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Should you have a community manager? Five points to help you decide

Navigating a business's online conversation with customers and users has never been more vital. Richard Leyland explains why a community manager is the right person for this job.

Like it or not, today's businesses operate in a new climate - an online tangle of social networks, conversations and instant judgement. I'm talking about anything which could impact outsiders' views of your company or products: blogs, Twitter, Facebook, message boards and online versions of traditional publications.

At some point many organisations will consider whether they require a new position - a community manager - to manage all these new tools and ultimately steer the public perception of the business in the online world.

I believe this can be an essential, valuable role. Here are five key points for all business and marketing leaders considering the hire of a community manager.

What does a community manager do?
A community manager encourages and builds online relationships with users, clients, members or any other groups within the orbit of the company. They're a bridge between those groups and the company itself, ensuring the voice of the community is heard while acting to provide great customer service, mediating comment and (usually) evangelising the company and/or products they represent.

They make good on the shiny promise of marketing spend, ensuring online engagements leave a good impression - in other words, PR as visibly great service.

But this is more than just fancy PR, or paying someone to write blogs and sit on Twitter all day. Instead picture a highly sophisticated orchestra conductor, engaged in brand management, messaging, customer support, business planning and product development.

All the time they must digest what the outside world is telling them about their company and ensure the best nuggets of wisdom reach senior ears. It's a tough job.

Why do you need one?
A vital distinction between community management and traditional PR is that the community manager communicates in a human voice, welcoming a response.

We saw an instructive lesson in the danger of missing this distinction in December, when several Eurostar trains broke down, trapping thousands of unhappy passengers far from their destinations just days before Christmas.

The company was conspicuously hard to find on Twitter. Both Twitter names @eurostar and @eurostar_uk are not managed by the company - and so offered no relevant information to stranded passengers.

The official Eurostar Twitter account, which did offer some limited updates on train service, would be tricky to locate as it's called @little_break - originally set up as part of a marketing campaign.

This was a central plank in what came to be known as the 'Eurostar Epicfail', an event which led to Eurostar's chief executive releasing an excruciating apology on YouTube. Severely burnt, it's unlikely Eurostar will make the same mistake twice, and has increased the activity on its Little Break Twitter account since December.

How important is online community to businesses?
Social media advocates love to talk about the concept of community. It's a nebulous term, yet you're being asked to contemplate an expensive hire to manage it.

The importance of community to business must be understood in terms of the development of 'social media': the new generation of online tools that emphasise social, bottom-up comment. Social media leads to conversations that influence many more readers than just those involved in the exchange. It's rapid, challenging and highly public.

It's easy to get carried away with this brave new world. Community and outside groups have always been important to business. What's new is that now business can directly engage with relevant conversations, indeed they're increasingly expected to do so.

Furthermore, perhaps the community has something important to say...