Over the course of my years as a Community Management professional, and of late with the fortune of being an executive, I’ve had a great deal of experience in conducting interviews with hundreds of individuals applying for the role of Community Manager in a professional capacity. I count myself honored to have had the distinct pleasure of having worked with magnificent veterans of and even trailblazing pioneers in our discipline, including some I’ve counted as my personal, professional heroes.
I have also had the displeasure to have interviewed a sizable number of individuals who had no earthly clue what Community Management was, nor how to do it – and some who posed a direct threat to the life of any community they were tasked to oversee. In the interest of sharing what I’ve learned with colleagues and as part of a determined effort to boost industry best practices in the discipline, I’d like to take the opportunity to lay out a few of the must-do’s and don’ts I’ve picked up from hiring Community Managers. It is my hope that this will help save those in our profession tremendous heartache, as well as improve the ability to identify and cultivate promising professionals to join our discipline.
Writing the Employment Vacancy
Straightforward enough, but you’ll want to watch out for muddying the waters for yourself by targeting the profession of individuals best suited to running online forums and community platforms, not your self-proclaimed “social media ninjas” for whom the primary claim to professional experience is running a Facebook group of a few dozen folks. Seek as much clarity in the bullet points of your job description’s requirements as you possibly can, specifying forums (or the platform you need the CM for), and the experiences you’re looking to convey into positive outcomes for your communities.
For vacancy announcements, note that you’re liable to bump into a challenge with Human Resources of where and in what category to file the position externally. Community Management is communications, marketing, and public relations with a smattering of project development, product, customer service, and event planning.
I often describe it as being “kind of a mix between a nanny and a lightning rod.”
While the nitty gritty of category spec is ultimately up to HR folks, you’re well-served to note to them that there’s a similarly titled profession of “Community Manager” within real estate, responsible for handling things like running HOAs, as well as a medical facility / assisted living “community manager” title fairly popular with listings. Be sure to flag this exception, or your inbox may end up flooded with hedge-measurers and bingo-night wranglers. Much love and adoration for those in these fields, but online community management is a bit of a different creature and requires different skills and talents to do effectively.
Pre-screening a Community Manager Candidate
It is imperative that you lead with a pre-screen, because it is nearly impossible to tell at first glance from a resume or educational background if someone is going to be able to communicate capably enough to corral the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of community members they’ll have to contend with.
I’ve had the sad misfortune of having community managers who were hired based entirely on their backgrounds and experiences that could not functionally write their way out of a wet paper bag. Others were soundly incapable of following directions in written communication or engaging in critical thinking to assess problems. Rather than discovering that later to the detriment of community health and well-being, I implemented a very short set of two test questions sift out applicants “casting a wide net” and not particularly interested in being able to do the needed tasks to support communities. Here are those questions:
1. Using proper grammar, spelling and punctuation, re-write the following sentence correctly, as though you were editing a thread in one of our communities: “They’re affect on mobile devices Remains irregardless about weather you’re nauseous cuz of the app or knot”, said the newly highered assistant community manager…”
2. Provide a paragraph of plot overview of a famous movie from the perspective of the villain/antagonist in the movie.
These are very straightforward and apt to take very little time to respond to. This isn’t an opportunity for exposition, nor is it an arbitrary gating function all too often deployed by stodgy companies from antiquarian eras designed to test an applicant’s “gumption” and willingness to suffer extensive testing , but two short pruning passes that a Community Manager might barrel through in less than five minutes of deliberation and typing.
You’ve seen those gargantuan applications where the applicant is asked to write an essay or two after manually entering all of their job and education experience in each specific block? (I’m looking at you, Taleo.) This ain’t that.
The first question gives an idea as to the thought process behind content curation, editing, presentation, grammar, sentence structure, syntax, and what a potential candidate might do if asked to adjust the text of a really rough thread in the forum.
The second question is where critical reading and following direction goes to die. There are two correct interpretations of the question itself in terms of what is being asked of the person writing. The key here again is to assess narrative construction and some level of competency in drafting content from scratch. Did the applicant actually read the question? You’ll find out quickly, based on the response.
First Interview with a Community Manager Employment Candidate
In any hiring capacity, there are go-to questions the interviewer asks as part of the process. These are your classic “Where do you see yourself in five years?” and “Tell me a bit more about your background, and experiences?” You’ll want to tuck at least a few of these in as part of your interview of any potential Community Manager so that you have a better understanding of their education, background, and experiences.
Though it’s tipping my hat a bit for potential new hires, I’ll share with you the questions I ask in nearly every first interview, and why I ask them! Quick word to the wise, however – do take copious notes. You never know when an interview may come back to bite you in the butt.
Side Note: I had one candidate once that struck out super-hard in the 2nd round. He later wrote a massive blog post lobbing accusations of “employment fraud” because the entry-level questions that you see here were so difficult for him that he felt it constituted work. Keeping good notes protects you from this kind of thing when bad interviewees get salty and/or litigious.
