Is Your Company Lost 'Socially'? Here's a Guide to Navigating the Social Ecosystem

5 minute read
Rob Howard avatar

Social media webinars. Web 2.0 books for beginners. Social business conferences. Blogs on how to build a successful online community. These are all things that people and companies are doing to keep up with the ever-changing world of social; however, many organizations still struggle to understand what exactly social is and how it fits into an organization’s overall business objectives.

To put things into perspective, let’s talk about the “Social Ecosystem.” The Social Ecosystem is a tool we use to help customers understand how they should approach social technology. It is the universe of all the different social connections that are available to organizations -- a network of people who participate in social.

Three different layers make up the social ecosystem. Your organization needs to have a strategy in place for each of these layers.


First Layer: “Participating”

The Participating layer includes the social networking sites that are most familiar to consumers -- sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as standalone social apps like blogs and forums. These are social networks started and managed by individuals or groups of users. As a visitor or guest in these networks, your company’s primary objective is to listen in the Participating layer.

It is important to keep in mind that individuals do not want you to broadcast messages about your business in these social networks -- it could hurt your reputation. Social networks in the Participating layer are typically formed by people to discuss diverse topics, from snowboarding and parenting to best practices for software development and UX design. A great example is the Coca-Cola Facebook fan page that was created by two users who just simply loved Coke.

The reason we call it the Participating layer is because, as a company representative, you have the right to show up, introduce yourself and contribute meaningful discussions; however, you must recognize that you don’t own the site, nor should you heavily market to the site’s participants.

Second Layer: “Managed”

The next layer is what’s called the Managed layer. As you move down into the Managed layer, your company gets more control over the messages, the structure and the type of engagement. This layer includes the same spaces you're accustomed to from the Participating layer (i.e., Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter), but now these sites are your corporate-sponsored Facebook page, LinkedIn or Twitter account, where you do get to controlmessaging. These are networks started and managed by your company, but run on consumer-facing social networking sites.

In the Managed layer, your company needs to communicate more socially, versus a standard communication mode (i.e., share videos and customer stories vs. posting press releases). Currently, one of the best examples is Dell, which has a number of Twitter accounts that it uses to communicate deals or specials available to customers.

Keep in mind that your company is responsible for running and managing the site, but does not “own” the rich information and user profile data created within. Typically, the facilitator of the community (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) benefits the most from the underlying data.

Third Layer: “Owned” or “On Domain”

As you build relationships in the Participating and Managed layers, you want to draw people in tighter to your circle -- into your company-owned communities. These are communities owned and managed by your company and typically run on open source or enterprise social collaboration software. Within this layer, there are three distinct types of company-owned communities: External, Closed Network and Internal.

Learning Opportunities

External, or customer-facing, communities are public sites where people have the opportunity to come to you for interaction. In these communities your company gets to listen, reputation-build and do a little marketing. It is important to remember that these are still social sites, and you can’t treat them like a traditional website or marketing platform. You are still engaging, talking and communicating, with a balance of marketing. Great examples of external communities include Carnival’s Funville, where travelers can share stories, tips and reviews about their cruise experiences; and Promethean’s Promethean Planet, where teachers can discuss classroom curriculum, get technical support for the company’s interactive whiteboards, and find opportunities for professional development.

The next type of community is a Closed Network. In Closed Network communities, you control the membership, as opposed to External communities where you don’t restrict access. Examples are partner networks or customer-only networks where only “my customers get to come” or, for instance, only people who own a particular product.

Finally, the last type of Owned community is your Internal community for employees, which involves the same social aspects as above, but serves to engage your employee base.

As you can see, social engagement in the Social Ecosystem is at its most open in the Participating layer and draws to its closest point in Internal communities.

Integrate All Three Layers to Drive Maximum Value

Companies derive maximum value from social engagement by integrating all of these layers together. The company-owned community is the ultimate destination where organizations draw customers in using social networking sites from the Participating and Managed layers as the channels for facilitation.

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About the author

Rob Howard

Rob Howard is the founder and chief technology officer of Zimbra, Inc. (formerly Telligent), and is the visionary behind the company’s product development and oversees the technology roadmap. In July 2013, Telligent acquired Zimbra from VMware.