Breakdown: Social Media Workflow, Process, Triage

Rise of Social Commerce, an Altimeter ConferenceLeft: Altimeter Research found that most companies lack a formalized process –and even out of the advanced, only 76% had a process in place, read the full report on Social Readiness.

The purpose of these breakdown posts is to serve as an industry reference as the space advanced to optimization and performance.  The assumption is that a company is forming a Center of Excellence or ruling body, or has recently done so before deploying this key component.

Needs: Companies desire to be efficient –not having a workflow puts company at risk
Like our bodies, cities, and corporations, all complex organisms have a natural process and order that helps to reduce inefficiencies and increases the end goals.   So what if you don’t have a workflow?   This could put your company at risk from lack of coordination, as multiple individuals could be responding at the same time, your customers may not be properly served in social channels, resulting in lost opportunities and potential customer dis-satisfaction.  In the worst case, this poor experience in social could serve to fuel a social media crises, which we’ve documented.  Clearly, we want to avoid this scenario, and instead develop a workflow that cascades across the multiple business functions, product groups, and geographies to quickly and effectively serve the market in social channels.

Definition:  A Social Media Workflow, Process, or Triage is a sequence of connected steps that enables the entire organization to act efficiently with minimal overlapping tasks and resources in order to serve the market in social channels and beyond.

Business Goals: The 10 Attributes of Successful of Social Media Workflow
First, let’s align the goals of having a successful social media workflow in place, benchmark your goals against the following attributes:

  • 1) Alignment with corporate goals and customer goals.
  • 2) Buy-in and agreement to the process from all involved business units in the organization.
  • 3) Few or no overlapping tasks and resources.
  • 4) Clear articulation of who will do what, when, where, and how.
  • 5) Organizational alignment through training, testing, and refinement.
  • 6) Integration with existing business systems, processes, and software in existing channels.
  • 7) A clear, easy-to-reference document with clear labels and requires little explanation.
  • 8] Scope includes all possible scenarios are included when to respond –and when not to respond.
  • 9) Periodic improvements on the process as the business evolves.
  • 10) Measurable business impacts report to all stakeholders on a periodic basis.

Downsides: Identify the Six Roadblocks in Advance
No business initiative goes without risk, and developing a social media workflow could result in the following risks:  1) Scrutiny over the social media program at executive level, 2) Internal territories intensely guarded as a battle over who owns social and the customer experience is fought, 3) Chiefs step in to stop the program until the bigger picture is obtained, 4) A long arduous process is undertaken to get buy in from the entire corporation, which can be saddled if clear executive sponsorship is not setup.  5) Failure to align with existing customer experience channels such as phone, chat, online, and in person.  6) A large risk is the organization not adopting the workflow, falling back into old habits, if a proper rollout is not invested.

Starting with Strategy
Ensure all social media activities (and all else we do) align with the company mission and goals, let’s ensure we’re prepared in having a strategic direction with our peers, executives, and team.  Start by:

  • Ensure the Goals are Established and Aligned.  Obtain agreement from an executive sponsor, ideally one that spans the business groups in which you will engage.  Remember, something as pedantic as creating a workflow diagram will excite the organization, resulting in groups to balk, or give their buy-in.  Do this by reminding all teams that this is alignment with corporate goals like: customer satisfaction, generating new leads, reducing internal confusion.   Clearly label the business goals, and assign interim business KPIs that directly map to these goals.
  • Next, Map out Existing Processes and Interview Teams.  Expert Jason Falls shared that “Getting the right stakeholders on board from the onset that makes a triage process successful”.  Whether you’re in corp comm, customer care, or legal, you’ll need to get buyin from other groups.  Start by obtaining existing workflows of how customers are routed, and then interview each team for their needs.  Lead with business goals, but instead put on your listening cap to get their important point of view before you assert yours.  Then, bring all diagrams back to one document, then ascertain the best process and provide suggested workflows.  By allowing business units to vote, modify, and provide input will extend your influence from ‘over-reaching’ to instead getting the ideal ‘buy-in’.
  • Avoid the Mine Field by Including Overlooked Stakeholders.  Projects can quickly become disparaging if one group inserts and stops the process because their needs were not met.  Remember to obtain buy in from corporate functions that are often overlooked including:  PR, Corp Comm, Customer Care, IT, Call Center, Regional Field.  In particular, loop in Legal, Risk and Compliance in the early days.  Jason Falls shared that a leading airline carrier in United States involved legal early on, and had an ongoing role: “A member of senior management and legal are on-call 24/7 to approve and mitigate messages when needed. That’s pretty strong.”
  • Rollout Internally through Education, Testing, and Breaking.   Emailing a powerpoint triage to all teams that will be involved in the day to day is not sufficient.  Ensure a proper kickoff is initiated by conducting a training session, as well as conducting mock process drills in real time.  Start with having teams identify message and which routing path it should go into, then simulate how teams will tag, flag, and pass on messages.  Ensure proper followup and recording of incident is inputted to correct systems.  Be sure to take the process to the limit by simulating crises (see full post) and taking the organization to the level where the workflow is designed to not engage due to critical crises situation.
  • Continual Iterations and Coverage, Periodic Measurements.  Don’t expect this workflow to perfect in the future, plan on periodic assessments to improve in real time, or at key scheduled dates.  Ensure that fire response (corp comm, legal, execs) teams are actively updated on the impacts of the workflow as they may not be involved in daily affairs.  Provide all stakeholders periodic reports based on the business KPIs agreed upon, including potential items such as:  reduced time to respond to customers, increased customer satisfaction, number of successful incidents resolved, or leads passed to sales for followup.


