From Community Management to Command Centers

In early 2007, Chris Heuer, Shel Israel, Deb Schultz, Giovanni Rodriguez, and I explored the evolution of social media within the enterprise at an intimate business event in Palo Alto. One of the more memorable discussions focused on the rise of an official role within business to listen to social discourse and channel inbound questions and comments as well as official responses. The question eventually arose, how do we classify this new role within the organization? The designation of “Community Manager” earned the greatest support that day, but it did so with a caveat, “communities, by organic design, could not be managed.”

Fast forward several years, the community manager has evolved into an industry standard position within the social media value chain; it is also the beneficiary of its own appreciation day.

If a conversation takes place online and we’re not there to hear it, did it really happen?

Community management is indeed a critical role in any fledgling social or adaptive business. Monitoring keywords provides us with invaluable insights that reveal the sentiment, volume and reach of activity within our markets. Identifying, tracking, and engaging customers and stakeholders helps us cultivate rewarding communities measured by loyalty and advocacy. Listening to conversations provides us with an opportunity to feel what people are saying and the experiences they’re sharing. If we pay attention, we can surface the ideas and touchpoints that gives us purpose and provide us with opportunities to earn relevance.

Over the years, the role of the community manager has evolved. What started as a gateway to surfacing the conversations related to brands in the emerging conversational landscape, evolved into something far more sophisticated. And, we’re just getting started.

Houston, We Have a Problem

When I think about those famous words, “Houston, we have a problem,” I immediately envision scores of individuals seated in rows, each facing desktop terminals, while collectively positioned in front of a series of large screens. This was after all, mission control, and the fate of the astronauts in Apollo 13 rested in the hands of the technicians and scientists overseeing the operation.

In the realm of social media, community management usually entailed one person tracking keyword mentions as they appeared and reacted accordingly, hosted dialogue with customers, prospects, ensured that channels between information and representatives were seamless, and identify opportunities for improvement across the board. As conversations amplified and social graphs propagated, brands affected the most by never-ending activity in social networks and blogs required a more advanced solution for tracking, measuring, and potentially engaging stakeholders, influencers, and detractors. This new obligation only intensified as social media moved from digital outliers to the mainstream. Now, some of the socially vulnerable brands in the world require a mission control not unlike what we envision when we hear those two words, “mission control.” The difference is that this new infrastructure is designed to ensure positive brand experiences as well as the impact of real-time brand democracy.

In some cases, brands receive thousands to tens of thousands of mentions per day. In reality, it was too much for any one person to command. And like that, the importance of listening and monitoring intensified and rapidly demanded a new support infrastructure. We are now moving from the era of community management to fully fledged command centers.

Several months ago, Gatorade debuted its version of a social media command center. Spawned within Gatorade’s marketing team, Mission Control allows employees to track and visualize conversations, sentiment, and also the performance of existing campaigns.

Mission Control is manned by as many as six individuals that track various activity and in some cases, feed insights back into the organization for response and also introduce shifts in current strategies. Additionally, the team is monitoring clickpaths and reactions to improve landing pages, content, and digital bridges to optimize efficacy and outcomes.

Carla Hassan, Gatorade’s senior director of consumer and shopper engagement, is not content with simply monitoring and adapting. In an interview with Mashable, Hassan intends to “take the largest sports brand in the world and turn it into the largest participatory brand in the world.”

Gatorade’s move is bold and admirable. It sets the tone for brands around the world to listen, engage and also adapt. As a result, the company is already fostering increased interaction between customers and athletes and scientists. The goal of any participatory brand is to introduce mutual benefits at the point of engagement as well as throughout all possible touchpoints online and in the real world. The reality is that in order for Gatorade’s mission control to prove its value beyond yet another corporate cost center, it will have to yield revelations, barriers and opportunities to ultimately justify its existence across all of PepsiCo.

