Social Business, Social Media Staffing and Operations

Is Technology Ruining Online Community

Online CommunityOnline community and our lust for it is at its apex. Companies of every size and description are pondering ways to engage with customers, and interact with their fans. But the big miss in many cases is social media staffing.

It’s difficult to recall the age of not-so-long-ago when we didn’t even have websites, much less email newsletters or Facebook pages for our businesses, and other flavors of social media.

How did we “engage” and “interact” back then? How did companies possibly succeed in that technologically challenged epoch devoid of touchy-feelie buzzwords?

We succeeded by actually – not metaphorically – engaging and interacting with our customers.

We can learn a lot from the past, when instead of humanizing our companies, we just deployed actual humans. Instead of listening software, we just listened. Instead of measuring influence, we just treated our customers well, and with respect.

Did we do a lot more with a lot less?

Today, we spend considerable time and effort and emotional capital on how to construct the ultimate online community, festooned with custom tabs and iframes and videos and the sparkling Christmas ornaments of social media.

I suggest we should largely eschew all that, recognizing it for the tip of the iceberg it really is.

Let’s shift our focus under the water line where the real mass of online community floats.

Our customers want to be informed in a relevant, timely fashion about companies they support. Occasionally, they’ll tell their friends – but usually they won’t. And if they have a problem, they want an alternative to soulless call centers and maddening email runarounds. That’s how customers see online community and “engagement” and “interaction” – in a practical, “what’s in it for me” way.

Most businesses massively overestimate the bond between company and customer in social media. Even your robust online community with appropriate social media staffing doesn’t create a blood oath among fans. Recognize that – especially in Facebook – your brand is literally competing for attention with friends and family and close confidants. There’s not been a company-authored status update ever written that I care more about than routine updates from my friends and family.

Social Media Staffing is the Overlooked Success Quotient

So the way to win that game for business isn’t through apps and case studies and metaphor and magic. It’s with social media staffing, populating your online community with a cadre of truly outstanding employees who can inform, entertain, and assist your customers. That means you don’t base your social media staffing plan on who is the least expensive resource (interns) or who “grew up with this stuff” (interns).

Does that drive up the cost of the human capital managing your social media? Of course. As Charlene Li once said, social media isn’t inexpensive, it’s just different expensive. Why would you manage an online community that is the epitome of multi-faceted, real-time communication with people who possess a paucity of actual customer service or communications expertise?

Until companies realize the key to online community success isn’t technology, but rather a culture of caring and skilled labor, social media will never fulfill its true promise.

Facebook Comments


  1. says

    This is excellent advice, in the end it is always about the people and not just the tools.

    However, there is no reason to be overly nostalgic about the past, because social media really can change the game. For example, listening software is a big deal, as it allows you to serve your customers in situations where you would have been completely oblivious to their issues without this technology.

    It is not the case that customer service was better before. Well, it might have been, if the call center is now poorly outsourced and your engagement team consists of a single intern using listening software.

    Companies care a lot about ROI and productivity, and rightly so, and that’s exactly what can be achieved with social media – turbo-charging your customer service by giving the right people the tools they need. This is the key point I think was still missing from this article: if it’s just a different expense, then for a company to make any changes, there has to be a tangible benefit to it. In the case of social media, the benefits are that (i) customer service personnel can be more productive (sharing and solving problems of many people at once) and (ii) the company can hear things it never could before, and use this knowledge in customer service, sales, and product development.

    • says

      @VilleKilkku You’re exactly right. The big game changer is that social enables customer service to be both proactive and reactive. And that wasn’t really possible before.

  2. MarketingLetter says

    Back in the days where everyone hung out at the general store where community, commerce, and conversation co-existed building interpersonal relationships was the norm. And it’s still the norm in some service businesses. Think about your relationship with your hairstylist or financial planner, for instance. Or your minister, who we normally don’t even think of as a service provider.

