How Should Organizations Build Digital Communications Teams?

Apollo Gonzales's picture

Project Principal


How Should Organizations Build Digital Communications Teams?

Note: This post first ran on CQ Roll Call's Connectivity blog. Check it out, it's pretty cool. Also, we've been talking a lot about building digital teams lately. If this interests you, check out the recap of our Scaling Social Change Hangout.

In the scramble for attention in digital spaces, nonprofit organizations find themselves facing the daunting task of churning out content that engages audiences at super-human speed — what in the marketing world would be called “owned media.” The tricky part is making content that the audience actually wants to consume and not just broadcasting the institution’s self-selected priorities. For most organizations, doing so requires a radical shift to staffing and process structures.

Roles within digital communications at nonprofits have matured a lot over the last 10 years. First, the role of institutional “web masters” split into website manager (in charge of content maintenance) and developer (often a consultant) when modern Content Management Systems (CMS) pushed the knowledge base beyond building static HTML pages. Five years ago, digital communications and marketing, often described as social media, were relegated to interns or junior staff for no other reason than the existing team didn’t really know much about Facebook or Twitter.

In 2014, putting the identity and reputation of your brand in the hands of an intern is tantamount to gross negligence. Thankfully, most institutions recognize this fact now. Gone are the days where “5 years experience” or even “10 years experience” in a job description for a digital team member seems absurd. So what does an organization’s digital team need to look like today, and how does one find the right type of people to staff the team?

For nonprofit organizations, which develop structured narrative arcs over the long term, different roles fall into several different “buckets” of responsibility. Each bucket needs to be accounted for, but depending on the organization, one person may be holding all of them, or sharing the load with others. These roles, whatever the title, break down into the following five buckets: engagement strategy, community manager, data manager, content manager, and brand reputation.

The engagement strategist is in charge of oversight for all the content going out across all channels. This position is a must-have and should be seen as sitting at an executive level so as not to be constrained by approval processes is left to be as nimble as required by the organization’s content or news cycle. This level of leadership allows the engagement strategist a holistic view of what is happening in the institution and in their audience.

A community manager is charged with understanding the needs of the community of interested individuals and fostering communication with those people and the brand. Previously, this role would have served as a curator of a message board or a website’s comments section. Now, the community manager must go to wherever the audience is—Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat— and engage with conversations taking place at each platform. The idea that “if you build it, they will come” does not hold true on the modern social web.

The content manager owns the responsibility of creating, curating, and understanding the effectiveness of the content. The “how”—or mode of communication—is typically informed by whatever method the audience uses to communicate with each other (be it blogs, email, pictures, video, or something completely new). The “what” is shaped by the engagement strategist who considers the information or resources that provide the most value to the audience.

The data manager has a dual role of data aggregation and analysis. The work done by everyone on this team is highly dependent on accurate data and analysis so that no one is spending time on tasks that don’t matter to the audience. At its simplest form, this role requires being the keeper of website and marketing analytics. As an organization or an individual grows, more complex ‘big data’ elements come to play (A/B testing and data visualization to name a few).

Finally, the brand reputation manager monitors hot issues and brand or campaign mentions taking place outside of an organization’s owned channels. Often, this role involves triaging responses to conversations taking place on social media, where one small miscommunication or (mis)interaction can seemingly blow up into a news story rapidly. This job also requires automatic (scripted) and manual monitoring of those areas where your audience clusters (e.g. a particular subreddit or Facebook group).

The good news is, while finding these people will take some time it is not an impossible task. In the engagement strategist and community manager roles, organizations need people who understand two-way communication between institutions and audiences and are willing to push back against a traditional broadcast model of communication. Data people are out there, but this may take a little more time to find. Organizations truly need Excel spreadsheet heroes, not just people who know the difference between median and mean.

We’re in a new era of institution/audience relationships that requires institutions to listen and adapt to their audiences. Chances are pretty good that, unless an organization was started in the last 3 years, that these capacities are not part of its DNA. As nonprofits and advocates begin thinking about 2015 and beyond, it is critical that they make the strong case for growing a modernized digital communications team. It’ll take some time for it to pay off, but down the road it’ll yield a stronger relationship with a bigger, more motivated audience.

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