The Dellwether of Customer Sentiment

In social media, Dell is one of the most oft cited best practices in the hallmarks of social media.  The Dell Hell days were nothing short of historical for any business. Consider it a baptism by fire if you will. Dell was forced to listen, engage, and adapt in order to weather the social storm. And, over the years, Dell has perfected the art and science of linking listening to relevance. While you may grow tired of hearing about Dell’s successes in Social Media, the truth is that their social endeavors have affected the entire organization, opening doors between departments and collaboration and ultimately eliminating the walls that once siloed critical business functions. In many ways, Dell is years into designing both a social and adaptive business. With the recent launch of its Social Media Listening Command Center, customers officially become part of Dell’s value proposition.

In December 2010, CEO Michael Dell and CMO Karen Quintos officially launched the company’s Command Center as the operational hub for listening and engagement across all social media, globally. Dell made its name in social media by responding to customer problems. But, this is bigger than customer service or marketing. Dell is embedding social media across the fabric of the company, connecting with customers to listen, engage and act on every facet of business. The Web is now a point of convergence to build stronger customer connections and improve products, service, and business overall.

According to Dell, the Social Media Listening Command Center tracks on average more than 22,000 daily topic posts related to Dell, as well as the mentions of Dell on Twitter that have a reach greater than the circulation of the top 12 daily newspapers in the United States.

Tracking surfaces:
- topics and subject of conversations
- sentiment
- share of voice
- geography
- trending across topics, sentiment, geographies

The reality is that conversations on the social Web touch every aspect of Dell’s business. As a result, Dell’s efforts in social media and community are focused on hearing everything to ensure that the relevant people in Dell’s businesses receive feedback and connect with customers directly. More importantly, it’s about learning and changing based on repeat feedback.

With more than 5000 Dell employees now trained in social media, many are actively listening across the Web as part of their jobs.

Operator Please: Creating a Social Switchboard

When I talk about the idea of the social or adaptive business, it is to the extent that social media impacts the entire organization. Responding to problems is only one facet of listening and engaging. The intelligence rife within the always-on focus group yields insights that can inspire new products, services, and improvements across the entire organization. For example, Dell monitors keyword clouds to see if certain negative words represent emerging trouble spots. If a hardware or software issue gains momentum, the company can hone in on the root cause and issue a fix before the problem reaches a boiling point. Diffusing the problem before it’s everyone’s problem greatly diminished the likelihood of earning attention from influencers, bloggers, and press.

The truth is that no amount of social media brilliance or creativity will save you. This must be more than a dazzling show because the world expects you to have a presence on Facebook, Twitter and other relevant networks.  Gone are the days of operating in a vacuum.

Before we can collaborate externally, we have to collaborate within. This is also about efficiency and cooperation where it hasn’t really existed before. We are now creating feedback loops wherever touchpoints and intelligence are active and brewing.

Listening and responding only gets us so far. The goal of any adaptive business is to sense empathy along with opportunities for real-time and right-time engagement. Community management is now more important than ever before and it is only gaining in prominence. It was never just about listening, monitoring and responding. No matter how sophisticated these processes become, this is still and always will be about building a community where communities are active and emerging. This is about investing in a community through inspired action and engagement. And, this is about creating an adaptive business to not only compete for the future, but compete for relevance.

Rich Karlgaard and Brian Solis on the Forbes Video Network discussing Dell

Connect with Brian Solis on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook


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  • http://twitter.com/SeanKollak Sean Kollak

    Spot on. “Before we can collaborate externally, we have to collaborate within.” This is what most companies fail to understand.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Sean, indeed. It is where I spend a great deal of my professional time these days…helping companies redesign workflow, processes, and methodologies to improve the infrastructure so that engagement doesn’t amplify existing weaknesses.

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  • http://courtneyparham.com/ Courtney Parham

    Insightful. What are your thoughts on individuals (who don’t have a staff) using social media management platforms like ScoutLabs and Radian6?

