I just returned from a trip to Montreal where I spoke at Webcom about humanizing business and brands. I also got to spend some quality time with folks I've admired for a while. While there I enjoyed a wonderful dinner with Trust Agent Julien Smith, and friends followed by a totally rocking Karaoke session with fellow enthusiast and Whuffie star Tara Hunt.
Tara has also taken the helm of a very cool new start-up (more on that later). I also got to spend some quality time with fellow speaker Marsha Collier and UX research pioneer (and friend) Jared Spool, a great and smart man.
Back to the idea of humanizing business and brands. Can it be done? Of course it can--that's what this whole "social thing" is all about. But the catch is understanding and activating your entire ambassador ecosystem and getting your social diplomacy programs working with each other as opposed to against. Here's how you can look at your ambassadors and the roles they play:
Your organization's employees can of course be your most effective ambassadors. Nobody knows the products, the culture and the services you provide better than they do. However they need to be activated and empowered. There are several types of employee ambassadors to consider and different ways to leverage them.
Individuals such as Ford's Scott Monty, Ebay's Richard Brewer-Hay (client), Tony Hsieh of Zappos and other highly visible corporate ambassadors often perform a variety of "jobs" for an organization but they also are visible enough to serve as a new breed of spokesperson for your organization, representing the company in the public eye. These individuals must align their personal equity with that of their organization seamlessly.
Thought Leaders & Subject Matter Experts
Edelman's 2010 Trust Barometer highlighted the finding that individuals with established expertise in an area carry serious credibility which leads to trust. If your organization has not activated and supported employees as established experts in areas where they excel, you are missing out on opportunities to influence opinion in key areas. Thought leaders include folks like Danah Boyd of Microsoft (client) or Tim Brown from IDEO. This type of ambassador can also take on role of spokesperson but they primarily focus on their area of expertise. Today social platforms such as blogs, Slideshare and Linked In provide new opportunities to tap the strengths and savvy of the modern day thought leaders. Books and white papers are not as essential as they once were in this area.
As I've stressed before leveraging the idea of digital embassies, they must be staffed with ambassadors and this is where training and deploying community managers for your organization becomes a key role. People like Becky Young of BlackBerry (client) are increasingly dialing up their activity in social spaces effectively acting as community managers any time the engage on behalf of the organization.
This is where we are going to see the most action in the years to come. Chances are that if your company has a salesforce, they are already actively leveraging social networks to benefit themselves which to some extent benefits your business. Best Buy's Twelpforce is still one of the better examples which demonstrates the potential for a business to become social by scaling employee engagement to some degree. Expect more tangible and organized examples of this in the years to come.
Employees are not the only ambassadors your organization has at its disposal--don't forget that you've also got the support of the partners and professional services firms you do business with who can also be tapped in a number of ways. Business partners can be leveraged behind the scenes to help with community engagement initiatives for example, planning and managing content calendars and communications plans. They can also advise during times of crisis. And yes, I believe a partner can also represent an organization publicly as long as transparency is involved and more importantly if they add value to the community they serve. Edelman recently hired a community manager from the client side who will perform these responsibilities as one of the firm's employees. Here the role becomes critical while the actual employer becomes less relevant—the focus must be on adding value to the social system and community authentically (and transparently). Organizations in my opinion can look at their partners as extensions of themselves. The best ones often are.
I'm choosing to focus on the role of these ambassadors vs. leveraging the name ambassador because it's the advocacy of your business, brand or mission that's important. Customers become advocates when they willingly advocate on behalf of your company in public. From a business perspective you need to understand that there are paid and unpaid versions of this. A blogger who receives compensation in some way gets paid, but that doesn't take away from their genuine advocacy and the good ones typically have very high standards. There are of course totally organic advocates who will tirelessly promote your company out of affinity for your products or services. If you are not engaging these people, stop reading this piece and figure out how to do it right now.
Based on the types of ambassadors your organization has the opportunity to activate, you need to have some infrastructure in place. Below are two models to reference:
The reality of many businesses is that they will not be able to justify full time hires and staffing to support social business initiatives. In this model an organization is more partner dependent. If your organization is planning on tapping partners to help manage communities and social initiatives, I recommend at minimum creating a multi-disciplinary committee who can be engaged and updated regularly. Also, from experience, typically corporate/PR and marketing tend to lead these initiatives. I'd add that either of these could potentially be switched to customer service depending on your org.
The other emerging reality for many organizations is that new full time roles are being committed to managing social activities. Enter the Social Media Manager who in this framework leads a core team of several other employees. His/her group integrates their initiatives with the organizations broader efforts (similar to the first model), and works directly with business partners who help with a variety of services as needed. This model is for the the advanced social organization and I'd stress that this team is fully dedicated as opposed to a part time experiment.
It's likely that your own organization has lots of blurring roles and frameworks emerging in real time which relate to everything I've talked about here. Notice that this piece is nearly devoid of mention of the latest tech or social collaboration tool. That's because there's still a very human problem to be solved here at a basic level. If someone in your organization has decided that setting up digital embassies in social ecosystems like Twitter, Facebook and the blogosphere is the right course of action for the organization, then it's time to think about how ALL of the ambassadors can, and will likely interact in and around them.