I’ve led social media and community management for companies, hired, and worked with many social media managers and community managers.

Let’s be honest – the two roles are often confused. The number of blog posts explaining the difference should be a tip-off.

(I like this one, fwiw: Differentiating Between Social Media and Community Management – Rachel Happe, Community Roundtable)

In Australia, for example, most Community Manager jobs advertised are actually Social Media Manager jobs.

There’s a few of reasons for this. One is that advertising agencies dominate the discourse around social media and online ‘community’ in Australia.

Another is that there are fewer enterprise and organisational online communities in Australia compared to North America and Europe, where the distinction is more native.

Finally, the market in Australia is a small one and it’s all but assured social and community professionals will end up delivering both functions at some point.

So we muddy our waters – what’s the harm?

Here’s why this confusion can be a problem.


Why the difference matters

Just like anything in life and business, if you’ve got the wrong tool for the job, you won’t get the outcome you expect or need.

You might be using the wrong strategy

Communities and social media solve different problems for businesses and organisations.

Are you building brand awareness, or do you want to scale customer service? Does your roadmap take into account community life-cycles over the long haul (communities take years to build and pay off more over time – a little like bricks and mortar)?

Communities are different systems to social networks, defined by the structure of their relationship matrix, not the platform they inhabit.

Here’s a nice way to visualise this important difference (big thanks to Matthew Cox for the image):

Network versus community diagram


You don’t know what you’re measuring

Objectives, end goals, metrics for success, measuring tools and methodologies are very different for Social Media Managers and Community Mangers.

Social Media Managers might look at engagement metrics around native social content, reach and amplification, social media sentiment and conversions (however that’s defined for the organisation in question).

Community Manager measurement includes: membership funnels (visitor to registration), engagement ratios over time, volume and balance of strong and weak ties, progress toward member objectives, number of volunteers – and critically – community health (including sense of belonging, level of influence). If you don’t know what you’re measuring, you can’t define or achieve success.

If you don’t know what you’re measuring, how will you know success?

You’re devaluing both functions

Saying an SEO Strategist is the same as a Digital Editor doesn’t do justice to either, even though a Digital Editor will have strong SEO skills and understanding, and an SEO Strategist will understand the mechanics of great content.

In particular, this conflation tends to disadvantage community builders, whose work is commonly longitudinal (complex peer-to-peer relationship building across many years).

You’re hiring the wrong people for the job

If you hire a Social Media Manager when you need someone to design a community strategy, you’ll be disappointed. It’s a different mission, with different timeframes and different skill requirements.

You might also be facing wasted resources, morale issues and broken outcomes.

Community manager meme

What’s in a name?

Community is frustratingly, beguilingly oblique word. It’s about identity and investment, so it’s inevitably bespoke to at least some extent. But there is a long history of established social science defining community structures and a network structures that should inform us here.

At a high level, social media is about reach. Communities are about relevance. Content is the glue of social media (formal or informal). Relationships are the glue of communities. They complement one another functionally and structurally. Deftly managed social media is an effective way to discover community member prospects and spark the journey to registration.

Neither is better or worse – and together they’re supremely powerful.

Audiences on social media and community members are part of are very different social systems – and we’re not doing ourselves any favours confusing the two. We can’t set objectives, define and measure success, or hire the right professionals if we don’t know whether we want people getting excited about our latest product, or a sense of belonging.

Audiences on social media and community members are part of different social systems.

Many Community Managers have become adept Social Media Managers as social media platforms have risen to nest the conversations of our age. And great Social Media Managers understand the way people tick in ways similar to community builders and negotiators.

We’ve developed deep and real appreciation for our respective functions and talents.

But it’s a risk to assume we’re fluent in each other’s discipline, and riskier still to not match person – to role – to need.


One thought on “Social Media or Community?

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