Social Listening in Practice: Community Management

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Each year, the number of community managers grows. Awareness of the value of their role and the hard work they do - wearing many hats, managing many priorities and keeping individuals happy - is thankfully growing. But what is community management? Isn’t it just simply setting up a presence and managing a few status updates through social media channels? What does the word ‘community’ actually mean, especially in an online environment?

Can you ever ‘manage’ a community or does it have its own set of rules? And can brands and organizations ever hope to provide and gain value from the communities that they create and manage? This guide is intended to provide some helpful navigation and start to answer some of those questions about online communities.

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What is an online community?

Mention ‘online community’ and many marketers would immediately think of their Facebook Pages. After all, they have possibly spent years carefully planning content and engaging with different audiences through status posts, videos, and technology that has come and gone including ‘like-gates’ and ‘F-commerce’.

They could well be right. Their Facebook page may very well be a highly effective online community. In fact, any of their social presences and platforms could be online communities, but we shouldn’t always default to social media when we think about a community strategy or community management.

In a time before Facebook, before we even used the term ‘social media’, there were places and spaces on the internet where people would come together, discuss, agree or disagree about a wide range of topics. These online communities served, and continue to serve, a very human need to connect to other ‘people like me’.

The early internet was host to early web community technologies such as ListServ, Usenet Groups and forums. These technologies were the ‘enablers’ for individuals to connect to one another, usually around one or more key interests.

In the early days of the web, brands and organizations rarely developed these communities, they tended to spring out of a particular need, or a motivated, passionate group of people or individual. Until the mid 2000s, the platforms for communities tended to be pre web 2.0 technologies and their growth was tempered by a requirement for some technical skills to create, develop, host and moderate.

Now, the choice platforms on which to build an online community is wide. One of the reasons why ‘online community’ can be synonymous with social networks is that LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+ and others provide ‘free’ and simple platforms to allow a good idea for a group of people to come to life very quickly. But many organizations also invest heavily in creating communities on their own web spaces.

Some have done so with free or low cost online forum or community development tools such as a Drupal and Joomla. Others have invested in enterprise level providers such as Lithium and JIveX.

As with a website, an online community is a significant commitment in terms of resource, management and possibly budget for any organization. Therefore, it is critical that organizations have clear aims and a plan to develop, launch, build and sustain a community.

We’ll now consider the different types of communities and provide some guidance on the thinking that is required at each stage.

There are 5 stages of an online community. The very first is planning - establishing whether there is a need and whether you have the resource, time and budget to create, recruit, manage and sustain your community. Before planning whether to develop a community, it’s important to consider what your aims are, and how you will benefit from developing and managing a community.

It’s critical to flip this around and understand the possible motivations and needs of your potential community members. If your community doesn’t serve their needs then you’re doomed to fail. Your aims will be unique to you or your organization, but can include:

  • To create a stronger and more loyal bond with your customers
  • To learn more about your audiences
  • To retain or cross-sell to customers
  • To create a collective effort to make a change
  • To get important messages to the right people and co-create those messages
  • To reduce the cost of service etc.

Motivations for joining a community are very personal but can include:

  • To provide or receive emotional support
  • To collaborate
  • To benchmark oneself
  • To suggest or receive practical solutions to a challenge
  • For networking and self-promotion
  • To have fun and be entertained
  • To get better quality information
  • To get a ‘deal’ etc

If there is a clear match between your aims and your audience’s possible motivations, then you’re certainly on the right path.

What are the different categories of online communities?

Community technologies and platforms may have changed over the years, but the types or categories of community haven’t. They can broadly be summarized as:

  1. Speciality or Role-based Community
  2. Lifestage Community
  3. Passion or Interest Community
  4. Concern, Cause or Goal Community
  5. Community of Place
  6. Hybrid Community

Considering the category of community you might create is a critical part of planning. Here are some examples to put some flesh on the bones:

1. Speciality or Role-based Community

These are communities that are created for individuals who may have a certain profession or have a specific set of skills. Whether you need to be a qualified physician to become a member (e.g. Doximity), a chartered PR professional, a graphic designer, a sportsperson who has achieved a specific attainment - or many other specialisms.

