A lot of digital issues comms may appear good at first glance, but does not tick enough Cs to succeed, the three being: content, community and campaign.

Here’s a hypothesis representing pretty much any organisation that conducts online communication:

  • Organisation X has a clear story to tell and knows it needs to do so through a variety of content delivery channels (content).
  • It has to speak to a spectrum of people in a variety of contexts in a number channels in order to rebut falsehoods, try to convince the unconvinced, ensure that supporters are informed and motivated, and generally have a clear voice (community).
  • It knows there is lots of competition in the overcrowded communications space, so it needs to have a clear and compelling goal and identity, single core message which people remember, and it needs be splashed everywhere through a variety of channels, and often include advertising (campaign).

To their detriment, organisations will often do one or two of the three. They’ll produce really good content, but they won’t engage with naysayers or supporters in social channels, allowing the other side to dominate the space. Or they’ll engage in social channels but not have convincing content to drive people to. Or they’ll produce content and engage but their programme is not treated as a campaign, meaning it is not as visible as the other side and doesn’t get the pulse racing. Or it’s treated as a campaign and lots of people take note, and then once they dig deeper, they see there’s no convincing story because the content’s poor and there’s a backlash. And so forth.

There’ll be instances where organisations won’t need to focus that much on one of the three Cs. On a niche issue, conversations in social may not be that rife, for instance (this is often the case in digital PA). However, in most cases, organisations are strongly encouraged to tick off all three, or the one or two they do invest in won’t have enough traction to make the programme a success.

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Whatever the issue, Public Affairs professionals in Brussels will usually seek to do two things: obviously, communicate with policy-makers, whether directly or through what we in PR-speak call “influencers”; and build coalitions of support, ideally in both Member States and Brussels (note: how to manage the Member States and Brussels nexus – in particular how to identify and harness activity at national level to drive political developments in Brussels – is arguably the greatest bane of the Brussels-based PA professional).

With the advent of digital, PA professionals got rather excited about prospects for the latter: the online space would allow them to build pan-European coalitions with ease and speed, and on the cheap. These coalitions of people interested in very specific issues (web-speak: micro-communities) – so far often scattered and unaware of each other – would finally have a single place in which to unify and mobilise their activity, which when fed into the policy loop would help drive political developments far more effectively.

It didn’t happen, however:

  • People across the EU may have been active on issues online, but on different platforms (and communicating in different languages) i.e. like-minded people may have been producing lots of good material and doing stuff which policy-makers and influencers would have taken note of, but their activity remained as splintered as before.
  • When anyone did try to set up an online community to join the dots, it was hard to get people to join: raising awareness of a one-stop online community was difficult, and even if likeminded people were informed, getting them to join (and stay active) in a dedicated community was (and remains) nigh on impossible.

Enter LinkedIn Groups, and we finally have a community platform that ticks the following boxes:

  • It’s pan-European and has critical mass (or getting there.)
  • It’s credible.
  • People are already on it so no one has to join something new and unfamiliar.
  • People check their LinkedIn regularly, so will likely check the community and be active on it more than they would on a dedicated platform.
  • It has all the required features (aggregation, discussion, sharing) to enable what’s required of an online coalition i.e. being a single unifying hub for good information scattered in lots of different places (blogs, sites, Twitter feeds, whatever), and allowing like-minded people to meet, engage, share, mobilise and – in particular – consolidate their activity.

Needless to say, a group has to be managed very efficiently if it’s to act as a single hub and drive cohesive action on an issue, but the potential’s there.

I was a panellist last weekend at a workshop held at the party conference of the Dutch Liberal Party (D66), along with MEP Marietje Schaake and Rosa van der Tas, Dutch web politician of the year. The theme of the discussion was “the digital political party of the future” and I was included amongst such a stellar cast for my insights on how political parties could pick up a trick or two from the corporate world.