Notable Examples of Social Media Workflow, Process, Triage
Community Management Scenario Map
Community Management Scenario Map from David Armano, Edelman 
Key decision is based on sentiment, then several if/then statements enable process.Screen shot 2012-08-29 at 8.49.41 PM
American Society of Civil Engineers’ Social Media Flowchart, via SocialFish
Notice that breach of policy has special actions, also note SLA is set at 1 hour.

Radian6's client support protocol
Radian6, owned by Salesforce Provided an Engagement Playbook
Support issues are routed to existing customer support channels, with variation on non-customer use cases.

Air Force Blog Assessment
Air Force Blog Triage, older, but one of the first diagrams we saw emerging in 2008
This is a classic which many others are built on, the armed forces have a deep heritage in threat assessments and clear training for enlisted and officers.

Tactics: Anatomy of an Enterprise Social Media Workflow

Workflow Attribute Attribute Details What No One Tells You
Flow control All workflows (even outside of social) help to control where process will flow.  Ensure these workflows include how companies will handle overflow during product launches, events, and off hours and holidays.
Crises situations Often workflow diagrams in social are for the day-to-day situations, for crises, make sure it’s clear on who should be contacted and how Savvy companies will conduct social media crises fire drills in advance, see this post listing more details.
If then, scenarios (falls) Workflows will have multiple decision points which help to guide the teams on who does what.  Include “If then” statements that help individuals to self-guide.  Jason Falls recommends:  “When you’re building out triage and work flow it’s like building out the workflow for customer service call centers — you have to anticipate every scenario. What do we say for a product recall? What do we say if an executive is arrested?”
Ascertain Situation Most workflows have either the following triggers to determine the key decision: Sentiment, situation, or who is asking.  Each type of data has an advantage and disadvantage: Sentiment isn’t universally recognized, situations may not take into account tone and nuance, and identities can’t be confirmed.
Tag and Flag To allow for internal coordination, ensure that the process and workflow tools allow content to be tagged, flagged and conjoined to existing customer databases. Ensure systems work together by requesting social media management systems (SMMS) have on their roadmap the ability to connect with other contact center software, email marketing, or CRM.
Response Time Companies need to internally state how long service level agreement (SLA) will be for different workflow tracks. Be mindful about how you plan to share this externally, and if at all.  We’ve found some companies do not promise this, but instead recommend existing support channels.
First Responses Not all customers want their problems resolved, and may just want to vent.  Furthermore, some customers may feel the brand is too ‘big brother’ if they were not following or fans of the brand. Best practices I learned from Frank Eliason is to first show empathy, then ask if they want help: “I’m sorry to hear of your troubles, is there anything we can do to help?” rather than blurt out a fix that may be unwanted.
Engage in public or private channel Many of the regulated, sensitive account information such as airline and telecommunications will shift ‘off channel’ to other secured channels. Be up front in your online policies on how you plan to deal with information: be clear on what will be responded to –and will not be in public channels.
When not to respond Make it clear to all parties internally on what type of content will NOT be responded to –and suggest further activity that needs to happen internally. It’s important to balance proactive response, but also setting expectations on how far we will respond to customers and what appropriate channels are.
Integration with Software Tools In some cases, triage may all happen in social media management system tools (read the report for the full breakdown) but in today’s multi-channel world, they will extend. Whether it’s contact center software or social media management systems software they must align to the workflows that you build first –don’t allow tools to bend your process, instead focus on your goals first before selecting tools.
Followup Some brands fail to followup with customers after a break has been resolved, or after a customers has recently purchased a product.  Have a clear process to followup. It’s ok to ask customers who have had product woes fixed in social channels to update their posts, so others will see this person has had an issue resolved or not. Be savvy by first asking their satisfaction, then request them to followup.
Recording and Measuring Executives will be requesting clear ROI on your process and triage workflow, you’ll have to map frequency, intensity, and other KPIs. Map your interactions based on the business goals that were stated up front, whether they are for marketing, support, or coordination, ensure business level KPIs are included.

