Why your business needs a community manager

It’s never seldom that Erin Bury gets mistaken for her boss Sarah Prevette, founder of Sprouter.com, the highly popular Toronto-based online community for entrepreneurs. However, Bury takes no offense when this happens in the countless parties, conventions and speaking engagements she attends each week.

“I love it when people do that,” admits the 20-something community manager of Sprouter.com during a presentation at the Small Business 2010 Forum held by Enterprise Toronto last week where more than a couple of attendees fessed up to thinking Bury was Prevette.

Bury is paid to be the “voice and face” of Sprouter.com, an online network that enables collaboration between entrepreneurs all over the world. Sprouter.com has been called by Mashable as “Twitter for business.”

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Since the site is inextricably linked with its 28-year-old founder who was recently named one of North America’s Top 30 Under 30 entrepreneurs by Inc. Magazine, Bury says “I know I must be doing my job right when this sort of mistaken identity happens”.

Managing your online community

During her presentation, Bury explained to a group of small and medium sized business owners and would be start-up operators just what a community manager (CM) is and why their businesses might need one.

As Bury sees it, CMs are essentially a combination of speech writer, press release writer, PR manager, blogger, online editor, help desk administrator and anything else that the company might need to elevate it’s social media profile.

The role of the online CM is relatively new and still evolving. As social media gains greater importance in peoples’ lives and businesses increasingly ramp up their presence in the medium’s various iterations, the community manager’s role becomes more vital and complex for many organizations, said Bury. “It’s a combination of traditional and non-traditional PR work.”

For example, Bury is in charge of Sprouter’s social media strategy which includes running the company’s Twitter and Facebook accounts as well writing articles for the weekly newsletter, blogs and microblogs. However, she also handles community relations and support duties by running Sprouter.com’s Get Satisfaction page and responding to members’ questions and feedback posts. Bury also plans and attends events, sources speakers or speaks at events and attends various functions and parties.

Do SMBs really need such a person?

Yes, says Bury, if the company wants to cultivate a vibrant online and offline presence characterized by client engagement.

Why SMBs need community managers

“The most important part of my job is to engage our community and be the voice and face Sprouter and our founder,” says Burry.

The community wants to connect with Prevette, Bury says, but she cannot always be at many of the events because she is busy running Sprouter.com. “Aside from being Sarah’s face and voice, I am also her eyes and ears. I provide her with community feedback and information about our space.”

Many SMB operators and start up entrepreneurs are in the same boat. They want to promote their brand in the social media space. However many are bogged down by the day-to-day demands of running the business. Others do not have the talent, training or personnel to dedicate for such a diverse and labour intensive function.

The real Sarah Prevette

Most start ups, Bury says, devote budgets for traditional advertising and marketing projects that are no longer effective in reaching today’s highly online audience. “A community manager allows you to reach people in a genuine and personable way and enables business to leverage new and inexpensive online tools.”

It’s also very different from hiring a PR agency “because an account manager can never go up to client and say ‘I represent this company’ the way an in-house CM who lives and breathes the organization does,” according to Bury. “Many PR agencies do an outstanding job, but with them your business will be just another of their many clients.”

Bury explains that CMs are also cheaper to retain. ‘The only cost is a salary and fees such as premium accounts on social networks and registration fees for events are much less than cross platform ad campaigns – and probably more targeted.”

Where and what to look for in a CM

While many organizations place emphasis on experience when hiring personnel, Bury believes SMBs should also focus on an applicant’s character and passion when hiring a CM.

“CMs need to be passionate with what they do. This is not a 9 to 5 job. They have to devote some nights and weekends to the job,” she says.

Top-rate writing and communication skills are also a premium because the job requires a lot of writing for a wide variety of mediums and purposes.

Community managers need to be people persons and extroverts. “If you’re someone who’s afraid of facing a room full of people, I don’t think you’re right for the job,” Bury points out.

Community managers don’t necessarily need to be social media masters right away, but they need to be smart and flexible enough to learn how to use the tools. “When I started with Sprouter I didn’t know what Twitter was. The day I got hired I immediately got a Twitter account and learned to use it,” says Bury.

Where can SMBs find ideal CMs? Many talents from various advertising, marketing and PR agencies are engage in functions that encompass the CM role. Bury herself came from a PR agency before joining Sprouter.com.

While the role is new and still evolving, Bury says, many schools such as Humber and Seneca Colleges are already incorporating CM-relevant skills to their communications courses. Young graduates or students willing to do coop work are only too eager to prove their mettle.

Relying on social media neophytes might not be the best strategy, according to Richard Telofski, competitive analyst and author of Insidious Competition, a book that looks into the various social media threats to a company’s brand.

“Defending your brand against people who are defaming or battling your brand in the social network is not a job for an intern,” says Telofski.

Telofski said company should pick people who no only know the company’s business values but is also an adept social media communicator.

Bury also said a CM needs to be a good fit with the organization.

The one of most important quality of an effective CM is being able to fit in with the company culture. “When you are one of just three employees – as I have been in the past year – you need to be able to get along with your co-employees and be able to embody the organization’s values.”

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