Is community management a bad idea?

I had an interesting conversation on Friday with a marketing agency called Qube from Brighton, we sat on the roof terrace at Nokia’s Soho office and began by discussing the state of the industry, a point I made in that meeting and a point I fully planned to carry through into a blog post was that community management is, to an extent, becoming a commoditized offer, as the scale of online communities grow managing the 100’s, 1,000’s or even 100,000’s of engagements every day with large brands social accounts, on key networks, Twitter, Facebook and blogs to name a few becomes a huge scaling challenge. So how do brands solve that challenge? They look at technologies and outsourced or in-house solutions (people) to solve the scale issue, to deal with these queries efficiently.

The problem we have at the moment are that most of those solutions are driven from comms and marketing, but these are not comms or marketing problems, many brands still look to marketing or comms agencies (be they social media specialists of not) to run their social presences and engage on their behalf. Agree or disagree with this approach scale makes doing this for much longer untenable, in the same way that you don’t pay marketing agencies to staff your inbound call centres you don’t pay them  to engage with customer service queries in social.

So we begin to look to the same technological and outsourcing solutions we looked at for our customer care (read: call centres), we implement systems to find, batch, and present these Facebook or Twitter queries to lower-skilled and (crucially) lower priced customer care representatives who duly answer from their digital call centre, or “social media hub”, “war room”, “control centre” or whatever you want to call it. Even back in my days at 6Consulting (Now Radian6 UK) selling monitoring software I pitched, and sold, to call centre operations looking to get in on this game…

So that’s it, as these brand social presences evolve then the CS teams come in and take on the reactive elements, leaving marketing to get on with using the “reach” and “engagement” to generate “buzz” and sell stuff while CS clean up the mess, everyone is back in their box and we all move on.

No way! The problem is that as we look to engage at real scale we industrialise the process and it loses the point. Sure you can tick your hypothetical “social business” box and tell your CMO or CEO “we’re engaging X people per day” but you’re missing the point. Why did customers come to bitch on your Facebook page (for example) in the first place? They lacked a voice, they felt like a number stuck on hold to a call centre to talk to someone who didn’t care, didn’t understand and read a script, so they found a new place to go. If you turn this new place into a microcosm of the old place (marketing broadcasting messages and a cost-managed “social call centre” team dealing with complaints) then you have failed and missed the point: Customers are complaining for a reason.

Instead of thinking about how best to segment or manage your customers, promoters and detractors between different silos, cost centres and processes, why not put your customers at the heart of your business? I mean right in the middle, forget trying to “manage the community” and instead listen to them. No that doesn’t mean listen as in “I got me a monitoring tool and an analyst / agency to give me a monthly PowerPoint” I mean active listening, horizontally across the business. Democratise within the organisation and give your employees the power to listen, engage, learn and act, give them tools to help, tie bonuses to it, make it part of the contract that they have to spend 1 day a month responding on facebook or whatever it might be!

But what about managing the community? Is it really a bad idea? Well, as usual there is no easy answer, but my response would be to think about this differently: Manage your community by showing them you care, really care, not by @replying them and saying so, but by fixing the problems, by making better products and by making sure they get a first class experience at all touch points with social as a key feedback loop. 

In short, Community management is only a bad idea if it’s done badly. Find the problems and inefficiencies that lead to people coming onto your social properties and bitching, fix them. I have said this before and I will say it again:

Forget trying to be a social business, be a good business!

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