Examples of this type of community include Adobe’s Behance, an online community created in 2006 to allow design creatives to showcase portfolios of their work for free. One of the benefits Behance offers to members is a well-promoted and well-managed space for ‘discoverability’ by potential clients or employers.

Other communities that fit this category are Econsultancy’s communities for e-commerce and marketing professionals. This specialist digital marketing subscription community exists offline through meet-ups, roundtables and conferences but is provided with community spaces through Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and Twitter.

It determines, on an ongoing basis, which social technologies and platforms serve both their commercial and their communities needs.

2. Lifestage Community

These are communities that are created for individuals who have reached or are about to reach a specific lifestage. Whether that is beginning parenthood, a period of further or higher academic studies right through to communities specifically aimed to connect people in their later life.

Examples include the UK’s incredibly successful parenting community Mumsnet, founded in 2000, with over 14 million visitors per month. It is a community with 200 online local groups and a network of parenting bloggers.

Mumsnet members are known for their candor about a multitude of topics. As such, as well as being an open and supportive community that often throws up humorous exchanges - if you are feeling particularly brave, Google ‘Mumsnet penis beaker’ - it is often regarded as a ‘bellwether of popular opinion’ by the UK media ahead of political elections.

3. Passion or Interest Community

Many consumer brands occupy this category of community. Brands focus can focus on encouraging and amplifying product ‘fandom’, such as Nutella or Marmite. Marmite famously created an exclusive club for obsessive fans of the yeast spread called ‘The Marmarati’.

Brands can also create ‘Passion Communities’ through ownership, or desired ownership, such as ‘The Harley Owners Club’, where enthusiasts foster a shared sense of belonging through their lifestyles, taste and ethos.

4. Concern, Cause or Goal Community

Many of the most successful and longstanding communities have been created around a shared drive to overcome personal challenges. Globally, the most active, admired and valued online communities have been set up for individuals who live daily with the effects of a particular medical condition.

The UK charity Macmillan Cancer Support is an example of a ‘Cause’ or ‘Concern’ community for people wishing to share experiences, vent their emotions or find and connect with others who understand and can empathize with the challenges that anyone affected by cancer may face. The community provides a safe space for people experiencing cancer as a patient, carer, family member, friend or volunteer to connect with others, discuss their experiences and receive empathy and support.

This is also a community category where brands and organizations can use their marketing budgets to effect real change. Dove’s ‘Campaign for Real Beauty’ is heralded as one of the first truly successful online communities connected to specific causes and concerns. In Dove’s case this was to focus on the causes and effects of body issues for women of all ages. The mission for the campaign and supporting community was “to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence and not anxiety.”

5. Community of Place

A Community of Place can be represented by local and hyper-local communities such as London in the UK, and in particular Walthamstow, an area in East London. Communities that represent specific ethnic groups within the world or team communities (e.g. soccer or baseball) can also be described as ‘Communities of Place’.

Our sense of place can often be one of the key characteristics in which we define ourselves so these communities can contain healthy debate and also hot topics. Often, these communities are not moderated or managed by professional community managers and can be sources of tension and as much as connectedness. Communities of Place can also describe communities that collect around specific events such as B2B conferences and exhibitions through to large global events such as the Olympics, with London 2012 and Rio 2016 providing recent and future examples.

6. Hybrid Communities

Hybrid communities combine any of the elements of other communities, for example, community for people working in gas and oil industries who meet at events (Speciality/Role-based + Place) or PR professionals who want to create best practices around social media (Speciality/Role-based + Cause, Concern or Goal). In practice, the majority of brand or organization-led communities are hybrid communities.

The Oil Council (link: is a hybrid community of more than 5,000 oil and gas professionals geared towards sector content, paid membership and events. Their mission is to bring executives together to facilitate new investment, encourage business development, showcase excellence and promote thought leadership across the industry.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Social Media Panel is a small community of professionals with a collective mission to educate the communications professional and embed best practices in social media within the PR sector. It’s an example of focused, hybrid community (Speciality/Role-Based + Goal). It uses private community technologies to plan and discuss progress against its objectives and open communities to communicate its activity and outputs.

How can research and analytics tools help with each stage of a community?

We’ve already mentioned the 5 stages of a community. At each stage, a focus on finding helpful information and actioning any insights from the data is a key element of a successful, long-lasting community.

