Today we welcome Rick Allen who will be a frequent contributor to The Community Roundtable blog. With a background in writing, publishing, and technology innovation—and a passion for the web—Rick strives to improve online user experiences through content strategy. He writes and speaks often on web publishing topics and is a member of TheCR Network.
Last month, The Community Roundtable held a member roundtable discussion with Jeremiah Owyang of Altimeter Group on outsourcing community management. Owyang had published an article in August discussing trends and options for outsourcing community management activities. The blog post launched a vigorous debate about how to determine when—if at all—it’s appropriate to entrust a third-party company with managing your community. Members of TheCR Network had a lot to say on the topic:
The outsourcing dilemma
Outsourcing community management is becoming an increasingly hot topic as organizations try to figure out how to scale their online communities. When a community demands more than internal resources can provide, it makes sense to consider outside help. And help there is! Many marketing and communications agencies have stepped up to the plate offering services to fill this gap—Owyang mentioned several in his post, including Cap Gemini, Liveworld, Ant’s Eye View, and Dachis Group. However, the question remains: will these services solve your community problems?
Community and your brand
Perhaps the biggest concern of those who were vocal on the call was brand management. One member asked the question, “When outsourcing, how big is the risk of losing corporate brand and authenticity in community management?” Indeed, by outsourcing community management, are we outsourcing our brand? How can we trust external community managers to adequately represent the values of our organization?
Many members of TheCR Network agreed that outsourcing the voice and tone of a community is risky. Community management relies on sustaining a common voice that supports your brand and values. It’s hard to mange that externally.
Some folks suggested that outsourcing content development is less risky than outsourcing the community management. However, if we can trust agencies to create on-brand content, perhaps there’s an opportunity to trust them with the ensuing conversations as well. This slippery slope is what fuels the outsourcing debate. Where should the line be drawn?
Everything in moderation
The option of outsourcing community management is not an all-or-nothing prospect. While your brand and community strategy may not be appropriate to outsource, there may be other responsibilities that are. Owyang suggested four possible levels of community management to consider for outsourcing:
2. Brand representation
3. Member response
4. Moderation, curation, and analytics
By evaluating your business and community objectives as well as social platforms, you may find that member responses, moderation, curation, or analytics can be adequately managed externally. Or, if you manage a young community and need guidance for development, perhaps outsourcing strategy is an appropriate option after all.
Train the trainers
Just as agencies can train internal staff on community management best practices, internal staff can train agencies on their brand. Community management must be a partnership—and while it becomes more challenging to collaborate with agencies than your own staff, it can be done.
The limitations on training agencies to represent your brand likely depend upon your business and community goals. As TheCR co-founder Rachel Happe mentioned, “The more you want to drive innovation from community interactions, [the more difficult it is] to outsource.”
Is it time to “skill up”?
In regard to the four levels of community management, Jim Storer, co-founder of TheCR, suggests organizations take a close look at their goals before outsourcing anything beyond the “moderation” level: “When we talk with our members it’s clear that they evolve their view of the community/social opportunities for their business based on a 360-view of the current initiatives. I’m not sure this would happen if they weren’t as plugged into the day-to-day activities.”
One of the trends Owyang identified was that community managers are learning to “skill up” in order to take ownership of the strategy and high-level activities that guide community management. If this trend continues, more organizations will be better prepared to tackle the community management challenges that currently lead us to consider outsourcing options.
Have you considered outsourcing community management activities in your organization? Do you consider outsourcing a viable option?
TheCR Network is an annual membership-based peer network of community, social media, and social business practitioners. We run strategic, tactical, and professional development programming and events as well as an online community for discussions and making connections. Join today.