member of community managing

Do you have to be a member of the community that you’re managing?

– First-hand experience from the community management team at Health Union –

Kristine Zerkowski

Kristine Zerkowski
Vice President, Community Development

By Kristine Zerkowski
Vice President, Community Development – Health Union
August 27, 2015

Assumptions about managing communities

Recently I read a question posted among a group of community managers, asking if people believed that it was possible to manage a community that you are not actually a part of. Not surprisingly, many people were doubtful. It’s only natural to assume that being a member of a community that you are managing would be an important component to successful growth of that community, but you might be surprised to learn that this may not always be the case!

Many people assume that as a community manager, you cannot fully understand the needs and nuances of that community unless you are a member yourself. So, if you are managing a community of gamers, wouldn’t it make the most sense to be a gamer yourself? After all how do you understand the current lingo, or stay up to date with the latest technological advances in gaming systems? Or, if you and some friends are managing a community of moms of small children, wouldn’t you assume that most, if not all, of the community managers were mothers themselves? After all, can anyone truly understand what it’s like to be woken up by a crying newborn baby every hour every night for months on end if you haven’t had that very experience? While it is critical to have a thorough understanding of the needs of the community you manage, I’m here to tell you that it is possible to successfully manage thriving communities while not being an actual member of that community yourself. I know this because I speak from experience.

Health Union’s approach to community management

At Health Union, we own and manage several disease-specific websites where our communities are truly thriving. Our current platforms include,,,,, and We have a phenomenal team of community managers who work tirelessly to better understand and meet the ever-growing needs of our communities, yet we, ourselves, do not have the health conditions of the sites that we manage. So, how do we do it?

How we prepare

First, before we launch a new site, we spend an enormous amount of time gathering information about that specific health condition. While it is critical to understand the basic demographic information of the overall population, the criteria used for diagnosis, symptoms of the condition, how it is treated, and what the impact is on a person’s overall quality of life, we strive to know much more. While the standard information that you will find in a textbook is important, it doesn’t tell you what the specific needs are of the online community. The dynamics of every community are unique, so we spend a great deal of time assessing what types of people are active and looking for information on line, what the activity level is for those who are on line, what motivates people to respond by reading articles, sharing with friends, participating in group discussion, what are the polarizing beliefs, and what are any obvious unmet needs within the community. Because the sites that we manage are all for people living with serious, chronic health conditions, one may assume that community dynamics would be similar across the board, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. For instance, while the majority of the members of our multiple sclerosis community are very interested in connecting with others who are living with MS and want to share their personal stories, the majority of the members of our community are looking for answers to their questions about their condition, and they aren’t necessarily looking to make personal connections.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it illustrates how we approach each of our communities differently so that we can meet the unique needs of the population now and as the communities grow.

What’s critical

Even more importantly, we recognize that it is also imperative to have a team of experts for each of our communities to provide content and support. So, in addition to the community managers who oversee our sites, we also have a diverse team of experts and patient advocates who write and moderate discussion.

Our experts all come from very diverse backgrounds, so we are able to reach a broad spectrum of the population. For instance, multiple sclerosis is a progressive disease, but no two patients have the same experience with the speed and severity at which their disease progresses. So, while some of our contributors may not be not very physically disabled, others have more progressive forms of the disease and therefore need assistive devices for mobility. So, if a community member is asking for feedback from someone who knows what it is like to be in a wheelchair, we have team members who can relate. And if we have other community members looking for tips for exercising with MS, we have experts who have a passion for fitness. The broad spectrum of backgrounds of our team allows us to connect with the broader population. Our expert team of contributors and moderators are a critical component to the success of our communities.

Objectivity is key

Lastly, it’s important to consider that it can also be a unique advantage to have an “outside” perspective of the community for which you are managing. Patients with chronic health conditions often have very firm beliefs about lifestyle choices, treatment regimens, physicians, dietary needs, and much more, so being able to approach community members’ questions or concerns from a more broad, unbiased perspective is extremely valuable. We always approach each new health condition by making the conscious effort to focus on what we don’t know. We assume that we do not understand what the issues are for the community, which is actually a critical component to success. Someone with past experience, like having the condition, is more likely to have personal biases, or assume they know the answers to questions, even if those answers don’t apply to the community as a whole. This “outside” perspective really lets us see the big picture and therefore better meet the needs of our communities.

A unique, replicable approach results in a strong, successful community

So, while the community managers at Health Union may not have the health conditions associated with the sites we are managing, we have thriving communities that are a true testament to the unique approach we take. A team of community managers added to a team of patient advocates and health experts equates to successful, thriving communities.

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