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How To Compose An Effective Social Media Team

In the next phase of social business, internal and external social media teams will need to align more tightly.

It probably doesn't come as news that most organizations today have staff assigned in some way to manage their social media. While many have formally assigned part-time resources or existing employees that do the work unofficially, the situation they face is the same: A growing percentage of total corporate communications is steadily shifting to social channels. As it reaches critical mass, as it has for marketing and customer care, this has been forcing organizations to go beyond makeshift staffing for their various social media efforts.

For its part, this global communications shift is briskly picking up pace. For example, recent data published by eMarketer shows that 72% of all firms globally now engage in some form of customer service over social media. On the leading edge, about a fifth of them handle a quarter or more of all their customer inquiries this way. This year's new Nielsen report on social media shows that 47% of all social media users have engaged in such customer service, and that a third of them prefer it. Despite seeming saturation, social media usage itself has increased a whopping 24% over the last year, and it is now the top online activity, period. These are high-water marks that will only climb higher, and soon.

Urged on by the behavior shifts indicated by this data and their own research into their customers' behavior, which shows broad changes in how people prefer to engage in the customer journey, we see that businesses are actively in the midst of scrambling to acquire skilled staff and create social media teams that can operate effectively in these channels.

This column continues the discussion from Social Business By Design (2012, John Wiley and Sons), the book I recently co-authored with Peter Kim on the methods that organizations can use to better prepare strategically for social business.

More Social Business By Design columns

The sheer scale of social media is different now, as well, and the writing is on the wall: The part-time and volunteer efforts of years past have surely morphed into the continuously staffed NASA-style command centers and full-time social media departments we find in large organizations today.

But as we've seen in recent data, the social teams of marketing, customer care and workforce are often fragmented, unconnected and hampered by inconsistent policies, processes, tools and ecosystems. The same data also shows that the value (and the ROI, for those who need that acronym) of social business is often diluted by this parochial and narrow focus. A coherent social team can help with this.

The Function of the Social Media Team

Given the degree to which social media is exerting pressure to ramp up and scale today, there's not been time for industries to assess how to best organize their staff for current realities. It could even be said it's not entirely clear what a properly staffed social team should look like, and what sort of activities it should own. Or even how it should achieve its objectives. Fortunately, we do have baseline data to start from: A few months back, well-known social media analyst Jeremiah Owyang pegged the size of the average social team at 11 people, while citing a provisional organization structure containing community managers, analysts and management staff. This gives us a picture of what organizations are doing, if not where they are headed.

Deriving a near-future vision for social teams is still a bit tricky, but perhaps possible. First, we can look at the function itself. It could be said that the ultimate purpose of social media staff is to provide those capabilities across the organization for its various functions. If we then examine the detailed operations of a more fully realized social business, it can help us see how all the moving parts fit together. From there, it's certainly possible to look at what organizations are doing today and plot a trajectory where social media will be more at the core of how we do business.

Social Media Teams, Divided

From my research, I've seen time and again how two groups tend to form around social media. One is the group that's charged with enabling social media internally to the organization, for collaboration, communication and other workforce purposes. The other, which focuses on external social media, is composed of at least one major group, although there are often other people responsible for external engagement in the social world. Typically, there is also an often fuzzy and poorly defined set of shared resources for these groups. While this includes HR and legal for periodic oversight, it also includes social architects, data analysts, project managers, line-of-business liaisons and others who are closely involved, yet often not officially part of the two social media groups in most organizations.

As I explored in a previous column, this bifurcation actively hampers social media ROI in the vast majority of organizations. But I'm also not naive enough to believe that by simply recognizing the problem, it will be easily solved. While it's true that social business initiatives now need a unified effort that can create a seamless social ecosystem across and beyond the company, the deeply ingrained political, structural and organizational boundaries that are likely to resist this will pose a rather significant headwind. As has been famously said about large-scale change, "culture eats strategy for lunch."

Given that companies are now moving well beyond the experimentation stage, what should their social media teams look like? How big should they be and what should they consist of?