The planning stage

Social media analytics tools like Brandwatch can be used at the community planning stage to:

Help establish whether there is a genuine need for a community and possible motivations for joining a community.

Depending on which category of community you wish to develop, online and social media analysis can help you capture data to back up any hunches about gaps and motivations of your intended community audience.

One of the most important elements of community research is to establish whether there is an active, healthy, existing community. If so, then you may need to rethink. This is where social and online analytics tools can save you a great deal of time and effort.

Using keyword and keyphrase analysis, you can start to build a case for which motivations and needs might be served by your community and establish whether there may be some mutuality in value in creating, managing and maintaining a community space online.

For example, intention statements such as “needed,” “required,” “mandatory” as well as ‘pain’ statements “paucity” “lacking” “fail” etc. could be used, perhaps in conjunction with qualitative research, to measure whether there is a genuine need for your hybrid community of ‘social media best practice for PR professionals’.

The volume, velocity/frequency of comments should be taken into consideration. A measure of the ‘influence’ of the commentators are is also valuable community planning research.

Help establish your community mission statement or charter.

Again, using similar keywords and phrases, a topic function on a social media analysis tool such as Brandwatch can enable you to start to categorize the ‘pain or passion points’ related to your planned community. These pain and passion points should be built into a clearly communicated charter for your community, e.g. “we exist as a community space to discuss and change the X”.

Help identify individuals who might be early community members, community managers, or part of the community recruitment effort

Generally, those people who want to fix an issue or sense the need for a community will be vocal about their concerns. These people are possible early community recruits, untapped experts or potential community leaders/volunteers.

The planning process and identifying the pain/passion points through topics and intention searches can also surface those people vocalizing their need. Your community may just provide the forum that they are looking for. Your analysis at this stage could identity your early community members upon which the foundations of your community can be co-built if you are able to reach out to them and start further discussions.

Case Study: IGGY

“It's acceptable to strive for excellence in sports but it doesn't seem acceptable in education. Watch this space. We want to change that.” Dr Adam Boddison

IGGY, or the International Gateway for Gifted Youth community, is open to international teenagers between the age of 13 and 18 who have been recommended by a teacher as having the potential to perform in the top five per cent of their peers.

Community members herald from the British Isles, India, Singapore, South Africa, Hong Kong and Australia. It has a member fee of £90 but provides subsidies to those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

IGGY was developed by academics at Warwick University to provide a safe and supportive space for academically gifted children from all backgrounds to connect with others with exceptional abilities and discuss issues such as the relationship between beauty and culture, the viability of nuclear power, and life after death.

The aim of IGGY is to bolster confidence and encourage these teenagers to apply to topranking universities in the UK. One of the important elements of the planning stage for this community would have been to establish general attitudes towards ‘gifted and talented’ students amongst different audience segments such as teachers, parents and the media.

It would have also established gaps that existing academic institutions leave for the most able students, the types of social media and any community functions that would appeal to 13-18. Also, it would have been critical to establish and plan for any potential negative reactions to a University funding and managing a community of this type and assess reputational risks or challenges.

The launch stage

Social media analytics tools like Brandwatch can be used at the community launch stage to:

Define the hottest topics related to your community to help with your PR and advertising messaging strategy.

Your community has probably been months in the planning and it’s time to launch your community. Your early research has identified the pain and passion points which will have determined the structure of your community, possible sub-groups and a content plan or stimulus for discussion in your community.

It’s likely that your launch marketing and communications strategy will need the most impactful of these topics to help create visibility and reach the right people and recruit them. A social media analysis tool can ensure that not only these established but also emergent, trending and new topics can be built into PR, outreach and any advertising messaging.

To identify potential influencers, bloggers and media for outreach.

Again, you may have researched possible community members at an earlier stage. But not every important journalist, analyst, politician, commentator will want an active role in your community or wish to join it.

However, they will almost certainly be a critical element of your launch and recruitment plans. You may wish to identify who to invite to a launch event, who to send PR materials to and who to connect to and engage with on social media over a sustained period. Again, tools like Brandwatch can make the process of creating a ‘media list plus’ easier with clever keyword analysis, mention and author analysis.

