Succession planning for your community

by Venessa Paech October 30, 2019

Eventually, you and your online community will part ways. You’ll move on to a new role or chapter in your professional life, and the community you helped build and nurture will roll on under new management.

Ideally, you’ll have a hand in hiring or training the person or team who’ll be taking the helm after you, but that’s not always a possibility.

It’s important to have a robust succession plan for community management so your community and colleagues aren’t left unmoored, and the efforts invested thus far are built upon, not wasted. It’s fiscally and socially responsible.

So what should you factor into a community succession plan?

Platform documentation

Make sure the ‘how-to’ in relation to your particular community platform is captured in an easily accessible format.

This is essential for dedicated or custom community platforms (which may have been adapted and configured uniquely for your community over time). But it’s still important for commonly used platforms like Facebook. Layout the specific mechanisms of your platform usage for your community needs and objectives so there’s no room for doubt.

Read more: 5 questions when choosing a community platform

Process documentation

Ensure you have all processes that regulate your online community documented and accessible by the relevant stakeholders. This includes things like community governance, moderation policies, risk and crisis management plans, reporting templates and brand or tone of voice guidance.

Your documentation doesn’t have to be lengthy (the simpler it is, the more likely it is to be read and actioned). However, it should give someone the ability to make a running start in operating the community day-to-day.

Internal operations mapping

Even if your successor is arriving as a new employee, it’s a good idea to create customised onboarding for them suited to the role they’ll be taking on.

Community professionals often work alone in an organisation. Make it easy for them by mapping out a relevant who’s who, where they can find what they need to do a great job running the community and who they can turn to for advice or support. This can be done formally or informally, but should always play some part in handing over the community keys.

Read more: How do you recruit volunteer moderators?

Internal communications

Set the new you up for success by giving them a proper introduction to your peers and colleagues. You might interview them for an intranet, or send around an introduction. If the organisation is large or multi-national, consider making a short video (providing they’re comfortable with that approach).

Per the above, make sure to connect them with internal champions of the community and anyone who can help out on specific matters. These internal communications signal that the community will have consistency and continue to add value to the organisation – part of your legacy.

Tell your community

It’s inadvisable to announce your departure without telling members what happens next. The community might naturally get concerned about their welfare and the future of the group. Respecting commercial sensitivities, let them know when you’re moving on and how it will play out. Leave enough time to let members react to this posted news before you introduce the new community manager. Do that separately and welcome them warmly (they may want to post and you can reply, as a way to signal the changing of the guard).

One useful approach is to seed the news with community leaders and influencers before you announce it to everyone. They can help you predict what questions or concerns might be raised, and can help massage the message once it’s out there so the community feels comfortable. If it’s appropriate for your community, you could consider a virtual farewell gathering.

Community history

If your community is well established and highly active you’ll want to produce a summarised community history for whoever steps up next. You could do this in writing, or even in video. Note important milestones, such as launch date, major product or feature updates and significant events.

Think about the commercial, technical and social elements of your community. For example, you might call out when the community budget was increased significantly (and highlight any impacts), or when an influential member left the community (and the social after-effects). Think of it as the Cliff Notes for your community – it should give people a digestible snapshot of community life to date.

Handover timelines

Map out a timeline that gives you adequate time to train and onboard the new community manager. It should incorporate the elements here and anything else unique to your business or organisation. If they will be leading your team, allow time for both functional and social meetings between individuals.

Circulate this timeline with relevant stakeholders so people know you have a plan and understand how things will unfold. Keep it calm and everyone wins.

Personal insights

Community managers have a strong duty of care and many will carry their experience with the community beyond a single job. Make time to have a personal chat with your successor (before you depart if possible, after if necessary), to share personal reflections and observations about your time managing the community.

Welcome their questions and invite discussion of hopes, worries and grand visions. You might like to stay in touch and check-in periodically for updates.

Hiring a community manager? Don’t do this!

Emergency stop-gap

In a perfect world, you’ll pass the baton to your successor with little or no disruption to community or business operations. However, online community management is a specialist occupation and it can prove challenging to find the ideal candidate in the market. It may be days, weeks, or in the worst case, more than a month before a new community manager is appointed.

Users or members may already feel vulnerable due to your departure and the idea of change more broadly. Leaving the community unattended and unnourished at this time can be a fatal error.

Even if you’re confident your successor will arrive in time for a handover, have a plan B in the form of emergency community management coverage on stand-by. If your community is on publicly accessible social media sites, this is even more essential to mitigate against legal or reputational risk.

Social trust is hard to build and easy to lose. Don’t squander your community’s social capital by neglecting a succession plan that lets your community continue to thrive and preserves your legacy of great work.