Upon first arriving at Edelman, I noticed that our language was a bit different when talking about community aspects of social media. Instead of saying “Facebook this and Twitter that” we often refer to the properties organizations manage online as “embassies”. While we work with clients closely in both consultative, strategic and tactical ways, it seemed like the right time to take a step back and focus on what’s really important. Engaging your community. So Call this a blueprint if you will for how you and your organization can think about building and managing multiple embassies in a hyper-connected world.
Let’s begin here. Many organizations, brands, etc. are struggling with how to act, engage, respond, deal with crisis and of course market themselves in increasingly public spaces. And this is exactly what is at the core of “social media”—it connects us in ways which are more visible, in public. When we engage in a social fashion, it then becomes more about the participation, interactions and exchanges we have in these spaces. Socially inappropriate interactions often put organizations at risk, hence there are so many case studies which call out the mistakes. But the tide is shifting as increasingly engaging with multiple stakeholders (employees, customers, peers, partners, etc.) becomes more pervasive and desired by the public—organizations will have to shift practices to meet the demand and expectations of people who want to engage with other people via social platforms.
Digital Properties, Platforms & The Media Landscape
The original digital revolution resulted in a massive deluge of owned digital properties released on the Web. Whether the properties were external (Websites) or internal (Intranets) organizations had near complete control over them. Around the same time, advances in online advertising and search launched an entire industry where paying for online media and optimizing for visibility ensured that organizations could get traffic pointed to the properties they built. In recent years, the advent of personal publishing (blogging) proved that paid media investments were not the only way to drive traffic and increase visibility. As as a result, blogger networks emerged which began to blur earned and paid efforts. Most recently, social networks have entered the mix enabling third party (non-ownable) platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to co-exist with the open blogoshphere, message boards, and of course owned properties such as your Websites. In short, the landscape needs to be looked at holistically and the areas of overlap are not to be underestimated. It’s also worth noting that the concentration of social engagement as defined by human-to-human interactions is centered on the overlap of “social, earned, and owned” initiatives. In other words, anywhere you can provide tools and mechanisms which support connectivity, interaction and dialogue.
Digital Embassies, Ambassadors & Envoys
Philosophically, organizations need to shift their attitudes about how they communicate and engage with stakeholders and view digital properties as not only owned, but managed. A corporate or brand presence established in a community should be treated as setting up an embassy. You’re not in full ownership, but you are responsible for managing it appropriately. In other words, it might be your embassy, but not your land—you are not exactly native to the population. Your embassies need to be staffed with “ambassadors” trained in the art of public engagement, as much of their communication and interaction with stakeholders will be on display for the community to see. But it’s not enough for an organization to equip a digital embassy with ambassadors—they must also dispatch “envoys” to outposts where others have ownership (and control). These are blogs, message boards, forums, etc. It is this dynamic which extends what traditional institutions such as marketing have always been about. Instead of mass communication to a broad audience, more targeted engagement is initiated with specific/niche groups of stakeholders and behaviors and opinions are gradually influenced over time resulting in “lifetime value” for multiple stakeholders.
Also commonly known as community management, the core focus of both is meaningfully engaging with members of a community in ways that are mutually beneficial to the organization/business/brand and the community which is being served. A key distinction and a reason why many marketers struggle with community engagement is the “service” part. Community management is not a new discipline and aspects of it can be traced back to traditional message boards and online forums. These dynamics are evolving and mutating into mainstream activities as powered by large and niche social platforms as well as social “layers” added to digital properties. Community engagement is often limited to moderation which is the minimal form of the activity and the least proactive. The most proactive community engagement combines the activities of “ambassadors” with technology. Best Buy’s Twelpforce, for example combines employee ambassadors with a home-grown management system that tracks employee participation and content creation. Many start-up companies leverage community engagement as a more grassroots way to create advocates for their products. Advocacy is one of the end goals of community engagement—it’s the only way to scale it as hiring an endless supply of community managers is not the answer. A disciplined team leveraging the right technology can influence opinions and attitudes of stakeholders resulting in their advocating on behalf of the organization. This is one of the core goals of community engagement and why it’s worth implementing.
