Maggie McGary points to a soon-to-be-released study concluding that among associations with 20,000 or more members, 31% have an online community. Which leads her to ask: Why are there so few online community managers in the association profession?

Quoth Maggie:

…as far as I know, there are still very, very few community managers in the association world…I’m a member of The Community Roundtable, basically an association for community managers… Of well over 100 members, exactly TWO of us work for associations (ok, three, yet those two members work for the same association). Yet, according to this report, there are a lot of associations with private social networking platforms. With the cost of launching and maintaining a private social network being what it is, I just don’t get the disconnect when it comes to community management.

Continueth Maggie…

I get that resources are tight and new positions are hard to justify… I see it all the time in action–associations who launched a platform several years ago who are now questioning whether it was worth the money and whether it’s worth maintaining the community because they’re not seeing the activity and resulting revenue generation that they’d been promised by the software vendor. Guess what? Without a community manager you most likely WON’T see those benefits, ever.

I agree wholeheartedly that proactive community management is essential to any online community’s success, but I think Maggie makes some assumptions that deserve challenging:

First, is it possible for an association to have a successful private community without a dedicated community manager? Yes, it is possible, but they are definitely the exception to the rule. You significantly raise the likelihood of success by having a dedicated community manager. In my experience, having a dedicated community manager is an association’s first and best option. But there are options. I’ll get to them in a minute.

Second, because an association has sufficient resources to set up and maintain a private social community, does it also necessarily have the resources to hire a full time community manager? Nope. There are enterprise online community solutions that start at less than $200 per month (including Avectra’s own MemberFuse), and even free options that can support many organizations’ objectives. That’s a pretty modest investment. A qualified community manager will run you many times that amount, not counting benefits and overhead. Much less modest.

So what about organizations that can’t afford to hire a full or part time community manager? Well, realistically speaking, you’ve got two possibilities.

First, you can distribute the community management duties across several staff. Here are the pros and cons to this approach:

Pros:

  • No additional headcount. No additional overhead.
  • Current staff is already on staff, and (we hope) familiar with your organization, which means a much lower on-boarding effort to get your people up to speed.
Cons:
  • Continuity and consistency will suffer, unless you have very well-defined document outlining standards and expectations.
  • There’s a significant possibility that staff won’t stick to their community management duties when their core projects take priority.

Second, you can outsource community management to a community to a third party.

Pros:

  • No additional headcount. Less overhead than a FTE.
  • You’ll likely inure the benefit of someone with a longer community management résumé and more community management experience than anyone on your current staff. This should result in more proactive community management.
  • Your association benefits from the third party’s exposure to other clients. They will know what works well with other communities, and can apply it to yours.

Cons:

  • The third party will be less familiar with your organization’s culture and issues. It will take time to bring them up to speed and (at first) may result in inconsistent messaging and/or longer response times to get approval or input on posts in the community.

Bottom line: Although it’s preferable to have one, your association CAN have an effective community without a dedicated community manager. You have options.