Chances are, you’re not looking in the right places to find the best people to run your customer or user community.
This week, I’ve received three different requests for candidate referrals for community manager jobs in my network. “Do you know anyone who might be a good fit?” they all want to know? “ Can you help spread the word?”
Before I have the heart to tell these folks to “get in line” (after all, the queue of “community manager” job postings is literally in the thousands on LinkedIn and Indeed, not to mention the crypto community jobs popping up everywhere), I do like to take a look at the job description.
Typically, I see a permutation of the same promise: Give us your passion and your everything, and we’ll give you our world. Unsurprising, in the end, that it’s hard to find cold, inbound candidates who perfectly fit that exact mold.
It makes me worry that the way companies are looking for community builders is a bit backwards. After all, if you’re looking for a passionate leader to literally embody the brand image of your company, what are the odds of finding the exact right person from an open call listed on a mass jobs website? And that’s the one thing people keep forgetting about community builders: The best community leaders are motivated by connection and belonging, not by paychecks.
Unfortunately, that’s a lot harder to find. So what’s a hiring manager supposed to do when they are looking to build out their community team?
What’s Your Job Description *Really* Saying?
Let’s start by talking about the job descriptions for typical community manager jobs. By and large, I tend to notice that community job descriptions serve as “catch-all’s” for everything that community might possibly entail: Brand. Social media. Marketing. Forum management. Events. Content. Trainings. The list goes on and on. Not only that but there is a subtext that community managers need to be a little bit of everything, ready to carry the weight of the entire community (and sometimes, company) on their shoulders.
A quick search for community manager jobs on LinkedIn returned 7,000+ jobs in the U.S. right now
Here are a few ways this tends to come across:
We are looking for our first full-time Community Lead who is ready to shape the community experience and the company as a whole. The person we are looking for is eager to have full ownership of the community direction, and work directly with stakeholders and executives.
As the community manager, you are the connector and person everyone goes to. You love to help and anticipate needs before they even arise.
The ideal candidate will be well rounded with the ability to create and close sales opportunities, provide excellent customer service, and accurately assess all member’s needs. Additionally, they should demonstrate a professional image of our brand at all times and be responsible for managing and engaging with the community members.
We’re looking for a motivated and collaborative Community Manager who is passionate about building relationships with influencers, ambassadors, and industry-leaders. You’ll enjoy telling stories in creative, avant-garde ways to reflect our brand. You’ll thrive in a fast-moving startup environment, supporting multiple weekly initiatives. You’ll be incredibly detail-oriented with the ability to take ownership of and skillfully grow our community. You have the ability to work independently and also collaborate.
Don’t get me wrong — I’m all about passion, entrepreneurial spirit, and customer-led communities. But it’s also a lot to ask of someone who you expect to only pay a mid- to junior-level salary to do all of these things. Before you set out with a generalist community role, challenge yourself to really consider the level of autonomy this individual will have, and make sure you have a plan for how they will integrate with other key stakeholders at your organization.
Second, most of these job descriptions don’t anticipate the opportunity cost and emotional labor that it takes to dedicate yourself in this way. Trust me on this one: It takes a lot out of you to give a lot, consistently. And overly-scoped community manager roles are a quick path to burnout for your new hire. Not to mention the one obvious omission: It takes an entire community to build one (not just a single person). It always makes me wonder: How much internal buy-in really exists, on the value of community, if it all falls to one person?
Finally, these generalist, catch-all descriptions also make it nearly impossible for your interview team to assess one candidate from another. Rather than get a sense for someone’s appetite to curate connection and bring people together, interviewers naturally fall into a routine of asking tactical questions about what they have already done.
So that’s the first piece of advice right off the bat: When it comes to community job descriptions, spend less time talking about you need and more time talking about what you are.
Community leaders are attracted to companies and brands that resonate with them. If you need to hire someone outside of your network, consider how you might describe your culture, your community, and your mission in a way that’s unique to you. Think of your job description is a magnet. What’s going to attract the best fit candidates to your company and brand?
The Background of Great Community Managers
The second big misconception I’ve noticed among hiring community leaders is the expectation that you need someone who’s been there, done that in a prior job. In my experience, the best community leaders aren’t necessarily people have have made community their career, leveling up from one community job to the next. The best community leaders are people who are already a part of that ecosystem and care deeply about those problems.