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      I believe tools such as Radian6 and ScoutLabs are perfect for small and also large teams. I believe Radian6 is powering aspects of both command centers in this story. Also use ReSearch.ly for identifying the interest graph.

  • http://twitter.com/TCoughlin Terence Coughlin

    Fantastic report and analysis. Always interesting to see what the larger organizations with more mature social media experience are doing to expand from listening and general engagement to a more strategic, focused integration with business operations. While most orgs do not have the capital and staff resources at this time to set up such impressive command centers, the basic premise and benefits of the approach scale down well.

    You closing point of internal collaboration cannot be understated. This is the dividing line between social media program success and failure in 2011.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Terence, well said. Similar things can be accomplished on the smallest of budgets…

  • http://www.jeromepineau.com/ JeromePineau

    Good post, and I’m all for “cockpit integration” of social pitot tubes but that might be a little overboard? :) I mean, we’re not the NSA – let’s not forget that sometimes it doesn’t take much to actually go out in the real world, in your markets, with real people, to press the flesh, listen and smell around. Yes it’s important to throw technical resources at social media – especially if you have deep pockets – but let’s not forget common sense too and “humint” as they call it in the business :)

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Jerome, you are so right. There must be a balance between listening and earning goodwill in the real world and online.

  • http://invisibleinkdigital.com Invisibleinkdigital

    Good overview Brian. It seems that there may well be two divergent paths for a corporate social media strategy: 1) Community management and 2) planning social media actions based on concrete goals and objectives from the board.

    Both may prove vital platforms for a successful digital strategy. On the face of it, you can’t really have one without the other but the challenge, is ensuring that both functions are pulling in the same direction

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Indeed…plus, if this insight can migrate from the command center to the c-suite, imaging the changes that would befall the organization from the top down.

  • Kat Armstrong

    Being an actual Community Manager, I suppose my thoughts are clouded by what I work with every day. You stated: “community management usually entailed one person tracking keyword mentions as they appeared” – to my mind, that does NOT describe a Community Manager. That describes a Brand Evangelist or even a Social Media Coordinator for a company. What I do as a CM is vastly different.

    We have a large *Community* of people… in the live chat room, on the forums and on the OSQA questions site. My job as CM is to manage those outlets, make sure the environment they connect with each other in is a positive and safe one and reach out to (and interact with) them on behalf of Chris.

    Call me crazy, but I truly believe there is a large difference between that type of work and the kind where you watch for people who talk about a company and then throw out more links/keywords/Tweets in order to get them to discuss the company even more. That job is important, yes, but I don’t feel it should be called Community Management.

    Why can’t we have different terms for very different types of work? ;-) (Sorry, Brian, you know I have to be difficult!)

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Hi Kat! Thank you for sharing and I absolutely agree with you. So much so, that I updated the post…
      :)

    • Kat Armstrong

      Wow – Thanks, Brian! I’m honored. I have thought a lot about this comment since I finished writing it. I think I’ll do a post of my own later today, discussing what I feel the differences are between Community Manager and Brand Evangelist. I’ll link you when it’s finished via Twitter. :)

    • http://website-in-a-weekend.net/ Dave Doolin

      Kat, please do. I’m using these articles and discussion here as a long term resource, and checking back to see how discussion evolves.

  • Joel

    Great Points Brian,

    What I am most excited about in 2011 is educating business on digital communication. Many companies are panicking about not implementing a social media playbook. I have found over the past year that some companies are getting ahead of themselves by trying to implement new tools without understanding the actual goal of the tool. Listen first – analyze – report – reciprocate. Thanks again Brian. I look forward to reading your book soon.

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Cheers Joel!

