Community managers have a window of opportunity. But that window comes with an 18- to 24-month expiration date.

Rachel Happe, principal and co-founder of Boston-based The Community Roundtable believes that the time is right for community managers to become strategic partners in their organizations. Communities have captured the attention and the interest of the C-Suite, but will not hold it for long if they fail to prove business value. The challenge for community managers then is to define, measure and document the value their communities provide.

Happe issued this call to action with the seventh annual State of the Community Management Report 2016, released today.

The report marks another step forward in the evolution of community management and the sophistication with which communities can be discussed and measured. It builds on the models from previous reports — including the Community Maturity Model and the strategy, operations and tactics themes introduced in last year's report — while introducing new data on how community managers spend their time and an ROI model.

"We’re really starting to see a set (or sets) of best practices emerge that are more robust and more nuanced than past years. There’s been a maturation in the survey itself and in the dialogue surrounding the survey," said Ted McEnroe, director of research and training at The CR.

The report represents the responses of 339 community managers from across industries, representing a mix of internal and external communities.  

Seeking Answers to the ROI Question

What The CR discovered in the years of conducting this research and working directly with community managers was that community managers — while excelling at the tactics and execution of community — didn't know how to think about return-on-investment (ROI).

"Community managers are engagement professionals, they're not analysts," said Happe.

For the first time, this year's report includes an ROI model to help create a consensus on how communities — both internal and external — generate value. The tool is meant to help community managers follow through on Happe's call to action, while at the same time preventing them from getting caught up measuring useless or overly complicated metrics. 

The Problem With Metrics

One of the issues the research surfaced was that community managers often used the metrics they have rather than defining the metrics they need to prove value. Part of the issue lies with the activity-based analytics many community software platforms provide, which Happe sees as a result of the analytics' roots in the web analytics world. 

The data these track, "page views, volume of active members, the number of likes — which aren't bad, we need activity — but it doesn't necessarily prove that anyone is doing anything differently. It's not a behavior change." 

Data can also serve as a distraction for community managers without a clear idea of what they're looking for, causing them to spend time and effort sifting through large quantities of data without reaching meaningful conclusions.

The ROI model comes with caveats and warnings — the model is not meant to answer all questions or solve all issues related to obtaining funding or support. But it does offer clear guidelines on the five data points needed to calculate ROI and a strong reason to get started measuring. 

Communities that could clearly express the shared value of the community — meaning the value for both the community members and the organization — showed a strong correlation with higher levels of maturity and engagement. 

What Separates Good Community Managers from the Great

A picture of what separates a good community manager from a great community manager emerged this year.

The difference? "Great community managers enable leadership in others," said Happe. "The good community managers do it by themselves, but don't enable."

The report recommends three tactics to increase member support:

  1. Develop formal systems for member feedback.
  2. Include members in strategic decisions and give them a role leading community programs.
  3. Actively work to improve organizational support of community efforts.

who leads scheduled community programs

Actively involving community members and internal experts in running programs serves a dual purpose: unsurprisingly, it correlates with higher levels of engagement, but it also serves to help scale the community as it grows. As many communities still run on limited budgets with small numbers of dedicated staff, creating a formalized process where community members can have a more active role in the community can serve in the long run to lighten community managers' loads. 

The research also found that best-in-class community managers devoted more time on engagement, strategy and business questions than their counterparts, but community managers — across the board — spent most of their time on engagement and content. 

'An Inflection Point'

“We are at an inflection point, and it’s a challenging time to be a community program owner. As with any inflection point, chaos comes before consolidation around the new normal,” wrote Happe in her introduction.

The call to action for community managers this report lays out is clear. As businesses pursue ambitious goals in innovation, digital transformation, customer experience and more, communities have emerged as an effective way to execute on these goals. Now it's time to prove real strategic value. 

To dive deeper into this year's findings, you can download the report here (registration required).

Title image Ezra Jeffrey