On Community Management: Current practice, possible futures

Summary: For most businesses today, community management is only a cosmetic innovation, in both reputation and practice. Appearing to be a new function because the medium is new, it has reproduced the traditional organizational model of the business, which offers each category of consumer a single centralized point of contact with the business. The potential development of the role is nevertheless rich in possibility, from the integration of different departments of the business to an ongoing role as an intermediary between individual consumers and individual employees. A business that recognizes the potential for the individuation of its employees in the process of internal community management opens the royal road to true integration of « Web 2.0, » though inevitably this will require fundamental reorganization to obtain real benefits in customer loyalty and innovation.

 

The apparently homogenous term « Community Management » conceals a world of relatively heterogenous practices. Analyzed according to its actual tasks and functions, it is found to reproduce several traditional functions of the business: public relations, communications, customer relations, sales, and so on. Is « community management » simply « development 2.0 » of the traditional functions of the business, which, over time, will merge with existing functions, or does it offer the possibility of a new way of working? What real contribution to the business will it make? And what will be the impacts on the organization, and its relations with its target audiences?

In order to envision the various possible options, my starting point is current practice in community management, which is relatively limited in scope. New organizational opportunities appear when a business departs from the traditional organization of its relations with its audiences in the upheaval caused by « Web 2.0. » These important new perspectives for the development and differentiation of community management are explored here.

 

« The relational bottleneck »: the traditional model of business organization in its relation with its audiences

In the simplest case—of sole traders—proprietors perform all of the functions of the company themselves, and are in direct contact with all of the « audiences » of their businesses.

As companies expand over time, and depending on their sector of activity, specialization of these tasks appears, for greater effectiveness. This specialization limits the number of jobs and roles that are responsible for relations with these audiences, in order to control and give coherence to the message. This creates a « bottleneck » organizational model, with many « back-office » people behind the scenes, and only few in the « front-office » actually in contact with customers and clients or other audiences. Naturally, the degree of « concentration » of these front-office functions depends on the nature of the business. It is greater in business-to-business in manufacturing, and less in a business that deals directly with the consumer. The most important audience for a business is its customers, so this is the example I will use in the following analysis, but this schema is also applicable to suppliers, partners, potential job applicants and other stakeholders in the business.

Before the advent of digital media, consumers and clients related to the business in a similar manner: isolated individual consumers were the majority, though some formed interest groups such as consumer associations to better represent their views.

 

This organization obviously corresponds to the available means of communication and their respective costs, which favors organizations to the detriment of individuals. The business can therefore dominate in communication with its customers, without the expectation of a similar volume of communication in return. This reflects the one-sided nature of untargeted TV, radio, press, and promotions, and the also one-sided, but targeted nature of email and telephone canvassing. Consumers were publicly inaudible beyond their personal circle, their voices practically unheard because they were not organized.

The customer audience was obliged to pass through the « relational bottleneck » in order to communicate effectively with the business, which was therefore in a position to control its relationship with its audience (or at least its image).

 

The internet and Web 2.0 has disrupted this control of this relational bottleneck

With Web 2.0 and social media, the voice of the audience becomes (potentially) much more audible, because the means of public communication have become accessible to everybody, at the cost of a PC and an internet connection. Even if a majority of consumers enjoy sharing their points of view and experiences with each other, without necessarily seeking to convey that view to the supplier of the brand, they do so in public. So each individual can potentially hold a business to account in the forums and other social networks—with the world watching. Across the social networks, personal communication between ordinary consumers and ordinary employees becomes possible, no longer anonymized or stifled by « front-office » colleagues. New means of collective assembly of consumers and the public targeting the business have appeared. Though hastily been labelled « communities, » they are not always so structured, unless one considers that the place of assembly is the key element of a community: Facebook pages, professional groups, forums and so on.

These new means and modes of communication undermine the effectiveness of the « organizational bottleneck » of the traditional business, creating multiple points of disruption to its traditional system of control. The crowd is no longer anonymous, nor are the employees of the business, which makes many new levels of interaction possible.

 

What is the role of the community manager in this newly reorganized world?

For the majority of businesses and their suppliers and service providers, community management today consists principally of managing communications with their consumers on social networks. Because the target audience is often rather young, and the role is new, the average community manager is therefore, most often, an inexperienced and poorly paid trainee, who is ill supervised.

Although outwardly innovative and « business 2.0, » when the creation of the role has been examined in numerous real world case studies, it is neither more or less than the reinvention of the organizational chart of our bottleneck model. A job is created alongside the other existing « front-office » jobs to manage a new « representative assembly » of consumers, improperly labelled as « communities. » If it remains at this stage, the innovation is not really innovative: it is merely cosmetic, because there is no corresponding reorganization of the business to better exploit the possibilities of web 2.0 in its communication with customers.

 

But for those community managers who are in it for the long haul, rich and interesting possibilities begin to appear and become formalized. Depending on the nature of the business, and the initial responsibilities placed on the community manager, the range of tasks performed widens and begins to reproduce the traditional functions of the business: PR, communications, customer relations and after-sales service, sales, marketing, innovation and so on.

A this stage of development, the question of how the function is to be managed over time begins to be taken seriously by the business, because the initial benefits are also beginning to appear—when the work is well done. Very often the first real benefits are not quantitive but qualitative: better understanding of customers, better use of feedback received (which allows rapid evaluation of different product or service options), and enhanced trust between opinion-formers and the business.

How does one « fix » this function? What are the potential options that can be glimpsed at this stage?

