So we’ve been chatting about engagement these last few days, and particularly vertical action (essentially brands addressing their communities from the top-down, and creating mechanisms through which their communities can communicate vertically with them using the same channels). When you look at corporate blogs, Twitter accounts and most branded community sites, this is mostly what you see: Vertical engagement between companies and their customers/fans/friends/users.

Engagement: vertical action

Likewise, the breadth and depth conversation we had last week also relates to vertical action: Brand managers, Community managers and/or Social Media managers finding ways to engage customers from a brand-to-community perspective. Even when dialog exists, even when the communication channels are truly 2-way, most of what happens is vertical: Brand-to-customer and customer-to-brand. And that’s nice, but it is only half the story: In order to understand the power of the social web, the power of communities and the power of truly engaged fans, you also have to tip your hat to lateral action.

Engagament: Lateral Action

What is lateral action? Simple: Lateral action is simply peer-to-peer engagement that happens within or across communities. A brand or community manager may have planted a seed along the way (a tweet, a blog post, a comment, a promotion, etc.), but once it has hit the community, the message/info/conversation is spread from customer to customer without having to be prompted by any official brand representative.

Another example of lateral action is WOM (word-of-mouth): Peer-to-peer recommendations are classic examples of lateral action. Rumors are examples of lateral action. Community tweetup invitations are examples of lateral action. RT’s on Twitter tend to be examples of lateral action.

Lateral action is what happens when the brand, the company, the official presence of a business gives its community the opportunity to BE a community by taking a step back and letting people share what is important to them with peers.

And lateral action is often the answer to the question raised last week about breadth and depth of engagement: Once a brand has managed to scale its community to several thousand or tens of thousands (or hundreds of thousands, even), how can a team of community managers possibly engage so many people properly? It’s impossible, right? (This being the logic behind some Social Media directors’ decision to focus on depth at the cost of breadth.) Truth: Vertical action alone cannot serve the purposes of engagement (breadth mostly, but depth also) in the Social Media space… or even when it comes to fostering vibrant brand-centric communities in the “real” world. Lateral Action is the yin to Vertical Action’s yang. Lateral Action is how community engagement actually scales and transcends any breadth-related engagement limitations.

And though Lateral Action is nothing new, it is not a typical strategic mode of thinking for most Marketing professionals who have spent most of their careers working in traditional media (yes, even in the world of the web). This is why MANY Marketing folks still talk about the challenge of creating “content” even in the Social Media space. This is why advertising, messaging and marketing products are still among the first things marketers try to “plug in” when it comes to leveraging Social Media “channels.” This is all top-down thinking. Vertical Action thinking. And though it has its place here, it cannot succeed in the Social Media space without an equal (and in many cases greater) measure of Lateral Action.

Brand managers, Social Media managers, Community managers – whatever their designation may be – need to understand that their job isn’t just to produce content and constantly stimulate vertical engagement. There is only so much they can accomplish this way. What they must also do is empower their communities to manage themselves to a great extent and generate conversations and motion from within. Community members have to reach out to each other. They have to reach over to other communities. They have to share and discuss and debate and organize themselves. Brand Managers in the Social Media space have to learn how to be good hosts and patrons and supporters without being mother hens 24/7. This lateral action has to be fostered, nurtured, and built into their online and offline communities.

This is a crucial point for all brand managers to understand if they want to be successful in the age of Social Significance and Community Marketing. I hope the video and this post help you understand the difference between vertical and lateral action… and their importance our ongoing discussion of community “engagement.”

Tomorrow, we will bring our engagement discussion to a close with some far less strategic yet much more valuable advice than what we’ve touched on so far. πŸ˜‰

Have a great day!

Bonus Footage: Oui, en Francais! (For my Francophone readers, a question: Since I can, should I also start shooting videos in French?) And since a few of you have asked me if I would say my name in its original French so you can hear what it sounds like – Two birds, one stone. You ask, I deliver. (And yes, I take requests.) Check it out: