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Why Conversations Matter And How Things Need to Change to Support Them

DSC_0005I was very fortunate to both be asked by Gilbane to moderate a panel on conversations and to have a group of really experienced community managers participate in the panel. I was joined on the panel by Chris Howe, Director of Global Online Marketing at Avid; Naomi Marr, until recently Director of Web Marketing and Community at Ciena; and Mike Pascucci, Social Media Strategist for Ektron who graciously filled in for Claire Flanagan, Senior Manager of KM and Enterprise Collaboration at CSC who was unable to attend. All of the panelists were well-seasoned but in different environments – Chris’ focus has been on B2B customers, Naomi’s on partners, Mike’s on B2C and now B2B customers, and Claire’s with employees.

Talking with the panelists gave me some really fascinating insight into where we are now and where things need to go to really support enterprise-wide conversations. One of the on-going challenges in the market is the wide gulf between those who are just dipping their feet in the water of ‘social’ content and those who are dealing with the issues of the next phase – making online conversations a way of life for everyone within and around their organization. On the panel we covered some fundamentals – the value/benefit of conversation in the first place and then how to encourage it once it is recognized as valuable.

  • Avid’s use of communities is primarily support related.  There are two primary ways they realize value, the first by reduced dependency on their support organization. Avid’s products are complex and in a wide array of environments and configurations so customers often are the best resource for other customers.  Secondly, customers develop and post the majority of tutorials and content on the Avid support communities – reducing the cost of developing documentation.
  • Ciena’s partner community was primarily used for education and outreach and they used the community to drive higher engagement in webinars which were critical to building stronger relationships with key partners.
  • While Mike just started his position at Ektron, he talked about lessons learned at eBay and reminded us that online and offline are a virtuous circle. At eBay the community drove learning & engagement and drove quite a lot of their event attendance.  In the early days, that community of small sellers was critical to eBay’s success.

I added some perspective on what is often seen as the silly side of social media – the chit chat.  In my experience, it is the chit chat that gives people access to others in order to have the really meaningful conversations.  Chit chat is what allows us to orchestrate serendipity rather than assume it will find us and it is that serendipity that is a big part of the power of social media and communities – whether it happens with employees, customers, or partners.

While the panel conversation continued and discussed different programs and management practices designed to encourage conversation, I found the pre-panel discussions much more interesting.  The panelists are at the forefront of making conversations a way of life across their organizations and they are facing some challenges that don’t have clean and easy solutions yet.  Among them:

  • Growing beyond one constituent segment. Once you have a community that contains employees, customers, partners, and potential shareholders or the public how do you manage permissions and security?  As an executive, for example, I may post a status update that is seen by employees, customers, and my executive peers and many of them may respond but not all of them should necessarily see each others content (depending on what the content contains)… how does that get mediated?  It’s nice to think that all information should be free and open but the reality is that there are lots of good, valid – and regulated – reasons to control access to certain information.
  • Design Optimization. Community designs have yet to catch up with the way we design websites – to encourage and promote optimal pathways and behaviors based on the business outcomes for which we are looking.  This is a multi-faceted issue. We are just starting to understand the community behaviors that optimize for various business goals; community management groups typically don’t have the budget to hire UX designers for comprehensive projects; and community software platforms are not uniformly flexible enough to handle dynamically generated page layouts or even A/B testing.
  • Integration with other enterprise systems remains challenging.  It is very expensive and time consuming to do and yet social technologies are moving so rapidly it is almost impossible to keep up and therefore they get left in silod environments which defeats part of their purpose.  Universal technology layers such as enterprise search, LDAP/directory, and analytics are likely priorities but even there, many questions remain like what information to index and how often, how to manage customer/partner authentication alongside employee when some are in a corporate directory and some are not, and which date to integrate into analytics across websites, community sites, and internal business applications.
  • As more communications channels become available to enterprise users, how do companies help individuals decide or encourage people to use a particular channel for a certain type of communications?  Obviously individuals will continue to have their own preferences but the number of choices have increased so dramatically that it is worth some thought about how to help and encourage specific choices.
  • Many community managers are still stuck in an environment where they have little to no budget and are overwhelmed. In fact, this has led to not having the time and resources to effectively collect, track, and report on the very data that would help them justify more budget. This double edge sword exists for many and will hold some organizations back.
  • Learning how to manage a conversational environment requires a different perspective and sensibility than many other business tasks.  Claire Flanagan uses the term ‘Return on Ignoring’ to suggest the value in letting conversations meander on their own – even and especially if their are controversial. This can often be a great leadership tool as individuals will often elaborate on the pros and cons of a decision and educate themselves, collaboratively, before hearing from management. This can make the communication of tough decisions easier and less controversial. Regardless, it allows individuals to express themselves and feel heard which has value on its own.
  • There continues to be a challenge in defining roles and responsibilities. Community management is most often lumped on top of other positions and responsibilities. Sometimes this provides individuals with new exciting opportunities to expand their skill set but more often it takes a back seat to a ‘day job’ and puts community initiatives at risk because they do not have the focus and attention to track, communicate, and build on the successes that do happen.

It is a very interesting time to be in the community space. As the market matures and some of these really complex challenges get worked on, it will separate out the organizations that see community as a competitive advantage vs. those that view it as a checklist item. Those who invest will gain significant understanding about how to navigate the challenges that communities face when they become integrated into the organization in fundamental ways. While our panel at Gilbane barely touched some of these complexities, it is the context in which all of the panelist are operating and worth understanding as we move from the why to the how.

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