Author Archive for Diane Stirling

Community News Content Lives, No Matter the Form

It seemed about as close as you get to having an episode of deja-vu while in the process of reading.

I was only on the first page, and in the first few paragraphs, of Chapter 3, “Content,” in Richard Millington’s Book, Buzzing Communities.

As I was reading along about how Richard advised, “The best content for a community is content about the community,” I immediately thought: JUST LIKE A LOCAL NEWSPAPER.  7651255714_b476e0a77e_n.jpg stack of papers

A few sentences later, local newspapers were exactly what Richard was talking about, like this:

“Think of your content as the equivalent of a local community newspaper that tells you what’s going on in the community”

“The content of an online community is the same. It tells you what’s happening in the local online community.”


Suddenly, the true-to-form image and understanding of an online community, and online community content, couldn’t have been any clearer for me.  That’s probably because working at a local community newspaper, reporting local community news, editing the writing of other community reporters, was my first job in journalism. (Actually, thinking back, I worked as a community-interest writer first, while a student, before I became a paid “general assignment reporter.”  That recollection provided even more clarity of what makes for good community content.

Even as newspapers have evolved to manage some sort of future in the wake of Internet journalism and online publications, people always still want to know the same kinds of things.  They want to know what is happening for their friends and neighbors, what “bigger things” are occurring in the community, and they want interpretations of how it will all affect them. In this way, Millington describes, just as the local newspaper performs “a key role as a facilitating agent for the community.”

3682410568_3c03dc0d92_n.jpg locl newspaperThe author continues to draw the parallels between local newspaper and online community content:

  • To provide informative and entertaining information
  • Create narratives that allow the community to follow what’s happening.
  • Develops a sense of community among members
  • Initiate conversations, things to talk about, and activities to take part in

He goes on to compare how the elements of a news publication are similar to the content parts of online community content: news stories, feature articles, announcements, opinions and guest columns, classified ads.

In fact, I know someone who has transferred the concept of the local community newspaper and made it into an online community content system.  A journalist by training, he did this several years ago, before most mainstream papers developed their online presences. He has put into effect online all the elements of community-building that Millington says comprise a thriving community in the publication, Radio Free Hamilton.

2q-001672012202314.jpg RFH For the reasons people have turned to newspapers for decades, they can be motivated to turn to communities online that fulfill the interest and information needs they have now.

And as newspapers face increasingly challenging economic futures, it may indeed be online moderated communities that do – in addition to or in place of, perhaps — what newspapers were founded to do – record, report, and be a sounding board for the community.

However, it seems like a sure thing that some form of community information-gathering and dissemination mechanism will always be there.

Creating Value For Your Community

In this week’s #CMGRClass readings about starting a community from scratch, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what creates a sense of value for community members. I’ve reflected on why I personally would want to be part of a community, and what would keep me involved.

I think of it as the concept of “value.” 

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It’s the idea that my participation provides something of intrinsic or tangible satisfaction to me.

“Value”—finding something “valuable”–is, in my view, the label applicable to the sense of imperative that gets people interested in your community to start with, ushers them in the door, entices them to stay, encourages them to contribute, and reinforces the sense that there is enough “good stuff” for them to stay put.

I also believe that providing continuing value is a necessary function of community mangers if they are to start, and maintain, successful ongoing engagement with a community.

The essence of that value depends to a great degree on whether the community type and the interested audience members are tuned in the same interests and values. Foremost in consideration is whether the type of community matches with the interests – and expected value – an audience member is seeking.

As pointed out in “buzzing communitiesBuzzing Communities,” by author Richard Millington, “the type of community changes everything” (about “the content you create, the people you invite, the activities/events you host, the benefit members get from the community, and how you moderate the community.”

Millington breaks the community types into these categories, all of which seem self-explanatory:

  • INTEREST            

Another way to look at the essence of the give-and-take of an online community is the concept, “sense of community.” Millington asks key questions about each of what he says are the “four key factors inherent in develop a strong sense of community” (Page 49 in his book) that result in members’ feeling that their participation produces a “value” (my words). Millington’s factors (with my paraphrasing) are:

Membership: Do members identify with one another?

