Last week, I had the opportunity to review a draft of The Guide to Online Community Management, published by the ReadWriteWeb team and edited by Marshall Kirkpatrick. Simply put, if you’re planning or considering a community effort at your organization, this is a must have. The report provides answers to any “ifs, ands & buts” with regard to the strategic importance of community engagement.
Most readers of this blog come from larger organizations. I’ve kept that audience in mind when reviewing this report.
To be honest, about 15% into the report, I struggled with the idea of buying a premium report that was largely peppered with quotes from articles that I’ve read before. However, as I kept reading, it became clear that report does a great job of identifying major trends, challenges and opportunities emanating from specific community efforts, backed by rich and sometimes opposing expert opinion. What you end up with is a set of succinct recommendations that organizations can consider and evaluate in the context of their own business objectives. Should you publish a blog? Should you invest in a Facebook or a Twitter presence? Should you hire a full time or part time community manager? How to guarantee that your community efforts will fail? The pros and cons are nicely laid out for you, complete with real word experiences from practitioners, consultants and vendors. All of this to help with not just planning, but also practical execution.
On to specific areas that really resonated with me…..
Addressing ROI – Head On
I was quite surprised to see so many consultants and vendors either advise against quantifiable return or set a tragically low bar for success measurement. Thankfully, the unrelenting focus on ROI in this report clearly shows how community based engagement can be justified at large organizations. Ultimately, in my opinion, it boils down to whether you have the tenacity to attach the value of community management to specific business activity or not. What the report does well is to contrast and highlight examples of both approaches that enterprises can learn from and apply accordingly. Citing scores of case studies from companies such as Zappos, Dell, and WholeFoods, enterprises should be able to quickly identify what types of community efforts make sense for their business, and market place in general.
“The Morning After”
Since a good chunk of my work centers on execution planning, I was especially thrilled to see a sub section within the ROI discussion that was devoted to life after launch. As important, stakeholder expectations that need to be set with respect to ongoing operational requirements, changes in the customer engagement dynamics and new opportunities that emerge from maintaining a thriving community. For instance, on the issue of getting disillusioned because only a fraction of registered users regularly interact, Rubicon Consulting Principal, Michael Mace advises:
Managing a community is hard work and labor intensive. The report cites detailed case studies on how to beat the odds. For instance, Ex-Microsoft SharePoint Manager, Lawrence Liu (now at Telligent Systems) realized that the cost per incident was 90% lower when it was dealt with in the community forum as opposed to commercial phone support. With that in hand, he goes on to illustrate how he leveraged his success with the enthusiast community to create a business case for more dedicated in-house community support:
In terms of execution, the report also details useful how-to’s on topics such as hiring rock star community managers, establishing required resource commitments to ensure community health and sharing insights with relevant constituencies in the organization about what prospect and users want. Some of this is probably after-the-fact ROI, since you don’t know what direction the discussion will take until its’ had some time to gestate. The take away is that that once you get started, your list of benefits and value proposition for the community can continue to grow, beyond what you initially planned for.
Ancillary benefits that Community Managers can deliver across the organization
Beyond ROI that’s tied to the intended use case, the report discusses how other departments can gain from community efforts such as customer led innovation, recruiting, and awareness and research in the areas of marketing. Forrester Research Social Media Analyst Jeremiah Owyang says:
There’s some valuable discussion about how to generate leads in the context of B2B from community efforts, but this is an area where I believe that the report could have challenged interviewees even more. You’ll see some great examples at the end of the report about how sales reps engage on Twitter and surface qualified leads through conversations. But are two hours on Twitter more productive than say 5 qualified cold calls? Maybe; maybe not.
The end game
Overall, the only major component that’s missing for me is a deeper view into what a community managers’ career (and the programs they create) can look like in years to come. As new paradigm shifts in how to accelerate business performance emerge, there’s usually 3 phases to deliver lasting value:
Experiment > Operationalize > Institutionalize
This report has the first 2 phases covered. Experimentation is self explanatory and the report showcases some very effective emergent models. Operationalizing involves setting up a central command post that can incubate and manage these new work models as they bloom (much like what Dell has achieved, also covered in the report). Finally, institutionalizing requires that you get off the side lines, go to where process-laden, structured activities live, and improve, integrate with or take–out these inefficient forms of working. That’s where it can get truly transformational, towards an Enterprise 2.0 design. Business process management via ERP achieved this at larger organizations. In contrast, knowledge management largely failed at infiltrating each business activity and becoming institutionalized. How will the community function turn out and what are the risks that may cause it to fizzle? The good news is that we are beginning to see DNA-changing progress, primarily in the area of community based support. Helpstream is one company that’s leading the charge on this.
From a career standpoint I’ve always felt that today’s brightest community manager’s will not grow into VPs/CXO of Community or Social Media, etc. Rather, the very best ones will actually take over as leaders in charge of primary business functions such as Brand, Marketing, Customer Support etc. The catalyst will be successfully making relationships (not process) central to driving awareness, innovation, lead generation, support, and the like. This report confirms that hypothesis.
All that said, what the ReadWriteWeb team has done is brilliantly articulate how you can start and operationalize vibrant communities. And that’s what most enterprises are pondering, today.
The RWW Community Management Aggregator
Finally, this report is like the gift that keeps on giving. To respond to the dynamic nature of best practices as well as technology innovation, this report comes with a portal called the “The RWW Community Management Aggregator”. This important utility will keep subscribers up to date on the latest news, thought leaders and case studies in this space to make sure you are listening in the right places.
I fully expect that in the near future, this news aggregator will begin to surface insight into how to institutionalize community engagement in the context of specific lines of business activity.
More reviews on the report here:
Dawn Foster: ReadWriteWeb Guide to Online Community Management