Key roles in online communities – and how to leverage them

May 2, 2022

Key roles in online communities – and how to leverage them

When building a community strategy, it can be tempting to see your community as a homogenous group. But this is a mistake. 

Successful communities thrive when people are encouraged into roles that suit their personalities and skills, helping to create an environment that is vibrant, balanced, and sustainable. 

In this article, you’ll learn: 

But first, let’s answer an important question. 

Why are community roles important?

Communities are complex social systems. Whether location-based or online, community members naturally organize themselves into certain roles based on their preferences and personalities.

Some people tend to take charge, while others are happy to be led. Some thrive in the limelight, while others stand on the sidelines and watch. Some are creative, while others are more data-driven. Some are content with the status quo, while others look to challenge it.

Everyone brings something unique to the table. 

For your community to be successful, you’ll need to understand the different roles members can play, the value each role brings, and how to encourage people to adopt these roles in your community. 

What different community roles are there?

Let’s take a look at the different roles your community members can assume, what they involve, and how they bring value. We can break this list down into three parts: 

Now, let’s look at the types of roles that fit under each category.

Natural community roles

This isn’t a definitive list of natural community roles, but rather an attempt to categorize a group of individuals along behavioral lines. You may find that when you analyze your community, you come up with your very own list of roles.

The organizer

Organizers are like the unelected leaders of your community. They are fair, unbiased, and interested in the community’s success. Their role is to stand up when needed, communicate key matters to the group, and moderate where necessary. Ideally, organizers will have earned their stripes as some of your longest-serving, most loyal community members.

The facilitator

The facilitator plays a critical role in creating an environment where conversations can flourish. They are the ones who welcome newcomers, respond to first posts, and offer words of encouragement and advice. They are keen to help and support others. 

The performer

Always eager to be seen, the performer is driven by a strong psychological need for belonging and approval. They want to be at the center of everything that’s happening in the community and thrive on attention and recognition. 

The observer

The opposite of the performer, the observer takes a more passive approach to conversations. Observers shouldn’t be confused with inactive members. They show up regularly and get real value from the community, but they do so in a nonintrusive, indirect way. 

Like real-life introverts, observers are often very astute and have plenty of valuable insights to offer. Sometimes, they just need a bit of encouragement to share them.

The antagonist

Often known as a trouble-maker, the antagonist loves testing boundaries and challenging people’s ideas. If not kept in check, the antagonist’s desire for debate can quickly descend into argument. 

That said, with the right moderation, they play a critical role in highlighting different viewpoints and encouraging self-reflection. Without an antagonist, your community could quickly become a self-congratulatory echo chamber. 

The antagonist is not to be confused with a troll. While the former brings balance and value to your community, the latter brings nothing but trouble. 

Granted community roles

Granting roles is a great way to involve community members in the process of growing and managing your community. When done right, it builds trust and loyalty. But be careful – granting an important role to the wrong person can do more harm than good.

Moderator

This is one of the most important roles you can grant to a community member. Moderators are there to keep the peace, enforce rules, and ensure that your community is a productive and positive place for all. 

Of all the granted roles, this is the one that’s most important to get right. You’ll need to pick someone you can trust – ideally a long-term community member who knows the ropes and is fully bought into your community ethos. They need to be confident enough to step in when needed, but also someone with the emotional intelligence to know when they should take a backseat.

It’s important to note that moderation mostly requires a light touch. A moderator’s powers are best used sparingly. Heavy-handed moderation is a quick way to kill your community before it gets started.

Suitable candidates: the organizer

Content creator

User-generated content should play a central role in your community strategy. Your community members are more likely to trust what other people say over what you say about your product. 

Ideally, anyone in your community should be able to create and share content about your brand or product. This official title, however, can be granted to the most active or effective content creators as a badge of honor. 

Granting someone this title means you can communicate with them directly about future content, share ideas and strategies, and ensure that they have the resources they need to deliver value. 

Suitable candidates: pretty much anyone, although performers will thrive in this role.

Brand ambassador 

This role is reserved for the most active and passionate community servants – the ones who have a deep, long-lasting affinity with your brand. 

Brand ambassadors are your word-of-mouth superheroes. Their job is to promote your company and products wherever possible, so they need to be confident enough to put themselves out there. There should be perks to the job too – free product samples, tickets to events and product launches, access to VIP groups, etc. 

Suitable candidates: the organizer, the performer

Onboarder

This role delegates onboarding responsibilities to specific community members. Onboarders are there to welcome new joiners, answer any questions they might have, and help them hit the ground running. 

