It is with great excitement that I share this Q&A with Venessa Paech of Lonely Planet. Venessa is a community professional with great experience, amazing insight and a true understanding of what it takes to succeed in this growing space. I was lucky enough to include some of Venessa’s words of wisdom in my new book and she reveals even more here. So sit back and take in every word of this must-read interview.

What would you say is the toughest part of community management?

Ooh, it’s all pretty challenging. Responsible governance that retains a genuine human face (and keeping it together when everybody wants a piece of you) is tricky business.

Personally, I think the hardest part is articulating the work, evangelising and defending its significance. Organisations are embracing community as currency, but a lot of people don’t understand what this truly means in application. Businesses want to ‘add community’, but forget that ‘community’ consist of real, complex people with quirks, desires and behaviours both inspiring and damaging. Would you [could you] create a town or city overnight without robust infrastructure and resources? That’s a difficult thing to convey to people who haven’t had exposure to online community themselves.

What’s the nicest compliment you’ve ever received from a member of the community?

I’ve received some lovely messages (both public and private) from members who acknowledge and appreciate the work that my team and I do in sweet, funny and creative ways.

If I’m doing my job well, people shouldn’t see how difficult it is. So, in a way, that’s the nicest compliment… when the community motors along, in it’s element, problem free.

Tell me about the first time you received a shocking email, or what I call a nasty-gram? What was it about and how did you respond?

Days after I took this particular job, I received a series of emails and even a fax or two from forum members who believed another member had been asked to leave the community unfairly. Mercifully, there was very little venom in their campaign to bring him back, but there was a wee, impassioned deluge and it certainly took this new kid on the block aback. I gathered my bearings, did the homework to get the full background and context, and in this instance, did end up reinstating that users membership. I’ve had some doozy nasty-grams too. You just need to step back, take a breath, remember it’s not personal and assess the situation with an almost forensic level of arms-lengthedness.

Have you ever been threatened? What are some of the more colorful names you’ve been called?

Yes, my team and I have been threatened by a couple of especially toxic former users who don’t appreciate the fact they were asked to leave the community.

I’m interested in promoting civil digital discourse, rather than rewarding idiots with undue attention, so details don’t bear repeating. However, the charge of censorship crops up a lot, usually with the same old, lazy pejoratives attached. In my experience (as both community leader and participant), this is a common knee jerk reaction from someone who doesn’t understand (or like) that anonymity doesn’t equal anarchy.

There’s definitely the perception in some that the web is not governed by the same basic mores (or laws) as the physical world. These same individuals tend to confuse the definition of free speech and have a hard time visualising a community space on an organisation’s website as territory that has an owner. They can publish what they like on their own blog and accept the personal consequences. But they cannot publish whatever they like on a website they don’t own or have responsibility for. If you remove something from you site that breaches terms of service or community guidelines, that isn’t censorship – and those who don’t agree may give you a rough time.

When are you most proud of your work?

At the risk of sounding terribly sappy, all the time. When I see the wonderful work my team does, I’m thrilled. When colleagues at Lonely Planet are surprised and impressed by our community and its members, I’m positively doting. I’m very happy when our traveller community is singled out in the media for its personality and savvy, or its success as a news gathering hub around events that impact travellers, such as missing persons, natural disasters or health crises. And those nice messages we mentioned previously are pretty warm fuzzy inducing too. These moments preserve your equilibrium when things are hard going.

Do you work at home? How often do you check in on the community on your days off?

Do bears bear? Do bees bee? 🙂 Yes, I work at home and check in with my community regularly.

I’ve worked hard over the last year to build a strong, talented team and to simultaneously develop new functionality that allows you to step back and be less hands on around the clock. It’s difficult to let go (you’re invested in these people and your space), but it’s also imperative. First of all, if you have a team you’re responsible for, you don’t want to be teaching them this kind of behaviour.

Secondly, if there’s a real problem hitting coverage 24/7 (many communities have one), figure out how to fix that and do your darndest to make it happen. Map out solutions (more staff, tools, whatever), and lobby your organisation for them (a clear business case helps!)

Making moderation and oversight scalable is part of the gig – and unless you clone yourself, you working non-stop won’t be part of that model. I’ve been there, having to work relentlessly due to inadequate support. You put the needs of your community first. However, if you can’t function due to lack of sleep, you’re not really serving the community, are you? This is such a common challenge with online community, and I suspect some organisations are a little too comfortable knowing that their passionate, reliable community manager will pick up the slack. Not cool. Do what you have to do, but make the solution a priority!

Have you ever met any of your members in real life? If so, under what circumstances?

Thorn Tree regulars have been having offline get-togethers almost as long as the forum has been around (that’s over a decade). I’ve been to a couple of these and met some of our fabulous traveller members. In our case, I have to balance this interaction very carefully. These events are member initiated, organised and executed, and I don’t want to intrude in any way (not everyone wants the company rep showing up). I always check with the member or members organising the event to make sure they’re ok with my tagging along, and that they think other attendees are likely to be comfortable also.

Because of the global spread of our membership (and the fact it’s a passion for travel that connects them) gatherings happen all over the world, so it also makes it difficult to do regularly (though I wouldn’t mind jet setting to them all if my bosses would send me).

