life events.

Folks aren’t just looking for more private and intimate places to connect with their friends with, they’re also craving for more real life interactions. Social media demands so much time and attention from us, that it’s only natural that the soul starts to feel deprived of genuine human contact at some point.

Many communities tap into this zeitgeist by organizing gatherings, open coffees or meetups usually centered around a specific topic.

Organizing these may require some effort, but the return you get is immense. The connections and friendships forged by meeting the people you’ve spend a lot of time online with, also reciprocates back to the online community and usually makes the bond between the different members even stronger.

Inviting some of the Antwerp Friends of Whim-community over to Finland to fully discover the ‘mobility-as-a-service experience’ didn’t just yield very useful insights about the app, it also turned these testers into genuine ambassadors.

One real-life meetup with pizza and drinks can create a bond that would take years online to form. So if your community is local based, there’s no excuse to not meet them in real life.

8. Not every brand should be doing community management

At Friendship we believe that every brand has an interesting story to tell, but that doesn’t mean community management is relevant for every brand.

This has little do to with the quality of a product or brand is and more with how many people it can potentially mobilize.

For example, there are millions of amazing brands out there that make the most delicious food, but who simply don’t have enough ‘beef’ to warrant a community. And that’s okay. Some products are just meant to be consumed or used and not to be discussed in Facebook-groups or subreddits.

Conversely, it’s not because your product is very functional or abstract that you can’t broaden your scope. There are many food brands that managed to get their products talked about in a broader conversation simply by latching onto broader food-related topics like healthy food, picnic or cooking.

It ultimately all depends on how much money you are willing to spend and to what extent you think interacting with your consumers will contribute to your bottom line.

The least you should do is to consider it and talk about it. And who’s better suited to talk to about it than the folks who helped rally thousands of fans to convince Jeff Bezos to save their favorite show?

Reach out to us via hello@thisisfriendship.com or +32 3 303 72 62