Engagement planning to bring your social media project to life

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Once you've built the online community or social media application of your dreams, how do you actually get people to visit, use and contribute to it? The question of how to bring a community to life is at the center of our work, and recently we've been able to share more of our approach in a variety of forums: at NetSquared, in bed at Drupal Camp, and as of this week, in the services section of our own web site.

In an ideal world, you've thought through this question before you started to build your site or community -- in fact, you started thinking about it before you even decided whether or what to build.

But this isn't the ideal world, and folks often reach the verge of beta without a clear plan for how to get their newly minted community off the ground.

What you need, before you actually proceed to launch, is an engagement plan. Your engagement plan is the roadmap of what you want to achieve in the first 3 to 6 months of your project, and how you're going to get there. Think of it as Head Start for social media: it's no guarantee that your community will make it all the way to college, but at least you're getting things off on the right footing.

Here are some of the elements an engagement plan should cover:

  • First principles: Audiences, target outcomes, offering, messages and benchmarks to let you know if you're meeting your goals
  • Channels: Which complementary on- and offline channels (print, TV, social networks, ads, etc) are you going to use to let people know about or contribute to your project? How will you use them?
  • Activities: What are you going to ask people to do on your site and elsewhere? (e.g. blogging carnivals, photo contests)
  • Incentives: The prizes, points, rebates and other benefits that people will get from visiting or contributing
  • Roles and responsibilities: Who is responsible for content creation, animation, promotion, outreach, tech support and other functions
  • Texts: Drafts of all the on-site and e-mail messages you're likely to need in your initial months, from your invitation to beta users all the way through to the message you post in response to a critical comment
  • Timeline: What needs to happen when (including dependencies and periodic evaluation of success metrics)?
  • Do's and don'ts: A summary of the principles your whole team should keep in mind in order to define a consistent voice and approach for your project

And to give you a sense of the level of detail you'll want to include in each of the above sections, here's an outline of what you might cover just in the channels section:

  • Blog outreach: How will you motivate bloggers to write about your project? How will you contact them - and who will be the outreach leader? How will you monitor what bloggers are saying about you?
  • Media outreach: Which offline media channels might cover your project? How should you frame the project in order to interest them? Who will make the pitch?
  • Social network outreach: How can you use social networks like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace to promote your project and gather feedback?
  • Email: Which e-mail lists can you notify (in a non-spammy way)? Which of your personal contacts should you write to?
  • Collateral and schwag: Should you produce written materials or doo-dads to promote your project and URL? Are there existing print projects that can include your URL?
  • Online ads: Will you spring for online ads - putting your new project just a click away? Are you buying something relatively easy, like Google or Facebook ads, or doing a more ambitious promotion -- in which case, will you hire professionals to produce the creative and manage the ad buy?
  • Offline ads: How will you promote via broadcast advertising? Will you do print ads -- even if it's just including your URL in another ad for your organization or brand?
  • Mailings: Do you have introductory materials you can send out by mail? Can you drop a mini-flyer, or print a short announcement, in your next membership renewal notice?
  • Personal networks: Would your staff, volunteers, members and supporters be willing to tell their personal networks (on- and offline) about the project? How will you encourage and support their efforts?
  • Partnerships: Do you have partner organizations that can spread the word to their members, customers or constituencies? Do you have relationships where you're providing content - and would it be appropriate to use that channel to tell people about your project?
  • Other established channels: Where else do you communicate with people? Do you use spoken-word content as part of your hold "music", for example, and would that be a useful place to talk about the project?

Does all this planning sound like a lot of work? Well, it sure can be. But think of this as social web's equivalent of the "measure twice, cut once" rule. You can plan for the kind of traffic and participation you want to encourage, or you can fly by the seat of your pants and hope it just all somehow unfolds smoothly.

A few suggestions for making the planning process a bit easier:

  • Budget for engagement. Our rule of thumb is that you should expect to spend at least at least as much on your first two years of running a project as you did on building it.
  • Start with a realistic assessment of your available resources. There's no sense in developing a set of promotions and activities that would require a 10-person team to execute if you only have one staff person available.
  • Plan your capacity around paid staff or proven volunteers. Don't count on new volunteers to do any essential tasks.
  • Once you've created your draft plan, stick it on a private wiki that's accessible to other members of your team. That way you can continue building it together.
  • Make sure you include at least one really sexy or innovative activity. That's your hook for engaging visitors, bloggers, media and potential contributors.
  • Focus your engagement activities on work that your team enjoys doing. This should be fun for you (and them) too, or it won't happen!


Drew says

July 17, 2008 - 10:17am
This is such a wonderful and concise outline of the big picture pieces. Thank you for putting this together. It's not easy boiling this stuff all down to a single page like this. Well done!

Rob Cottingham says

July 17, 2008 - 10:51am
Thanks for the kind words, Drew!

Thieme Hennis says

October 14, 2008 - 12:52pm
hi Alex and Rob, wonderful piece, very useful for my own work (deploying a professional social network). Thanks a lot. Thieme, the Netherlands http://aboutpeers.com

Rob Cottingham says

October 20, 2008 - 3:52pm
Glad we could be helpful, Thieme!

Week Two Assignments « Marylhurst 2.0 says

August 8, 2009 - 8:16am

[...] Engagement Planning [...]

Otmane Taoufiq says

November 4, 2009 - 2:49am

Your website is really full of very useful information that I am using to build an online community for Amnesty International Morocco.

Your advice are priceless.

Thank you

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