Business culture and your online community

Business culture and your online community

Perhaps you want to create an online community that allows customers to get answers to their questions about your products and services, to talk to each other about using them and to advocate your brand. Or you may want one that brings members or supporters closer to your organisation.

Surely it’s straightforward? You just set up the platform, announce it’s there, keep an eye on it in case of abuse, and make sure the sponsoring department – sales, membership, marketing – knows how to use it. That’s all. Or is it?

You could, of course, task someone to talk to people in the community, and otherwise continue working in the old way. But if you did that you’d be storing up trouble for yourself. For a number of reasons:

  • People on social platforms post whatever they want to say, not what you’d prefer them to say. It’s not unusual for unwanted (and perhaps unwarranted) criticism to get posted. Are you comfortable with that? Do you know how to deal with it?
  • People on social platforms expect quick responses, ideally 24/7/365, to whatever they need. Can you resource that? If not, do you trust your customers/members/supporters to answer for you?
  • People on social platforms expect the staff-member they are talking to, to be the representative of the organisation as a whole. Do you trust that person to speak on your behalf?

Social platforms have many benefits for organisations, but they cannot be run by managerial diktat. If the customers insist on using your customer-service community to ask awkward questions about your environmental policies, for example, or the employment practices of your suppliers in Africa, you can’t just wish them away or shut them up.

It’s still the kneejerk reaction of all-too-many managers to demand that you take down the difficult questions, ban the people asking them, or even shut down the community altogether if it’s being ‘abused’ in this way – regardless of the widely-proven fact they are digging themselves into a hole by refusing to engage with the honest concerns of the public.

The truth is that ‘management by diktat’ and ‘social’ ways of doing business are entirely at loggerheads with each other. If yours is a business where managers communicate with staff by telling them what’s going on but showing no interest in their opinions (and I’ve visited many businesses where the staff feel they don’t even get this level of communication), then it’s highly unlikely you will be able to do ‘social’ well. You may succeed in using social media channels to broadcast your messages – but you won’t have the support you need to listen and engage in genuine conversations. If the management use internal channels to pronounce but not to listen, they will insist on strict control of all the public messages you put out as well. And if you ignore them and try to adopt a more open approach, you won’t have the support you need in a crisis – as will become as painfully obvious to the audience as to you.

The style in which management communicates with staff is what sets the company culture as a whole. Most of us would dearly like to work in a collaborative culture, one where we are trusted to work with colleagues, and where our opinions are listened to and taken into account by the management. But few of us truly do work in a company like this.  When the management can’t see collaboration as a natural part of their own way of working, insists on broadcasting to the staff and demands the same from middle management, then even if every staff member makes a personal effort to be as collaborative as possible, that effort will be shallow and ultimately futile.

So, when thinking about whether online community is right for you, think first about the culture of your business, as displayed by the way that the senior management communicate. Do they involve you or consult you on what they are doing? Do they even let you collaborate in making big decisions for the business?

If the answers to these questions are yes, then the likelihood is that you are used, as a business, to communicating freely, outside the strict structures imposed by business processes, and chances are you aren’t as siloed as some others.

When it comes to building your online community, all this will give you a massive advantage. When you need emergency input from other departments, you can expect it – indeed, you should plan for it; and, probably more important, you can devise your community strategy around the needs of all relevant departments and not just customer service. You will be confident in representing the company online, in a conversational environment, and won’t need to fob off complaints by regurgitating old press releases. Most important of all, you will be supported for taking initiatives, rather than criticised for stepping beyond your pay-grade.

The 4 Roads and partner, Shilbrook Associates half-day strategic social business cookery class is designed to guide you through this entire process. Contact us now to book a half-day class for your business.