1. What are your expectations for the role?
Not a salary question, but in this question I’m looking to discover whether or not the interviewee has actually read the job listing and understood it. If too many come back on this question and have no idea, then you’ll know the vacancy description is either poorly written and needs a revisit, or is being targeted improperly in job listing services. This is where we find out if the interviewee knows what a Community Manager actually is.
2. Can you describe your recent experience?
I’m looking for skills, experiences, and insights that are directly applicable or at least tangential to the profession of community management with this question. Remember that past profession is not an indicator of future worth as a CM. Look for empathy, implicit understanding of community and social dynamics, understanding of people and psychology. Anecdotally, I’ve found that Starbucks Baristas make magnificent Community Managers far and above the viral-oriented marketing set with exhaustive social media chops. Don’t discount diversity of professional background and an eye towards satisfying customer / member needs in favor of the slick.
3. What’s the worst community on the internet right now?
I want to know if the candidate knows an online community is. I’d say half of the candidates that get past screening cannot answer this question, because it’s not something they’ve ever thought about. Do they know the internet well enough to know where the bad parts are? And why they are bad? If not, this may not be the role for them. Answers to this question also provide some insight into what the candidate values in terms of community offerings, or lack thereof.
4. …and what would you do to fix it, if you were in charge?
This question gets to the heart of how much the candidate has actually thought about online communities, and whether or not it’s likely to be a motivating force over time. The profession of Community Management is tasked with making the internet a better place. Posing this question as part of the first round interview is a great way to learn what the candidate would do if suddenly granted all the power to adjust guidelines, rules, and governance over a terribly toxic online community. You’re not looking for ideas here, but scoping out the thought process. That community is bad, sure – but what would YOU do to fix it? “I don’t know” is the worst answer you can get back on this inquiry, and “shut it down” may even be correct for some. Take the time to explore this one.
5. Why [This Company]?
Classic and eye-roll inducing for it’s cliche’, but it’s important to find out what they know about your brands, sites, and products. Advocates for your customers/users/members should know the thing they’re digesting feedback from. Minimally, they should be able to emulate the passion of the audience and understand the origins of it.
Lastly, do be sure to leave time for the candidate to ask questions of you. No earth-breaking revelations on this one – some will have questions, others will have done all their research before, and others will ask questions they already know the answers to because they read somewhere it’s important to ask questions to express genuine interest during the interview process. Leave this part open, and be human about it!
Second Interview with a Community Manager Employment Candidate
This is where it gets a lot more interesting! So you’ve gone through the pre-screening, and the first round of interview, and you’ve identified a handful of candidates that you think would make a community manager. But what if that interview was a total fluke? What if there was something about the candidate that you didn’t catch, or some detail that eluded you on a response? This is the most critical part of the employment process for assessing potential new hires, because it’s an opportunity to affirm or reconsider. This is the opportunity to make sure you’ve got the right one.
For this interview round, if there’s already other Community Managers on your team, it is useful to have at least a couple of them join you for the interview. You as interviewer might have some impression of the candidate that is faulty, or misconstrued. Taking in a separate set of eyes is important, especially if the people helping out with the interview are set to this person’s coworker on the team. I like to include at least two members of the Community Management team or department on the second round of interviews, allowing each to ask their own questions and those from this list, insisting they also take notes for comparison later.
For the second round, take turns posing tougher, more theoretical questions. These examples of what I use help to reveal a deeper level of the thought process, diplomatic and persuasive savvy, as well as moderation capabilities. These are posed as hypothetical situations, providing scenarios to see how well a candidate is liable to respond in the same situation. Some of them are based on real-life occurrences, others are open-ended.
1. What do you do if a user disagrees with you? Or a team member? An engineer or a developer?
In other words, walk me through how you do conflict resolution, because it’s one of the biggest parts of what online Community Managers do in their day-to-day.
2. You are given a task and have no idea how to complete it. What do you do? (Variation: How do you react when faced with many hurdles while trying to achieve a goal? How do you overcome the hurdles?)
In essence, how will you handle challenges that arise, particularly unfamiliar ones? This is ultra-important to avoid bringing someone onboard who encounters a problem with no perceivable solution that promptly gives up. Caution if the first response is to attempt to bring the problem to someone else. Independent attempts at resolution is important as a trait to seek out, else you may inadvertently staff up your CM team with people who immediately jiujitsu every task you pass them to someone else. There’s a huge difference between crowd-sourcing or consensus-building efforts and reactively making everything “someone else’s problem”.
3. At times you may be asked to do many things at once – how do you decide which is most important, and why?
Gauging basic triage skills. The very best Community Managers can sift signals from noise from a zillion different sentiments, digest that information into action items, and then prioritize those to other departments. It’s not just being able to speak on behalf of the voice of the people – it is understanding what’s most important and in what order.