5 Steps Toward Community Engagement
There are five core or essential steps needed to effectively engage communities. Each presents its own unique set of organizational implications.
1. Assess Community Needs & Interests
Otherwise known as “listening” the emphasis for this initial step should be placed on evaluating, analyzing and assessing wants and needs. Listening technologies are becoming more commoditized, more ubiquitous and affordable while organizations are in the early stages of understanding how to gleam insights from conversational chatter and data. Before engaging a community, you have to understand the unique nuances of it.
2. Develop Rules For Engagement
Guidelines, parameters, recommendations—whatever you want to call them, your organization should provide some guidance around how to engage a community. Taking a page from the customer service discipline, “scenario planning” displayed in decision trees is a visual and tangible way to do this. It’s important to provide some form of documentation that guides your ambassadors and community managers and provides them with a foundation and reference.
3. Identify The Right Managers For Your Community
Every community is different and should be engaged appropriately. The best community managers typically need an understanding of the topics the community discusses, as well as the products and or services the organization provides. They also need to be comfortable engaging in public and above all understand how to provide value to the associated community.
4. Establish Internal & External Process
Engaging a community not only demands communication but value in the form of content needs to be planned before it can be distributed. Internal “publishing” process and activities such as work-flow need to be established. The right social content management and workflow systems need to be chosen. Process for external engagement needs to dovetail with the internal. In short, it’s coordination between people, process and the right technology.
5. Step 5, Train Equip & Deploy (T.E.D.)
Human capital may be the most critical variable of engaging in communities and a certain level of training should be provided. If you don’t know where to start, find the people with the right skills or the partners who understand the infrastructure of communities. Effectively trained community managers should posses the following seven qualities:
- Articulate: Able to communicate effectively in a variety of media
- Social: Engages in authentic conversations and interactions
- Professional: Acts as a responsible ambassador of brand/org
- Adaptable: Can make decisions quickly, handle crisis situations
- Enthusiastic: Energetic, passionate and engaged in relevant topics
- Connected: Has ties to the right people within the community
- Organized: Can keep track of data, relationships, content calendars, and a variety of assets essential to maintaining community
Where Does Community Engagement Live In Your Organization?
The philosophical answer is everywhere. But if your organization decides to invest in community engagement, it has to fall within the structure somewhere. This model depicts it living within a broader social media group which co-reports to PR & marketing as well as dotted-line reporting relationship into key groups such as HR and Legal. Other models may be more partner-dependent. In either scenario, communities are less concerned with how you’ve organized to engage them, and more interested in simply deriving value from their interactions with you, your company and your brand.
As with any organizational initiative, KPI’s (key performance indicators) and forms of measurement must be put in place. This topic can stand on its own for an entirely separate article, but at a macro level it’s worth noting that measurement should be looked at from a dual purpose. Some metrics are based around a behavioral change. For example, a community manager engaging an unhappy community member who was leaving a stream of negative comments and changing that stream to positive is a behavioral change. Crisis avoidance can have economic implications in the form of cost savings (projecting how much it would have cost the company if the crisis escalated to mainstream media). Advocacy can play a role in both these scenarios. Measurement frameworks for community engagement can start here.
Most of the perspectives here are not entirely new. But the premise is that the advances in social media usage by participants escalate the importance of community dynamics as it pertains to business. We’ve found that using this nomenclature (embassies, ambassadors & community engagement) helps large organizations look at these dynamics outside of the traditional marketing mindset. In addition, leveraging tactics such as training and deploying community managers outside of original forums is a natural extension of how the Web is evolving and emulating the physical world. Have thoughts on how you are engaging your community at scale? Feel free to share them here.