(This is part of Ask the Community Guy, an ongoing series of questions posed by readers for Jake, the Community Guy)
Question: via several college students over the years – “What college courses should I take, and what activities should I do if I’m interested in a career in community development?”
Answer: This question extends the conversation regarding how to hire a community manager. When I first started getting this question a few years back there weren’t any college curriculum focused around online community development as a practice. There are more and more building these days, but it’s still very early. So assuming your school is one of the many that doesn’t have such a program, what should you do and what classes should you take?
Before we jump to that, it’s important to understand the key components of community work. No matter what type of work you do within the context of “community development”, you need to have a working knowledge of these issues:
- Fantastic written communication (I can’t stress this one enough)
- Public Speaking and solid oral communication
- Marketing understanding
- An understanding of group dynamics
- Solid understanding of online culture and trends
Also, be sure to check out Jeremiah’s Four Tenets of a Community Manager.
Classes to take
These are a few of the suggested “core” courses. Take a hard look at your school’s course catalog; chances are you’ll find some very interesting and applicable classes scattered around the various colleges.
- Sociology: This is a good place to start. Dig deeper than then 101 class; see if there’s any focusing on group dynamics. This may actually be the place to focus your degree.
- Speech: Take every speech class you can afford and can make time for. Obviously it helps you learn public speaking (and removing at least some of the fear of standing up in front of people), but it also helps learn to encompass big ideas in small, convincing pieces.
- Writing Classes: If I’d known how much I’d be writing in my community career, I would have taken far more of these classes. Between blog posts, emails, fan forum posts, memos, whitepapers, presentations, and more, I probably spend 40%+ of my work time writing something. Your school may have courses specifically tailored to blogging, or business writing, so be sure to check that out. Here’s two key types of classes to take regardless:
- Creative Writing: Being able to express personality through writing is a crucial part of a community manager’s role. Whether you’re learning how to write a short story or a forum post, being comfortable expressing emotion and telling a story is a fantastic skill.
- Business Writing: I’m not typically one for writing old school business documents, but you can’t bend (or break) the rules if you don’t know what the rules are.
- Psychology: A few 101 courses couldn’t hurt. After all, community work is about understanding people and learning how individuals get excited, inspired, and upset.
- Ecology: There are surprising similarities between nature’s ecosystems and online community ecosystems. There aren’t always direct comparisons, but there’s much to learn from this field.
- History: The obvious reason for this is that sage advice that “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it”. Knowing your history helps you identify patterns, tell better stories, and connect seemingly dissociated pieces. All very helpful tactics for community management.
Build your online persona
As a college student, you’ve likely heard plenty about the importance of keeping an eye on how you present yourself online, so I won’t belabor the point. At least not too much. You know the basics already: employers google you before hiring you. That story you posted on MySpace about the donkey you met in Mexico might entertain your buddies, but your potential boss might not be so impressed.
Specifically related to online community development, you’ll be developing a “face” to the world for your company. If you’re doing good work, you’ll often find yourself more recognized than the CEO, more believable than the PR team, and more reliable than the customer service team. You don’t want the huge setback that would likely happen from the discovery of the Mexico story.
Start a (business) blog
Fairly obvious, but start a blog that showcases your interest, knowledge, and understanding of online culture and community building. This isn’t the place for anything other than a brief glimpse at the personal side of your life.
Start a fan club
Nothing shows an understanding of community development like actually developing a community, and nothing teaches you group dynamics like being part of one. Find something you’re interested in, whether photography or collecting antique throw pillows and start a campus club focused on the subject.
If a group already exists around the subject you’re interested in, join and volunteer to help out. Plan an event, organize the members, start subject matter conversations, and/or build some online support tools. Just get involved.
Yes, there are plenty of tools today that allow you to create web content without ever having to learn anything about coding, but understanding this fundamental web skill can come in handy. You never know when you might have to quickly hand code a web page, modify some existing code, or post in a forum that doesn’t have a WYSIWYG editor. HTML is the core tech foundation of the internet. Learn it.
Pick a charity, campus event, concert, or anything else where you can pitch in. Building stamina for being on your feet all day long, talking, interacting, and remaining positive is a crucial skill to learn. This is another place where you can learn a metric ton about group dynamics, especially as relates to volunteers and volunteer work. Managing and working with people don’t have to be there is radically different than managing and working with people who are getting paid to be there.
I don’t care where, and I don’t care what about… just start getting up in front of crowds and speaking. I’ve never been to Toastmasters, but I’ve heard fantastic things. MC a concert or poetry reading. Introduce a speaker at a campus event. Present a topic to high school kids. Just get out there.
Speaking publicly does several things for you:
- Removes your fear of speaking in front of audiences, and helps you learn how audiences (both online and offline) react to different messages
- Teaches you how to simplify ideas into bite sized chunks
- Gives you confidence in yourself and your message
Join a practitioners group
There are plenty of places around the web where you can listen in (and join in when the time is right) to conversations from industry practitioners. Here’s a few of my favorites:
- IOCMA – International Online Community Managers Association
- Facebook group: Community managers
- Facebook group: Online Community Roundtable
Read, Read, Read
There is more online content about community development than you could ever read in a lifetime. Start reading; this is your textbook. Start with these blogs (in addition to this one, of course!):
- Social Customer
- Brains on Fire
- Web Strategist
- The Viral Garden
- Logic + Emotion
- Online Community Report
That’s a good start. Pay attention, ask questions, listen to smart people, and most importantly, get started!
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