Key Industry Resources

The Future State of Workflows:
I interivewed two experts to find out their perspective on the future of workflows.

  • The Workflows Fade Into Background.   As employees adopt the workflow on a frequency basis, the organizational memory will guide the company.  Jason Falls indicated that “Hopefully they’ll (workflows) only look like reminders and guidelines. The worst possible use of a triage, workflow or process is one that is followed step-by-step, looking at the chart. These are guidelines that should be learned and baked into a community manager or marketing staff member’s job. After a while, you should just know what to do. Certainly, you can refer to the charts, graphs and references, but the strong triage processes in any businesses are those run by people who don’t read cue cards.”  Jason is right, the work process will soon take a life of it’s own, however the initial documentation and discipline to get the entire organizational on board will be key for corporate buy-in.
  • Traditional Contact Center Software will Battle/Integrate with SMMS Vendors.  Existing contact center software that already has roots with multi-channel experiences like Genesys, Rightnow, and Liveops already have social interactions and features.  On the flip side, Social Media Management System (SMMS) vendors are starting to evolve into paid advertising channels and may include automated chat bots beyond social, read the full report on the SMMS vendor landscape.  These two vendors types will have friction as they battle, and expect M&A over coming periods to occur as these vendors coalesce over the same customer types.  Watch Oracle, Salesforce, who are assembling their Social Software Suites.
  • Soon, Software Will Automate Responses.  I agree with the perspective of Jay Baer, who states that:  “I see the future of workflow and triage being predictive modeling, with routing based on artificial intelligence and enterprise knowledge mapping. If we know the specific areas of expertise of each employee and can store that in a relational database, and we can also know via presence detection who is online and/or what their historical response times have been, we can use Netbase-style NLP to proactively triage and assign social interactions to the best possible resource in the organization. Automated expertise mining.”.  I agree with this direction, and have published my thoughts on the future of social being Performance Social, both on Mashable and Techcrunch.Update, this automation topic triggered a discussion on Branch.

Summary: Don’t Under Estimate the Work Required to Create and Rolllout a Social Workflow.The end result of developing a simple Social Media Workflow doesn’t reflect the herculean effort of organizational navigating, buy-in, and change that may occur in developing the process.  Be sure to start with business goals, obtain a clear sponsor, and approach business units by asking –not telling– how they can get involved.  Ensure your existing processes, software, and customer experience is augmented, and not replaced by this process. While we’re going to lay the foundation out now in a manual manner, expect that future software systems to correctly anticipate these systems and automate based on data lead programs.

Thanks to time spent with Frank Eliason, David Armano, Jason Falls, and Jay Baer for their expertise, Jessica Groopman for pointing out examples, as well as multiple brand clients who have shared their workflow diagrams with me in client engagements. This breakdown is one small part of how I’m working with companies on their internal social readiness and social programs.

82 Replies to “Breakdown: Social Media Workflow, Process, Triage”

  1. Jeremiah

    Thank you for this excellent post, and for the people who contributed. My niche in the UK is professional services, and whilst there has been a slow take up of the adoption of social media, few firms would be advanced enough to even contemplate this sort of work-flow process. For one, most of them are yet to be convinced of the business case for social media and, as a consequence, the resourcing is poor. Of course, I expect that other more tech-savvy industries and retail are already seeing a financial and brand return but in my experience there is still a lacuna in the knowledge of the key decision makers to make social the centre piece of any business development or marketing activity. My apologies if this sounds awfully amateurish, but I do find when talking about social media – and I have highlighted your work and others on many occasions – that a lot of what I say simply goes over the top of people’s heads.


