Communities are seen as valuable while management of those communities is undervalued - discuss?

Over the past months since being laid off, I’ve seen a lot of job postings for community managers. Many of them seem to pay a reasonable rate, and I tend to apply to those. In general, I’m not particularly salary-motivated and, while I respect wanting to be paid what I’m worth, I also am willing to consider lower salaries if a role seems like a particularly great fit or is for an organization that may not have the funding to offer as much but has a great purpose.

As such, I often set my searches on job sites to at least $80k/year (USD) and, unless they meet the exceptions mentioned above, I rarely apply for roles where the low end is under $100k/year. Today LinkedIn recommended a posting to me with a range of $65-85k per year (plus bonuses/stocks) for a senior CM role. There’s no indication of any benefits, either other than the bonuses/stocks.

While I definitely do see companies like this, where they’re looking for a CM at a rate that (in my mind) is particularly low, generally these seem to be companies that are just dipping a toe into community as a concept and are unaware of what a CM is or does or what salary they should expect to offer.

Conversely, this position is being offered at a company whose entire purpose is to build community within a very niche audience - wealthy 25-40 year olds - and help them further increase their net worth. Their core concept is community and selling rich people on the value it can provide and they’re offering a range that I’d characterize as 50-75% of what a senior CM should be making.

The irony of this makes me laugh. They’re looking for a CM who could never be one of their members because the salary they’re offering is so low, they’d have to work for over 170 years to even earn the median “worth” of their target members and would be unlikely to have the disposable income to earn the money in other ways.

The disappointing thing is that they will likely find someone to take this role as posted… cuts in the tech industry seem to have hit a lot of CMs and, personally, I’ve struggled to find many opportunities that are worth the time to apply to. If I weren’t able to be choosy due to my spouse’s work, I might have to consider these roles that under value the work of a CM, too.

Out of curiosity (and setting aside my usual non-confrontational personality), I wrote to the job poster asking questions about the rate and benefits missing from the posting along with mentioning that I’d generally expect a posting like this to offer $100k/year and other benefits. I got a reply four minutes later - answering no questions but stating simply:

Thank you for the feedback! I will share with our team.

I sincerely mean it,

I guess it’s a better response than what I usually expect - nothing, or someone bristling because I dared to criticize them.

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This accounts for a lot of the problem. If you hire a programmer, either they will do the job quickly and abily or they just won’t. It only takes one bad hire to clue employers into the fact that it’s often worth paying a little more to get higher quality in a reasonable timeframe. They might still prefer to pay less, but it’s a decision made with a reasonably accurate expectation.

That’s not the case with community managers. I’m watching a YouTube series about a magician who pivoted to card counting. If you don’t know, blackjack is a casino game where people can beat the house if they pay close attention to the cards that have been played.[1] When conditions are right, card counters raise their bets and can win thousands of dollars in a few minutes. Of course they can also lose thousands of dollars instead because their edge over the casino is very slim.[2] In the long run, expert card counters win more than they lose. If you don’t understand the process, big losses can be confused with a lack of skill.

Community management has similar dynamics. Random variation might mean you don’t accomplish your goals despite doing the right things. Case in point: College Confidential. I was laid off in November because our traffic didn’t recover from a series of poor decisions made by previous owners of the site. I’m working there again as a consultant and learned that December 2023 was substantial better than December 2022. By every metric, including advertising revenue, 2024 is continuing that trend and the community is growing again.

Of course this is irritating because I might still have a job if that turnaround had happened a few months earlier. But then again, I couldn’t know things would improve or when. When it comes right down to it, I can’t prove my work helped at all. It only improved after I left, so maybe it wasn’t a factor.

That’s the maddening thing: even though I know I made changes that fixed real problems and made College Confidential a better community, I can’t prove it. So I’m more or less stuck helping people solve their blazingly obvious technical problems while giving substantially more valuable advise as a sort of free gift. Such is life, I suppose.

This, unfortunately, is the other problem. If a lot of the outcome of a job comes down to random variation and if employers don’t have a clear understanding of the process required to beat the odds, there’s no reason to pick an experienced (and expensive) employee when fresh (and inexpensive) people abound.

If I’m honest with myself, this might be my real objection to “community everywhere”. What if the secret really is to be a social butterfly interacting with people no matter where they are? That’s not the sort of job I care to have so I might as well go back to programming. At least I can demonstrate my value in that field.

In the long run, if our services are really worth what we are asking for, we don’t want to be working for organizations that underpay for community management. Those companies will get less value out of their communities over time and we’ll be frustrated watching short-term decisions destroy long-term value.

  1. I played a lot of hearts, spades and bridge in college. It’s not hard to remember how many cards of each suit were played, which can be critical information. Blackjack is a bit more complicated because casinos use up to 8 decks of cards. It’s also simpler because suit doesn’t matter. ↩︎

  2. Casinos constantly kick out the guy who does the YouTube videos while he’s losing money. They know that his fortunes might turn in an instant. ↩︎