Most of this work happens behind the scenes in DMs, so this role is best suited to someone who’s keen to help others without the need for a spotlight. 

Suitable candidates: the facilitator

In-house community roles

You’ll need to ensure that key roles are filled in-house as well. Again, this isn’t a definitive list. And in many cases, building a community will require cross-departmental collaboration with engineering, customer success, and so on. 

Community manager

If you are serious about building a vibrant and successful community, it is essential that you hire a community manager. Community management is a full-time job that requires a great deal of care.

Your community manager will be your community members' main touchpoint with the company. It’s their job to build relationships, get involved in discussions, share content and ideas, communicate important news and announcements, and plan events that keep members engaged.

Generally, the community manager sits within a broader marketing department – sometimes as part of the social team – but there can also be some overlap with people teams. 

Community success manager

There’s a lot of overlap between this role and that of community manager, and you might only need one at first. But where both roles exist in parallel, the community manager will be involved in the day-to-day running and upkeep of your community, while the community success manager will be responsible for tying everything back to results and goals. 

A CMS will be particularly interested in community growth, churn, retention, and engagement, as well as the success of various community-driven events and initiatives. 

Chief community officer

This is a relatively new idea, and the vast majority of companies don’t have anyone with this job title. But as the value of community becomes clearer, the need for a chief community officer will only grow. 

Hiring a CCO role establishes community as a distinct team or department, separate from marketing, social, or people ops. The CCO would manage all other community staff, set the community strategy, and be responsible for communicating results and needs at the c-suite level. 

Planning your community strategy around roles

To maximize the benefits of community roles, you’ll have to factor them into your community strategy. Here are some ways you can do it. 

Understand your community composition 

Once your community is established enough to have a diverse range of characters, it’s critical that you spend time understanding and analyzing the different natural roles people are playing. 

Depending on the size of your community, you may be able to do this by simply spending time among them, getting to know them, and observing the way they interact. Chances are, you’ll spot the organizers, facilitators, performers, and antagonists among the group. 

Leverage the power of analytics

You can also use Slack’s built-in analytics to help you, although you’ll have to upgrade to a paid plan to do so. This will allow you to drill down into user data to see how often people post, which channels they use, and how often they are active. 

Leveraging analytics will also help you spot the observers more easily – those members who spend a lot of time in your community but do so in a passive way. With a little prompting, these members could have plenty of value to add. 

Encourage people into natural roles

Once you know who’s who, you can maximize the effect of your community’s natural composition by subtly encouraging people to exhibit more of the relevant behaviors. 

For example, you might encourage an organizer’s natural leadership qualities by thanking them for stepping in to moderate a conversation. Alternatively, you might encourage an antagonist – and keep them in check – by pointing out the value of alternative views. 

Grant key community roles to the right people

Now you have a better idea of your community composition, you’ll have some solid candidates for granted roles. Next, you’ll need to approach them privately, outline the role, and explain why they’d be a great fit. 

If you get this right, your community members will see granted roles as a badge of honor – a reward for being active and making a positive contribution. 

Get the right balance

You’ll need to consider how many people you need in each role. If your community is only 10 people strong, you probably don’t need to grant moderator status to anyone. But at 50 people, it’s a different story. 

Make sure you have enough moderators – or content creators, or brand ambassadors – to meet your needs, but no more. There should only be a minority of community members granted such responsibilities. 

Provide role-takers with the information they need 

How community members perform the roles you allocate will largely dictate how your community is run. You can’t just allocate the role of moderator to someone and then leave them to it. You have to ensure they understand exactly what is expected of them in any given situation. 

For each role, write detailed onboarding documentation that outlines everything they need to know. Make sure everything has a process – and ensure that the process, not the person, guides the way people perform their roles. 

Moderators will need to understand what is acceptable or unacceptable when dealing with an antagonist. They’ll need to know when to escalate a problem to an in-house member of staff. Content creators will need guidance around key themes, how to publish, and any content guidelines you may have. Onboarders will need an official checklist to ensure that each new member is welcomed in the same manner.

Set up private channels for each type of role

It’s important that you build personal relationships with each person you assign to a role. But in addition to DMs, people must have a place to discuss role-based issues communally. 

By setting up private channels for moderators, content creators, and so on, your community leaders will be able to share ideas, seek feedback, and align around best practices. 

Summary

Before we finish, let’s recap the key points we’ve covered in this article. 

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