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James LaCorte explains how he built Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina's Social Media Center of Excellence

Last year, Social Media Manager James LaCorte led the development and execution of Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina's first Social Media Center of Excellence.

As social media has grown within the scope of the company, James saw the need to bring teams together and work on strategy and education, and to streamline processes.

"For several years, social media was just a small part of our company effort, and it was mostly the corporate communications team who created and managed the channels," James said. But as they educated business areas across the company about the value of social, departments started to take notice and wanted to explore how their areas could effectively use social media.

"Early on it was easier to manage the channel governance and content," he said. "But as we expanded our consultation services to other areas, it became harder to effectively manage or be air traffic controller for all the content being developed."

Then, about a year ago, James started developing the COE to help manage Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina's different channels and create a more direct line of communication between teams. "We wanted to come together and learn from each other because we don't see each other on a daily basis," he said.

James and his team spent a lot of time researching COEs to understand what format would suit them best.

They developed a short charter that outlined the purpose of the COE, a sample agenda of how they expected to conduct meetings, and which teams would be involved.

"Many times a Center of Excellence is thrown together and gets a lot of activity at first and but slowly dies," James said. "So we actually struggled with whether to call it a Center of Excellence, how many people to involve, and who they would be."

The charter was sent up to leadership for review, and James' team got to work on creating their COE before receiving approval. The preparation process -- from the inception of the charter to the first official COE meeting -- took about four months, according to James.

As they developed their COE, the team had to decide who the other members would be.

The social team brainstormed which departments would find the most value in a social media-based Center of Excellence -- including PR, Customer Service, Sales, and Marketing and IT. "We wanted not only the people who published content but also those who would benefit from the insights we capture through listening," James said. "We also looked at areas that may be indirectly impacted by social media efforts like the Digital Marketing, Campaign Management, and IT teams."

Today, there are nine different departments involved in the COE. According to James, each team has a main member and a backup for when the main member can't make it to a meeting.

The COE connects those different teams through a hub-and-spoke model:

"From the outside sometimes it's hard to conceptually see how social media really impacts the business," James said. "The inputs we're making are part of our core business strategy, so everything we do should map back to that. In the COE we emphasize that and show how our evolution to a social business has positive impacts on our companies goals."

To optimize communication, the COE includes physical meetings as well as a Yammer group.

James emphasized the importance of having both an online group for communication as well as quarterly and annual meetings. Members use the platform Yammer to ask questions, check in on each other, share educational links, and create and discuss the agenda for each meeting.

James mentioned that he originally thought the group would be relatively quiet, but he was pleasantly surprised to see how often members use it. "People are proud of the work they're doing. They want to share it," he said. "Or, they know that someone else has an idea or experience they can learn from, so they'll post it in the group."

The annual meetings are scheduled to explore big-picture topics. "We look at all of our social media policies, our social media strategy, our blog strategy, and just discuss what needs to be evolved," James said. They also use that time to evaluate current employee social media policies and training.

James emphasized the importance of building a COE that would be sustainable.

"When we initially launched, I always stressed that the COE is all of us, it's not just the social team dictating the agenda," he said.

Ensuring the COE continued to be valuable is essential to its sustainability, so James has built in practices to keep every team engaged. "We make sure we rotate and at least two other areas get to talk about a campaign or idea," he said. "We mix it up so there's a presentation and a brainstorm or education session. That has helped make it feel worthwhile."

James also mentioned that the predetermined agenda is a great way to keep meetings engaging. The teams choose what they want to discuss, and the Yammer group gives them a place to communicate freely before each meeting -- which leaves more time for education, training, and brainstorming during the meetings themselves.

Even with the Yammer group and crowd-sourced agendas, participation can still be a challenge.

"It's very hard to get people to prepare for something like this because it can be a lot of work," James said. "When we ask members to share a strategy or campaign, that means they'll have to take time out of their month to put that together and send it to me."

And with a team of just four people -- including James -- lack of bandwidth tends to be an issue as well. "There's a lot of behind-the-scenes work for our small team to remind people the importance of the COE and their social strategy, and how they're mapping to it," he said. For example, his team prioritizes offline communication with the separate departments, and they try to check in about strategies and tactics regularly.

"It all helps keep the COE running," James said.

The COE has produced tangible results as well as helped improve the human connections between teams.

James said that bringing visibility to each team's successes has been a valuable teaching tool. The departments in the COE have worked together to streamline processes and standardize their reporting templates.

"We're not working in silos and running similar campaigns now because we're communicating properly," James said. "The teams are all more informed on what's going on across the company as it relates to social media, which is very helpful."

James also discussed the importance of the human connections that have been built through the COE. "It's easier to work with someone that you have frequent contact with or turn to with questions."

With a successful year under his belt, James is excited for what the future of the COE holds.

Because they've done the COE for a year now, James said that the tasks are becoming quicker and more streamlined. "Now we can really hit the ground running in 2019," he said. "Everyone knows what to expect. And now we want to focus on bringing in more training and experts and getting the budget for that."

According to James, similar organizations shouldn't wait for perfection when developing their COE.

With so many approvals and internal processes to navigate, James said it's OK to not wait for all the answers -- as long as you're straightforward about it. "We told people to give us input. This is their COE as well. If it's not valuable, we'll change it. But we introduced how we were going to do it initially," he said. "Don't wait for perfect, just be transparent and be ready to adapt."

James LaCorte has been a member of SocialMedia.org since 2014. You can connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.