In February, we gave an overview of one of the ways B2C products are differentiating themselves – selling not only a product, but an associated community platform that a) adds value to the product itself and b) sinks a deep hook into a pre-existing tribe of customers. Given the trend, we posited that community management – the tactical upkeep and strategic positioning of those platforms – would become an essential B2C marketing skill.
With that in mind, we gave some thought to the key attributes and behaviors of the effective community manager – someone who creates useful, fun and safe brand and communal experiences. Let us know if you have items you’d add!
1) Aggressively path to consumer outcomes. As with any digital tool, there’s the risk that your organization will develop “bright, shiny object syndrome”, and jump on consumer communities out of pure excitement or as a way of indicating a progressive stance towards connective technology. Please, resist the temptation. Community managers should be internal advocates for useful brand experiences, and that means mapping community features directly to consumer outcomes or higher-order needs.
Nike+ is one of the exemplars here – they recognized that the challenge for amateur runners wasn’t tracking run metrics, it was maintaining motivation to keep running day in and day out. So every community feature is aimed directly at runner motivation – from social sharing and community challenges to “smack talk” and their newest feature, Nike+ Tag.
2) Listen hard (to articulated and unarticulated desires). A lot of brands set up a comment box, or a one-way Twitter feed, and reassure their customers that they’re “listening”. But even if that were really true – even if every consumer suggestion went directly to someone with decision-making power – those brands would still only be listening to a small part of the desires of their userbase. Much of those desires are entirely unarticulated, and show up in the form of user behavior outside of the formal structures of the community. The best community managers watch closely for “desire lines” in the community, and set up structures that either protect or formalize them.
A great (non-corporate) example of this is the evolution of the MetaFilter community, documented in a presentation given by the guy who runs it. The community was originally a community blog of sorts, then launched a variety of other structures designed to handle different kinds of interaction.
3) Be a pruner, not a planner. It’s funny – most American businesspeople, I think, can quickly identify the essential problem of Marxism – that full-scale central planning cannot accurately forecast the dynamics and desires of any sizable community or economy. But when it comes to digital communities, brands often make the mistake of trying too rigorously to path out community dynamics, and sticking to those paths even when desire lines indicate that the userbase wants to take a different path.
Great community managers recognize that planning has serious limitations and allow communities to grow organically, as well as craft strategic visions that allow for lots of user input, both articulated and unarticulated.
4) Link to commercial value, but protect the golden eggs. Our advice for social media marketers applies here, too: great corporate community managers can cite their business objective clearly and succinctly, and link utilization metrics to attitudinal and behavioral objectives that the broader organization knows have an impact on financial performance. Just like in other forms of social media, you likely won’t get direct ROI here.
The ambiguity of the ROI picture often leads organizations (and community managers who are eager to demonstrate value) to plunder the renewable resource of a well-run community with a barrage of poorly-designed marketing initiatives, which are often regarded by the community as spam. A big healthcare brand gave us a rule of thumb recently: in the community setting, no more than 10% of brand-to-consumer communications should be designed specifically to sell a product.
5) Facilitate relationship-building. Never forget why people have joined your community – they didn’t do it to interact with your brand (although, if you’re providing value, that might be a nice upside). Rather, they are there to interact with those around them. With that in mind, help your community members make connections with others – both through technical features (like suggested users, user profiles and purpose groups) and through old-fashioned shoe leather management.
Make sure you’re not forgetting about lurkers, who constitute the largest group of any community. A lack of inclination to participate probably explains most lurking behavior, but a secondary driver is difficult-to-understand community guidelines and norms – a serious barrier to relationship-building as well as lurker-to-active conversion.
6) Do what you do best, and link to the rest. Apologies to Jeff Jarvis for stealing the concept, but in a universe with thousands of brands, millions of communities and billions of websites, there’s simply no reason for branded and corporate communities to sink time and effort into areas where there’s no value to be added. The successful community manager needs an in-depth knowledge of her brand’s attributes, promise and scope – and, in areas that fall outside, a willingness to direct community members elsewhere.
7) Experiment often, but intelligently. If you’re following rules 1-4, you’ll need to aggressively look for ways to improve your community members’ experience, and to convert them into customers in a way that doesn’t annoy your users or disrupt the balance of the group. The good news? Great communities operate at a scale that makes it pretty easy to tell what works and doesn’t work, and to do so relatively quickly. The bad news, of course, is that your experiment might disrupt the delicate balance of community and individual.
The answer? Limit the scope of experiments by adapting rigorously-defined hypotheses, and design specific, segmented tests to determine their validity.
MLC members, for more on community management, check out our social media resources and our work on radical innovation, which includes information on social platforms as lock-in devices. If you’re interested in other marketing roles, you can get a free copy of our profile of the New Media Ringmaster, featured in the Harvard Business Review.