Engage in the Conversation or Fail to Communicate: a three-part thread on navigating the changing communication landscape to advance and defend a brand

The current communication shifts are permanent.  In this three-part series, I’ll cover the impact these changes are having on the medium, the message and companies.  And, as always, challenge the assumptions here, and add your own.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll discuss the influence of blogging – both the tools that let anyone contribute to the conversation as well as how bloggers are increasingly controlling the news cycle.  I’ll also cover how these mediums treat a company’s message and how the blogosphere can offer insight to how a company’s message will be perceived before it’s conveyed.  And, I’ll discuss the winning strategies of companies who understand and appreciate the new communications environment and how those that don’t resist the instinct to control the message and news are more likely to lag behind others in perception and in their ability to benefit from the new order.

The re-making of a revolution

To set the stage for this look at the changing information landscape, I offer the preamble to this communications shift.

For the purpose of this post, the changes we are experiencing today were set into motion by the environment and technologies created during the dot-com era of the late 90s.  It was during this time that the promise was born of connecting millions of people over the Internet in conversation and commerce through technology.  From this time, we get the widespread use of e-mail as a primary communications tool, we get the early social networks like Facebook, it’s where search gets its roots and, it’s when the Internet was a great experiment in commerce.

Fast forward to 2005 and 2006, and you see the stabilizing and proliferation of social networks, the rise of the social Web and the refining of business models and practices honed on the experiments of the dot-com era.  It’s also where the Web transitions from a commodity-driven medium to a conversation-driven medium.

Impact Point #1: Social Networks

Even in the past year, the social Web has experienced an explosion of new users. Thanks to open development platforms, social networks can talk to one another, making it possible for all of these people to take their friends with them to new networks and invite others to even more.

All of these “friend” networks accelerated the exchange of information and have created the connected web of interests and various levels of relationships among people that we see today.  This ease of idea exchange has also created an expectation for openness from companies and individuals that can’t be reversed.  The benefit is a more honest dialogue between companies, customers and those within an individual’s social network.

This transparency has had a profound impact on the way companies communicate.  Those that don’t embrace this new reality risk long-term brand depreciation.

Impact Point #2: The Business of Blogging

While the social Web was forming, the rise of blogging passed through the phase of experimentation and being relegated to the spare-time musings of those with the technical skills to secure a domain name to a mainstream activity accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.

Today, blogging has come of age, with full-time bloggers, many of which were pulled from traditional media jobs, either deliberately or who were forced online because of the decline of traditional media. 

The ecosystem of blogging, from the technology platforms like WordPress and Blogger that enable the activity, to micro-blogging platforms like Twitter and the formal gatherings and events that bring the industry together has become a multi-billion-dollar industry with far-reaching implications for companies that feed the real-time news cycle.  And, the influence of blogs on traditional media and a company’s message is real and documented.

Impact Point #3: Restructuring an Institution

Traditional media continues to show the signs of an industry in need of a new approach. The increase in interpersonal connectivity and the improvements in the quality of content through professional bloggers, the strains of delivering news to front steps and into living rooms each day for traditional media and shifts in the general public’s appetite for opinion over objectivity have all taken a toll on the business models of the traditional institutions. 

We’re seeing these shifts take hold in places like CNN and some of the major dailies around the country that are trying to embrace many of the techniques of new media.  But, traditional media needs to move quickly past the point of experimentation with the online medium to fully embracing it and understanding the  impact of the public’s new preference for consuming information through osmosis – being at the center of their personal information feeds and being part of the information-generation cycle.

The long-term shift

The changes happening in the news and information lifecycle continue to have real and long-term impact on a brand’s perception.  That’s obvious.  How companies will realize, embrace and navigate this change is the focus of this series.

In the next post, I’ll look more closely at the role the blogosphere plays in impacting the perception of a brand and feeding the consumption patterns for the information-consuming public.  I’ll break down the personalities in the blogosphere, understanding who matters and how to engage in a meaningful dialogue with online influencers in a way that helps ensure that a company’s perspective is represented.  And, I’ll discuss the risk too many companies take when they dismiss or ignore the medium.

Until then, it’s a new world.  Embrace it.

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How Many People Does it Take to Staff a Social Program?

How many people does it take to support a social networking program?  It depends. It depends on the size of your company, your industry and how committed your company is to ensuring it’s connected in the important areas that are impacting the company’s future.

Certainly more people join the online discussion each day.  And social networking is the approach used to insert you or your company into the discussion in a way that brings value to the conversation.  In return for your participation, your company has an opportunity to strengthen its brand affinity and offers more ways to stay connected to customers’ points of view.

Your company’s participation varies by online community.  Facebook, MySpace and Twitter might have many of the same members carrying on a conversation, but the origin, nature, tone and direction of that conversation are likely different.  It takes a team of people with different skills working together to know how, when and where to insert your company into the discussion, and ensuring that you remain a part of the discussion.

Below I’ve outlined the main areas and provide a potential staffing arrangement to show the various elements that support a social networking program for a large company.  Smaller companies can obviously cut down on the number of people.

Community (1 – 2) – the community specialist(s) are responsible for watching the conversations on an ongoing basis.  They know that the discussions across social platforms change and help account for the interests and perspectives present in the community and help refine the company’s message based on the day-to-day interactions.

Digital Media (1 – 2) – in order to carry on the conversation, you need something to talk about.  Online, pictures and videos are as important as the dialogue when engaging a community.  Having someone who can produce Web-ready visual content is an essential part of the program.

Blogger & Online Customer Relations (2 – 3) – the conversations online don’t happen in a vacuum.  A discussion thread on Twitter can bleed over to Facebook where it’s noticed by a prominent blogger who writes about it.  Having specialists dedicated to interacting with bloggers as well as on customer service issues is a good way to ensure that you are on top of the conversations.

Research & Reporting (2 – 3) – in order to get where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.  Nowhere is that more apparent than in social media.  Being able to capture themes and sentiments online and then using them to feed back into the social program is a valuable tool when you are moving to keep up with the online world.

Based on these assumptions, I’d say that a solid social program requires 6 – 10 people to sustain the online discussion.  I recently saw numbers for Dells program that put the numbers around 20, and if you look at all they are doing online, that number seems a little low.  How many people work in social networking and the online medium in your company?  Have I missed anyone?