It’s a tricky tightrope to walk -- how involved should your organization’s staff be in the online community?
Although it’s tempting to leave staff out for simplicity's sake, or to have one token staff member and no one else, it’s better to include everyone in the community. Otherwise, how do you get total organizational buy-in and ensure everyone supports the community’s goals? Allowing your staff to be part of the community shows them firsthand how important it is for your organization’s overall goals, and helps everyone understand members or customers, even if they don’t work with them directly. Also, it can help build an affinity for your organization in your target audience, as they interact with more and more of your (hopefully) caring staffers.
But just because you want your staff involved doesn’t mean you want them to overrun the community -- it’s for the members, after all. So how do you balance inclusion without compromising the community’s spirit?
Rules of the road
Before you even come up with a plan for staff inclusion, your staff need to want to participate -- if you don’t have buy-in from the staff at your organization, no one will engage. Each staff member must understand how the community fits into the organization’s overall goals.
Find stakeholders or people within your organization who want the community to succeed -- they can help encourage people and spread enthusiasm. Sometimes, the best person may be in another, unrelated department, who simply needs a better way to communicate and share information—event staff, certification managers, education leaders, and others may need your community without even realizing it.
Just as you should have terms and conditions that your members must follow, you should create a similar document specifically for your staff. Not only does it outline ground rules, but it can serve as an educational piece for your staff to reference and learn how to interact in an online community as a professional.
Here are a few ideas to help balance enthusiasm and buy-in with setting guidelines for community involvement:
1. No marketing or sales pitches
To someone new to the concept of an online community or who comes from a social media marketing background, it may seem like the perfect place to promote the organization and its initiatives. Everyone you want to talk to is there, so why not?
But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most organizations explicitly ban their users from self-promotion in the community, so that should hold true for your staff and organization as well.
Why is it so important to draw this line? You want members or customers to feel comfortable in the community and trust the advice and resources generated within it. They’re there to talk to one another, not to be talked at and sold to, whether it’s by fellow users or by the organization itself. It’s a talk show, not an infomercial. Community members are there to connect, learn and help one another -- not to buy things.
2. Wait for community members to respond to each other
You know how important it is for members or customers to receive a quick reply when they post a question. So staff members might make the mistake of replying right away to every query. Although this reflex comes from a good place -- wanting to help -- it defeats the point of a member or customer community, and can dampen engagement by putting the burden on your staff. Why would members or customers help each other if they know a staff member will do it for them?
Even though it might seem counterintuitive, it’s important to get this point across early on. Staff needs to let the community and its members engage organically, and focus primarily on providing answers and resources that can’t be handled by anyone but staff: logistical information about events that the organization puts on, materials created by the organization for its audience, etc. With the exception of these organization-specific situations, recommend that staff proceeds with a light touch and let the community be a community.
3. Answer unanswered posts after 24 hours
As important is it is to let members respond to each other’s posts, not everything will receive timely responses from the user base, especially if your community is small or new. So, establish a timeline -- if a post posing a question is left unanswered for more than 24 hours, your staff should answer it, regardless of the content.
To make sure every post gets an answer, tell your staff to actively look for posts that have gone unanswered for over 24 hours. It shouldn’t take up too much time for your staff to help out, especially if they already have a pulse on the community’s activity.
4. Pay attention!
If you want your staff to keep a pulse on the community, both to answer questions and take advantage of the amazing business intelligence that a community can provide, they need to receive the notifications that allow them to do so in a timely manner. If you’re the community manager, educate your staff about the different ways that they can interact with your specific community—real time messages, daily digests, push notifications from an app, etc. Not only is it good to spread the community knowledge around, but it also makes their jobs easier -- rather than needing to log into the community every day or wait for a message to be forwarded along from the community manager or a frustrated member, your staff will be on top of things as they are happening.
With enough repetition, community will become a habit for your staff -- not just your customers and members.
Once you have an alliance of staff members who understand the breadth of what the community can offer -- in terms of valuable business intelligence, customer to customer support, and a sense of affinity between the organization and its audience -- you and the community are in great shape. Users will provide value to other users, and your staff will add—and receive—value in a way that is unique to them.