Influence:  Do they feel influenced by the community and influential within it?

Integration/fulfillment of needs:  Are members’ needs being met/aligned w/needs of the community?

Shared emotional connection:  Do members share emotional connection?

That sense of value (or of the value proposition fulfilled, perhaps ) is referenced by Dino Dogan   bragging-polaroid2.png DOGAN

in his article, “How To Build a Community of Fanatics.”

“So, the first lesson in building a community of fanatics is to create a new, effective,  unique and original solution that solves a real pain-point for your target demographic.”

Another resource, The Community Manager newsletter’s David Spinks,

David Spinks

David Spinks

shows steps you can use to create a “value experience” when building a community.   As he recommends in his July 2, 2012 blog:

          Step 1:     Pick up your phone, and call a user/customer.  Ask them about themselves.  Ask them about their experience with your company.  Make a personal connection.

         Step 2:    Invite them to a private Facebook group for your customers.

         Step 3:    Introduce them to the group and help them get involved in the discussions.”

Putting myself in the place of that user/customer, I think it is  very clear that, if you are the person getting the phone call, the invitation, the “ask” to participate, you will consider that a thing of real value.

  • If you are starting a community, what kinds of value can you plan to provide your community members?
  • If you are moderating a community, what kinds of actions do you routinely take to let members know that they themselves are valued, and that the community continues to be a valuable place that deserves their ongoing participation? What has been the most effective of those actions?




To Outsource or Not: Community Management Work

The concept of a company hiring an advertising, public relations or social/digital agency to fulfill the role of community manager, as discussed in our Google Hangout by guest expert Olivier Blanchard this week, was intriguing.

Discussion of the plan to staff the function interested me because I’ve worked both as an agency provider to clients as a client buyer.

When I worked here,  i was involved in selecting, hiring, collaborating and sometimes firing agencies and consultants for marketing, advertising, and political consulting work. I experienced how some agencies who hit the mark with their work, and how others just never “got” the precise messaging and branding needed.

In my next professional life, though,  I was a  agency staffer and I discovered that clients don’t always articulate what they want. I also found that, sometimes, agencies aren’t particulary good at interpreting that, or in meeting expectations.

So Blanchard’s comments about companies and organizations using agencies to fulfill social media and community manager work roles was a bit of a surprise. It’s an area especially worth consideration for me, since I’m now a solo communications practitioner who is studying social media at the iSchool. And this is an area of service I’ve considered offering to clients.

The author’s observations resonated, and here is how I consider them very on-point: sm ROI

  • He says there is “actually no problem” having agencies handling your social media
  • He cites some agencies (referencing Edelman) that “are starting to do it really well.”
  • The cases of success seem due to the hiring of “good people” by the agencies and the embedding of those staff in the client’s physical and cultural operating environment.

Sauce for the Goose/Gander

Google+HOA, #cmgrclass, 021613

Like any new employee, Blanchard says, people from an agency hired for this work also need

#cmgrclass Google HOA, 02/16/13

#cmgrclass Google HOA, 02/16/13

time to acclimate to the physical, cultural and organizational factors of the brand, so they:

  • Become immersed in the company/brand culture
  • Understand the product and the brand personality well
  • “Speak the language” of the organization
  • Adopt the company voice and importantly, capture the message tone
  • Become aware of the customer expectations and acceptable interactions

Embedding a social media/community practitioner gets them “on brand,” according to @thebrandbuilder. He cites a couple of potential problems when an agency handles the social/community work for a company, however:

  • The agency rep may be unable to do “peripheral engagement”
  • The result may be more a content creation package than true community engagement
  • The effort  may not convert brand preference or path-to-purchase (sales)
  • The client could pay “an incredible amount of money for what amounts to really crappy lazy content management online.”

 What Does Embedding Get?

