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Social Media Volume 2: User Engagement Strategies

I'm very happy to report that the second part of my Social Media report for the Smart Services CRC has now been released, again under a Creative Commons licence. Volume 1 is still available here, and provides a general overview of the state of the art in social media; in doing so, it also points to a number of key social media sites which represent important developments in the field.

Volume 2 is divided into two parts: Part 1 offers background information that is crucial to the development of an understanding of how communities work and what motivates their participants to contribute, while Part 2 converts that understanding into a series of strategic recommendations for profit and non-profit organisations aiming to develop a presence within the social media environment. There is probably nothing here that will surprise long-time followers of social media developments - instead, the report aims at those individuals and organisations who feel the need to develop social media strategies, but have yet to establish a full understanding of what makes online communities tick, and of how to engage with them.

In combination, these two reports serve as a toolkit for organisations as they come to terms with social media spaces and develop their strategies for engagement with their communities of users and followers. Any comments and feedback are very welcome, of course!

Here's the executive summary for Parts 1 and 2 of Volume 2. Full PDFs of both reports are here:

Part 1

The material presented in Part 1 emphasises the following points:

1. Communities are defined by the adherence of their members to a set of shared values, beliefs, norms and ideas.

  • Such norms develop over time, and are subject to constant renegotiation in the community.
  • Evaluation against these ideals determines the place of individual members in the community.

2. Communities are organised around their leading users and ideals in concentric circles, from the core to the margins.

  • The leading community members are those who best embody the community's shared ideals.
  • Members may rise in status by showing their allegiance to the community's values.

3. Individual communities within a wider field of interest are themselves organised in concentric circles.

  • Communities within a given field range from smaller specialist groups to generic spaces.
  • These communities interact and engage with one another, and their membership overlaps.

4. Users of social media spaces may be motivated by several competing factors.

  • These include egocentric (individual needs) and altruistic (community needs) motivations,
  • as well as intrinsic (personal satisfaction) and extrinsic (social rewards) motivations.

5. Various combinations of these motivations result in a range of commonly observable user types.

  • Knowledge sharers derive personal satisfaction from sharing with the community.
  • Community facilitators aim to serve the community by safeguarding its social processes.
  • Information seekers come to the community mainly to address their personal needs.
  • Attention seekers feel a need to gain social status within the community.

6. Users may move through a range of stages in their social media lifecycle, but there is no one typical pathway which they follow, other than from lesser to greater sophistication of usage.

  • The pathways followed by users are inherently dependent on the social media spaces they use.
  • Users may be at different lifecycle stages in different social media spaces.

Part 2

In Part 2, we convert this understanding of social media communities and their participants into a series of ten strategic recommendations which are designed to increase the chances of success for organisations which attempt to develop a social media presence and attract a community of participants:

  1. Identify possible levels of engagement with different user types. Map them onto an engagement framework combining activities within third-party and (where necessary) in-house social media spaces.
  2. Especially in the early stages of community development, treat the role of community manager or community animator as a priority, and ensure that these staff are enthusiastic and capable. Confirm that they understand what is required of them.
  3. Where the anticipated influx of new members to the community makes this necessary, plan for a staged roll-out of the social media space that opens the space to new participants only gradually and privileges likely lead users during its early stages.
  4. Plan ahead to provide the emerging social media community with a steady stream of inputs which seed community interaction and content development. Ensure that such material is new and stimulating to the community, and in sharing it, encourage them to respond and participate.
  5. Carefully consider the technical infrastructure supporting the social media space, and ensure that it provides for a range of contribution tasks that increase in difficulty in evenly spaced steps. The experience of early success in contributing to the space encourages users to move towards more elaborate forms of participation, increasing their loyalty to the site.
  6. Ensure that user identities are persistent over time and connected to the user's profiles in other online spaces, and encourage users to flesh out their online personas with additional information. Consider encouraging the use of real names where appropriate. Encourage communities to sanction disruptive behaviour without a need for moderator intervention, but address overzealous bullying of users expressing minority views.
  7. Prepare for the inevitability of moving towards peer moderation processes as the community grows, provide appropriate tools and mechanisms for this form of social accounting, and help train the community in their use. Enable the community to develop a shared understanding of what are seen as desirable and undesirable forms of participation, and encourage it to share this understanding as a set of public guidelines for all contributors.
  8. Track user participation in the social media space and build strong relationships with community members to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the social media community. Regularly review community activities and the social media platforms supporting it, and update the technical and social infrastructure to enhance collaborative processes. Extensively consult the community on any development activity.
  9. Work closely with the leaders of the social media community as they emerge, and draw on their knowledge and expertise in managing the community, developing the social media space, and developing new products and services. Be transparent about your actions as you harness community leaders in this way, and ensure that they are able to maintain their trusted position in the community. Consider community leaders as potential new staff, but ensure that any such transition is managed with utmost transparency.
  10. Understand the expectations of contributors in relation to their ownership and authorship rights, and develop mutually acceptable licencing arrangements. Transparently display such arrangements and educate new users about their rights and obligations. Maintain the community's goodwill by meticulously acknowledging the authorship of individual contributors where their ideas are utilised by the organisation.

These recommendations cannot guarantee success in social media spaces, as this is also determined by a number of further environmental and contextual factors, but they provide organisations which implement them with the best possible chance of being successful in developing strong and sustainable relationships with their users and followers. Additionally, it is certain that any actions which go against these strategic recommendations will significantly limit the chances of the social media space to be successful.

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