Essentials of online community management

Black Friday - Argos 1
How should your business manage its online community?

The internet is approaching one billion websites and for companies it presents great potential for growth, as well as a major challenge if you don’t approach it the right way. Many businesses are keen to develop their own ‘online communities’ but what are they and why do they matter?

What is online community management?

Online community management is a catch-all phrase that is about many aspects of a business from customer dialogue to partnership. The image below shows the key facets of online community management.

online community management annmarie hanlon 2015

Figure 1 – Online Community Management

However most companies tend to manage customers’ negative feedback within the online community. This seems to be because the traditional methods for customers communicating to staff aren’t working. Either it takes too long to respond to phone calls or the required response doesn’t arrive. I know on a personal level when I had an issue with John Lewis home furnishings, I tried writing, emailing and as a last resort, I went onto Facebook and sadly this was the only place where I got a response.

That same situation has occurred here, where a UK retailer, Argos (owned by the American giant Walmart) also had many angry customers taking to Twitter and explaining that the traditional telephone route was not working:
Black Friday - Argos 3

What are online communities?

Online communities can be public open spaces, such as a company Facebook or Twitter page. Or they can be closed communities such as forums or private groups.

When a customer is unhappy, they are likely to seek the open spaces to share their feelings as widely as possible, to solicit the response, such as the example shown here for a recent Marmite campaign which seems to have backfired due to orders not being fulfilled:

Marmite fail xmas
One of the challenges in this example is that the response does not listen to the customer. The second customer is saying it’s been over 10 days and the online community manager at Marmite is saying it takes 7 days.
This is a classic example of not listening and making the situation worse.

In these examples, the tone of voice and language used is also inconsistent. The first response is very formal (‘will be able to assist your further’) and in the second this is less formal (‘hi guys’ and ‘who’ll be able to give you…’)

Social media training is essential

A critical factor is ensuing the team have been properly trained and briefed and all use the same tone of voice, which generally on this Facebook page is less formal, more fun and quite chatty, but this is not reflected in their response to issues. Reasons for this may be:

  • The situation was worse than the company realised, they brought in a third-party company to manage the online responses as the regular team were unable to cope with the number of responses. The outsourced team have a different style and tone to those in-house.
  • Lack of training. Newer members of staff are involved in the situation and have not been fully trained.
  • Management are not commitment to the community and have decided it’s not worth investing in training.
  • The responses are semi-automated (copy and paste block responses) so fail to address the real issue.

Marmite is not alone and in the very public arena of Twitter, Argos also had many angry customers taking to Twitter following its failure to deliver after Back Friday (see our earlier article on Black Friday).
Black Friday - Argos 2

The difference is that Argos have used the word ‘sorry’ and have explained how they responding. Whilst this does not answer individual customers’ questions, it may be a hold on additional comments arising.

What does an online community manager do?

An online community manager is primarily tasked with developing and growing audiences – communities – online, doing so to increase awareness of a brand or corporate image. The aim with this online market strategy is to introduce a seamless message across all the many sites a company is involved in, from their own website to social media platforms. This means managing teams who may be in the same building as you as well as those located in different countries.

It’s a challenge for companies to be on every social media site, as there’s just not enough time in the day. But while the main social sites are essential for any company’s marketing efforts, niche social media aligned with a firm’s products or services offers substantial potential for audience reach and growth, and this will be taken into account as part of the overall online community management.

Analysing the various data streams provided by social media and other sites, including a firm’s own online property, is a vital part of what this is all about. It lets the manager see what’s working to attract people’s attention, and what’s not, and to tweak what they’re doing to make it more effective.
With so much going on online and so many benefits for business, it is essential to engage an effective online community management programme and to ensure the team are fully trained before taking control of the keyboard!

Annmarie Hanlon @AnnmarieHanlon