Isafamedia - Creative Commons

Isafamedia – Creative Commons

In theory, “embedding” could be a smart move for both client and agency.

Think of the vividness achieved through the reporting of embedded journalists–those in tanks with soldiers– in Afghanistan or in Vietnam. In theory, the heightened reality of being “in that world” should translate.

From my personal experience, I’d say that whether agencies succeed or fail, whether they are “in synch” or “out of touch,” is ultimately reliant on the skills of the “interpreters,” the agency staff people assigned to the account. And I can see some downsides for both parties:

  • The organization may try to hire away the agency rep
  • The organization may decide to cut costs by replacing the agency rep with a full-time employee, leaving the agency person experienced in a narrow way that may not apply to other accounts
  • The client risks losing the voice it established if an agency person leaves (the same risk is present with any employee)
  • If the employee is handling more than one account, it may be hard to switch between organizational voices.

This record of change regarding agency life and death illustrates the fleeting nature of agency-client relations.

The Chobani company used high-profile agencies, and climbed to become the No. 1 seller in its category. Still, here’s what happened with its agencies:

March 28, 2009:             Chobani TapsTDA Advertising and Design

7 months later:                GothamWins Chobani

September 23, 2011:     Chobani Decision Nears, 3 Shops

March 14, 2012:              Leo Burnett NY Replaces Gotham

July 31, 2012:                  Chobani Takes King in the Yogurt Aisle

November 21, 2012:    Chobani’s Head of Marketing Doron Stern Exits

So… please provide your feedback:

  • How do you think a brand can maintain its voice and consumer connection in terms of the normal flux of personnel?
  • Would you be comfortable hiring an agency and embedding an agency staffer in your organization for social/community engagement?
  • If you were an agency, would you be comfortable hiring out staff to do community engagement for an organization?



Listening, Audience Awareness Key to Social Media Success

Melvin Gaal/CC

Melvin Gaal/CC

Listening has always been a crucial skill in informal communication exchanges as well as organizational communications work, and so much of Olivier Blanchard wrote in “Social Media ROI,” resonated with me and reminded me of past experiences.

Blanchard points to “focused listening” and “situational awareness” as critical elements in the social media space for brands and organizations, and essential activities for the social media teams and community managers who represent and communicate on behalf of them. The readings brought to mind some real-world situations and experiences.

My first recollection was of the skillfully-designed “Listening Tours” Hillary Clinton initiated years back, before she was elected as New York’s U.S. Senator.  That was a convincing (if not overt and transparent) public relations initiative, supposedly undertaken before she formally decided to seek election.

These tours comprised a well-publicized, weeks-long effort showing New Yorkers that she could, and indeed would, listen to potential constituents and the media reflected the act of her listening to constituents occurring.

The tours were an effective way of providing ongoing publicity for Clinton, and I watched them with interest because I was a practitioner of political and community-oriented issues PR at the time.

Hillary’s recognition of her audience’s need to be listened to was the first “win.”It was the kind of intuitive connection that all constituencies seek, in my view.

This same human need is also the element that makes social media such an effective two-way communication channel, and so a preferred means of organizational communication today.  Social-channel communication is highly differentiated from traditional PR tactics of pushing messages (only) outbound today.

Blanchard advises that social media programs must begin by asking what the organization should be listening for, not what it should be saying (p. 128). That discovery begins by asking questions  about what might be most valuable for the organization to learn from its audiences.



This discussion reminded me of two situations with national brands where consumer feedback affected corporate decision-making at the highest levels.

A few years ago, Coca-Cola, in what seemed like an “out of the blue” internal decision, changed the formula and taste of its quintessential soft drink product. The company spent millions retooling and advertising an introduction to the “New Coke.”

It was a klinker, a #fail move.

  • Consumers didn’t like the “new” taste
  • They overwhelmingly preferred the “old Coke.”
  • Eventually, consumers won out and Coke retreated.
  • The company pulled New Coke products off the supermarket shelves and returned to production of the original product.