If you’ll permit me to diverge from the question slightly, I think you touch another interesting consideration – that is, the way our confessional web complicates our online and offline relationships with community managers and their members. It’s something many of us face, not just community managers. Everyone is hyper aware of their online reputation, and cottage industries have emerged to help us ‘manage’ the confluence of personal and professional across these spaces. But for community managers there’s another dimension to these concerns. What if toxic members learn details about you they believe empower their attacks?

Some of my community will likely read this interview. Should I let that mediate what I say (even though I’m not ‘officially’ on the clock while I’m answering these questions)? Should they pay attention to the ‘man behind the curtain’, and if they do, how does that impact our relationship orbit? Though most operating in this work will advocate for transparency and authenticity as primary values and best practice philosophy (myself included), they are not always possible for everyone working as a community manager (even less so, a moderator). Some communities are intimate, personable and naturally fluid between on and offline. Others are vast, disparate and volatile (none of which means they’re necessarily an unsuccessful community.)

I find a helpful analogue is that of a city and its leader/s. Would the mayor or police chief want every single citizen to know what he did on his vacation? His home address and phone number? If my members consider me a friend, does this compromise my capacity to implement governance or discipline problem behaviours?

You see what I mean about it being an interesting field! 😉

Do you think everyone is cut out to be a community manager?

No. It’s a specialised role and not everyone will have the skills and temperament, let alone the inclination to take it on.

That said, I think there are core aspects of community management that a diverse range of other roles and professional arenas are looking to adopt. For example, journalists and media-makers are increasingly expected to wrangle and manage leads [chatter] from a network of sources. They need to manage these relationships, assess reliability, crowd-source problems and questions, and so on. Likewise teachers and educators are being asked to adopt this approach.

This is community management 101. In the future we won’t just see community managers looking to sharpen these skills.

And of course, anyone whose work involves the management of a delicate suite of stakeholders is in effect, a community manager. Many of us are community managers within our organisations. And many organisations that may not have an online community are bringing community management professionals in-house to consult on how their tenets and practices can benefit the organisation in other ways (and they can, plentifully!)

And finally, what is your advice to people hoping to get into this type of position, and what should they do to prepare themselves.

Enroll in the most intense boot camp you can find, and make sure it involves hearty doses of self-humiliation 🙂

I find this an incredibly fascinating, rewarding career path. It has a bright, shiny future as communities firm as an integral part of many organisations. Recent research suggested that, despite the financial crisis, Community Manager was a role on the rise, and I believe that’s indicative of the growing force of this sector. Many industries and jobs are in irreversible decline (coal and conventional cars for example). All signs seem to suggest this field is positioned for strong upward growth, which makes it a very smart time to get involved and give it a go.

My personal litmus test for community managers is pretty simple. Could you cut it in the public service? How would you feel about being a councillor? A mediator? Will you still champion a cause if people throw tomatoes at you everytime you mention it? If you’re a superb communicator (across mediums), a talented but sincere relationship wrangler, and if you’re invested in the power of community, then you might just have what it takes.

Importantly, these roles are fiendishly diverse from organisation to organisation. In some (including my own), there is a strong legalistic component to the work, so fluency with policy and governance is a must (understand copyright, IP law, safe harbour at least at cursory level). Proficiency with software, systems and the ability to speak fluent developer will make you a real asset (and help you agitate for what you need – or build it yourself). A background in psychology or anthropology can be very valuable. And based on this skills list, reflexivity matters! If you share a passion or interest with your members, that’s often helpful, but if you’re a sterling communicator, that’s usually sufficient.

I’d strongly recommend that people considering this work spend time with people who face similar demands. Have coffee with community managers (we all love to yak about our jobs, as you can tell by this interview). Ask them what community management resources they use.

Think outside the square. Chat to community organisers offline, to councillers, politicians (use to being pulled in every direction by constituents), a lawyer who works the web, change managers, social workers, teachers!

And the obvious one – if you’re not already involved in an online community (not a social network, though that will expose you to some of the challenges involved), spend time within one. Real time (not just a day or two – that will teach you nothing).

Over the coming years you’ll see more higher education and scholarship that addresses community management. Keep an eye on that too!

You’ll notice I haven’t really mentioned marketing. In these early days of community, marketer and marketing thinkers are everywhere in the space. There’s a universe of opining you’ll be exposed to in this work (including ideas you’re expected to execute). Some of it is useful, but the other stuff is harder to come by, and I would argue, more important to get right early on.

There’s plenty of time to understand metrics and social marketing (and no end of consultants and bloggers to keep you in the loop with the latest trends, favoured analytic measures and tools, conferences, etc.)

Hone your understanding of people and how they behave first, or you’ll struggle as a community manager. It’s a mistake I see a lot.

Thanks for the chat Angela! I look forward to seeing some of your wanderlusting readers on LonelyPlanet.com and our Lonely Planet forums. And anyone who wants to chat community management can always grab me for a virtual (or real) coffee 🙂 You can find me @ twitter.com/VenessaP, or at my rarely updated blog: http://venessapaech.wordpress.com/

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