4. If you find yourself working with a team that isn’t motivated, how do you keep yourself motivated, as well as motivating others?
This is more thought process-oriented, but can offer insight into how the potential Community Manager would work best. Will they be your interface with Sales, or are they better fitted as primary liaison with the Devs? More of a communications heavy, or moderator wrangler? Where, and how a person motivates and finds motivation lends towards specificity in focus.
The last three questions of the second interview that I ask are also the most difficult, but these are also posed to ensure the candidate has at least a core understanding of Community Management 101.
5. Come up with an idea to increase engagement through a community initiative on [site name / product] – you’ve got 60 seconds to think one up.
The more obscure and unfamiliar the product or site is, the better. There are maybe a half-dozen pieces of low-hanging fruit that Community Management professionals can do to prompt engagement – quick wins that work literally everywhere excepting in the most egregiously toxic communities.
Contests, giveaways, swag, polls, question of the week, events, image of the day, Ask Me Anythings, outreach efforts, newsletters, and more are quick grabs and applicable to nearly every subject matter and vertical under the sun. Truly great answers here involve deliberation over the particular nuances of the community – what do they most find intriguing and motivating? What creative thing can be done that dovetails with their interest?
Watch out for non-answers, vagueries, or hand-waving, as it means they either don’t care, can’t empathize with passion, or worse – don’t know what engagement means.
6. What’s a community guideline of a large community that you can’t stand? A rule or policy of some online community that you just hate? Why?
We know from the earlier question in Round 1 if the candidate can name a community that is harmful and bad. Now, we’re looking to see just how deep the candidate interviewing for the role of Community Manager has thought about the rules of conduct that govern our digital societies.
Watch out for candidates who indicate that prohibitions against hate speech rub them wrong. Danger, red flags, warning.
7. Hypothetical situation: An editor or staff member has made a comment on a thread or article that makes the entire community feel enraged. A partner of that brand who is a staffer on a sister site within the same network visits the the comments section and unloads vitriolic replies onto the staffer who wrote the item, including making personal attacks and airing dirty laundry, including confidential items. What do you, as Community Manager, do? [As input is provided, especially if the candidate is succeeding, introduce more and more restrictive variables. Ex: Legal has said you can no longer post publicly about the matter, outside department has demanded that you that you can no longer ban users, a moderator has resigned in protest over the handling, the piece itself is counter to the principles espoused by the community itself, etc. Get creative!]
Does the candidate know how to process damage control? Find out using this (or similar) hypothetical situation. This is an opportunity to examine the interviewee’s ability to assess, inquire, triage, and execute in the interest of the health of a community they are responsible for overseeing. For those in game development, this might be a botched patch day release that requires a roll-back, or even loss of progression. The important thing is to provide a trying scenario that borders on the level of Kobayashi Maru; a no-win situation where grace and character are core to measuring the results.
What you’re looking for here is not the right answer – there is none, as designed. There’s just the lowest amount of damage in the direct interest of preserving the continuity and stability of the online community. You’re looking for reflections of stewardship. Can they mitigate a crisis that would otherwise cause a community to collapse? Follow up each question with emergent situations and see how far they can go. This will help give you an idea about how developed as a community professional they are, as well as what they may need to learn.
Making the Pick
Consult with your fellow interviewers on your team. Did they pick up on things you didn’t? How would they rate the candidate, on a scale of 1 to 10? What was their feedback on how the candidate answered the various questions? Review your own notes with them, and reflect on the experience. Do this immediately after the interview, so that the impressions are fresh in your memory.
Making a hire for an Online Community Manager can be quite challenging, and you want to make the right choice. It is far, far better to hold off for a candidate that you would rate as either Good or Excellent than it is to try and take on a Poor or Mediocre pick and hope it works out as you level them up to where they need to be. Remember that any deficit in capability or competency will be felt first and foremost by the community that Community Manager is expected to represent and serve as advocate for.
I strongly urge patience when conducting interviews and reviewing candidates for community management roles, as a best practice for more stable employment. Don’t settle for a warm body or a seat-filler when it comes to the health and well-being of your online communities. Find the right person, even if that takes a while.
Seek diversity in every capacity, variability in approach and focus area that will compliment your team and adds tremendous value to your organization. It should go without saying that we should endeavor, with great intention, to diversify the makeup of our teams to ensure excellent representation. Target those candidates who strive to make community management their career and profession – people who can develop upwards transition to ever-increasing leadership in the field – from Assistant Community Manager to Community Manager to Senior CM to Director of Community and VP of Community.
I hope this helps with your hiring efforts! And if you’re reading this after applying for a spot on my team – mention that you read this during our First Round Interview for brownie points (and so I can ask a few extra credit questions!).