If social media had been a mainstream communications tool at the time, this would have constituted an epic #FAIL.

Another similar consumer reaction to brand changes that did occur within the realm of real-time, online communication shows the velocity and power of these means of communication.  When GAP stores changed the company’s logo, consumers rebelled and rejected the new look, and they did it through social channels. The forceful reaction caused the company to pull the new logo and revert to the original.  As reported on Mashable on October 10 2010 (Ben Parr):

“Gap has announced on its Facebook Page that it is scrapping its new logo design efforts, acquiescing to a torrent of criticism coming primarily from Facebook and Twitter users.”

Blanchard also talks about “situational awareness.” This is the same sort of activity that is typically called “scanning the environment” in conflict resolution practice.

In my personal experience in the public relations and public affairs department of a large and controversial organization, we routinely did on a face-to-face basis what is now possible by listening through online social channels and tools.

The upshot of Blanchard’s contentions is that companies need to have some sort of system in place to “capture, analyze and respond to situations where the organization is being mentioned” online.  An organization or brand is unable to respond to threats and opportunities, he says, “if you are not aware of them in real time.”

That’s why I agree with Blanchard that for any organization or any brand, a plan of  “listening before talking” is essential. Because as he says, “the  more you know, the more you understand about your environment, the more you can react to it and adapt to it.”



Distinct Differences Between Community, Social Approaches

The members of online communities are individuals, but they have a common interest (Prio/Flickr).

The members of   online communities are individuals, but they have a common interest (Prio/Flickr).

The functional orientations and work processes of community managers and social media managers may seem a lot alike at first glance, but it’s my belief that the differences between them play out through several subtle, but distinct differences.

These characteristics include:

  • the focus of motivation for speaking to and engaging others around the organization;
  • the flavor and character of the communications conducted;
  • the end purposes of the engagement efforts that are made.

From our readings this week, I’ve discerned that community managers center their efforts on cultivating conversations and building relationships in order to develop and maintain an engaged community that benefits both community members and the positive status of the organization.

Just as Vanessa DiMauro points out in Social Media Today, community managers are focused “on the flow of information and knowledge, strengthening relationships and promoting productive collaboration.” She continues that social media managers instead are involved in “listening and evaluating brand perception, planning campaigns and promotional material or initiatives to promote the company’s message, building and leveraging social networks on social platforms.”

Ryan Lytle presents another take. He characterizes the community manager’s functions, in “10 Qualities of an Effective Community Manager” as consisting of an enabling role. (I see this as a function akin to an advocate or an ombudsman.) Lytle says it is the community manager’s duty “not to continue to push a brand’s message, but to empower the audience and to give it a voice.”

Whether an organizational interaction is considered to originate in either high or low complexity market conditions are other ways to determine whether the community manager or social media manager avenue is the better approach for online communication.

Rachel Happe writes about this aspect in “The Community Roundtable,” using the example of a Sharpie pen manufacturer to illustrate the differences between the community manager and social media manager disciplines.

A low complexity market situation (the Sharpie pen producer-sales transaction) may require a social media management approach, she says.

  • That would be where online activity is more about pushing out product messages than about having Sharpie pen consumers converse with the manufacturer and with each other.
  • In this approach, social media management integrates business aspects into the community, providing a forum where consumers of Sharpie pens may be happy enough to tune into social media channels to learn about new products and promotions.
  • That might involve “listening and evaluating brand perception, planning campaigns and promotional material or initiatives to promote the company’s message, building and leveraging social networks.”
  • These activities are much more marketing and sales-focused, thus the domain of the social media manager, according to Happe.

Such consumers may not be as interested in sharing their experiences and the benefits they find in using Sharpie pens as a member of a moderated community, however, she implies. That is why in the opposite situation, (a high complexity market and use case), the community manager approach may be the proper form of online communication.

