Getting smart about online communities

capI am excited about my new focus on helping universities, colleges, and private schools provide continuing, multi-dimensional value to their alumni through social media—and specifically, custom online communities.

The opportunities for engagement and exchange are rich and powerful in a higher education environment. Leveraging the strength of the profound personal connection through the “ambient intimacy” of online interaction can ultimately help increase giving, boost admissions referrals, and engage more alumni in meaningful ways. For alumni associations, the applications are very compelling:

• Increase investment in affinity products and institution-related activities.
• Enrich and deepen the institution’s “brand” experience for students, faculty, staff, alumni, and friends.
• Promote and strengthen the foundations of affiliation (class year, school/college, dorm/Greek organization, student activity, professional focus)
• Position the institution’s community to positively impact loyalty-related outcomes, such as annual giving, association membership, reunion attendance, and etc.

The challenge is maximizing the ongoing value of an online community by balancing institution content control with user participation. Remember, it’s about relationships—building on the ephemeral—memories, experiences, and bonds based less on practical deliverables and more the emotions of affiliation.

In his August 2009 Wall Street Journal article on corporate branded communities, The Fans Know Best, Dr.Uptal Dholakia of Rice University contends:

“Allowing discussion and activities like networking and socializing leads visitors to participate in the site for emotional and social reasons. It keeps them coming back, and thus strengthens the bond between them and the company (and each other). Part of giving up control is also giving visitors the freedom to complain and criticize the brand, or to wax lyrical about a competitor, to their heart’s content.”

Therefore, our task becomes more focused on orchestrating, monitoring, and responding–rather than drafting, editing, and deleting.

Though Dr. Dholakia is speaking of the corporate sector here, I think the ideas can be applied to association communities, as well. Visitors frequent communities, because they enjoy the experience—not because it is something on the to-do list. Think about the silly quizzes on Facebook. The “fun factor” should not be underestimated as a key driver of engagement. Yet, it’s possible for universities and colleges to deliver real value in the process. We must not forget the truly “social” component of social media—providing a platform for witty banter. And universities alumni already have a built-in affinity. The potential is boundless—to create what I call the “perpetual reunion.” It’s 365/24/7 engagement.

Dr.Uptal Dholakia offers a high-octane example of community-building savvy from the corporate world:
lego
“When Lego Group set out to develop Mindstorms NXT, the latest version of its game for building programmable robots, it enlisted help from a group of adult enthusiasts whom it found on Lugnet.com, the largest unofficial community of Lego fans. While the marketing target for Mindstorms is mainly teenage boys, the people that Lego reached out to were men in their 40s and 50s who knew each other from communicating and working together on elaborate Lego projects on Lugnet.com.

The group’s members, according to a Lego spokesman, contributed ‘incredibly valuable insights’ in hardware, software, design and usability based on their own experiences. The company credits the group with helping to make Mindstorms NXT appeal both to adults and ‘a new, younger generation of robotics enthusiasts.’”

Just think of the application for a university community—building connection between alumni, faculty, and staff—students and even prospective students. Not all colleges and universities are systematically monitoring their “unofficial” user-driven groups on LinkedIn, Fan Pages on Facebook, and Twitter feeds. But tracking and engaging these communities can provide a wealth of opportunities, alliances, ideas, innovations, and energy.

What are your thoughts? To learn more about unleashing the power of the web, contact me: elgantz @ yahoo.com.

Listening Lessons

ElaineGantzWright’s blog is for people interested in using the Web and online marketing to drive social change. Elaine covers social media for nonprofits, philanthropy trends, online giving, cause marketing, random life musings, and more. Find out more at SocialFuse.

“To listen well is as powerful a means of influence as to talk well, and is as essential to all true conversation.”
-Chinese Proverb

ear
I attended a meeting of social media aficionados last week—the Dallas Social Media Club. It was a vibrant group of new-media-savvy folks with cutting-edge interests and razor-sharp wits. I loved the energy in the room and the combination of slightly smug awareness and wide-eyed curiosity about what might replace Twitter as the next techno-networking phenomenon. Officially, “the Social Media Club Dallas focuses on social media practitioners in corporate, agency, and PR roles—primarily interested in how the medium to large enterprises are leveraging social media to reach, engage, and most important, drive revenue.”