    But, as businesses grew, it became impractical for them to maintain these one-on-one relationships. Online community (including social networks) gave businesses the opportunity to establish these relationships again. The key to success isn’t necessarily having more people involved in managing these communities, it’s the realization of the forces underpinning community and doing it right. You can read more about this topic here:

  3. says

    Yes, remember that an uncaring or rude interaction with customers can happen via telephone, pony express messenger, live-and-in-person, or via an online community platform. I say make sure you’re using the technology that’s appropriate for your goals and audience, but also remember to hire the right people. They go hand-in-hand.

    • says

      @rosemaryoneill Sometimes I think if we still used Pony Express we’d be better off. There would be a lot less bitching about Klout scores.

  4. says

    Nice post, Jay. It seems that so many companies are moving so quickly in some sense to “accommodate” the social experience, that they missed out on what I think is one of the most important opportunities they have had in some time. Namely, that they could have used the push to social as a tool to get their house in order, to find out how they should behave. I wrote about this back in March, in a piece titled “Is Social Media Helping Your CEO Kill Your Company?” Part of the discussion centered on the results of a study that determined that the really creative folks in an organization were deemed to have less leadership potential. This alone, especially when framed in the light of our new social reality, tells us that this bias, and others like it, simply don’t mix well with truly letting the unsung rock stars, the heroes that literally save the company, shine. Corporate America needs to decide if it truly wants to begin the painful journey of self discovery, and then turn inside out. Here is the link the the article, fyi.

  5. says

    Great post Jay! I agree with you that it’s about “populating your online community with a cadre of truly outstanding employees who can inform, entertain, and assist your customers.” I’m the only SM manager, but I have a few great colleagues that are fully engaged with my company’s community and help me out with entertaining, informing and assisting customers. I can’t do it all on my own so it’s nice to have that extra support.

    • says

      @Cision Exactly. And what if you get sick? Or want to take a vacation? Or leave the company? You can’t put all your eggs in one person’s basket. @ambercadabra had a great post on that the other day.

  6. says

    Like the Charlene Li quote “different expensive.” On a ‘time is money’ kick myself, expertise is money, experience costs money.. need to invest in the people and not just the tools, the platforms. It’s the people that make the difference in any support scenario: calls, emails, in person or online. FWIW.

  7. margieclayman says

    Hi Jay,

    I just saw a post over on Mark Schaefer’s blog where he talked about the coming onslaught of mobile. The conversations are beginning just as they did on regards to social media. “oh, everyone is using it? Crap, we’d better use it then!”

    As you say here, the issue is not really the technology. That will keep changing eventually we’ll be able to market our products through brai wave manipulation I’m sure. The real issue is how business is changing. It’s no longer an “us to them” world. Now, companies need to market their relevance in ways that are both useful and unobtrusive

    I feel people are still missing this point. Your post does a great job of illuminating that point.

  8. says

    I think one of the great problems businesses have once they’ve really started to understand how to give value on their website or other social media platform is that if they don’t have the follow up that comes with it, they’re in trouble.

    For example, let’s say I have an awesome blog. Consumers view me as a teacher and thought leader. Then, when they try contacting me personally, they find I’m impossible to get in contact with or don’t match that same ‘feel’ as my writing. This would pretty bad, but unfortunately it happens to a lot of businesses.

    Great read Jay.


    • says

      @Marcus_Sheridan True enough. I hope that’s not said about me, but as I get busier, I can see that day from here unfortunately. I think the issue is that the blog (for example) or the Facebook page (in another example) are but single manifestations of the company. You would hope that they are the “best” and most “human” aspects of the company’s communication infrastructure, but the problem is that sometimes your social media department writes a check your operations department can’t cash.

  9. says

    Yes, technology is getting in the way. I remember when it was actually difficult to publish content. Now, we can’t keep up. I am one for the organic listening, the human dedication and the willingness to listen to the masses and help organizations and people stay connected.

    I think the issue isn’t so much “technology,” as it’s the difference between interactions based on “quantity” versus “quality.” Too many companies focus too heavily on the quantity; often neglecting the quality interactions gives rise to the quantity of interactions.

    We use social media monitoring software, but that’s more of a comparison and tracking tool. Most (if not all) our interactions with our audience takes place live with myself or members of our team who authoritatively answer their questions, dig for answers and maintain close relationships with the few. Not all our users necessarily interact with us, but the ones who do, love us for it. And we’re okay with that. :-)

    • says

      @JoeManna It’s interesting right? We have all this technology, and it ultimately comes back to just answering questions. It’s customer service, but just using different tools.

