Building a Social Media Center of Excellence

by Dion Hinchcliffe 11 Jul 2013 Blog Post

One of the most significant recently has been the growth of companies creating dedicated centers of excellence (CoE) to drive improved results, consistency, and economies of scale.

Since tactical social media initiatives are still quite common, organizations are finding that company-related social media activity is taking place across a larger and larger swath of functions in burgeoning social businesses. As this happens, the need is felt to make social media more coherent, less duplicative, more answerable to the business, and better organized and managed.

Not only is it extremely common to find at least two major social media efforts in most enterprises today (usually a set of social marketing and CRM initiatives that is externally facing and a social collaboration effort that is inwardly focused), but there is often multiple instances in of each, especially in larger and geographically distributed firms and conglomerates.

Other duplication typically abounds as well, both in the primary social platforms being used and the secondary capabilities like marketing automation, social analytics, security, compliance, and identity, as well as points of integration with regular line of business applications. So too with staff and roles such as social marketing leads, community management, social publishing, and customer care.

Investing in Social Media

As a result, as senior executives these days have generally moved beyond asking why they should invest in social media (most organizations are clearly doing so today), but rather how they can establish better organization, discipline, and cost effectiveness, while still broadly unleashing the social capabilities of their organizations. Some of this is to help answer the long-standing question of who is ultimately in charge of social media? Is it a central function? Or does it make more sense as a decentralized set of loosely coordinated activities on the edge, closer to where work gets done.

For most companies, instead of creating a new social media department, they are creating centers of excellence that support the rest of the organization, yet actually has dedicated staff and resources that can establish consistent guidelines, unify social tools and platforms where it makes sense, collect techniques and best practices, provide education and bootstrapping, and establish a central monitoring and dispatch capability to respond and engage in social media at scale.

Building a Social Media Center of Excellence

1) Social media stakeholders: CoE staff and internal customers

The early days of establishing a center of excellence tends to be politically fraught, with concerns about over-centralization and prized social media functions at a local level getting moved to a larger bureaucracy in another area within the company. But the first step is clearly understanding who is engaging in important social media activity within the company today. The pattern tends to be the same: There are one or two major initiatives, 5-10 departmental initiatives, and a lot of smaller informal or shadow activities.

Going forward, all of these social media activities will receive support from the CoE, which will — over time — introduce consistency across tools, policy, and processes. This takes time to establish but as a service bureau and support unit, the CoE has the means and resources to help all of the business units succeed, from ramping up a social media effort, to managing it, and then optimizing it.

One of the essential social business functions, community management, is frequently centralized under the CoE, though subject matter-specific communty managers typically remain distributed across the organization in their particular line of business. Executives are also key stakeholders of the CoE. They can use its existence to better exert oversight, participate in governance, set goals, and monitor the progress of social media across the organization using reports, dashboards, and other types of data provided by the CoE team.

2) Key social processes and activities

While a large part of the CoE’s function is to respond to requests for assistance from across the organization, a lot takes place on a regular basis that was formerly managed locally, informally, and in a fragmented fashion. Proactive activities include centralized listening, dispatch of key events to internal stakeholder, reporting, measurement, community management, education and training, risk management, governance, and the coordination of crises in social media. Plus evaluation of tools, new social media channels, and enterprise-wide social media strategy development and planning.

As a result of all of this, I’m often asked how many full time staff a CoE must have in order to be useful and adequately support the demands that will be put upon it. Typically, most enterprises, even large ones, are reluctant to have more than a handful of FTEs supporting social media across the company, at least at first. Today, we typically see CoE staff sizes based on level of social media maturity. Thus, immature organizations usually have 1-2 FTEs initially. This makes it difficult to have an acceptable service level, even with volunteer efforts from other employees. Organizations that have moved beyond the early stages typically have a CoE leader (often called the social media manager), a social media manager, a content manager, and a couple of community managers. The most mature organizations frequently have 5-10 FTEs in their CoE, including the community management team.

3) Portfolio of social tools, platforms, identities, and standards

Social media is greatly enabled by the right social technology, maintained in an effective architecture. The specific details vary by industry, organization, and even by the part of the organization. The CoE has the unenviable job of sorting out the confluence of social silos and activities and bringing some semblance of order and consistency. Most CoEs quickly realize there is no one tool or silver bullet when it comes to social technology. All of CoEs manage large and growing portfolio of social tools, platforms, and standards, with a focus on careful introduction of new tools and rationalization of existing ones so that fragmentation, risk, excess effort, and duplication are managed to an acceptable level.

4) Operating requirements and goals

Together, the stakeholders of the CoE — particularly the internal customers and the executive team (which are typically collectively the ones contributing funding to the new unit) — set the objectives for the CoE. This includes everything from a vision and charter to an expected level of service and detailed business goals. At a high level, the expectation is that the CoE will help drive higher level of business performance, consistency, efficiency, risk, and ROI tracking. Most CoEs I’ve seen review operating goals carefully with stakeholders at least once a year, usually right before the yearly budget cycle starts.

5) Knowledge base: Lessons learned and best practices

One of the most vital outputs of the work of the CoE is a body of knowledge about how best to apply social media in the organization. Most of the processes and activities in the CoE generate valuable information that other stakeholders can learn from.

CoEs that have the greatest impact actively capture and share this knowledge, often in a social tool/repository, and ensure everyone can access it and learn from it. The social media knowledge base contains best practices, lessons learned, playbooks for common social activities, a trouble ticket system, FAQ, policy framework, and most recently, a content directory which contains the social media assets of the organization.

CoEs: A major shift to social media maturity

A few years ago, I explored the early days of social media organization and we’ve seen it come quite a long way in the interim. Companies are readily funding CoEs as social becomes infused with so much of what we do. As digital business becomes an ever more dominant part of our organizations, the CoE is becoming the de facto social media department, with the caveat that is must have full contact with and actively support the rest of the organization for it to hope to scale and add sufficient value to warrant the investment.

For now, most organizations are still experimenting with how they should best organize for social media, and the CoE seems to be the leading model at the moment. There are certainly others however, and I’d love to hear your stories on how you company is structuring its social media efforts.

Additional Reading:

How to Compose an Effective Social Media Team

Program Plan: The Social Media Center of Excellence


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