 

Possible paths of development for community management within the organization of the business

Considered from the viewpoint of business organization, several possible options open up. Each option consists of taking one aspect of the functioning of the business, and focussing on it as the dominant aspect, as will probably happen in reality.

Option 1: the Community Manager (CM) as a co-ordinator of all of the functions of the business

This case emphasizes the co-ordinating function of the role. In order for this to be truly effective, the CM is freed from attachment to any particular function, and maintains an « outpost » beyond all of the functions of the business, in relation to consumers and clients.

 

In reality, if this development occurs, it will inevitably pose the question of the role and importance of the relationships that customers have with the business. How can one have one or several CMs « upstream » from other functions on the web, and retain internal or external teams in call-centers and offices which play a similar role, but whose tools are the telephone and the mail?

One possibility might then be to truly recognize (finally) the importance of client-business relations, and radically rethink the existing organization, at least for those who would reduce the role to just yet another cost centre. That could bring about the integration of community management with the customer relations teams, and these teams would have a real role at the frontline with the customer, co-ordinating all of the functions of the business (in relation to the customer), whether these are outgoing actions, initiated by the business, or incoming actions, initiated by customers.

 

Option 2: CM integrated in a functional team

The second option is to integrate community managers into the team which is already daily performing the role that corresponds to the dominant role of the community manager. This might be the PR team, whose essence is to manage of relations with opinion-formers and influential members of the audience, or communications, if the role is above all about campaigns of communication and encouraging the development of online content. If it is mostly about awareness, observation, research and questionnaires for harvesting client insights, then marketing/research/innovation might be most appropriate; or sales if it promotes sales, and so on. The dominant aspect will vary according to the nature of the business, its size, sector, and market position. Dell has used Twitter for sales, Sephora mixes « product » content with offers and activity on its Facebook page, Cetelem makes purely entertainment content for its own page, Best Buy and Free do after-sales service on Twitter, etc.

In this case, what impact might CM have on the development of the functions themselves? There are two conceivable paths: the job can be integrated in a « horizontal » fashion, as a new complementary expertise alongside the existing expertise, and continue like this, with the result that different levels of seniority are at stake. The job can be integrated « vertically » with a junior entry level post in a hierarchy that permits subsequent progression to other jobs, in a manner analogous to the requirement for sales experience as part of the traditional career progression to marketing, through familiarity with the real world of daily contact with customers.

Considering the development of CM in this way, gravitating towards the dominant function, allows one to see the real possibilities that can be implemented from here onwards. For example, in channel companies, why not train staff working at the point of sale in community management? They know their customers, much more so than a CM based at head office. Their contribution could bring a distinctively local tone to customer relations. Such apparently counter-intuitive suggestions are worth pursuing for their potential originality and the differentiation that it would therefore result.

 

Option 3: CM integrated into several functional teams

In this case, there is no dominant function in the work of the community manager, but a great variety of interactions with the audience. This could be used to justify a development toward the integration of this function into several teams, not just one. The difference with the previous case is the new requirement for co-ordination between the different community managers which would inevitably emerge, in order to harmonize and give coherence to public statements which will eventually appear in the same place.

Where should the conductor of the orchestra be placed, if there is no single dominant function? Most logically, in the customer relations team, but, as previously discussed, the customer relations team as it must become, not as it currently is, thus emphasizing the importance of an actual re-evaluation of these functions at the core of the business.

 

Option 4: the CM as co-ordinator of a community of experts and internal volunteers within the business

In this case, community managers are not themselves the producers of content but essentially co-ordinators of the relationship between consumers on one side, and the experts and internal volunteers of the business on the other. Contributors are no longer internal « anonymous » resources, hidden from the final customer, but clearly identified employees (with different roles and expertise, and from different levels within the organization) who themselves interact with consumers and clients. To the degree to which their role consists of co-ordinating this internal community of employees, experts, volunteers or others, community managers become worthy of their name. To name but one well-known example of the relevance of this mode of functioning: Best Buy, with its Twitter account @Twelpforce, where employees answer technical questions and deal with after-sales service issues.

This development does not preclude other options, but is complementary to them. This is the royal road to the real integration of developments made possible by web 2.0 into the organization. Instead of just building a 2.0 version of the relational bottleneck, intermediary relationships become possible between individual consumers on one side, and individual employees on the other, whether they are organized or not.

This is therefore a function whose development conceals a rich potential for the business, in its organization, in new modes of management, and in the evaluation of the customer relationship, as a corollary to the evaluation of employees and internal expertise.

 

In conclusion, for a majority of businesses, the title of community management is currently only a cosmetic function, newly devised in response to the use of interactive digital media. Its use within the organization, or worse, its outsourcing, reflects a reproduction of the traditional organizational model of a « relational bottleneck: » but now faced by the new groupings of consumers made possible by the social networks and forums of the web. The rich possibilities created by web 2.0 will only be truly exploited by businesses when they are fully integrated into the structure of the business, as a factor which requires existing functioning and attribution to be reconsidered, rather than as a foreign body implanted by modern tools. The function will then be fully realized as community management per se, with respect to consumers—and also to employees—with major benefits for the business, in terms of quality of service and its resulting impact on customer loyalty, in terms of the quality of insights and the impact on the development of new business, and in terms of internal management and the satisfaction, motivation and loyalty of collaborators.

 

Key points and illustrations also available in a Slideshare format:

Translated from French by Douglas Carnall, Cabinet Beezer.

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