Review: Buzzing Communities

About the author

Richard Bailey FCIPR MPRCA is editor of PR Academy's PR Place Insights. He teaches and assesses undergraduate, postgraduate and professional students.

Richard Millington's book 'Buzzing Communities: How to Build Bigger, Better, and More Active Online Communities.'
Richard Millington's book 'Buzzing Communities: How to Build Bigger, Better, and More Active Online Communities.'

As marketing and public relations professionals have begun turning away from one-way messaging towards better forms of engagement, so online community management has emerged as a discipline in its own right and as an objective for more productive marcoms (‘public engagement’).

In its online guise, it’s a relatively new area. But there’s nothing new in people’s desire to come together to share their interests with like-minded people.

Our guide to this emerging discipline is Richard Millington.

Though he graduated as recently as 2008, he’s a veteran community manager as he explains in the introduction with a salutary tale.

I was fired from my first ever community management job. I was 15 years old and delighted to be doing my dream job: running an online community about video gaming. I worked from home, in my own hours, earning close to a full-time salary. For a 15 year-old, that’s not a bad gig. I followed my job description to the letter… The problem was I had no idea if what I was doing benefited the organization I worked for… It wasn’t that I wasn’t doing the job I had been hired for, I just couldn’t prove that I had done a good job – nor that doing a good job profited the organization.

He had learnt his lesson. Activity is not enough; it has to be harnessed and community managers have to be able to justify return on investment (ROI) to their bosses or clients. So this book is a practical handbook on community management and metrics.

The role involves psychology (what motivates people to join communities and become active participants? when to talk and when to keep quiet?) and technology (it’s about creating digital content and developing software); but it’s also managerial. There’s a lot to learn, and Millington, who leads courses in online community management, is a good teacher.

As a university lecturer, I’d have preferred the wider context to have been been explained early on. Instead, lessons from theorists such as Puttnam (on social capital) are woven into the highly practical chapters.

The hardest question to answer is why people should be willing to volunteer their expertise for hours on end – for free. Looked at rationally, the success of volunteer-led encyclopedia Wikipedia is inexplicable. Yet this has to be the Holy Grail of all online communities. People’s willingness to volunteer time and expertise for free can be explained by their desire for ‘psychic income’ or social capital (peer approval).

It has its limits, of course, and Millington cautions against the rush to build spurious communities around commercial products. They’re just not interesting enough to inspire self-propelling enthusiasm, with the exception of a few iconic products such as Apple’s.

This is where a technical approach to community management is limited. The tools are there to build the infrastructure, but what’s going to inspire people to join and keep on coming back? There are any number of personal and corporate blogs, but very few have active discussions in their comments section.

One tip offered here is to reward people for participating by identifying the latest contributions made by community members on the home page or by listing the most popular members (in terms of posts and comments) to encourage people’s competitiveness.

Online communities may be recent, but community management is not a new concept. US scholars Dean Kruckeberg and Kenneth Starck (not cited here) have since the 1980s championed the view that public relations should be used for community-building.

Millington’s is a useful book at a practical and at a conceptual level. It also tells a story by being self-published (traditional publishers are no longer essential in the world of websites, word of mouse and online booksellers). It’s good value at £12.75 through Amazon or £6.70 on Kindle, though Behind the Spin was sent a review copy by the author.

The only clues to me that it’s a self-published book are the over-sized typeface and the lack of an index. I found this a drawback as the example of Wikipedia is mine and I can’t now check whether it is even mentioned in the book. On the plus side, though, there’s a strong list of Recommended Reading that includes many academic sources.