Lets Define Community Once and For All

One thing that we strive to accomplish with TCM is to bring some clarity to the community industry, and help distinguish community roles from marketing roles that are mislabeled as community.

It’s a tough, uphill battle.

Time after time I hear people talk about social media marketing and community management in the same vein. Then fuck, while we’re at it, let’s throw in customer service, event planning, content marketing, email marketing, blogging, copywriting and the list goes on…

Now, it’s okay for a title to have multiple responsibilities that fall under it. Compare it to a “Developer”. There are a lot of different kinds of developers. Front end, back end… then break it down by language: ruby developer, python developer, etc…

But “Community Manager” doesn’t have any subtitles. That’s it. One title to rule them all.

What caused the title “Community Manager” to reach such a vague status?

Perhaps “Social Media Marketing” has a negative connotation because of all the bullshit people who call themselves social media experts. And so they use “community manager” because it sounds better. People love to say they’re building a community, even when they’re not. And they never want to say that they’re marketing at someone. Community sounds warmer. We’re all in it together! YEA!

Perhaps it was caused by the explosion of social media, as it has often been described as “online communities”. So people used the term “community management” loosely as a way to describe the usage of these platforms.

It’s just a title. Why does this matter?

It’s bad because the same negative connotation that happened to social media marketers can happen to the community manager title.

It’s bad because there is true value that comes from actual community building that is extremely different from the value that you gain from marketing and all of these other practices.

It’s bad because when a company is looking for an actual good community manager, they’ll often get a lot of people applying who don’t know the first thing about building community. Then they’ll lose faith in community.

It’s bad because more and more amazing community managers will be asked to do things that aren’t actually community, preventing them from doing the job they were hired for.

Some people argue that we should just change the title.  I disagree.

The word “community” is special. Community managers have been around for decades. Communities have been around since the beginning of human life. It’s what makes us so special.

I truly believe that the real online and offline community builders today are carrying on the true value of community that has been around for so long. They’re not marketing at people. They’re bringing people together in order to improve the lives of those involved.  They’re building communities around things that they truly care about with other people who care too.

I don’t want to give it up.

So let’s define it.

Community has a definition according to the dictionary, but I think it just needs to be updated:

community  (kəˈmjuːnɪtɪ)

—  , pl -ties

1. a group of people having cultural, religious, ethnic, or other characteristics in common


Here’s how I’d update it to apply to modern day business and communication:

Community is a group of people, on an online platform or in person, gathered around a common interest or belief.


So what does a community manager/director/builder/facilitator/whatever do?

A community manager brings people together around a common interest or belief.

A community manager facilitates interactions between people.

A community manager helps people feel like they’re a part of something.

A community manager understands how to create platforms which allow people to interact with each other intuitively.


How can you help define it?

We need to continue to educate on the true value of community. Don’t crowdsource definitions and start a conversation around what community is. Those who are actually building community already knows what it means to be a community manager. It’s been around for a long time.

When you see a job listing that says “Community Manager” when in reality it’s a social media marketing job, say something. Don’t share it as a community job.

When people refer to marketing as community building, say something.

And keep building. Keep husting and facilitating amazing communities. The best way to prove the value of community is to build one.

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About the author

David Spinks

CEO of, CMXSummit and Lifelong student, community builder and writer.


Although I appreciate the gusto in this post, I gave up gave up on the community manager is or is not a social media manager debate a long time ago. You're 100% correct, but it's a battle that can't be won at this point. Time to move on.

DavidSpinks moderator

@DanMcKee Not with that attitude ^_^

Imma keep fighting the good fight.  We've done a lot here at TCM and the communities we've run to bring real community builders together.  

francium 1 Like

Great insights David. It's true that most people don't equate "community building" with "community management" these days--but in reality, that's the goal. It's impossible to encourage innovation from the top down. A community manager needs to encourage and enliven the spirit of innovation amongst there community, which often means making the community successful.For "maker" brands like Soundcloud, Shapeways, and even 10gen the essence of their product is "what can you make with this?". So while community managers need to create an environment where that innovation is possible, they also need to make their users successful. I think that's what keeps us going through the "tough times". We're constantly a cheerleader for our community, committed to making them awesome.

DavidSpinks moderator

@francium Well said Francesca! Building communities of creators is a such an amazing role that is extremely important for any "maker" brand. As more and more of these kinds of platforms come out, the community builder role will only become more valuable. Some others that come to mind are snapguide, skillshare, pinterest... all with amazing people leading the community and making creators feel like they're on top of the world


@francium Absolutely! Celebrating the successes is key for us. Put people and their accomplishments first and make it an inspiration for others.

DavidN 1 Like

This are great points and insights, David. Love the break-down of the definition. At the risk of being too specific (for large networks of engaged users), one of my favorite definitions comes from Christina Cacioppo at Union Square Ventures, who says that a CM is: "an empathetic storyteller who is the product's external voice, the users' internal advocate with a genuine passion for helping people.

What I see a lot lately, is that the concept of CM is being used to connect a brand/company with users rather than creating an environment for people to connect with one another, something you mention above, which I love.

The way we've approached it is to think about "what legacy I want to create should I ever leave SoundCloud". This puts me in check to create the foundation, internal and external guidelines, infrastructure, team and processes to support this. Today, this includes community support (CS with a twist), trust & safety, rights & privacy, program management, internal community building and a lot more. 

