Community management will become a core part of PR practice, predicts Hard Numbers' Darryl Sparey

It’s clear that coronavirus has had a significant impact on the media sector; as many journalists have been furloughed or laid off. And this has had an impact on the communications sector.

It has become tougher to get media coverage, particularly in national, regional and consumer-facing media. Campaigns that used to fly and max out your Kantar media bill at the end of the month, are now not achieving the same level of impact.

The trends of a reducing pool of earned media to pitch to and an expanding communications sector clamouring for coverage has been going on for some time – but Covid-19 has accelerated that trend.

At the same time, the frictionless nature of digital media means that anyone can, and frequently does, have a blog, podcast, email newsletter and social media presence.

So there is more competition than ever before to get into earned media to connect with your target audience, and there is more competition than ever before on digital channels, as Facebook feeds and Twitter timelines get packed with people sharing the content they are creating, quickly and easily.

A feature of many of the new PR and communications agencies launched in 2020, my own included, is that they do more than “just” media relations. I think that most of the new agencies founded this year have recognised these trends, and made them a feature of their businesses. We’ve set our stall out (hopefully) to be clear that we will drive results for our customers by whatever means necessary. And that’s why, we’re launching a new service for customers that we’re calling “Community as a Service”.

I’ve seen, first-hand, in lockdown, the power of community, and how effective it is at building and reaching an audience. Since March I’ve been involved in building two online communities which have thrived, grown and added real value to fellow PR and marketing professionals during the pandemic.

The first was the CIPR Greater London’s Online community. The CIPR’s Greater London Group Committee started this group in March, as a way to maintain the same regular opportunity for networking and meeting up with fellow professionals that we offered pre-Covid but in a digital form.

The Group, which has grown beyond members of the Greater London Group to have over 150 members now, is full of some of the leading lights of the PR industry. And me.

The second was the Furloughed Or Released Talent (FORT) Group which was set-up by the team from B2B messaging and community-building app Guild. You can read more about this group here, but I’ve been actively involved in helping to promote, grow and manage this community to nearly 300 members at time of writing. Initially set up to help people who’d been furloughed or let go by their employer, it’s become a resource for companies who are recruiting to share roles with people looking for work, and led to members of the community getting employment. I harbour hopes of some of the members getting together and forming an agency. As long as they don’t try and get into the B2B performance-driven marketing and communications game...

For businesses, community presents a fantastic opportunity to get out of the crowded market of earned and shared media, and create a branded, owned channel for direct, two-way communication with their most valuable clients and prospects. It creates a feedback loop for product development and communications. It fosters brand loyalty and develops brand advocacy. And it is all highly measurable, as all interactions are digital, via your own channel.

Platforms like Slack, Discord or Guild enable you to quickly set up and start growing your own dedicated space for sharing best practice, perspectives and personal connection. So what’s the catch, and why aren’t more companies doing it? It takes focused time and effort, and whilst there are no “hacks” there are definitely techniques to scaling and building an audience in this way. And that’s why we’ve launched our Community as a Service offer. We take away the headache of having to either staff or manage a community, and the challenge of building it.

We believe that Community as a Service is a proposition that more agencies will launch in the future, as communicators look to have direct interaction with their most valuable asset – their customers. And it’s a very clear signal to potential investors or acquirers of how engaged your customer audience is. We’re pretty sure that the shrinking pool of earned media opportunities will lead in-house teams to look to create these kinds of owned channels in future. And we think they’ll look for a turn-key solution to do this, without the cost of hiring a dedicated community manager in-house.

We believe that a key measure of success for the companies of tomorrow is that they’ve built an engaged customer community today.

Darryl Sparey is co-founder and MD ofHard Numbers, a performance-driven marketing and communications consultancy


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