Thursday, 30 July 2009

ONLINE CONVERSATION MANAGEMENT AND THE ROLE OF THE COMMUNITY MANAGER


The Hydra was reputed to be a many-headed creature killed by Hercules as one of his Twelve Labours. The distributed conversations we are now trying to handle through social media have now also become a many-headed Hydra that we can't kill, but that we have to find ways of managing if we are to have more effective online conversations.

A while back I wrote a blog post called strangers in a community of the likeminded about turning my blog into a community, and I started using tools, like MyBlogLog, Digg, and recently Social Median and Businessweek's Business Exchange. I now have more readers off of my site through RSS, and other distributed content techniques than on my site.

One of my posts, as analyzed by Google Feedburner, has racked up more views through my feed than my blog has had visitors this year. This is partially good news, as it shows the post has gone viral, but it has gone viral through re-publishing, and bookmarking into some anonymous ether.

One of the great advantages of the social media revolution is the ease by which you can distribute content. You can simply Digg content, bookmark it to Delicious, share it to Facebook, Tweet it, and do many more things that takes your content to a wider audience. My feed service, Feedburner argues that published feeds permit publishers to instantly distribute content and give it the ability to make it "subscribable."Sounds good so far.

The flip side to this opportunity is that if you start 'conversations' in many more places, you have to respond in many more places. There are tools like Backtype that help you consolidate all of your comments, but it not the same as having a conversation on a single platform, and plugging yourself into the culture, and spirit of that community. This is important, as these places are not just platforms, they are also communities. And if you want to succeed, you have to become a citizen-participant, and view it as a place with a culture, with ingroups and outgroups, and elites, and ordinary citizens. Before its algorithm change it was been reported that the top 100 Digg users controlled 56% of Digg's frontpage content, and that a niche group of just twenty individuals had submitted 25% of the frontpage content. A few sites have raised the problem of groupthink and the possibility that the site was being "manipulated", so to speak (According to Wikipedia which has its own oligarchy).

The big catch with this need to join the community, and become a citizen-participant (or even aspire to climb the social ladder and become a member of its elite) is that a distributed conversation splits your attention, and split attention is a tough thing to master - particularly if you have a day job.

Managing these conversations requires the skills of a new type of specialist. These are 'community managers' or 'conversation managers' or 'Online PR specialists' or 'Online Customer Service Executives' . The titles are different and the jobs slightly different, but they are essentially employed to engage in online conversations, and with online content. They also handle relationships with bloggers, and other media owners, but also handle responses for brands, and initiate conversations. These people already exist and the demand is growing, and consequently challenges the existing practices of the public relation business.

Call this online PR, call it customer services, or blogger outreach, but the core rationale for these people is to handle, and manage the rising tide of conversations out there. You can distribute content, but because you can't distribute your attention, we now needs specialists to handle this task.

19 comments:

Anonymous said...

That all sounds very well and good - but really how practical is it for brands to develop such programmes? I can see it working when you choose a certain community to get invovled in ie pick off one or two - but the reality is these conversations are taking place everywhere (you rightly point that out) and we often are not sure where the influential conversations are anymore. Many people are of the view that it is marketing comms that create and intiate the conversations online (and offline) and we should really just let those conversations run. Trying to influence them further is a step to far and highly unmanageable and, importantly very costly. Is it not good enough for brands to hold the party, supply the music and the drinks but not have to tell people what to talk about (that is not fun) - but rather let them get migrate to the right conversation for the brand? Just a thought - I dont have the answer.

But with excessive downward pressure on budgets and resource (for at least the next 18 months) I do question the appetite for brands to invest in this area. Rightly or wrongly.

Robin Grant, We Are Social said...

Hey Tony

"we now need specialists to handle this task" - Amen to that...

:)

Stefano Maggi said...

Very interesting point of view. Seeing digital PR as a form of consumer engagement is one thing that helps me a lot in my daily job. I think it's always very important to think about the community manager as a "facilitator" rather than a real "manager". The conversation is not driven nor created by her / him, but the engagement is.
I'm getting more and more convinced that the community manager is a set of competencies rather than a role. Sometimes these competencies belong to one single person (it can be risky), sometimes they belong to more people inside a company and sometimes they can belong to more than one company (e.g. company + agency).
What do you think?

Tony Effik said...

Hi Stefano, thanks for your comment.

I agree that the term facilitator is probably a better description than manager, but the title of manager just sounds a little bit better in my view :)

I do, however, disagree with you on the idea that its a set of competencies rather than a job. I think we need to now make this a full time job, and get people to specialise in it, rather than people doing it on the side. It takes so much concentration, and the sheer amount of work demands focus in my view.

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