This is a snapshot at the natural evolution of my role and the conscious decision by our founders to ensure that Community has a seat at the (senior management) table, a commitment that was possible because we were able to showcase and scale the value of a solid CM organization while we grew to 150+ employees serving 20+ million members.

DavidSpinks moderator

@DavidN Love it.  Thanks for sharing David.

The legacy mentality is a great way to think about it.  To take that further, I've heard people semi-joke around that a community managers job is to no longer be needed.  What they mean is that by building a community properly, bringing people together and building relationships, allows you to build something that will live on beyond the brand, the CM etc.  

Would really love to learn more about the evolution of your role at SoundCloud and how you built the team out.  Someone actually just commented on this post asking specifically about that.  And your example is something that I think a lot of other CM's can really learn a lot from and apply in their own organizations.

Any chance you'd be interested in writing something for TCM?

ericsuesz 1 Like

Great points. Thanks for making them. I recently had coffee with someone who works at an agency focused on community for brands, but as they talked more and more about their business, I came to the conclusion that what they really meant was that they run Facebook pages for brands and tweet and Pin things to try and make them go viral and get attention. They eschew every custom platform out there; they're broadcasting only on the most popular platforms. This seems pretty different than building online communities and stretches the meaning of community to become "connecting people around a brand." Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but it's exactly what you're talking about: They're using the positive sheen of community as a positioning strategy. 

DavidSpinks moderator

@ericsuesz Yep... that's what I want to call out.

Thanks for the comment man.

terakristen 1 Like

"Those who are actually building community already knows what it means to be a community manager."

This is the most important sentence I read in the above. I know what I do is community building - although I do much of what this article, and the one yesterday, told me is not community management. I use a website and social media to communicate the belief of the company so that people may decide whether they too share it. I use email marketing to build a local audience that will get invitations to offline events, which I also plan. I blog in order to share the community news and spotlight particular members or aspects of it. 

The objective of all those actions is to build community, both online and offline, and there's no one that has ever been able to tell me why I'm not a community builder. What do community builders actually do? Because "facilitating interactions between people" is pretty vague, in my opinion.  

DavidSpinks moderator

Really solid points Tera.  I'll do my best to respond thoughtfully.Community builders connect people with each other, as opposed to marketing, which is connecting people with your brand.

I suppose the point I'm attempting to arrive at is this...A person might use any of the tools/tactics that you mentioned.  It's "Community Management" if the goal is to bring people together.  BUT it doesn't work the other way around.  You aren't a community manager just because you use the tools or tactics.

So in you're example, you're spot on in saying the email marketing, for you, is community building because your spotlighting members of the community.  The goal is to enhance the community experience.  We have to distinguish THAT from the people who do email marketing, social media management, blogging etc, WITHOUT the goal of building a community.  If their goal is to spread awareness, build an audience etc. that's marketing.  You both may use the same tools, but for completely different reasons.The tools don't define what you do or what your title is.  Your goals do.


@DavidSpinks @DavidSpinks 

Do you think one person can do both? Connect people with each other, and a brand? Spread awareness and build an audience, while also fostering a community? Or is that what you and Jenn have been trying to say: force someone to do both and community will suffer?

I definitely don't know the answer to this - but I would love to think that more than one goal can be achieved (ie. you can do good for the world AND make money). 

P.S. Your article and the one @JPedde wrote yesterday have been very thought-provoking. Generating discussion, and even a little bit of emotion, is an excellent thing :)

terakristen 1 Like

@DavidSpinks Do you think one person can do both? Connect people with each other, and a brand? Spread awareness and build an audience, while also fostering a community? Or is that what you and Jenn have been trying to say: force someone to do both and community will suffer?I definitely don't know the answer to this - but I would love to think that more than one goal can be achieved (ie. you can do good for the world AND make money). P.S. Your article and the one @JennPedde wrote yesterday have been very thought-provoking. Generating discussion, and even a little bit of emotion, is an excellent thing :)

ErikaNJ 1 Like

I think a lot of these points are spot on, but as an employee in an 11 person company, I find it impossible to separate community from marketing, support, and product (my title: the somewhat vague, Marketing & Community Manager). I would love to read something about how to grow and separate the community branch from the rest as a startup grows and changes. It's all very well to say a community manager should only focus on community, but in the beginnings of a company, it's just not possible or that clear. 

DavidSpinks moderator

@ErikaNJ totally agree.  In a startup, people have to take on multiple roles.  That's totally understandable.

The point isn't to say that a community manager can't do these other things, or even that they shouldn't.  The point is that just because the community manager is asked to handle all of these other responsibilities doesn't make those responsibilities part of community management.

You can ask a designer to do a sales call, but that doesn't make sales part of being a designer.

Love the idea for a post on how to grow and separate the community branch as the startup grows.  We'll put something together for sure (=

lauraglu 1 Like

@DavidSpinks @ErikaNJ I think Evan Hamilton has handled that well at Uservoice as it grows.

Broadly it's ensuring the next role you hire for focuses on those marketing or support specific goals (if you prefere community) and vice versa. In other words, hire next for what you don't want to spend your time on or aren't great at. It helps define your role and presents a stronger team overall.


@DavidSpinks @ErikaNJ That would be fantastic, thanks! I am now a part of my 3rd start-up and I still struggle with defining my role, while  still being a team player who can adapt to what the company needs. 


@DavidSpinks @ErikaNJ Related to my comment above - what if the designer was making a sales call that achieved an objective directly related to design? What if he was selling a piece of his artwork (or design work, forgive my ignorance of the specific language to use)? Is selling your work not part of being a designer?


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