Recently, I've run into a situation, a possible consulting situation, where the decision was made to forgo input from a community pro (me, in this case, but it's not personal, I hope) in favor of building the technology. I've been doing community work for the last twelve years, and the number of times I've seen this attitude, and seen it lead to failure, is a number that's much larger than the number of times a project actually had the foresight to bring in a community person early. And the really funny part is that the project is a mirror of an effort by another company, and their community effort which is already online and failing: again, built before the community person was involved.
I know community people are usually really pleasant, often came out of fan ranks. Usually, they don't have a degree in something relevant. Heck, there are only a few programs in academia linking online social behavior with existing cultural theory, who has a degree in it? But experienced community people really are there, and most of them are really really good at what they do. They really aren't invisible. And you wouldn't expect to be able to create the technology of a game, or the artwork, or even the design without some experience (and yes, passion counts: if you're an indie with a vision, by all means try to do these things). Why do people expect to be able to design social interactions successfully, when they've never done it before?
It's really that simple: an experienced CM will be able to add tremendously to your interactive project. I mean, if you want an open community based on the highest egalitarian principles of the web, great, go for it, and you've probably got about a fifty percent chance it won't turn into a snake pit. But if you're running a business, and want to create a satisfying interactive experience for your customers, please hire someone who's worked with such situations before. A good CM can help you choose the right technology, help you make it appealing by positioning it for the community well, and help promote positive momentum in the community. They've run into many of the issues already: how to show appreciation to a community, why it's crucial to be straight with them, how to motivate interaction. They've created effective and engaging profile templates, they've converted your worst detractors into passionate community leaders, they've built solid relationships with community leaders that make them into some of your brand's best assets. Perhaps all of this can seem really simple, and a lot of it is (another cardinal rule being consistency): but the successful political races are the ones that do more of the pieces right the first time. The successful marketing campaigns are the ones that speak to the user. And working with a community is very like those things, a real-time dance act to maximize the experience for the user and the value of that experience for the host company. So why not hire someone who's good at it to help create success?
Look, I know I'm sounding irritated here, but you'd probably be irritated too if you'd seen as many projects as I have that have failed when they could have succeeded, all for want of an experienced CM to practice our profession. And if it's your project, near to your heart and you're going to be spending all your time in the forums out of love, that's awesome. But like any other professional in the online game space, the CM exists because there's a potential contribution there. We can work with your community, and help design for your community, in ways that aren't found in PR, or Marketing, or Customer Support, or even Development. But our work does touch on all of them, and if you're interested in a successful community, it's worth it to have a CM on hand.
And next week's rant: you should actually pay them too, not just take them out to lunch to pick their brian... but at some point that becomes profession, just with a doctor or whatever. I've had people who've built successful businesses (in part) on community design advice I gave them. I'm glad they're successful! And glad I helped... but a bit more acknowledgement than pizza seems only fair.