Social media can help to engage customers, build brand, raise public awareness or support internal collaboration. Precisely because of its breadth of impact, it’s not obvious where it fits in an org chart: In marketing or public relations? Communications or customer care? I.T. or H.R.?

Developing an effective social media team requires more than finding the right box on the org chart or figuring out where that community moderator should sit. It’s about identifying the goals for your social media program, the competencies needed for successful execution, and the gaps you need to fill. Most crucially, it’s about finding a new model for integrating expertise into and across teams — because the challenges you face in determining where social media belongs speak to the challenges of integrating a grassroots medium into an even moderately hierarchical organization.

Depending on what you want to accomplish with social media, you’ll need different kinds of people on your team, and will want to balance different options for building capacity. In some cases you’ll find all the expertise you need through an existing department or vendor; more often, you’ll have to mix and match from existing staff, established and new vendors, and even some new hires.

As professionals in an emergent field, we’re still discovering the best way for companies and organizations to source social media expertise. We have a stake in the answer, of course; but we are more interested in helping clients build a team to get great, sustainable results than we are in trying to bring every piece of the puzzle in-house.

There is a range of expertise and talents you’ll need on your social media team. Some of these could be found in a single hire or vendor; the precise mix of your team will depend on your project and the specific people you hire. The best and most cost-effective way to get a strong team is to identify the full range of talents you need and then look for the right combination of people to fill all the roles. No one person (and possibly no one vendor) will have all the requisite skills, but if you hire staff and vendors who have two or more skill sets you can build an effective, multi-talented team while minimizing management and coordination costs.

Creating your presence

Your community creation team will be responsible for setting up your social network presence and community platform. Their expertise is the most likely to be sourced from an external agency or vendor, unless your social media project represents a new venture that will become a central part of your business model or mission. Look for the following expertise in a team that will likely include at least several people, possibly sourced from multiple vendors.

Strategy: A successful social media presence or online community project begins with a clear understanding of your strategic communications and business goals. Just as a great advertising campaign begins with your agency’s creative work, a great social media project depends on a creative vision. Hire or retain a strategic advisor or team who understands your brand, markets and business, and who has significant experience creating not just online projects or platforms but engaged social media presences and communities. Your strategist will turn your creative vision into a technical plan for your developer and a promotions and outreach plan for your community management team.

User experience: Because the success of social media and online community projects depends on the active participation and contribution of your audience, it’s crucial to create interfaces that encourage engagement and interaction at every turn. A good usability or user experience designer can help you create a workflow that promotes interaction, and highlight any roadblocks or friction points that might lead users to disengage.

Technical development: If you are doing anything other than establishing a simple presence on an existing social network or web platform, you’re likely to need some kind of development help. That may be as lightweight or infrequent as creating the occasional flash video, or as elaborate as building and maintaining a full-featured social network. Unless web development is a current or prospective in-house competency, hire a team that has proven technical expertise to put you on a standard platform that can be taken over by other companies with comparable expertise.

Graphic design: Most projects require at least some visual elements. If you’re creating anything more than a couple of images for a Facebook page, choose a graphic designer who has designed other social media projects or community sites. A designer with a strong grasp of CSS can help you break out of the cookie-cutter two- and three-column layouts that dominate a lot of online community designs.

Project management: Last but by no means least, you need a strong project manager to bring the pieces together. Don’t hire a tech team purely on the basis of their tech know-how; get to know the person who will manage them to deadline and keep you in the loop. You want a project manager with a communications style that suits you, and a proven track record in managing projects like yours to budget and on deadline.

Populating your presence

The content you have at launch — and the content you continue to contribute — will be key to setting the tone for your presence. You may want one or more content specialists to create and edit content for you; this role can be played by someone on your staff or by vendors and contractors.

Content creation: Your content team will be responsible for virtually all the content on your social media presence or site at the time of launch. They could be part of your core team, or creative professionals you hire on an as-needed basis. An in-house content team could be part of your web, communications or marketing department.

Media creation: You may want video, audio or photos for your presence. An in-house content creator can add new media to your site on an ongoing basis; if you want higher production values you’ll need a video or audio team to create occasional or recurring features.

Copy, content and editing:
Your site’s editor will establish the voice of your social media presence or site: the stories, the content and even the field labels that together convey the brand and experience. You’ll need a good writer — someone who writes clearly, fluently, and without error — but it’s got to be someone who understands the tenor of the social web, and can write in an informal voice.

Managing your presence

The ongoing management of your social media presence is the area of responsibility you’re most likely to bring in house. A single staff person may handle monitoring, moderation and outreach. If this person is embedded in your organization, they’ll be able to integrate the tenor of your online engagement with the rest of your marketing and communications activities, particularly if they’re embedded in one of those departments. On the other hand, if you don’t have senior social media experts in house, outsourcing may be the best way to ensure your community manager has the training, mentoring and support to work effectively.

Your community animator

Social media monitoring: If you do nothing else with social media, monitor your company, executive and industry’s reputation on blogs and social networks. You can find both free and commercial services that manage the technical job of scouring the web for the latest on you and yours; the key is to have a human being who can read what turns up, and just as crucial, source a response from somewhere in your organization. If you’re a customer-facing organization

you may find that responding to online customer complaints is key to your customer care efforts, and choose to embed your monitoring resource in the customer care team; however all organizations will also need someone to track and manage overall brand positioning.

Moderation and animation: If you’re accepting user-contributed content or comments, you need someone who can actively manage those contributions. Look not only for the diplomacy required to manage conflict or criticism, but more crucially, for the kind of enthusiasm and social intelligence needed to coax out and reward participation. And make sure you have enough bandwidth to tackle some of the less-glamorous aspects of community management: source prizes, manage contests and fulfillment, plough through comment queues.

Once your social media presence is established, it will take active promotions and outreach to achieve inbound links and let people know why they should visit and contribute. Active outreach to blogs, social networks, and web-oriented media will be key to getting the word out.

Supporting your presence

Once you’re up and running, your community team will need to know that someone has their back. That means both some kind of ongoing project direction, and a good plan for tech support.

Technical maintenance: It’s all fun and games until someone gets a 404. If your project has required any sort of technical development, you’ll need some ongoing technical support. If this is going to involve iterative technical development, you may need more advanced technical support than you need for simple maintenance and security upgrades. Your technical maintenance may be outsourced to the same company that developed your presence, or brought in-house to your own web or I.T. team.

With all these pieces to fit together, you may be looking for the right department or manager to turn the parts into a whole. Therein lies the great paradox of social media: as crucial as coordination is to ensuring an effective and coherent online brand, conventional approaches to coordination are the surest way to crush your social media efforts.

Try to control your brand, keep your utterances perfectly consistent, or anticipate all the potential risks of each response, and your social media presence is destined to be stiff, slow, and detached from the real life of your venture. Hold the pieces loosely, and what you sacrifice in control will be repaid a thousandfold in authenticity, trust and customer attention.

It’s the challenge of navigating that tension — between brand coherence and real-time response, between authenticity and risk management — that makes specific social media expertise so crucial, and also so hard to locate within a conventionally structured organization. Hold the question of where social media belongs as loosely as you hold your social media presence itself, and let your team invent its own model for what makes social media work in your organization.

Illustrations by the awesome Sarah Leavitt.