The value stage

Social listening can be used at the community value stage to:

Understand which discussions, community features and content inspires ‘value-actions’ from the community

Value-actions will depend on the aims and goals of your community. For example, if you are ‘Concern Community’ where one of your primary objectives is provide empathy and support for other people affected by a medical condition, then a valueaction may be an affirmation that the community has helped someone feeling particularly helpless or alone. A value-action for a community where the aim is brand loyalty may be discussions where members are suggesting improved ways to use a product or service that could lead to increased loyalty and advocacy.

Either way, social listening can allow you to monitor your social network communities and understand what encourages engagement and other social actions. Using a combination of other analytics tools (e.g. Google Analytics) and touch points (e.g. retail stores), you can start to determine a connection between community engagement and action or outcomes.

Understand which community behaviors have a negative impact on the community and how these can be reduced.

Community managers are all focused on the ‘health’ of their communities. All communities will experience challenging discussions and inter-member conflict at some point in their maturity. Community members do have lifecycles of their own so will naturally become less engaged and maybe even leave the group if their needs are no longer being met. It is critical that a community manager is close to their community analytics and understands how to measure value as well as track any issues that adversely affect the community.

As such, they will use a wide range of metrics to determine how their community is interacting and also responding to their stimulus or moderation. An important role for analytics tools like Brandwatch is to help with these analytics. Tracking and analysis can highlight the content, comments and features that the community actively dislike and that may encourage behaviors that affect the atmosphere and sentiment of the community.

The sustain stage

Social media analytics tools like Brandwatch can be used at the community sustaining stage to:

Understand whether the community is matching its intended goals and aims.

Online communities, like real-world communities, evolve. Members come and go. The loudest and most active members can leave or find other places to meet and support others. The most successful communities have a very clear mission and purpose that is communicated clearly. But sometimes, that mission and purpose may need to be reviewed or updated to suit an evolving member base.

By reviewing a selection of community members’ engagement patterns over time, especially in large communities, you should be able to establish a community member lifecycle. You should also be able to understand what is likely to make a member leave, become more active, recruit others or any other element of a community members’ lifecycle. Mature communities such as Econsultancy are constantly analyzing what the community needs in a changing digital world. But, importantly, it matches this against the objectives of a commercial subscription-based publisher.

To establish and rank community pain points for action

This is an extension of the above point. A mature community will start to make its thoughts clear about the things is does and doesn’t like. There will almost certainly be power struggles and cliques forming in most communities – it’s a part of human nature. Some individuals may have louder voices, but may not necessarily represent the ‘quiet majority’ in a community.

Analytics tools can help community managers, who may be very close to the community and handle complex issues, to take the emotion of out community analysis. A community managers’ antennae will help them make sense of what needs to be reviewed and addressed, but analytics tools can also highlight any community issues based on frequency, influence and a number of other weighting factors.

The harvest and re-engineer stage

Social listening can be used at the community harvest and re-engineering stage to:

To establish whether the changes you’ve made have had an impact on your communities’ health.

We’ve made it clear that communities constantly evolve offline as well as online. As much as we call for change, we can often react negatively towards it. Small technical or feature changes and things that may be out of our control, such as social network feature of algorithm changes, can have a big impact on a community. It’s critical to monitor and assess whether forced or requested changes have the desired effect or whether you may need to consider redressing the changes or even migrating the community to a new space.

Continue to research affinity or competing communities for ideas and inspiration to re-ignite your community

Successful communities are open to distilling the best ideas from other communities for their own purposes. Re-engineering can be a good way to refresh a community that may have become a little staid or reliant on a handful of active members. Using simple methods such as monitoring Pages to Watch on Facebook, through to more detailed competitor analysis using tools such as Brandwatch, is a way to collect ideas and inspiration for re-igniting your community. Challenge yourself to keep your community enthused and engaged – it’s the lifeblood of any community.

In summary

We hope that this guide has been a helpful handbook one, and has equipped you with useful tips for setting up and evolving your community. Community management is one of the fastest growing roles in digital, and it’s also one of the most demanding - so be assured that there are others who can provide support for you and that there are tools that can make a demanding job easier.

We hope that you celebrate Community Managers Appreciation Day in the future, and connect up with our community managers and others at all times of the year by using and searching for the hashtag #CMGR on Twitter. Listen, analyze and act with confidence.

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