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Thursday evening’s confab consisted primarily of “vendor” types—as the speaker, Chris Vary, VP of Weber Shandwick’s Digital Division, noted when he conducted a quick poll of the room. I think this strongly indicates that the social media charge is still led by the practitioner-evangelists, and that most businesses, small to large to small (including nonprofits), have still not seen the proverbial light. On a practical level, they have not figured out how to integrate it into everyday operations.

As I have posited in past posts, I believe this is because it is more than a change of media. It is a change of mentality. That’s a tougher paradigm to shift. Clay Shirky is one our most articulate voices around the gestalt of this communication transformation, yet it’s still a bit slippery.

As I interact with nonprofits and small businesses, I struggle to identify ways to provide high-value impact. So many complain that they have set up their various social platform accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In, but they sit dormant—like throwing a party and no one attends. Still, nonprofits and for-profits are tentative about investing—staff time, budgets, mindshare to the care and feeding of these communities without tangible proof of ROI. I was amazed when the PR big wheels at Weber Shandwick had to cajole their Fortune 10 client— General Motors, to commit to social media. It took three years. They had to construct some sort of elaborate expense metaphor quantifying projected Google pay-per-click costs.

So, more and more, I’m thinking it is really all about listening. I’m not too keen on the concept of “active listening,” because I think that is redundant and a little cheesy, as my teenage sons say. “Passive listening” is simply not paying attention in my book. (That reminds me of some relationships I’ve had.) That said, I think businesses should first approach social media as a listening tool, as opposed to a communications tool—an ear as opposed to a mouth. I think that helps marketers diminish some of the execution-related tension. All of the social media gurus—from Beth Kanter to Seth Godin, recommend starting with listening. However, I’m now thinking this should be the fundamental objective—allowing other opportunities to blossom.

Really, social media is a gift to market research professionals—a way to gather real-time and real customer feedback inexpensively. Then, the way we respond can dramatically enhance, strength, and embellish our brands in this new context of conversation. Crafting the response becomes the artistry. We can provide customer service, build relationships, or even soothe the ruffled feathers of cranky influencers/bloggers. This must be authentic, customer-validating, spin-free conversation.

Chris Vary talked about the new PR being the “virtual newsroom.” He is definitely on to something. We as public relations and communications professionals must me become more like monitors than marketers. Great places to start include: (Begin with the free ones.)

Technorati
Google Alerts
Social Mention
Delicious
Twitter
Radian 6

RSS feed rules:

Your feed dashboard becomes your roadmap. Set up Google Reader, iGoogle, or Bloglines to track—organization names, names of key leaders/board members, other players in your space, industry terms, your URLs, possible controversial subjects, etc. Get creative with keywords. And as Beth Kanter advises, involve the entire operation in the process. Here’s Beth’s great presentation:

Move social media out of the silo of the communications department. Empower all of your employees as listeners. Then, your social media strategy looks more like a training initiative for your various constituents and stakeholders. Brainstorm keywords, learn how to respond effectively, and handle red-flag issues. This is where social media gets organic, integrated, and exponential in impact.

Are you listening?

The New General Store

general2Think back to the days of the old general store. We knew our merchants in the neighborhood personally—around the corner and down the road. We knew exactly what they sold and where they stood. They were members of the community, and they earned trust through referral and association. Enter the industrial age—efficiency trumped personalization. People didn’t mind where they shopped—as long as goods were cheap and abundant. Soon, the suburbs emerged, and the impersonal, monolithic box stores were born. In many ways, we are now coming full circle. Perceived value of anonymous, depersonalized transactions is waning.