  • Anonymous

    Brian, this was such a great read. Shared it with my *whole* team as I’m trying to get everyone, including the engineers, to fully understand what social biz is. I really like how you built the case for how social media touches each area of an organization with Dell – describing how by monitoring conversations Dell was able to circumvent or fix product/software issues that could’ve eventually become a PR stumbling block or influenced sales… social media affects everyone. Also, on an unrelated note, SO jealous of the Gatorade team’s office. How cool is that? :)

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Excellent comment Janet. Thank you. I’m actually redesigning my office now! :)

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  • http://www.headmintsblog.com Judy Browne

    As ever this is a really thought provoking post Brian, and it’s brilliant for someone to focus on listening rather than content. Everywhere I look I see companies rabidly producing content, blog posts, tweets etc., etc., when they should shut up and listen for a change. The point of listening to your customers is the same as it’s always been: so you can make sure that no customer is ever, ever disappointed, focus on making exceptional products and delivering great customer experience all round.

  • http://brasstackthinking.com Amber Naslund

    Brian, perhaps the most important line in your post:

    “Before we can collaborate externally, we have to collaborate within.”

    Without question, the single biggest roadblock I see in the social business world is rooted right here. It’s cultural as well as dependent upon internal communication and collaboration the likes of which many companies have never seen before. We talk about “cross functional” in our strategic planning committees, but in order to really harness what social is capable of engendering *outside* our business, we have to learn to truly work with one another. Find common obstacles and solutions. Learn to actually talk amongst ourselves, honestly, and realize that we play for the same team, not factions within it.

    I know I sound all soap-boxy, but I’m so passionate about the notion that if we want better results to be a more social business for our customers, we have to learn to be a more social business for *ourselves*. In this case, we simply can’t afford to be the shoemaker that fails to care for our own children. If we can’t embody the principles we’re trying to express to our customers inside our own walls, we’ve failed before we started.

    Cheers,
    Amber Naslund, Radian6

  • http://www.ethical-seo.eu Robin Dally

    Everybody should read this article, not just those working in PR, Digital, Customer Relations, but everybody. If businesses increasingly ‘sense empathy along with opportunities’ then not only will customers be happy but so will the planet. So businesses need to learn how to do this and what is great is that they can and some already are.

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  • Mark Stonham

    Brian, a great article, with clear connection between historical situations and modern equivalents. The sequence of Data, Information, Decision, Action comes to mind. Supported by emerging tools in Social Media. Interesting to gain views of whether the ‘Command Centre’ is a physical room run 24/7 or if it could be a virtual team. Also thoughts on the SME equivalent where they don’t have the scale.

  • Peter Munnerlyn

    Brian,

    Thank you for this insightful article. Even though I agree with everything that you said, it is hard to apply these tips to a smaller company. Gatorade and Dell, like you said, “receive thousands to tens of thousands of mentions per day.” They are very smart for creating command centers so that they can immerse themselves in new media. But what about companies that receive one or two mentions a day (like the company I work for)? How can we engage more with our customers online?

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  • Manish Mehta

    Terrific article Brian. Hopefully we can bring you to Texas to see the Command Center in person. :)

    • http://www.briansolis.com briansolis

      Manish, thank you sir. Looking forward to it…we’re working on it now!

  • http://twitter.com/bmc78 bmc78

    I didn’t realize we had a whole day dedicated to us! I’ll have to make sure my boss brings me flowers. I’d say a quarter of my day is monitoring and the other is community building. Can’t build without knowing what is important to those you serve.

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ABOUT ME

Brian Solis is a digital analyst, anthropologist, and also a futurist. In his work at Altimeter Group, Solis studies the effects of disruptive technology on business and society. He is an avid keynote speaker and award-winning author who is globally recognized as one of the most prominent thought leaders in digital transformation.

His most recent book, What's the Future of Business: Changing the Way Businesses Create Experiences (WTF), explores the landscape of connected consumerism and how business and customer relationships unfold in four distinct moments of truth. His previous book, The End of Business as Usual, explores the emergence of Generation-C, a new generation of customers and employees and how businesses must adapt to reach them. In 2009, Solis released Engage, which is regarded as the industry reference guide for businesses to market, sell and service in the social web.

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