Engaging with your customers across the social web is less about technology and more about building relationships. Community management is critical here, and it's challenging to prioritize but offers long-term benefits you won't get if you don't take the time to do it right.

Social is the New Normal

It’s only been a few years since Facebook changed the world forever. Even fewer since businesses decided they had to be there -- in fact, the only longitudinal study of the Fortune 500’s use of social media, done by the Center for Market Research at UMass Dartmouth, started tracking the use of Facebook in 2010 because before that, it was too low to count. The tipping point happened fast -- 56% of the Fortune 500 were on Facebook in 2010.

The adoption rate is so fast that large organizations can’t possibly change the way they operate or change their culture in that amount of time, even if they do understand the garden path that social participation is taking them down. The issue is that participating in this new, more transparent environment using old operating assumptions is fraught with danger -- perhaps more danger than not participating at all.

Why? Networked communications environments -- social networks or proprietary community platforms -- dramatically increase the speed of information exchange. This is great and in the short term, for the first movers, it can have dramatic advantages. And the allure of the short term ROI is definitely there, but it can distract you from what is happening at a broader level.

As the use of social channels becomes the new normal, the advantages of using it dissipate, although participation becomes more expected. The only way to gain further advantage is to go faster -- analyzing and responding in a timelier manner than the rest of the market.

There are a number of problems with this ever-accelerating speed:

  1. To adequately respond to issues in the public sphere, organizations must have the same speed of communication and expertise identification internally. To do so, internal networked communications systems need to be the norm, and everyone needs to be responsive. This will take a long time for most organizations to accomplish, and there are some downsides to the constant distraction.
  2. The people managing social accounts cannot just keep speeding up. We already see community managers feeling like they need to be available 24/7 and overwhelmed with information coming in from many channels. Tools have sprung up to help manage the flow, but it’s an arms race that will just continue to escalate, and the people will be the ones at the cross-hairs. These constant demands on people’s time and attention do not lead to good decision-making, and if extended throughout the enterprise, they just proliferate poor judgment.

Focus on People, Not Technology

So you are using social marketing and support, and you have been swept up in the tornado that is social media. Are your people on the front lines feeling exhausted and frazzled? What’s the solution?

First, recognize that the rate of technological change is happening far faster then the rate at which humans can adapt to it. People -- not technology or information -- are the weakest link in your value chain. Because of that, it is the quality of your people that will make or break the quality of the value you deliver to the market. As technology and information become more commoditized, it’s no longer products or services or processes that will keep your customers from turning to your competitors -- it’s your relationships and culture.

Second, realize that human resources are spending less of their time on transactional tasks (due to technology) and more on complex tasks that require creativity and judgment. These complex tasks also require time, space and perspective -- exactly opposite of what the social web is driving us toward.

If you are using social media to participate and join the conversation, you are likely seeing benefits. However, if you are not building out a relationship strategy and defining what kind of relationship you need with various constituent groups and then enticing them in to a rich culture that will create competitive barriers higher than any economic ones you could imagine, you are missing the boat. You are also likely giving away long-term returns for short-term gains.

Final Thoughts

Community management is the discipline of building relationships and fostering a culture among a group of people. It should be about creating strong relational ties with key constituents first and foremost. It is complex for large organizations to do, takes time and is challenging to prioritize. But it creates long-term lock in and a competitive advantage that is hard to break. And it has huge first-mover advantages. Are you creating enduring relationships with your social business initiatives or are you just playing games?

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