Lauren Vargas of Aetna: Becoming A Social Organization

It’s clear that these days, customer service is taking place online in arenas such as Twitter, community forums, and Facebook to name just a few. For certain industries, however, this is a whole new world – one that they’re not familiar with or used to exploring and interacting in. So what’s a company in this situation to do? In this interview, Lauren Vargas of Aetna joins Brent Leary to discuss the concept of becoming a social organization and the importance of measuring the health of your community.

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Lauren VargasSmall Business Trends: Can you give us a little bit of your background?

Lauren Vargas: I started out my training through traditional public relations. I was really thankful at that time to have a great CMO at the Department of Defense, at the Air Force Exchange Service, who let me explore social media and what it meant for the military.  I was able to deploy a lot of the community strategies that I have tweaked over the last seven years, starting with the Army and Air Force Exchange Service through to Radian6, where I was the director of community.

Now I am with Aetna and we are really starting from the ground up and developing communities, figuring out how a regulated industry participates in already existing communities, sparks conversations, answers customer service questions, and truly becomes a social organization that really participates in this space and becomes a community member itself.

Small Business Trends: What is the difference between growing a community, when you were at Radian6 a couple of years, and starting a community now?

Lauren Vargas: In general, Radian6 had a lot of momentum behind it. It had a lot of tech savvy people willing to get out into the space, knowing that the game was being played online vs. Aetna, which I think is a really innovated company, but they are coming at innovation in various other ways.

Having the boundaries between the organization and the communities really broken down is very different for companies like Aetna. You’re really participating in real time conversations. And in a regulated environment, for a corporation that has been very scripted, very organized, very process driven, this is new. It is a culture shift.

Small Business Trends: What are the biggest challenges, when it comes to a company like Aetna, for being able to put together a community strategy?

Lauren Vargas: Aetna definitely has a multitude of different stockholders and the constituents have various levels of how they can consume information.  This is a very process driven company so you have got to start there. Identifying all of the policies and processes that currently exist; what needs to be created and fill that sand box so that people can feel that they are creating and they are empowered in that they know exactly where the boundaries are.

I think that one of the biggest myths for regulated industries, no matter if it’s financial or health, military or government, is that there are so many restrictions that you cannot participate in the space. I do not think that it is necessary or truthful at all.  I think as long as you understand the regulations that you must abide by, outline your sand box, the sky is the limit.  It’s just that you have to go with those boundaries – and then you can have a fun time playing in that sand box.

Small Business Trends: How important is it for traditional companies to really embrace this whole idea of community?

Lauren Vargas: I think it is incredibly important. The organization needs to embrace various levels of community participation and community feedback.

Social media cannot be a silo; it cannot be relegated to a PR department. At an organization like Aetna, there are so many different communities that we need to participate in, that are already talking about us or talking about health care conversations. We have to spread that social love across the entire organization and we really have to start getting away from a traditional mindset of ‘we build it and they will come’ or that everything has to be scripted and very buttoned down.

Small Business Trends: You are the first person I heard using the term “community health index.” What does that mean?

Lauren Vargas: I figured out the way to put community in perspective is to look at it in four different pillars. The first is branding/engagement which is pretty self-explanatory. This is usually where companies start and stop when it comes to measuring their social presence.

The second pillar is industry engagement. These are all of the conversations, such as your event participation, and the shared conversations that are happening outside of the direct mention of your product, brand, service or organization.

The third pillar is content duration and creation. You really have to figure out what works for your community and where your community is participating, and how they are sharing and responding, and what that impact is on both the duration process and the content creation of the process.

The fourth and final pillar is internal engagement. This comes before you have any type of external participation.  Whether you have an exclusive community or you are looking at the community as being a group of topic based conversations. It is often overlooked because everybody just assumed that you create a social presence and everything will be fine.

In each pillar there are 3 to 5 metrics and each has its own weight.  Then you average those metrics together to get the pillar weight percentage. Each pillar has its own weighted percentage. You average the four pillars together and you come up with your community health index. That way you can look from a macro to micro standpoint to help the community understand what is moving the needle and what is driving participation.

There is no cookie cutter approach to determining metrics and it really depends on what your business goals are. That is really going to drive whether you are looking at sentiment, the number of downloads, conversion rate, issue resolution types, and other various different metrics.

Small Business Trends: Where can people go on line to learn?

Lauren Vargas: You can follow me on Twitter at @vargasl. Or you can visit some of the posts and explore the conversations and topics in more depth by going to

This interview is part of our One on One series of conversations with some of the most thought-provoking entrepreneurs, authors and experts in business today. This interview has been edited for publication. To hear audio of the full interview, click the right arrow on the gray player below. You can also see more interviews in our interview series.

This is part of the One-on-One Interview series with thought leaders. The transcript has been edited for publication. If it's an audio or video interview, click on the embedded player above, or subscribe via iTunes or via Stitcher.

Brent Leary Brent Leary is the host of the Small Business Trends One-on-One interview series and co-founder of CRM Essentials LLC, an Atlanta-based CRM advisory firm covering tools and strategies for improving business relationships. Brent is a CRM industry analyst, advisor, author, speaker and award-winning blogger.