Community Management and the Role of the Back-Channel

More and more organizations are creating community manager roles on staff to tackle the growing list of social media and online content platforms. We’ve seen blog posts, articles, and even books that position the role of community manager as anything from an “evagelist” to a “cat herder” to a “babysitter” or a “referee.” Ultimately, a community manager is your organization personified and the way the role is structured, supported, and presented to the community reflects who your organization is and what it thinks of the community.

A successful community manager – regardless of what the actual job title is! – needs to understand the value of operating in public, engaging with the community where other community members can see. The back-channel, or non-public communication with a single member or a small group of community members, is just as crucial for supporting any online community building efforts, especially if you’re just getting started.

1. Builds Trust

Creating clear opportunities for community members to talk with you builds trust in the community in your role and purpose, and in the community space you’re managing. When people can see you engaging on the Facebook page, let’s say, they are able to see that you aren’t just there to post links back to your website all day. But, if you also post your email address or how to reach out with other questions, you reinforce that you are there for the community and the contnt is just something to talk about. Sometimes a community member has a question about posting content or engaging on the platform and just doesn’t want to be the one asking “the stupid question” in front of everyone. Other times, though, they may want to report an issue with another community member or share their experience privately.

2. Creates Real-Time Feedback

Whether you manage an online community on your own website, social media, forums, email lists, or all of those combined, there are going to be times when a conversation takes shape that either offends, discludes, or simply annoys some people in the community. Offering a back-channel to talk to you means when those situations arise, you don’t have to watch the comments and guess about what’s happening – people can email, direct message, or even call you to let you know that things aren’t as they should be. That’s not to say that some times people don’t voice that opinion publicly, but there are always going to be topics where the voices or the subject matter are such that those that don’t agree actually feel like they shouldn’t pipe up, and you’ll want to know when a conversation in your community gets to that point.

3. Helps Surface Needs

Creating value for your community is a key goal for any community manager. How that takes shape, though, is often changing. You can certainly take a data-focused approach to idenfitying resources or topics of interesting. But you can also figure out what your community wants and needs by letting them tell you, personally. Keeping an open back-channel where community members know they can reach out to you with ideas means you have direct feedback to support your case when you make proposals to your team or organization.

Beware the Crutch

I truly believe that a community manager should be working towards the goal that the community does not need her in that role because leadership and strength have been distributed and built up throughout the community. However, you aren’t going to get to that place by using your open back-channel as the only way people get to be heard, changes are made, or relationships are built. The back-channel is a way to ensure that the community knows you are available and invested in supporting them and your organization’s work, so much of the interactions and communications are in public. The value to the back-channel is to support those in the community that may just need a hand or an ear every once in while to get back in the public side of things.

I would love to hear your stories or examples as a community manager where providing either an email, phone, direct message, or other kind of personal contact information helped a community member that otherwise may not have joined the conversation.

Amy Sample Ward
Driven by a belief that the nonprofit technology community can be a movement-based force for positive change, Amy is NTEN’s CEO and former membership director. Her prior experience in direct service, policy, philanthropy, and capacity-building organizations has also fueled her aspirations to create meaningful, inclusive, and compassionate community engagement and educational opportunities for all organizations. Amy inspires the NTEN team and partners around the world to believe in community-generated change. She believes technology can help nonprofits reach their missions more effectively, efficiently, and inclusively, and she’s interested in everything from digital equity to social innovation.