When I worked at Stack Overflow in the early 2010s, I had the privilege of watching our fast-growing Q&A website shepherd one of the earliest community-led strategies for developers. I observed two key takeaways about how we built our community team internally:
1. The best community leaders came from within the community itself.
As a massive Q&A website on nearly any topic, the engineering team built moderation and incentives into the foundation of the user experience from day one. People who participated in the community didn’t earn economic incentives or “tokens” for doing so — but they did earn “reputation points” for good questions and answers. And people took the bragging rights that went along with that very seriously. When we set out to make full-time hires and actually pay some people to help us with community management and moderation, it made sense to turn directly to this network first. In a way, that’s the purest form of community that you can get: Finding the people who’d do it for free, anyway. (By the way, this is essentially how I got hired to run the portfolio network at Union Square Ventures — I’d already been an active participant for years and had a passion for making it better.)
Stack Overflow famously organized an entire behind-the-scenes community called “Meta” where anyone could comment and share opinions about the evolution of their product
2. The other people we hired had no prior background in community management.
While there certainly are a few folks today who fit the mold of “serial community builder” (I’m lucky enough to know some of them), it’s not as common as you’d think. The job function itself is still pretty new — particularly back in 2012 when I worked at Stack Overflow — so we just didn’t have the benefit of choosing from a network of experienced community gurus. With demand for community roles skyrocketing today, I suspect the same is true: Companies must be open to “taking a flier” on someone who may not have prior experience. In some ways, I actually prefer the fresh eyes mentality — you’re more likely to surface innovative new ideas and experiments.
How to Find (And Hire) Community Managers
So how do you find and hire community managers with a commitment to connection and belonging?
Because every community has different needs, there is no ideal profile for a jack-of-all-trades community-builder. But there are a few overall frameworks I tend to recommend to folks who are looking to hire community leaders:
1. First and formost: Know your “big why” before you hire.
While some brands make more obvious sense to consider community strategies (see: Airbnb and Wix), we’ve gotten to the point where even the companies like JP Morgan Chase and ADP are growing out their community teams. It makes me wonder: What is everyone’s endgame in building out their communities? Is this the new buzzword for customer-led marketing? A panacea for leadership teams to check this off their list of to-do’s? The latest recruitment strategy to go after millennials and Gen Z talent? Or is it merely a hedge, so as to not get left behind?
If you can’t succinctly speak to the purpose of your community strategy, what success looks like, and why it’s important to support your business goals, you need to re-evaluate internally before you kick off a candidate search.
2. Start your search from within your own community.
Chances are, the best person to run your community is the person who’s already benefiting from it in some way. (Even if they are invisible to you right now.)
To give yourself a better shot of surfacing them, consider a few key questions: Who’s your audience today? What do the biggest cheerleaders look like? Where do you go to find your best constituents and users? Start your search there. You might not find the right person, right away. But you’ll follow a trail that may lead you in the right direction. As an added benefit, these questions will also help you advise your new hire regardless. The more you know about your community’s current state, the better you can make a strategic plan to build it up.
3. If you’re looking to do things differently, look for out-of-the-box thinkers.
It’s easy to blow through the motions of community-building today. Set up a Discord or a Slack channel. Share a few memes on Twitter. Organize a few events and share a directory of community members around afterward. But facilitating chatter doesn’t exactly count as community.
As my predecessor at Union Square Ventures, Brittany Laughlin, used to tell me, “If the community no longer exists when I walk away, that means I didn’t do my job in setting up a self-sufficient system.” That kind of philosophical approach to community reaches a much higher-level than the “blocking and tackling” approach I see so often today. And by the way, if you really want this level of deep thinking for your organization, you’re going to need to pay up for a more senior-level hire.
4. Be cognizant that the needs of your community will evolve as your community matures.
When it comes to your first community hire, I’d take unbridled enthusiasm over disciplined practice any day of the week, particularly if you’re on the bleeding edge of building something new. But over time, an entire team of motivated champions without structure is also not going to help you build something that scales.
Over time, you may need a little of both: The people who’d do it for free, and the disciplined people who can build scaffolding around all of those crazy ideas.
I rarely see this distinction in job descriptions for community hires, but it might really help candidates self-select for the right roles if you can really consider who you need, for that particular community growth moment.
At the end of the day, the role of a community manager is people-focused and connection-driven. This means your hiring process will likely be less transactional and more “fuzzy” than in other roles. But as long as you are crystal clear on your community objectives, your brand promise, and your target audience, you’ll have a much better chance of finding the right person to build out your customer or user community.