Community management is something that every company talks about, but because of the prescribed ambiguity of social strategies — they’re utterly dependent on business-specific variables, after all – isn’t something that everyone’s really doing. Or good at doing, anyway. Successful community management is a difficult thing to measure, considering changing industry temperaments and emerging platforms, but that isn’t stopping the folks over at The Community Roundtable from trying.

With a few years of research and some very valuable findings in hand, TCR has given those of us charged with community growth and social branding much needed insight into best practices and measurement tools that can empower us to keep our brands healthy, transformative, and thriving in the ever-changing social space.

The Community Maturity Model: Keeping Social Integrated

At the genesis of social’s alignment with business strategy, it almost seemed silly. The platforms were clunky. Smartphones weren’t a thing. And unless the target market was demographically likely to jump on new social platforms — which, let’s face it, in the early days was comprised of bored adolescents and some other questionable characters with too much free time — putting any real effort behind social branding was a waste.

That all changed when musicians caught on. In my earliest internettings, 95% of the branding I was exposed to was that of bands or solo artists, who used things like Myspace and LiveJournal to share music, distribute merchandise, post tour dates, blog about shows, and essentially, become more popular. To this day, musicians tend to be better at community expansion than the rest of us, probably because it’s absolutely integral to the health of their brands and as a result, is completely intertwined with the band’s business strategy.

We have to acknowledge that community and social efforts are no longer a separate focus; they must be integrated into financial and strategic planning, complete with their own risk analyses, budgets, goals, and analytics. TCR’s Community Maturity Model outlines the following 8 criteria to help make that happen (I’ve added some brief descriptions, too):

  1. Strategy (listening to your audience, engagement, and message alignment)
  2. Leadership (transparency, authenticity, and using modest self-promotion)
  3. Culture (tone, type of communication, and allowing your audience to feel in control of engagement)
  4. Community Management (defining cheerleaders, enticing fans, dealing with negative feedback, and acknowledging issues)
  5. Content & Programming (setting your brand apart, sticking to a schedule, and providing real-life value through content)
  6. Policy & Governance (making rules, taking risks, and protecting key customer retention)
  7. Tools (find good ones)
  8. Measurement (defining clear metrics, knowing how to turn analytics into benefits, and not relying solely on the numbers)

Check out the full Slideshare here.

Nuts and Bolts, Policies and Evolution

In its current iteration, community management is sorely underutilized. But as the practice puts down roots in the business space and experts develop, it will go from nebulous need to operational fixture, complete with the aforementioned best practices and criteria, trackable value adds, and solid parameters around team size and policies. But that’s not what makes community management so important.

One of the great things about capitalizing on community management is the way it allows us to reconnect with the humanity of our customers. Shifting advocacy control by establishing brand ambassador programs, or giving your brand a voice by creating content that isn’t product-specific, inspires conversations and engagement that goes beyond the buy-sell relationship. Companies with community managers know that cultivating these connections requires diligence, in addition to bringing themselves peer-level with their biggest fans.

Most importantly, they know that the best way to personify something is to put a real person behind it.

A Glimpse into the Future

Data continues to pour in as more and more research is done by TCR. “Time will tell what that means in terms of organizational performance,” says Research Fellow Maggie Tunning, “but it does validate the important role of communities in affecting behavior change.” The good news is that there’s hard evidence of community management’s benefits, trends are emerging, and soon, more companies will be able to translate this info into practice.

However, without research and collaboration, progress doesn’t happen — so do your part. Read through TCR’s 2011 and 2012 reports, and then take this survey to share the state of your company’s community management program. Get your sneak peek at the ongoing findings here.