  10. MeganMcKeon says

    Hi Jay – Great blog post – Do you allow quotes of yours to be used? I really like this: “We can learn a lot from the past, when instead of humanizing our companies, we just deployed actual humans. Instead of listening software, we just listened. Instead of measuring influence, we just treated our customers well, and with respect.” – so true and brilliant spoken.

  11. says

    It’s not technology, it’s people. Like everything, people find ways to take things and mess it up because they don’ t take the time to fully understand it. Is it the saw’s fault that Bob cut his hand off? No, it’s Bob’s fault because he used it wrong.

    “Experts” throw out these tidbits like “build a community” or “Engage with your audience” but nobody is telling/showing how to use these new fancy technological tools to actually make that happen. The result is, “Buy my Widget” posts all over Twitter and Facebook and now G+.

    Twitter is no different than the telephone. Google Hangouts/Skype Video actually lets me “face to face” with someone I normally couldn’t because of distance. Technology let’s us humanize in ways we couldn’t before.

    Everybody wants a high Klout score (I need someone to tell me how “checking in” at Starbucks makes me influential), or to amass a big huge “community”. We shouldn’t be building communities (or tribes), we should be building strong customer oriented relationships with the people who actually take the time to give a crap about us.

  12. GlennDCitrix says

    A good, post and I agree with the over all message but it could have done without the “soulless call centers” comment. It does a disservice to customer service staff that have one of the hardest jobs in a company and seldom get the recognition they deserve. I’d go as far as saying that customer service is where you should recruit your socail media staff from, if you are wanting to “populate your online community with a cadre of truly outstanding employees who can inform, entertain, and assist your customers”.

    • says

      @GlennDCitrix Fair point Glenn, and I appreciate you raising it. And I agree that if I had to pick someone from customer service, or someone from marketing to manage a social program, I might opt for the former in many cases. However, in a world of NOW, waiting on hold or going through voice mail trees, etc. is not going to cut it. That’s not the fault of call center staff, that’s the fault of the people that make strategic and resource decisions.

  13. teriel says

    What stops most companies from doing what you’ve described above is an inadequate understanding of why people are on social media sites. They are on social media sites, for social reasons. They don’t want to be marketed too. They want to be engaged. Businesses that approach social media from a social perspective do better than businesses that are always marketing.

    • says

      @teriel Exactly. But I’m serious when I say how much companies overestimate consumers’ desire to interact with them in social. Companies really believe their customers WANT to be pals.

      • teriel says

        @JayBaer I can see that as well, which then suggests that companies need to be more targeted in their social interactions…show enough interest in the customer that the customer knows the company cares, but also keep it focused enough on business that the customer doesn’t feel annoyed or bugged by over friendliness.

      • says

        @JayBaer@teriel I totally agree with you that companies believe consumers want to be pals, they don’t. The relationship, if there is one, is based on the exchange of useful information and knowledge. Ideally, a company has a strategy to ensure that it’s their great content and resources customers want.

  14. says

    I’m not even convinced that most companies understand the opportunity, and the challenge. Tom Foremski @tomforemski , over at Silicon Valley Watcher, had a couple of great posts recently that talk about the coming tsunami of “marketing” that will be drowning the social airwaves, and the tender but significant divide between social versus corporate media. Must reads.

    • says

      @freighter@tomforemski For real. I’ve been saying for a while that there is an Invitation Avalanche coming at consumers. If every company has a special offer, what makes yours so special?

  15. MsHerr says

    Love this post, Jay! I used to get a little frustrated when people’s response about why they thought someone worth following as a “social media professional” was because “they just get it”. These responses don’t feel very helpful when trying to make business decisions, yet those can be the very words that customers use when asked why they connect with a brand. They can eschew the differentiating benefits of a product or company just as well as the next person. But true advocates – the ones companies want sharing the gospel, as it were – realize a deeper emotional connection as well. I’ve participated in Harley-Davidson customer research, and when asked why they buy Harley instead of another brand of motorcycle, riders will tell HD, “if you have to ask, then you don’t understand.” If your own customers and fans feel like you don’t get why they connect with you beyond the easy to recite benefits, then you may well be a few poorly considered updates away from converting loyalty into unlikes and disloyalty.