  2. No apologies needed. We track that there’s different adoption levels pending on region, vertical, market segment and beyond. I’m glad that this post may help companies move forward. Those interviewed are samples of early market, and are early-adopters.

  3. Very good breakdown, thanks Jeremiah.

    I find interesting to highlight how the “automation” part of the process still needs to be an internal interface to / from “human” conversation. Rules and predictive modeling can help in the triage phase, automating part of the response activity, but automation of answers can rarely (or never) work.

  4. Stefano, thanks. While I do believe early automation will help route (tag flag) some content to the right teams, there will still need to be humans involved to check the accuracy of what was routed. Automatic responses are still a ways off but developing.

  5. Thanks again for asking for my input here, Jeremiah. As always, you’ve put together one heck of a resource for folks needing help with an area that can be a tough nut to crack. Well done, sir.

  6. Thanks again for asking for my input here, Jeremiah. As always, you’ve put together one heck of a resource for folks needing help with an area that can be a tough nut to crack. Well done, sir.

  7. Process is one of the less sexy sides of social media / community often overlooked. Thank you for creating a great outline for folks to use when developing their own workflow(s). I would add that workflows are not meant to be static and is a living / breathing resource that will evolve with time, experience, and organization / community maturity. Workflows are meant to be simple, but some industries will have more hooks or elements than others. Training and education is vital to a workflow being embedded into business, but make sure the workflow aligns with playbooks and other snackable resources when additional definition or escalation (i.e. crisis communications) is required. The workflow should also over lay the customer / community journey. Rather than focusing on channels, workflows bring together the moving pieces and follow the conversation internal and external of the organization.

  8. Lauren,

    That’s a great point, that the workflow should reflect the customer journey –not just the internal business process.

    Thank you for the feedback on taking on “unsexy topics” I noticed there’s plenty of news coverage, infographics, and sexy topics being covered, and I wanted to try a different route around these playbooks.

  9. Such a great point that these “workflows” are often not so simple, especially when you map the customer journey over the process. And, as I’ve seen you speak on this topic a few times, I believe your hand is behind at least two of the examples cited here. Just as process is often overlooked, the people behind those processes are often the unsung heroes of social and community implementation. Thanks to Altimeter for a handy precis on the topic.

  10. Too many brands are out there “winging” it today. Companies often only adopt something like this when some sort of crises happens. Think of the most recent progressive insurance social media failure, I am sure now that has spawned a closer look at their social workflow. As it relates to technology, a true enterprise level SMMS platform will allow for this type of workflow to be customized to fit the organizational workflow process that has already been set up. Its going to boil down to a workflow process that includes an approval structure, user level permissions, customer service features that enable team collaboration for moderation and of course the holy grail that is social fan data. Technology will need to fit into the social media workflow process which means being custom and im not so sure Salesforce and Oracle are going to provide that flexibility. Yet.

  11. Fantastic playbook Jeremiah. I’ve long-been an advocate of these kinds of processes – just a shame most clients think it’s agency fluff trying to justify their fee.

    There is an equally valid loop to close on this with regards to the whatever gets done with the feedback received through these processes.

  12. Also, it is important for social teams, especially external facing folks, to have a practice field. I have seen role playing exercises done internally with “pretend” customers, etc. Work on those worst case scenarios, escalation processes, and coordinated efforts. Don’t throw folks into the thunder dome just because you have a process chart.

  13. Hi Jeremiah — Solid work and insights here, as always.
    Having helped HP and BlackBerry work through various stages of workflow adoption, I think it’s really important to stress that “iterative” stages of communication management are not only possible, but they should also be baked into the initial conversation with stakeholders and company leadership.

    1) The Here and Now. External social media will not pause in a holding pattern while the internal discussions are scheduled and conducted. Customers, potential customers, fans, critics, media, etc., expect and deserve engagement in “always-on” — even while the internal teams are discussing, planning and putting their workflow into motion. Therefore, a company’s internal social media “council” of practitioners (all the leaders of teams currently using social) should proactively meet, plan, propose, and get approval for an interim workflow to ensure external engagement continues successfully as longer-term operations are built.