Consumers are once again seeking personalization, even intimacy, from business interactions—large and small. In terms of accountability and integrity, marketing spin is no longer enough. It can even ring hollow. The Internet has rendered a heightened expectation of veracity and transparency. Now, we are quick to question the authenticity of advertising and the sincerity of sales pitches. Once again, consumers want to know the store’s owner, the business dealings of the board’s president, and the organization’s endowment investment practices, etc. Focus has returned to key customers and core consciousness. The beauty of social media is that it allows us to accelerate cultivation of these open, honest relationships. Through social media, businesses can make themselves more accessible, more personable, more real, and almost instantly differentiate.

Integration. ROI. Relevance. These are all terms buzzing around the implementation of social media. My niche is nonprofits, but the same questions are swirling about for small businesses, as well. I hear many people say they need to be able to measure ROI and justify the expense. The concern is understandable in our strapped economic climate, but the truth is that we can’t afford to ignore social media! It is more than just the shiniest tool in the drawer or a trend relegated to eager interns. It’s becoming the new communication standard –- expected and demanded by an enlightened, savvy class of consumers and/or donors who require personal, real-time engagement, instant response, and interactive branding.

And it’s applicable to every type of business. Cafes, retail stores, professional services, and grassroots nonprofits can use social media to build online reputations, propel trust to new levels, and jettison concerns about the time required to manage the process. It’s a dance—not a speech. In fact, the magic is in the mambo! Here are 4 essential ways to get started today:

1. Think locally.
Consumers are using local social networks, such as Yelp and The Examiner to find businesses and make recreational decisons. And they also get the “social proof” they need when making choices. They use comments and reviews to determine the “best” listing and make the buying decision. Because these sites attract people ready to make a decision, small businesses can see a great return from local social networks. Many of these sites will let business owners “claim” their listings and add information, such as phone numbers, store hours, menus, etc.

2. Create on online destination and sales pipeline.
When you think about social media, you may focus on Facebook, Twitter, and other social sites. You may not immediately consider a dedicated presence on your own site. It makes enormous business sense to aggregate your social profiles in one place. And, remember to make your profile decisions carefully. Choose your “tent posts” strategically. Don’t pepper the world with a plethora of profiles. In fact, consider creating a blog or custom social community on your own site. Why push your consumers to connect with you on other sites, but not give them a reason to visit yours? Building and writing a blog may seem time-consuming, but it creates a way to connect with users through your own web address. Additionally, creating useful content such as how-tos or industry insights will attract and engage customers. For business owners or nonprofit execs who are daunted by the prospect of regular blog updates, build a “Connect” or “Community” page. This offers readers a way to find your business’ most active profiles and join you on those social sites. The page could also include a short bio or how you use each social site. Giving consumers a reason to visit your site is extremely important. A blog or “social hub” can pull consumers to your site and directly into the sales process.

3. Jump into Facebook and Twitter.
Everyone is talking about Twitter and Facebook, but you may be stumped about how to actually get started. With Twitter, you can cater to your customer or donor needs, requests, and complaints instantly. In a world where everything needs to be done yesterday, a quick response can create a lifelong customer and fervent brand advocate. On Facebook, a Fan Page allows a business to visualize and build a community, similar to Twitter. However, unlike Twitter, you can add and customize a great deal more.

At the very least, you should update your Fan Page “status” to keep consumers informed and engaged. A more advanced technique would be to add things like coupons or Google maps directions to the storefront.

4. Discover crowdsourcing.
Finally, consider creating a custom wiki, which harnesses the phenomenon called crowdsourcing. In other words, use your customers to give information to other consumers. Wikipedia is often cited as a successful example of crowdsourcing, despite objections by co-founder Jimmy Wales to the term.

The easiest way to do this is by creating a wiki for your FAQ or Customer Service knowledge base. Let your consumers enter the problems they’ve had via a public forum (the wiki), and provide your responses publicly as well. Although showing problems may seem backwards, it’s a very effective way to retain customers and generate new sales in the new context of social media.