At this point, we can indeed get a high-level sense of what it will look like for most organizations over the next few years. Unification of social business capability, especially for the two primary groups (internal and external), certainly isn't going to happen overnight. But they will become much closer and more integrated than they are today. The resulting group will also tap into a wider variety of existing resources, combining or even co-opting them as necessary. In fact, when all the types of social silos are included, the virtual org chart of enterprise social media quickly becomes fairly complex. Complexity, however, is something that needs to be actively managed, since social media usually works best when it's kept as simple as possible.

[ Related: How Smart Businesses Reorganize For Social.]

Perhaps the biggest lesson of all, however, is that the social media team cannot do everything when it comes to getting the company to perform as a social business. It cannot do most of it, or even much more than a little bit. Getting each part of the organization to to do so effectively must be enabled across the organization by carefully and deftly applying process change, tool change and culture enablement.

For some organizations the transition to social business will be accomplished by incrementally tweaking existing functions such as customer care or marketing. To others, such as product development or collaboration, the transition might be done more quickly and comprehensively. Either way, the social media team is the prime enabler, educator, change champion, exemplar and cheerleader, all rolled into one. Over time, the social media team will almost exclusively empower others to engage in activities that will achieve their goals to become a social business. As we've seen in so many case studies, they will do surprisingly little of the actual work of engagement themselves. Instead, they enlist, involve and immerse customers, workers and business partners in directed conversations in the requisite social venues to achieve overall business objectives. In short, effective social teams use the high leverage of social media to drive change in scale.

So that's a lot of responsibility along with many new skills. What does this look like in terms of staffing? It probably looks a little like what your organization is doing already, but much more pushed together, made formal, and given broader resources to work with and authority to drive the necessary changes.

Breaking Down Today's Social Media Team

The visual on the first page of this column depicts a social team with the three areas discussed above: Internal, external and shared. While some organizations will combine these groups together in a single social business unit or social media center of excellence, many will just keep them separate but tightly integrated, often by assigning them a common senior executive that they report into.

In terms of actual numbers, many of the groups in the visual consist of just one to five people (such as big data analyst, social architect, Web team, program & project managers and line-of-business liaisons), depending on the size of the organization, while others may be quite a bit larger, such as community managers (one or two dozen for a large company typically) and social customer service reps (hundreds for a large company). It's extremely important to note that work should be assigned not only to company workers but also to external advocates, partners and other co-creators. To reiterate, one of the central lessons of the last several years is that companies cannot and should not try to scale social by doing all the work themselves.

While many of the roles in a modern social team are well known, here are some of the highlights of a mature organization that you may not have been expecting:

-- Social Customer Service Representatives: One of the fastest growing parts of the social team, these customer service representatives (CSRs) directly handle inbound requests. It's critical to note that they may be full-time employees, or they may be external advocates. Internal social CSRs are often adopted from a customer care group's dedicated staff, but this should be avoided unless necessary. Typically your social ecosystem can handle a large percentage of CSR work, sometimes a majority of it.

-- Big Data Analysts: These people make sense of the wealth of knowledge and insights in social media, much of which must be acted on quickly, and ensure information is dispatched to the right part of the organization. They typically work in close conjunction with community managers.

-- Social Architect/Strategist: This role is assuming more importance as the need grows to make social media efforts consistent across initiatives, projects, tools and channels. The proliferation, overlap and duplication of social identities, graphs, apps, benchmarks and data is one of the next big obstacles as social media usage matures in our enterprises. This role will be key to creating a more unified vision.

Unfortunately, this breakdown doesn't and shouldn't give a concrete answer about the optimal size of a social team. But it does give you a useful heuristic. In the typical large company, you'll have one or two dozen staff managing and supporting social business across various functions, with many more merged into the effort, even just via ad hoc social participation. There is no upper bound for shared resources, but the best measure of success is that your group is as large a percentage of your ecosystem as possible.

In other words, a social business is a far more decentralized and externally engaged place than your existing organization. Thus the very best measure of social business success we have now is to understand how large our active ecosystem is. This, then, is the ultimate and true measure of your social team.

Social media make the customer more powerful than ever. Here's how to listen and react. Also in the digital The Customer Really Comes First issue of The BrainYard: The right tools can help smooth over the rough edges in your social business architecture. (Free registration required.)

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