    2) Cross-Functional Collaboration, Trust, and Execution. For medium to large companies, I can’t stress enough how vital it is to drop the notion that one department “owns” social media. For all companies, it’s vital that you find a way to collaborate; make an effort to understand and embrace the role social plays for other functional groups; genuinely help colleagues find a way to reach their goals; and build an environment that manages risk and engenders trust that the folks you’ve hired and trained will do the right thing (and has clear steps on how to resolve issues when they don’t). Intel’s Digital IQ program is an early and oft-cited example that businesses can use as a model in tandem with the insights you offer here and via experts such as David Armano and the Edelman team.

    3) Flexibility and Commitment to Improving. Change is hard. It can be disruptive — especially when it comes to process. But the earlier that you build bridges and commit to helping others succeed and ask for their commitment to doing things right — for the customer, for the company, for its partners and stakeholders — the quicker you can get to a workable workflow that’s continuously used and improved to drive impact for the business.

    Thanks again for the great insights and the discussion!
    Angela LoSasso

  14. Jeremiah – great breakdown and insights here around the importance of having the appropriate process and structure to respond and workflow in social.

    Here at U.S. Cellular, we’ve taken many of these steps to implement a solid social customer service program that allows us to efficiently respond to customer and prospect issues/questions/etc. The biggest piece to this was the training of our team. Walking through steps from the actual platform/technology utilized to workflow, to brand voice/tonality, which is important when you’re scaling social customer service.

    The piece I’m really interested to learn about is the traditional contact center software. It provides an opportunity to create a customer case from start to finish, no matter what medium (social/phone/email) and eventually will better equip our team when assisting customers, as they’ll have all necessary information and data at their fingertips.

    This post comes in perfect timing as I dig further into traditional vs. SMMS platforms for workflow/service – thanks again!

  15. As a undergrad student I’ve always wondered “why nobody did academic research on internet social network flows”… and I hope somebody would do how Internet posts go viral

  16. I was pleased to see an update from Jeremiah (and Rebecca) on Altimeter’s work to better understand the new marketing paradigm of earned, owned and paid media, and the interplay between each. The conversation is reminiscent of Y&R’s “whole egg” approach to “integrated” marketing — albeit with Ad, PR and Direct as the primary disciplines.

    I’ve written about paid/earned/owned recently here: and more fully here:

    Like back then at Y&R, each discipline had its respective strengths and weaknesses. Moreover, one often catalyzed the other. (How much editorial attention did Apple’s 1984 ad generate?) In my recent post, I cited an Edelman campaign wherein the company purchased a placement on Buzzfeed for its client Schick, which in turn resulted in earned (editorial) coverage that ultimately was shared and liked in the social spheres.

    To me, “shared” media is a desired (and natural) bi-product of an effective earned, owned and/or paid campaign. It’s not a managed discipline in and of itself, though admittedly, marketers need to play in those social sandboxes in order for the groundswell of RTs, likes and shares to happen.

    The work Altimeter is doing to better understand how one discipline affects and can cascade to the others is not only important, but vital to the success of today’s marketing communications pros.


    Peter Himler
    Flatiron Communications LLC
    New York
    Twitter: peterhimler

  17. What a pronounced assessment! This is
    an extensive process that every corporation and even nonprofit organizations
    should adopt. Of course it does not need to be as complex but each institution
    can mold their model to fit their needs depending how compound their establishment
    is. Although some may view this as simplistic and basic, everyday important processes get skipped over that do cause hiccups in the workflow. Each hiccup is a dollar (or more) wasted. I work in a very small department within an educational institution and there
    is a workflow in process but from time to time there are blips in the order of workflow because someone forgets the basics. I just might have to pull out the ‘ole charts and do some office trainings. Thank you.

  18. Good point on the hear and now Angela, as I am running into this as we move from steering committee, to initial pilot implementation, to refinement, to second steps. Thanks Wendy Soucie

  19. Powerful article Jeremiah, it goes beyond the social media environment that most of the companies and professionals see, that it’s just what we need. It aids comprehension of workflow experiences by describing their components, it also optimizes my social media workflow in an easier way since a framework may include components that are applicable to them all. Great job. – And thanks for the mention too.

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