  16. says

    Jay, I love this post. However, I don’t think marketing gets this side of social media. And maybe that’s the problem, maybe marketing (including PR) are the wrong homes for social media. As a marketing person, I have misgivings typing that sentence, but the challenge you laid out here is not one marketing organizations, as a whole, are inclined to address.

    Consider marketing’s solution to delivering more qualified leads to sales. Marketing Automation. The name says it all. Everywhere you turn, marketing’s answer to delivering one-to-one communications is scalable, automated processes (with complexity in business rules that limit the APPEARANCE of automation).

    What will happen when businesses can use IBM’s Watson for marketing and one-to-one communications? Will marketers see it as the ultimate ‘technology’ solution, able to automate far deeper engagement? Will machines empathize with us in social media? And if so, as consumers, will we accept this, or revolt against it?

    As always, you raise questions and make me think. Thanks for sharing this.

    — @wittlake

    • says

      Jay, I want to share a post I wrote about a month: Not Just Automation, Marketing Needs Real Conversation.

      I have seen a couple companies test real conversational mediums as part of their broader marketing, it is interesting to see, although it is too early to call it a trend. Even SAP recently tested running a chat on Twitter.

      (Conveniently added as a reply so you can delete if you feel I’m link spamming you. That isn’t my intent).

    • says

      @Wittlake Wow. Fascinating comment Eric. I appreciate your perspective very much on this, and I think you may be dead on. The reality is, as Gary Vaynerchuk says, “giving a shit doesn’t scale”. And that makes humanization the enemy of efficiency. I’m going to write a follow up post on this point to see what others think. Thank you for the inspiration!

      • Social Don says

        I don’t think technology will ruin (is ruining) the social space. I think Gary Veynerchuk said it best, give it time and marketers will F-it up.

    • wittlake says

      @aldsaur Glad you liked it. Yeah, that is one of my favorite posts so far this year. Real. Not the positive party. 😉

  17. eezeerAndre says

    Wow! I love the points you make in this post! As the community manager of I feel the key is with caring and especially “entertaining” staff. We all know I don’t mean a signing, dancing show girl (though that might be nice), Just a nice person of reasonable intellect and quick wit.

    Adding some of these comments into our company manifesto :)

    I’ll have to come back in my spare time to finish reading all the great comments

  18. Passion4Art says

    @GeoffAlexander1 Social media is a world in itself. It’s only as good as the staff behind it. It truly is a first impression to your brand.

  19. BCultureMedia says

    Being a part of the marketing industry and a new company, your points hit home with me quite relevantly. B Culture Media’s main man is someone we like to call our Social Media Guru. He got us 2,600 facebook fans in two weeks and 3,000 twitter followers practically over night. He has truly grasped the idea that connecting with your audience is a talent. He “informs, entertains and assists” our clients and followers in a way no intern could.

  20. says

    It’s easy to be lured in and delighted by all the various technologies that provide a platform for engaging but as you mention clients and customers are not establishing a relationship with Twitter rather they are engaging with your content, your insights and technology. Understanding what your customer values, the information they are seeking is what should drive your social media efforts. Thanks for the great reminder!

  21. ScottHepburn says

    Can we just call it “staffing” instead of “social media staffing?” The latter still seems to imply a special sort of candidate who knows the secret tricks of how to “engage” online.

    New idea: “Hi Bob. Welcome to Initech. Your job is to interact with customers. See the mysterious room over there? The one with the big sign that reads ‘Online Community?’ They’re in there. Now go do your job and interact with them. I don’t care if you’ve never seen a room like that. I don’t care if the big sign on the door scares you. Go talk to them.”

    Oy. I’m ranting again. Bad Scott.

  22. says

    I think it’s a shame that companies use social media to spam us with their offers/ products. Like a previous poster said, social media is for socializing NOT for marketing/advertising. But i guess in today’s world marketers use whatever they can get their hands on…

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