Building Your Engagement Team

Apollo Gonzales's picture

Project Principal


Building Your Engagement Team

As the digital and social spaces have reached maturity, we’re finally seeing organizations invest significant time and money in their digital teams. At the heart of what makes all efforts undertaken by digital teams effective is engagement.

If you want your team to be successful, you need to be thinking about building an Engagement Team. We’ve put together some thoughts from our last year of working on building these teams with our clients.

A couple of weeks ago our good friends over at Communicopia released a 2014 update to their State of Digital Teams report, an effort that spans several years and gathers information from dozens of non-profit organizations. If you have some time, we highly recommend downloading the report and taking a look at where your teams sits on the spectrum.

Last year we started working on a variety of projects for a couple of new large non-profit start ups and one major media company, and in the process of that work we found ourselves working on helping them develop their digital teams. This often comes with the territory when you  are doing a large technical build that requires you to rethink the way your organization approaches digital, especially in the face of an increasingly sophisticated digital audience. We were excited to be crafting killer teams from the ground up, and in a way where the culture permeated the entire organization. One of our clients challenged us to help him define the center of excellence from which the organization’s commitment to engagement with its audience emanates.

It turns out that clients aren’t alone in asking that question. Over the course of the last 6 months we’ve heard the same question phrased a dozen different ways from our non-profit and for-profit clients. The range of roadblocks to execution are myriad, but at the root is defining your organization’s commitment to engagement with your audience.

After working through these projects with our clients we landed on a range of team sizes and roles that spanned everything from 3 to 25 people (the high end due to the volume of content being produced and desired level of direct engagement). Regardless of the number of people, we found that there were 6 roles central to the success of the team.

The Senior Engagement Strategist - This is the gravitational center of the entire team. She has a holistic understanding of digital spaces, the audiences who populate them, and can develop the strategies that engage them. Ideally, she sits at the same level as the most senior person in Communications/Marketing so that she has a solid understanding of the institution’s goals, and has the authority to inject the findings and experience of her team and audience into conversations about the strategic direction of the organization as a whole.

Engagement Strategists/Social Strategists - Every community is a little different, so you need a couple of folks to cover online platforms. These strategists are the left and right hand of the Senior person listed above, but have their fingers on the pulse of audiences in specific platforms. If you are bound to having a single person in this role, they should be able to deftly switch between communities and not feel compelled to develop a one-size-fits-all strategy that spans across communities. Together with the Senior Engagement Strategist, these people develop the comprehensive engagement strategy by pulling together intel from the members of the team who follow.

Community Manager - Someone needs to do the day to day, hour by hour engagement with the audience. This is the Community Manager. The CM is charged with the health and growth of the community. They are there to listen, engage, and guide the community to a good place. This person develops and fosters the culture of the community and reports insights about behavior and community needs to the team. This person knows the community across platforms, and keeps track of those members of the community who are highly engaged. They are also a moderator and makes the final call when it comes to enforcing community guidelines that might lead to banning people or, preferably, sending them warnings and opening discussions to make the community a stronger place.

Data Manager - There are thousands of points of data coming in from digital platforms, someone needs to a) wrangle all of that in a way that is manageable and b) know how to parse the data and c) recognize patterns and insights so that change/adaptation/iteration can happen. Data without change is meaningless.

Writer(s) - You need people who can write awesome content. You need people who understand what moves your audience. These writers need to be able to tell a compelling story, test it with the Data Team, iterate, and test again. This specific task is one that is often pawned off on Program people because they "know the issue best” and while that may be true, those Program people are not often the most compelling storytellers. Writers should be thought of as not very different from a journalist, in that they should spend time with the Program staff getting to the core of the issue they are writing about.

Brand Reputation & Offsite - People are talking about your brand in places other than your properties. You need someone who is constantly watching what people are saying about your issue/brand in other places. That person needs to know how to engage in other people's ecosystems. Understanding how to step in to and engage in another community takes special listening and relationship skills. It is easy to do this poorly.

In the end, your team is going to look a little different, and as our friends at Communicopia point out when talking about the full breadth of the digital team, there is a wide range in what the actual structure of these teams looks like, especially around where the team members sit. What we’ve put together here is a core group of people, a center of excellence, that can work hand in hand with with the rest of the digital team. We feel that with a solid team focused on engagement, and driving the institution to remember engagement with an audience, instead of just pushing content to an audience, all the other work being done in the digital, advocacy, and program teams will be more holistic and effective.

Give us a call, send us an email, or leave us a comment on Facebook, we’d love to hear what your team looks like now and what you are shooting for in 2014.

I see you like to read printed material. You should check out Nicco's book The End of Big: