Team-Managing Online Communities: Lessons From PodCamp Boston

October 05, 2011

Late last month, I spoke at PodCamp Boston on designing an effective social media policy for your company. Among the audience were people representing B2B, B2C, education, and nonprofit organizations, all with different needs for getting their message out, different resources available to spread that message, and widely varying organizational structures determining where social media fits in to the mix.

A few things became clear, across all industries, though: social media is becoming more and more integrated into organizational operations, and less and less siloed within marketing. This makes it all the more imperative to develop a social media policy that makes sense across the organization. Throw the growing number of online communities into the mix, and there’s even more of a need for guidelines that cover how your team engages with prospects and clients online.

When you build an online community, it becomes a touchpoint between customers and every part of your organization. Technical support, product feedback, marketing, sales, and branding—all take place within your community. And the team members responsible for support, product development, marketing, sales, and billing all need to be on board to make the community a success. Although many companies employ a professional community manager, or roll that work into marketing, successful communities tap into the professional community within an organization. It’s truly all hands on deck.

Christina Inge at Podcamp6

Photo: Wayne Kurtzman

This creates opportunities to get ideas for new product features, reduce support costs, and conduct effective market research. It also creates challenges that you need to address with a good policy. The key thing to remember: a social media policy needs to tread a fine line between an “all hands on deck” spirit and the resources and privacy of teams within your organization, especially outside of marketing.

One takeaway from my talk is that you need to be cautious of how you mobilize team members on social media, so that personal brands stay personal, and any promotions team members engage in on the major social channels, such as Twitter and Facebook, remain voluntary and authentic. This doesn’t mean you lose control of your brand, just that you remain mindful of people’s need and right to control their personal brands on their personal social media accounts. In other words, don’t dictate personal use of social for the company, but by all means, activate, guide, and ask people to advocate for your brand.

In an online community you control, privacy and brand lessen as controls. Your team members are engaging using non-personal accounts as part of their work, and you control your brand through having built the community in the first place. Or do you? The reality is, brand, user experience, and customer experience are less about infrastructure and more about interaction. To that end, everything every one of your team members does in your online community reflects on your brand and is an integral part of your user experience. Setting goals and expectations, as well as clear policies and procedures, can assure a positive experience for customers. It can also help integrate your online community into operations with less friction. For “all hands on deck” to work, the impact on operations needs to be light, so that team members can work community responsibilities into their regular jobs.

Some tips for making community management work for all:

  • Establish rules for support routines within the community. Generally, the goal of software/SaaS online communities is to provide user-to-user support, but it’s only a positive user experience if there’s professional support to back it up. Determine when a team member must step in to a support forum thread; for instance, if there’s an incorrect answer, or too much time has elapsed without an answer. If people receive poor quality replies or no replies at all to their support questions, it’s your responsibility to remedy that—not the community’s.
  • Outline responsibilities for all tasks. Determine who on the team is responsible for monitoring forums, or answering basic questions, and roll that into their job descriptions. Back up every role. The ideal structure is for every vital task to have two backups.
  • Determine standard operating procedures and stick with them. Normalize everything from approving pending members to escalating complaints. Just because it’s social media, doesn’t mean it should be disorganized. Team members will be happy to have basic tasks streamlined with SOPs, so they can focus on more strategic work.
  • Prewrite stock posts. There’s only a limited number of ways to announce a 50% off special, scheduled downtime, or a webinar. Having stock posts on hand makes people’s lives easier, as long as there are options that suit differing communication styles.
  • Offer regular training. New people come on board. New products come out. New questions arise. Training should be continuous, blending informal coaching with formal overview sessions. Lack of training is a main barrier to doing anything well, and social media/community management is no exception.

With careful planning, an online community can drive tremendous value for a brand, whether it’s in technology or consumer products. The key to effectiveness is structure and strategy. If team members who engage with customers in the community have a roadmap for success, the community can be part of a great user experience. 


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