My key points were as follows (with lots of apologies for the use of ghastly PR jargon):

  • As an aside, it’d be wrong to think that business is always a step ahead: politicians, parties and political movements have forever been driving innovation in communications, from radio addresses to television advertising through to mobilising networks of support and fundraising online.
  • Having said that, in some areas, business is leading the way (although there’ll always be some political entity somewhere that’s just as cutting edge, and every area I mention has already been mastered by some political party or campaign at some point.) For instance, on “content”, business (not all of it, by any means) has learned that, in an age of information overload where users increasingly access information via search engines or through peer recommendations, simply delivering content does not work. Cutting through the clutter and convinving increasingly cynical constituents requires a compelling narrative, developed through what we call (PR jargon #1) “content strategy”. In short, that means identifying and breaking down audiences, and methodically assessing what will make them tick, including what they’d like to hear and what medium they might like to hear it via. So the digital political party of the future should not just regurgitate dry commentary: it should develop a system for determining what its constituents care about, and it should respond to it by delivering a heart-felt, interesting, honest and relevant story, through a variety of channels.
  • As part of that package, the digital political party of the future should also develop its capacity for (PR jargon #2) “community management”. It should not just track and assess audiences so that it can develop a more compelling and relevant narrative through content, but should also do so to nurture and expand its community of supporters. Meaning what? That the party has communicators on board dedicated to identifying and tracking people interested in it and its issues online, engages with them, answers their questions, asks for their input, allays their fears – and importantly, helps connect them to each other, on and offline. This latter point is key. Are there people in a neighbourhood in city X or in village Y of the same political conviction but who do not know each other? The community management element of the party’s programme helps connect them.
  • A frequent conundrum for businesses engaging online is how to manage the brand vs. people balance, given that lots of people will engage with a brand if it articulates a vision they believe in, but others prefer to engage with individuals that represent the brand. Ensuring a good balance will also be key to the digital political party of the future. In practice, this means that elements of content and community management can be centralised via the party, but in addition, the party needs to help to harness the (PR jargon #3) personal brands of those within it i.e. its politicians. So beyond producing content and managing a community on behalf of the collective narrative of the party, it needs to help nurture and promote the “personal brands” of its proponents by acting as a guide to those who have not yet mastered online communication, as well as offering a focal point for their activity by aggregating and promoting their social media activities centrally and helping to redistribute via the community manager role.

In the four pillars I’ve been raving about recently, I speak of an almost “organic” growth towards a community if you have the right building blocks in place and do the right things. Meaning that if you listen and bring together information, start using social media effectively, enabling stakeholder dialogue, this can eventually develop into a community of people who act as mobilisers on your behalf.

Abstract example of how the model should ideally work:

  • My organisation does wonderful things but nobody knows.
  • I start finding out what people are talking about in my sector or on my issue and who might be interested in the things I do. I bring them together.
  • I start engaging with them online, humbly, and they like me and get excited about what I do because they feel I have something to offer.
  • More people are brought in; they talk and engage.
  • Eventually, I have a community of people excited about what I do who help me spread my message, attract members or maybe even advocate my take on an issue.

However, this is the point at which I want to announce my warning: it’s really not that easy; your community will not be totally self-sustaining. Maybe it won’t need you, but fact of the matter is that you need someone to “feed” the community. Even community benchmarks from across the field from say Ben and Jerry’s Facebook group to Barack Obama’s online platform worked because people engaged and spread the word, but they both needed people from the campaigns themselves to listen, respond, feed information, and generally animate. Again, it needn’t be you; it just needs to be someone who takes charge. On Firefighternation (one of my personal favourites) it’s active firefighters who are not necesarrily the founders who have taken the lead in animating their community.

hugsLots of clients want an online community, and in some cases I’d agree that it’s a good idea (see previous posts here and here.) Makes sense. A good online community can be the focal point for an organisation’s fans, customers, employees and so on, allowing them to engage with the company/sector/issue in question and as a result grow even more passionate than before and give them a launch pad for bringing others onboard.

However, if you don’t already have a very big, active and passionate offline community, your online community won’t work. Sure, you might get 50 people, and if that’s OK with you, fine, but in most cases it won’t be, especially if you’re trying to prove ROI (hard with social media in any case – impossible with 50 people.)

So what do you do? You build momentum towards community. You first pinpoint stakeholders and potential supporters online and engage with them nice and slow, instead of trying to force a community on them. If your issue is important and you make yourself a well respected thought-leader on it, community may then eventually happen organically, but as the result of human interaction and not of a tool that’s been provided. And please note that community in this case might not even mean an online community, say a Ning. It could just be people connected via Twitter, who engage on one very popular blog, or a Facebook group. Remember, it’s not the tool that is going to make people suddenly want to be in a community, it’s the story around it.

How do you start though? How do you bring people together, engage, create this momentum that will eventually lead to a community of mobilisers for your cause?! Why, you follow the 4-pillar approach to online engagement.