Social Media Engagement/Command Centers: Moving Towards a Business Decision Driven Model

September 1, 2012
Posted by: Peter Friedman, Founder, Chairman & CEO

At LiveWorld, we define a social media command center as an organized set of people and work flow to monitor, report on, escalate, respond, and engage on one or more social media venues. Altimeter’s Jeremiah Owyang (@jowyang) blogs this week on the subject, making these critical points:
1) Command Centers are tactics and should be part of a larger strategy. Companies should not deploy these centers without first having a strategy on how social will be used in the context of their business strategy. These centers can amplify, impact, and disrupt existing business functions and will impact cost, customer experience, and workflow.
2) Benefits of centralized resources are useful — but not every company will need one. While having centralized resources to offload other teams, some advanced companies are already integrating listening and engagement to all areas of the company. Having a physically dedicated center isn’t required for customer engagement on social.
3)  Expect outside providers to offer solutions. I expect that companies will have dedicated solutions around customer engagement in social, as well as nearly every government, sports team, and beyond. But don’t expect every company to host themselves; outsourced options like call centers in emerging markets will emerge – with benefits and downsides.
 We agree, and based on our 28 years of experience (16 as LiveWorld and 12 as Apple) in social media, including managing such engagement/command centers, we’d like to add:
Social media engagement/command centers can be physical or virtual — each approach having benefits. We see three major challenges, though each of these is addressable with the right team, strategy, and implementation: 
1)  Goals incompatible with social. The program must be based in social media insight and engagement models, not traditional PR listen and minimize the negatives models.
2)  Social media information overload. The fire hose of data combined with a tools-driven, one-size-fits-all and automated approach often leads to lots of data, no insight, and no actual engagement.
3)  Operationalizing the information out into the company to actual decision makers. For maximum impact and value, the insight needs to be distributed to and actionable through out the company.
We see the future of social media engagement/command centers as being based on business decision frameworks, customer-driven with 24/7 real time response.
More below
LiveWorld History With Social Media Engagement/Command Centers
Our first such center was actually back in the  early 90’s at Apple, operating Apple’s industry-wide online community/social network, AppleLink, whose 50,000 members included developers, dealers, corporate IS, user group leads, K-12  and university leads, and Apple employees — spread over 50 countries in 30 languages. Here we monitored and engaged 24×7 to keep Apple’s finger on the pulse of its own industry, providing various Apple corporate groups and the executive staff with regular feedback on issues and opportunities. The workflow included 24/7 issues escalation.
In the late 90’s we built a physical command center complete with large wall monitors and glass walled visitor observation area for Talk City, our consumer facing social network with about 4 million uniques/month.
These days we run virtual command centers that monitor both our F500 clients’ large branded communities and/or content from the largest social media networks. Our operators work virtually but are connected together through back-end software into a 24/7 workflow and escalation process, combined with daily, weekly, and monthly reporting ranging from volume metrics to hotpoints warranting executive review, to qualitative analysis via our culture/tone/engagement framework. We also have trigger points to identify potential or actual social media crises and a swat team model to respond. In some cases our team is operating at over a hundred hours/day to manage just one brand.
* Physical vs. Virtual
Physical command centers are useful, though not actually required for the implementation. Most of the real work is done at individual workstations.  The larger monitors are really more show for visitors than used by teams. Still, a physical command center has the potential benefit of focusing the rest of the company on social media and the value of the process. On the other hand, a virtual or distributed model is more effective at managing round the clock operations. Even some of the most advanced physical models have found that for optimal results they have to set up multiple locations to deal with time zones and geo specific usage patterns. The key isn’t co-location, but rather the training of the team and  tools that manage the workflow. Specifically, tracking conversation streams even when they cross channels, maintaining records of the interactions, and mapping these records to the larger customer set.
* Issues & Dynamics
Social media command centers, whether virtual or physical, provide a company with the opportunity to organize themselves for and optimize their use of social media — insight for sure, but also engagement. Such centers can address three major issues, although to date, most deployments aggravate rather than overcome these issues:
1) Goals incompatible with social:
Many command centers start with a traditional PR thinking model to reduce the flow of negative comments. Some companies don’t understand social requires embracing negative feedback and being transparent, with authentic and pro-active engagement. To effectively respond to comments (good and bad) in social, a company has to be ready to grow from and implement the changes they find. These changes might be product or process related, and could touch every part of their business. One of the biggest points of failure for command centers is to attempt to slow the comments without a true desire to learn and grow the company.
2) Social media information overload:
There is no end to the mentions, customer inquiry, market, competitive and employee analysis that social media can deliver. With these comes a fire hose of data and content. Usually the first goal of a command center is to tame the firehose, then focus, select, and surface the information that is of real value to the company. However a one-size-fits-all tools-based approach generally results in just bringing forward the data, time-consuming processes, and inconsistent use. Every so often our industry starts trending towards more automation with the tools, only to find this lessens the value of the information and actually amplifies the spam and overload effect. Most command centers are so overloaded with information gathering that they have few resources available for the engagement side of the equation. But there is great opportunity here: first to deepen insight, second for loyalty marketing, and third for service and support — a combination of group and personal outreach.
3) Operationalizing the information out into the company to actual decision makers: 
Even if the social media team gets a focused handle on the information flow, organizing it and making it useful  for others in the company remains a challenge — partly an issue of logistics and partly behavioral models.
* The future of social media engagement/command centers: Business decision frameworks, customer-driven with 24/7 real time response
In the future we’ll see models that start with business decision frameworks, and build the command center process to suit, with less emphasis on the tools themselves, and more focus on how to use them with selective, flexible thinking. Increasing role of humans in the process, less of automation. And new iterative learning and two-way participation models that operationalize the information out to and back from the rest of the company. Customers are increasingly expecting and demanding brands to respond to them on social media and do it — sooner rather than later.