Social media technologies can be a powerful tool, but it’s important to know who within your organization should be taking the lead for your social media marketing strategy, which includes responsibility for everything from budgeting to staffing.
It’s commonplace for executives and managers to ask about social media leadership and inquiries stem from the growing desire to get involved with communities of customers, partners, and employees.
However, this question of who within an organization “owns” a specific community isn’t easily answered because it’s really three complex questions that need to be answered first: who interacts with the community; who pays for it; and who champions it?
Who Interacts with the Community?
Organizations have many questions when they get started with social media. They want to know who will write the blog, who will run the forum, who will manage the Wiki. These are all good questions about who you entrust with the responsibility of being your spokesperson to a specific community.
Some companies, such as General Motors, have high visibility bloggers (like GM’s Vice Chairman Bob Lutz). Other companies have a general manager overseeing its community efforts (like Intuit’s Scott Wilder). And other businesses field an team (like Southwest Airline’s Nuts About Southwest blog, which includes contributions from a diverse group of employees including Gordon Guillory, a Structures Mechanic in the Heavy Maintenance Department).
These different approaches show that any employee can interact with communities that they never deal with face-to-face with in their regular work. Community contacts shouldn’t be determined by title or department, but rather, by the mindset and judgment of the person in the job. It must be someone deeply passionate about developing that specific relationship – even if it means challenging long-held corporate culture and standards.
Natural places to look for these individuals are in marketing, public relations, and corporate communications. But don’t overlook customer support, market research, and product management as well.
Who Pays for Community?
The easy answer is that it depends on the goal of the community and who benefits most from the community. For example, a company may form a community for the express purpose of gathering insights into its customers. In this case, market research could work with vendors (such as Networked Insights, Passenger, or Communispace) to create a private community that can be polled and asked questions. These interactions can be used to supplement other sources like surveys and focus groups. In this example, it’s clear that market research should fund the community. However, companies can also allocate back the expense to other departments that also tap into that community for insights.
Communities can also be formed to provide better support. For example, through the use of discussion boards where customers, as well as company representatives, can answer support questions, the customer service department can eventually see decreased costs. In that case, customer service should pay for the community, as well as provide focus and direction.
One circumstance demands additional detail — when the IT organization should pay for (and control) community. IT usually gets involved when there’s a need to have a company-wide adoption of social and collaboration technologies. Historically, this has meant enterprise deployment of collaboration platforms like Sharepoint. In contrast, most social technologies are point solutions, designed for easy adoption by business users and requiring minimal IT involvement. IT typically becomes involved in social technologies when integration is needed into existing corporate systems and databases, where the role IT plays is one of ensuring security and systems maintenance. At some point, there will be enough point solutions where IT may also need to get involved to ensure corporate consistency in identity, data structures, and security, as well as in vendor and platform selection.
In the end, who pays for and thus controls the community should be fairly easy to determine because the formation of the community should be based on concrete goals that benefit the organization. If the goals are unclear, then the question of who pays for the community is the least of your worries.
Who Champions Community?
Deploying social media and creating communities is hard work that often challenges long-held company beliefs and cultures. But social media and community managers typically are younger, and earlier in their career, and thus they don’t always have the skills or the clout to be a change agent within an organization.
What’s needed is the third area of community ownership – executive sponsorship. Take for example Ben and Jerry’s. CEO Walt Freese is deeply involved in social media at the ice cream maker and not because he thinks it’s cool, but rather because he believes social technologies are crucial to deepening relationships with core customers – the lynchpin to increasing customer lifetime value.
Freese’s office title is Chief Euphoria Officer and he is the bearer of the social media torch inside the company, encouraging the integration of social media into all aspects of customer relationships, from marketing to customer service.
And at H&R Block, Paula Drumm, vice president of Interactive Media, has been the executive champion. She’s been educating executives while steering her team to engage with customers in multiple social media channels. Like many companies, H&R Block executives are conservative and come from a generation that’s generally skeptical about social technologies. Drumm’s change management skills have helped the company become a model of how to develop customer relationships with social media.
A key skill of this champion is the ability to understand far and how fast to push. In Naked Conversations by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel, the authors write about the importance of understanding the “corporate membrane” – how to stretch it to accommodate social media but not to the point of breaking.
The hard part of about this particular question is that it’s hard to appoint someone into position — usually, this person volunteers because they see the need and have the passion and energy to lead change within the organization.
Everyone owns Community
It’s a mistake to treat community as a separate, distinct asset because you’re talking about relationships that are core to the form and function of a business. In the end, everything that a company does flows through some sort of process that touches a relationship be it with a customer, partner, or employee. Thus, there’s opportunity for everyone in the company to own a piece of community, if only they are given the chance to do so.
I believe that a company that can spread the wealth of community involvement and ownership widely throughout a company will always be better positioned to win than one that doesn’t. After all, all companies want to be closer to their customers.
So, think hard not only about who will own community today in your organization, but also who is best positioned to open and share that ownership throughout the entire organization. The future health of your company may well depend on it.