When should you hire a community manager and what should that person be expected to do in the first 3, 6, and 9 months?

The following post is an expanded and edited response given in response to a question in a closed community manager forum. 

When considering whether to hire a community manager your first question should be: why do we want a community? Is it because you “should?” If your response is “yes,” you must spend some time in reflection: What business goals are you trying to accomplish with a community? Could you better achieve those goals with more traditional marketing? If so, that route can be more economical and more direct, as you probably already employ a marketing person.

Why should you have a community? Traditionally, here are the popular reasons: the desire to get more direct feedback from customers, supporting customer service agents with real-world information, and SEO support†. More recently, there are more companies looking at Communities of Practice in order to be perceived as thought leaders in their problem space. Determine your business need and the “why” should follow.

If, after evaluating your motives, you decide you do want to create a community around your product/brand/idea, what kind of community achieves your goals? Here are some examples of ways to “do community”:

  • Have a community as part of your website offering (à la traditional forums or a white-labeled community platform). These start typically as part of a support offering, but may ultimately fall under marketing.††
  • Have a community on a separately hosted SAAS offering (MightyNetworks, Higher Logic, Mobilize, etc.).
  • Participate in other, existing communities, like Stack Overflow or Reddit. I call this participation marketing and it is not necessarily community building. It can still be a beneficial practice, especially in early-stage startups, but it requires deep domain and product knowledge mixed with a bit of sales and marketing skills to do well. As such, it may be better served by a founder, product manager or engineer instead of immediately hiring a community manager.
  • Participate in Twitter/Facebook/Friendster/Snapchat/Instagram. In this case, determine if what you really want to do is social media marketing. If so, be aware that it’s a different kind of community experience and you’ll need to hire for a different, but related skill set.

You may decide you wish to take on all of these ways of “doing community,” but if so, you should assume you’ll need a team of professionals to do it right. Each style of community engagement requires different approaches and different skill sets, which is unlikely to be found all in one person.

If you need help determining which path to take, a consultant can help with your decision making, preferably before you hire your community manager.†††

Once you have defined your desired community model, this will inform what your new hire should accomplish in the first 3, 6, or nine months.

But wait!

Before hiring your first community manager there is one more consideration: what is the opportunity cost for having a community?

If your community is planned as a part of your website offering, the community is a product in and of itself. That means budget. It means goals, development, legal reviews, timelines, project management, and all the other requirements that a “product” engenders. Make sure you have those resources identified and locked up before you hire.

Off-domain participation may be thought of as a product as well. Consider the case of Zappo’s Twitter engagement. I would argue that this type of participation requires thought around voice, budget, timelines, legal reviews, etc., and is, therefore, a product.


I’m obviously advocating that you don’t start a community just out of a vague sense that you “should.” Rather, start a community because it will solve a business problem. This will help you determine the goals and measures that you will use to evaluate your community’s success and your community manager’s effectiveness.

One final caveat, make sure you remember that a community is made up of people. Your people. Your customers. A community is a give and take; make sure you don’t set up a community only as a ‘taking’ resource. Give back to it, nurture it and give it the funding and functionality it needs to succeed.

† There are issues with each of these reasons, but that is fodder for future posts.
†† Where your community team fits in your org is another recurring question. My opinion: reporting directly to the CEO, with Marketing, Product, Sales and Support underneath.
††† If you need recommendations, reach out. I know a few people that do excellent work.