Consumers know that mistakes happen, and they now expect their questions will be answered quickly. Also, with a public wiki, customers can reference response to the concern, saving time for both you and the customer. With minimal moderation, a wiki can build trust in your business and make your customer service more efficient.

The contextual shift is about engaging in dialogue, and opposed to delivering a message. How are you making the transition? Let me know.

The Tweet Life: Ambient Intimacy and other Epiphanies

twitter6To say Twitter is hot would be quite the understatement. In a world thirsty for leadership, everyone seems to be following these days! In the past week, I have attended some interesting presentations on the Internet and making sense of social media for business. It’s a reality and a resource—no doubt, but there is still rampant confusion about how to optimize it. I am very interested to know how you view social media and use it.

I met a true social media master this week—Ben Smithee. He is an astute Gen Y entrepreneur steeped in the savvy of social media—particularly for market research. He says no one has ever called him a guru, but I certainly would. Ben has an impressive grasp of all the latest and greatest tools. Regarding Twitter, he recommends we not Tweet as a business, but as a human voice. Make your messages personal, conversational—not institutional or programmatic. Interact with customers, donors, or clients as individuals, not a solid mass. It’s Communication 101. Make it intimate. In fact, I absolutely loved Ben’s term for social media—“ambient intimacy.”

And then, it hit me! That’s the magic of social media. It permeates our everyday lives. Call it habit or even addiction, as some have. For many, social media can become part of their everyday unconscious impulses. That why we need to pay attention to this stuff. We can actually use Twitter and other social media tools to enhance intimacy with patrons, donors, customers, or clients by humanizing your missions and our value propositions. Focus on the anecdotal—on stories with authentic fiber, as opposed to carefully crafted messages. It takes so much more than an understanding of the tools and technology that power social networks to inspire change and build long-term, meaningful relationships. You must immerse yourself in the conversation.

You are the personality and the soul of the brand you represent. Think of social media as the page where compose the poetry to inspire. These tools are born from technological advances, but they are rooted in the most basic elements of human communication—conversation, curiosity, caring, and connection. I guess you could call them the four “Cs” of social media—a girl’s (or boy’s) “second” best friend, I suspect. Here are a few more tips and concepts for your Tweet Sheet:

Tweet. Message to your followers.
Retweet. Share status messages on Twitter. It’s a great way of building relationships.
@Replies. Direct a message that is available to all. Great way to lift others up.
#Hastags. Create ways to search and group information/initiatives/activities.#MoRanch
Promote your blog or podcast. But try to do it conversationally. Ask people what they think or pose a rhetorical question. Don’t just SPAM the URL. Also, be careful about headlines or questions that are TOO provocative. I have learned this the hard way. Sometimes it’s best to leave your clever copywriter hat in the closet and just be REAL.
Follow a specific cause of entity. Consider finding the right people tweeting about that cause or entity, and build a blended dashboard tool such as Hootsuite.
Understand how people are really using Twitter. Monitor the @ replies, and see how they interact with others. Some folks use Twitter like a megaphone, and others use it like a walkie-talkie.
Make business connections. As always, listen first. Learn more about the person, follow their links, read their blogs, and get to know them. As I have said in the past on my blog, it’s a courtship. You date before you marry. In this space, you listen, respond, and participate—before you pitch or solicit!
Create a tweet strategy. Instead of tweeting “what are you doing?” try “What are you passionate about?” The answer to that could be very interesting and revealing.

And for nonprofit causes, hashtags have become an effective tool in building awareness and motivating action. They make it easy to search and identify a particular trend. Blame Drew’s Cancer http://blamedrewscancer.com/# (hashtag: #blamedrewscancer) is a great example. Drew Olanoff recently contracted Hodgkins Lymphoma, and launched his campaign. The tweets are pulled into http://www.blamedrewscancer.com with the goal that their sheer volume will trigger a large donation from a nonprofit organization. The site recently announced that Livestrong will be a partner.

So, get creative! And let us know—what’s working for you? Follow me.