To facilitate networking and engage with partners ahead of its 2012 corporate summit in Singapore last September, software provider Parallels set up a presence in LinkedIn Groups and Events. A content calendar provided a stream of discussions ahead of the event and Parallels cross-promoted LinkedIn activity across other platforms, including Twitter and emails.
This is one example of how brands are tapping into community management—engaging with users through proprietary and non-proprietary platforms—to get closer to their customer base. Lenovo has gone one step further, by hiring a community manager to gain greater insight into its customers.
It’s an area the PR industry is increasingly looking to stake its claim to, with agencies including Text100 and Bite Communications building community management capabilities in recent months. The latter also devised and managed Parallels’ community management activity ahead of its APAC conference.
According to Jye Smith, vice-president of digital, Asia-Pacific at Weber Shandwick, PR agencies have a natural affinity for this space: it is, after all, about creating earned media through different social networks. And when it comes to managing online communities around a crisis, PR agencies have years of experience that enable them to make the best decisions.
Brands in the travel, telecoms, personal finance and automotive sectors have been early adopters of community management, due partly to the fact the customer journey for these categories is closely related to use of the web and linked with e-commerce and other web functions, such as social networking. Other categories, like B2B, are likely to grow their community management offerings to engage with customers and become useful marketing and sales platforms.
The key to success in this area, says David Ketchum, president, Asia-Pacific at Bite, is integrating online and offline touch points, finding out what customers are talking about and using this as a starting point. Even though the web is the most efficient community venue, community management should also include events in “real life” and the use of offline media for credibility and authenticity.
“A strong communities manager helps brands and companies develop powerful points of view that resonate with audiences, and which allow them to join valuable conversations in credible ways,” says Ketchum.
Community managers are also trying to bring as many members of their target audience off the web, and into an opt-in groups, taking on more of a social customer relationship management role.
Community management is a rich space for brands, and it seems a natural fit for PR agencies that know how to create and distribute compelling stories. Yet, says Smith, one of the key challenges for PR agencies, is a lack of understanding around the technologies they are using. “This can be as simple as knowing how to optimise user experiences, or as detrimental as trying to hide or cover up mistakes and negative comments,” says Smith.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is that with the number of consumer and business touch points available, community management today is everyone’s business. Brands have not yet figured out which type of agency—PR, social media, advertising—handles this function best, or even if it is better left in-house.
PR agencies have already realised the demand from their clients for a greater emphasis on community management, on top of the traditional PR business. Community management is a skill that comes naturally to PR agencies — their bread and butter has been to create and craft stories and shape conversations.
A brand’s online community is not afraid to have its voice heard. Maintaining transparency with your community benefits your brand in the long run. Your community will recognise this and afford you empathy when least expected. Never claim ownership of material that isn’t yours or you will lose credibility with your community.
It is important to always ensure that guidelines and policies are in place and adhered to by community managers. Never go in and dictate the content that your customers should be reading or talking about. Instead, take a more subtle approach. Find out what they’re talking about, what makes them tick and start there.
Kristian Olsen, digital lead, Text100 Singapore
Community management is important because people who are interested in your brand have volunteered to be part of your group and should be acknowledged and engaged. Any member of a community has the potential to be an advocate, but only if you manage them properly.
The opposite is also possible, in that people can become a member of a community in order to criticise the brand. How companies engage with, and manage, their online communities will play a key role in determining the route their members ultimately go down.
Any brand or sector engaging in social media will benefit from community management, and anyone engaged in social media who is not using community management is putting their brand at risk.
At the heart of a good PR agency’s offering is an understanding of how to build, influence and manage individuals to the best possible advantage for the brand.