What's a 'community advocate'?

Last month I posted an entry about Platial and commented that “I think it’s kind of cool that so many of these new companies have community outreach people, even if it is still sometimes hard to tell them from publicists or PR professionals in general.”
This prompted Tracy Rolling to write me a long interesting email message about how she became a community advocate and what the job entails. I asked for her permission to reprint it here on the blog and she agreed:
>It’s a really interesting question because it’s one that those of us in these roles are asking and answering for ourselves as we go along.
I know another person who does a similar job at another site, and what she and I both have in common is that we were underemployed,
educated moms for a couple years, spending way too much time on
social networking sites and blogs and such. We are online community
junkies. I was a latecomer to the internet, partly because I lived in
France during the 90s and partly because the internet never really
seemed that compelling until I found my first online community (an
egroup of friends of a friend, all from Iowa like myself). Email? I
was and still am an avid epistolarian (is that a word?). Buy train
tickets online? I pass the SNCF outlet every day. But yack it up with
a bunch of new and old friends, gossip, tell secrets, discover that
the imaginary people are actually real… that’s compelling. Both
myself and my friend got our jobs by writing a lot of free feedback
for friends’ websites and having the friends say, “Hey, want to work
on this project with us?”
>
>There’s an interesting problem in the social web boom. Often the
people who are most knowledgeable and savvy about the politics,
functioning, and workings of online communities are people who have
been spending a lot of time slacking off in front of the computer in
recent years. How does a new blogging network service, for example,
go about recruiting these slackers? Or even understanding that it
would be a good idea to have one on staff? I know of one site that
had a guy in my role whose background was in e-commerce. He had never
belonged to or even heard of any major online communities except for
Friendster. He didn’t even really use the site he worked for that
much! But he was recruitable.
>
>I do a lot of different things at Platial. Marketing to be sure, but
specifically grassroots-style, relatively low-impact marketing. I
contact people who have great content and try to help them make maps.
I write to online community mods and ask them to post about maps that
I think are interesting to their communities. I write to bloggers.
>
>The most important thing I do in my job is I communicate with users.
That’s the community I’m advocating for. I make more maps than anyone
and know how to use the site best. I gather feedback, I chart
feedback, I follow up on feedback. I’ve got some kind of friendly
relationship with most of our main power users. If I notice someone
on the site having trouble with their images or something, I send
them a message offering help. I answer ever single feedback email we
get within a week, usually faster. I listen to people and I advocate
within the company for what the users are asking for. Because I use
the site myself every day, I know their frustrations when things are
broken and I know the excitement when a long-awaited feature gets added.
>
>I also try to make connections between users sometimes. We have a
beta tester club comprised of people I’ve chosen to invite because of
the high quality of their feedback. These people get early
notification of new features and often get to test drive stuff on a
testing site we set up. It’s great having a bunch of extra hands on
the site looking for glitches in the hours before a new site launch,
and we really appreciate how much those people care about what we do.
>
>I keep the faq updated, I make how-to screencasts and instructables,
I blog, and I do a ton of qa. We’re a small company (5 full time, one
part time, and a design intern), so everyone ends up doing a lot.
>
>Thanks for your time (if you made it all the way to the end–I know
it’s long). When I read your post it set me to thinking.
So there you have it.

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