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.

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Fish and LinkedIn

September 20, 2011

Short post. My colleague Aaron – who loves fish (policy, not eating it, he’s a devoted vegetarian) – sent a note around this week stating that he had found scores of groups on LinkedIn that discuss fish policy. He heartily recommended that everyone look up their issues on LinkedIn and see what sort of discussions were taking place, and who was involved in them, as it was a great way to follow developments and build relationships with people who matter.

Hear, hear.

I’d take it one step further. If there are no existing groups (or the existing groups are run by dim-wits), set up your own. It requires a fair bit of work to keep it going and to attract lots of likeminded people, but it may very well be worth it.

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.

I wrote a post a few months ago stating, in short, that a dedicated social network may be worthwhile if your candidate, cause, company, profession, sector etc. is fairly unique and has a very dedicated band of followers looking to engage and/or be mobilised: “If you’re interested in something that can really get lots of people fired up (politics, saving wildlife, football) or, say, represent a very active political group or faction, then your own social network could work, if executed and promoted well.” I cited Barack Obama supporters and US firefighters as good examples of groups that wanted and made use of their own networks.

This all still rings true, but a few posts on Beth’s Blog have given me food for thought (see here and here.) To the list of people who would most likely make use of a good social network of their own, I’d add people who are dealing with a personal or family issue of a sensitive nature, say a medical condition or tragedy of sorts. They are likely to be very eager to communicate and engage with others who are facing similar experiences, as I can imagine that it must provide people with some semblance of comfort to interact with others out there who know exactly what they are going through. And to do so on a dedicated platform is more appropriate than, say, a Facebook Group, as it allows users to have the sense of privacy they’d likely demand when dealing with issues of a sensitive nature.

Under no circumstances am I suggesting that marketers should try tap into this market, although pharmaceutical companies could perhaps have a say – as long as they don’t blatantly plug their products. It’s probably an area best left to government agencies and especially non-profits (again, I’d refer to Beth’s blog as a good source for further material on this.)

A little out of date perhaps, but a post about Barack Obama that I was reading earlier contained a reference to Mattel’s Playground community which I thought was interesting. The Playground, which was set up in 2007 but has since been shut, aimed to attract mothers of young children who could provide input on existing toys or recommend ideas that would help Mattel develop new products. That in itself is interesting. Dell did something similar with Ideastorm a few years back: by asking customers to recommend ideas, provide feedback and share information, they revitalised a dying brand which has since outdone HP et al to become the number one manufacturer of personal computers in the world.

Mattel’s Playground is interesting in another way too. Mattel had to recall a number of products in 2007, which ordinarily should have had disastrous effects. However, their profits actually grew, so they were not adversely affected by the recalls at all. Why? Because they respected the main rules of social media: listen, be humble, be patient, build relationships, and act in a way your community would approve of. As products were being recalled, Mattel communicated with the Playground community on a daily basis, asking for advice on how they should act and for feedback on every action they took. Result? Their reactions to the recalls reflected that which customers expected, and by listening to their community, they showed that they were genuinely sorry for their mistakes and wanted to make amends. A good lesson for all companies.

It’s often noted that replicating online tools that are mainstream and already perform the functions you need, just for the sake of having something with your own logo on it, is a mistake. In most cases, I’d agree. With social networks in particular, considering the number of existing tools with scores of users – LinkedIn, Facebook, Orkut, hi5, Bebo and so on – if you are looking to create a community, why would you want to create something new? Most networks fail, ROI is hard to measure (you have a load of members – so what?), and as mentioned, existing tools usually have all the functionalities you could ever want (and can even be used easily and cheaply).

All valid points. However, sometimes there’s a case for an organisation, movement, group, party etc. setting up a tailor-made social network:

  1. If you want your network to perform a specific function.
  2. Most pertinently, when the people who might use it – call it your fan-base or stakeholders or whatever – are numerous, enthusiastic and active, and actually would like a social network that caters for them and them alone.

The success of the US President-elect’s network – my.barackobama.com – confirms both points. The specific functions it performed were a) raising money for the candidate, and b) allowing supporters to mobilise great numbers of people in a very organised manner. And with regards to the second point, I think it goes without saying that Obama supporters were plentiful enough and fired up.

A less conspicuous case-study I’d cite, also from across the pond, is Firefighter Nation, the firefighters’ network, which has 26,000 very active members that are avidly using all the functionalities on the site (e.g. all thirteen forum topics had been active in the last 24 hours when I checked). So why is it working? Primarily because of a very strong dose of point 2 cited above: there are lots of firefighters in the US, they are very passionate about their profession, they have a very strong sense of camaraderie, and they want their own space where they can meet others like them and share their unique experiences. A Facebook group could probably do all the same things, but it just would not feel as special; it would not be a unique platform for them alone.

So the lesson is: if you’re thinking of setting up a network for philatelists or fans of tiddlywinks, use an existing platform (and don’t hold your breath). If you’re interested in something that can really get lots of people fired up (politics, saving wildlife, football) or, say, represent a very active political group or faction, then your own social network could work, if executed and promoted well. And if you really do fancy giving it a go, I’d recommend starting on Ning, which is the platform Firefighter Nation is built on – it’s brilliant, and what’s more, it’s free.