Sunday, September 5, 2010

What is Online Community Management anyways?

The internet is one enormous community. And this community talks. A lot. They create blogs and content, post comments and feedback, and ultimately create discussions and drive conversations on an incredible range of things. So whatever industry you’re in, or whatever product you may be selling, chances are, people are talking about you. A quick search will prove this, and will show you why more and more companies are paying attention to online community management.

Think of Wikipedia for a moment. It’s a huge community, with 7,000 new articles created each day and 10 million edits per month. And one reason which contributes to its success is because there are editors who manage and oversee the evolution of articles. Online community management is similar, but on a much larger scale. Because there is so much conversation going on, companies not only want to know what is said about them, but they also want to get into the conversation and understand their market, their competitors and consumer better.

Whilst any company can read what consumers are saying about their products or brand, trying to make sense of the sheer volume of information can be overwhelming. Thus, when delving into online community management, many companies decide to employ online community managers who act as their eyes and ears, who help them break down exactly what communities are saying about them. From this comes however, comes the most important part; companies need to determine the purpose of their online community manager. Is it to promote a new product? Or is it to conduct primary research? Or perhaps it’s to see how they could improve their products? Whatever the purpose it is, it will set out the sort of tasks and methods online community managers will use.

Regardless of the purpose however, there are still basic foundations to online community management. To successfully manage online communities firstly requires a good understanding of online channels, and that’s not just social media, but includes any community websites that are relevant to the company's purpose. For example, an online community manager working for a cat food company will have accounts in the usual Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Google Reader, but also will also monitor popular cat owner websites, discussion boards, blogs and channels. They would also have set up keyword tracking and alerts. If it is to conduct a research on the popularity of competitors’ products, online community mangers may set up keyword tracking for this.

However, another thing to bear in mind is the importance of listening and monitoring what is being said in these online communities. Without a solid understanding of the key stakeholders in these online communities, diving into conversations will be both meaningless and fruitless. When the online community manager is comfortable however, they may start engaging in these conversations, perhaps starting with replying to posts, providing feedback, and from there, create posts and begin blogging.

The foundations of online community management are to build, grow and manage communities around a brand, cause or topic. But in order to do this, companies must be willing to be a part of the community. If their sole purpose is to monitor online communities so they can directly market to them, it may come off as insincere and may backlash, causing damage to brand reputation. Successful online community management drills down to active listening, and from there determining the necessary steps to achieve company objectives. Ultimately, online community management is similar to customer service; you have firstly listen so you know what people want, and how you can help.

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