The inimitable toro | photo credit: Lisa Kennelly

Lessons in Community Management from Unexpected Sources

How a local doggy daycare reminded me of the value of going back to basics.

When I first started in Community Management over six years ago, my role centred around harnessing and igniting existing online conversations around a brand. But as this discipline has evolved (surfacing many a “guru”, “specialist”, “advocate” and otherwise) and as brands embrace the importance of cultivating community and increasingly become the arbiters of these exchanges, the field has become saturated with awkward advertising ploys. These tactics often bastardize the authenticity that forms the crux of community management (or audience development, or engagement strategy … why must we suffer such a semantically-challenged profession?)

Don E. Schultz, professor (emeritus-in-service) of integrated marketing communications at Northwestern University, recently proposed some profound thoughts on “The Slippery Slope of Social Media” and the influx of short-term sales promotions inundating social media channels in exchange for short-term consumer engagements. In his article for Marketing Power, he questions: “Can we move forward and try to find a real reason for social media to exist as a marketing or communication concept? Or can we define it for what it is: sales promotion? Or probably best of all, can we let it be what it was originally developed as: a way for individuals to communicate electronically with each other, with no marketing involvement?”

I hear what Mr. Schultz is saying, and I’m in agreement, for the most part. There’s a time and a place for these kinds of communications. But to depart slightly from his original intent, I do believe that short-term offers and promotions can provide value to a community, given that they provide something of true salience to the majority while ensuring that the promotion does not detract from the “long-term reciprocal” value developed between brand and consumer, or product/service and end-user.

To borrow from the lessons imparted to me by Kate Drane, Hardware Category Lead at Indiegogo, there are four tenets of igniting a community around a cause or set of shared values: Passion, Participation and Pride, and Perks.

So here we are, mixed and muddled by so many choices of media, medium, and message. What do we do now? How do we move forward? Recently, I came into contact with the purest form of social media engagement, one that provided me with a little inspiration and, ironically, a reminder that in order to move forward, it may be time that we go back to basics.

My coworker and fellow Medium contributor Lisa Kennelly is, by no exaggeration, completely obsessed with her dog. Fair enough, the little critter is just about the most photogenic pup I’ve ever seen. Due to her work schedule, Toro is frequently placed in doggy daycare, a separation that bears untold psychiatric hardships on his beloved owner. As desk buddies, I was privy to almost-daily coos and updates about how well Toro is doing in daycare, replete with ample anecdotes about all the new pup friends he was making.

Finally, I had to ask, “how are you keeping up with Toro’s progress this frequently throughout the day?” The answer was simple but brilliant: the doggy daycare owners at Urban Lifestyles Critter Care posted regular photo updates to their public Facebook page showing daycare activities and featuring photos of the dogs making friends or palling around.

It’s adorable … and enormously effective. To take it back to the four P’s: The daycare owners exhibited their passion for caring for dogs, which ignited pride by the dog owners, which compelled dog owners to participate – various dog owners would Like and comment on photos of other dogs, creating relationships with other likeminded individuals in the group who share the same values and passions.

As for the perk, while in this case it wasn’t necessarily a tangible promotion or product (though I could see an offer for a discounted second term of daycare being incredibly well-received among the community), the perk was purely psychological: for owners, it’s the reassurance that their beloved pet is faring well despite their absence, and the security and validation in their choice to place their dog in not just any daycare, but this specific one.

This kind of authenticity, transparency, and commitment to long-term relationship building is the bread and butter of social media engagement. Without it, any brand channel can quickly devolve into a pawn for promotions, inviting fleeting consumer engagement. What’s the value in that?