  • This type of online community building would be called for when it is more important that there are inter-personal connections as part of the organization’s transactions, Happe conveys.
  • What community managers do for organizations is to “provide the feeling of a direct connection” to the organization, she says, providing an infrastructure where customers can “benefit greatly by interacting and building relationships with other customers.”

Echoing that belief, Richard Millington, in “Buzzing Communities,” notes that it is often the community manager who provides “the only link between the organization and its community.” He says that “if community members are able to directly interact with the organization’s staff, they become more likely to develop positive opinions of the organization; they begin to identify as one with the organization.”(p.185).

Given these various perspectives, here are two questions for your own reflection and feedback:

  • Of the organizations you interact with online, can you tell what approach is used in those communication efforts?
  • Do you receive different types of interactions from different organizations, and are you satisfied with the type of interactions you’re getting?





Community Relations Past and Present



Our initial course readings have caused me to think about what contributes to the development, cohesiveness, and maintenance of an online community. My questions include:

  • What makes a diverse range of people want to spend time together online?
  • What elements truly bond them?
  • How does a community manager maintain their interest?
  • How do connecting bonds serve the community itself, or an organization that has developed the community via ongoing conversations and outgrowths?

I’ve related these new concepts to my earlier work of one-on-one, face-to-face, individual and group community-building and advocacy, functions that comprised “community relations” for the organization where I once worked.

Community Relations is typically part of an organization’s public relations, and my varied efforts then had definitive goals:

  • We sought improved understanding
  • We hoped to gain friends (and “acceptance”)
  • We sought better relationships than what existed

One of these CR initiatives was “Community Appreciation Day,” a block party event of vendors, crafters, food trucks, music and dancers (and the perceived chance to build good will and provide recognition through an official celebration of affinity and mutual recognition).

Today, a new technology showed me a much more effective and efficient way to convey that same type of sentiment online. VSnap has instituted a weekly “thank you,” using its 60-second video technology to reach members of its community. The effort was sincere, convincing, and it was easy to see how it could replace other efforts.  Click here for the thank you blog to find out more.

So it seems my work then was somewhat akin to that of online community managers, in developing and sustaining affinity groups or communities. It’s a discipline that’s played by ear, person by person, towards an end goal.  But it’s not easy or simple work. This infographic  depicts the many hats and the multi-faceted elements that go into the complex array of tasks involved in online community management work:


So what really makes a community of diverse folks want to “hang?”

Our course readings provide some answers:


When the online community is connected to an enterprise, the opportunity to provide consumer feedback may be enticing. For an enterprise, obtaining ideas from the community that embraces its products/services may also be a smart idea. The advantage that businesses can obtain from consumer input, through open source communities, is described in this article from Taylor and Francis online.


 The opportunity to belong to an interest group (sociability) attracts participants. In Grace Lau’s article on World of Warcraft, Lau cites elements that WoW creator Wegner says are ingrained in that community of practice: mutual engagement, a joint enterprise, and a shared repertoire.

Lau says, “Communities of practice describes the kinds of learning networks that people build over time in pursuit of a common goal.” Learning opportunities are in themselves an attraction for online grouping. According to Lau, Wegner cited these elements as evidence that a community of practice exists:

  1. Sustained mutual relationships – harmonious or conflictual
  2. Shared ways of engaging in doing things together
  3. Rapid flow of information and propagation of innovation
  4. Absence of introductory preambles
  5. Very quick setup of a problem to be discussed
  6. Substantial overlap in participants’ descriptions of who belongs
  7. Knowing what others know, what they can do, and how they can contribute to an enterprise
  8. Mutually defining identities
  9. Ability to assess the appropriateness of actions and products
  10. Specific tools, representations, and other artifacts
  11. Local lore, shared stories, inside jokes, knowing laughter
  12. Jargon and shortcuts to communication as well as the ease of producing new ones
  13. Certain styles recognized as displaying membership
  14. Shared discourse reflecting a certain perspective on the world.

Do you believe that your organization can support a community of learning, and therefore an online community of practice?

How can your organization benefit from developing a virtual community of interested consumers and advocates?