Without observation, you cannot unravel the complex social fabric your members wrap around their daily discussions and debates, and this will hold you back in terms of building and managing your community successfully.
Along with listening to what people are saying to you, the skill of observation is one of the Social Media or Community Manager's vital traits. Looking for tangents and deeper meaning in your community members' behaviour will bring depth to your actions and decisions, providing you with the ability to gauge your response to a given situation.
What does being observant mean?
The dictionary defines the word Observation as such:
an act of noticing, perceiving, regarding attentively or watching for some scientific or other special purpose (to gain information)
Much of the time you spend as a Social Media or Community Manager is in observation, studying the interactions amongst your community's members and learning about the dynamics of any given situation specific about your social space.
But why is being observant such a big deal?
- You will be able to choose the right moment to act when the inevitable lull comes in the midst of an argument, or initiate that idea you've been sitting on but haven't been sure when to launch.
- It'll be easier to learn to use your community software. Taking the time to step back and watch will force you to trial and prepare, encouraging you to prod and pull at the various functions of your platform to find the right tool for what you have in mind.
- You'll discover that people won't use the tools you've put at their disposal the same way you used them when you were testing it.
- Observing the intricate dance of communication will give you invaluable insight into how your participants think, react and behave as a group and sub-groups. You'll also notice who pairs up with who, and why, informing your conflict resolution process and leadership scheme.
Ok then, what should you be observing?
- People: It's fair to assume that you're a Community Manager, or want to become one, because you love people. But you might not have much experience interacting with large amounts of them, or dipping in and out of other people's conversations. Observing people is the best way to discover how your community behave and interact with each other, as well as gain insight into how they react to different situations. If you make sure to become a keen observer, you will in time learn how to interpret their actions, and uncover unexpected angles in how to build and manage your community.
- Use of your community space: This is often a difficult one to draw conclusions from, because the temptation to stop people from "misusing" your proposition and social tools is strong. But these abnormal actions are potentially the burgeoning start of a new direction for your community. Choosing which of these actions to pursue and which ones to suppress is key.
- Daily life: Learn to open your eyes to your personal surroundings, as well as those of others. You will pick up many ideas and sources of inspiration for new initiatives for your community. I get some of my best ideas at gigs, festivals and in art galleries.
- The nature of debate: Engagement requires debate; however it is easy to confuse hearty argument with abuse and aggression. To a non-Community Manager, what is healthy debate may seem unpalatable and they will complain to you. Your role is to embrace debate as an important part of your community's expression and growth. Through careful observation of what the limits are within your community's membership, you can learn how positive arguments work and how far debate can go before it progresses from moving the group forward to its disintegration.
- Hidden participants: Your community is not only made up of active members. In fact, the majority of people in any social space are silent, only occasionally popping up for one or two brief interactions. Through careful observation, you can find out why that is, whether a product of their life (in which case you might discover a need for a new tool) or an existing dynamic that is putting them off from participating more regularly. Pay attention to these lurkers' progress in your community.
- Other Social Media Community Managers: Whether it's by following them on Twitter to find out what content they like reading, to reading their blogs or regularly monitoring the communities they are working on, there is much to learn from their individual perspective on Community Management.
Benefiting from observing your online community is easy if you know why it's important and where to start. Remember what you learn from your observations, maybe by keeping a diary; this will allow you to make the most of every situation that occurs.
What do you think? Have you personally benefited from careful observation of your online community? What has been your most surprising learning?