3 sacred cows about online community that need to be challenged

Photo cred: http://www.flickr.com/photos/skinnyde/146763376/

The sacred cows I mention below have been on my mind for sevral months
now, but I was inspired to take action after a community management
panel that I attended at SxSWi. My intention with this post is not to
suggest that we do away these sacred cows, but to start to be critical
of them. I fear that these 3 cows, in particular, are being accepted
as gospel, and those new (and not so new) to online community building
really don’t challenge them.

As with many good things gone wrong, these cows all began with good intentions.

Cow #1: You don’t own the community, the community owns the community
Original intention: To stop (mostly brand) community hosts from being
overly-controlling of the community, and being too directive of
community interactions.

Why this cow should be challenged: No ownership = absolution of
responsibility, and weak or no long term stewardship. The host *does*
own parts of the community experience, and certainly has the
responsibility to create a virtual “clean, well-lit place” for their
brand or organization. Perhaps a better cow would be: “You don’t own
the community, but you have a responsibility to be a good host, leader
and listener”.

Cow #2: Start by listening

Original intent: Listening was an easy (and fairly passive) way to get
brands and organizations familiar with the social web.

Why this cow should be challenged: Ok, this one isn’t necessarily bad,
just a bit misguided. My recommendation to clients is to start with a
conversation about your goals for engaging on the social web. A
listening strategy is key to managing a successful online presence,
but brands and organizations also need to interact. Another disturbing
trend I see with “just listening” is that some brands are wholesale
farming out listening and interaction to their agency of choice, as
opposed to creating direct brand to customer or organization to
stakeholder relationships.

Cow #3: Go where your community is

Original intent: Don’t just buy a platform and expect your community
to show up – (a.k.a. Build it and they will come).

Why this cow should be challenged: Many organizations are doing a poor
job of evaluating the opportunity for community on their own domain,
and are setting up outposts on large social sites like Facebook
because it is relatively easy and (initially) inexpensive. In our
“Participating int he Social Media Ecosystem” research project from
January of 2010, we saw that only about 1/2 (56%) of the participants
had a comprehensive social strategy in place – meaning, only 1/2 of
the organizations had spent time assessing and researching where their
community currently was, and the opportunities for on and off domain
engagement.

Assuming that the best place to engage members of your online
community is offsite (say, a Facebook fan page) is probably a big
mistake, and a lost opportunity to help transform a static corporate
site into a more social experience.
Those are my top 3 Sacred Cows. What do you think? And, more
importantly, what are yours?

Posted via email from Social Architect

8 comments

  1. Charlie Osmond

    Neat post.

    on (1) I have found my self saying “you can’t be in control, but you can be in charge” as shorthand.

    on (3) totally agree. With our recent work for a fashion brand, where the objectives have been engagement (time-spent as a proxy) and increased sales; we found that creating a community in their own space gave the brand double the engagement and x4 the ROI of Facebook. It’s all aboout appropriate tactics for the goal.

    Charlie
    FreshNetworks Social Media

  2. ecairn

    Excellent post.
    On 1) I think that what is meant is that your “private” community is going to be a small subset of a larger one. i.e when nike builds a community of runners, they should not forget that there is a “virtual” communities of runners out there made up by runners that blog, tweet ao.

    On 2) fully agree. strategy should come first.
    Also, there are multiple communities to be listened to and different people in organizations with different objectives.
    Transforming each and every employee, or worse, marketer in a call center agent is a very stupid approach to social media.

  3. Mark Aaron Murnahan

    I try to challenge each of the cows.

    I think of Skittles on number one. What if they had actually just completely let go when people started abusing their use of Twitter as their home page last year? There has to be some level of management to any community. Note that many people do not read the rules.

    On number 2, it is fine to go to the community, but bringing them to you is golden. On the topic of farming out 100% to a firm, this can be dangerous and also lack a lot of potential value. There should be some pretty careful planning for any company using this alternative. Not so unlike hiring out other services vital to a business, expect the unexpected and be ready to deal with it. In my opinion, a good firm can make many enhancements, but all parties should have a responsible level of involvement.

    On number 3, measuring wasted opportunities can be downright maddening. It sometimes amazes me how complacent companies can be at times. Every strategy should include a fair amount of effort in turning over stones to see what is there.

  4. Jaime

    Great post. It’s easy to accept common place and think that there is only 2 or 3 social networks out there. Especially number 3. The reality is, we’re not here to drive business or traffic to one of the main social networks, but to drive conversion for our own business. I rather have my own network of 2,500 people buying my stuff, than simply being friends with 25,000 with no conversion.

  5. Rich Reader

    It sounds like a problem of mis-perception.

    Your community’s online site may be the place where, in the largest sense, your community members have the richest and deepest experience with each other. At the same time, you have to have a longer telescope, bigger antenna, and more intelligent listening devices appropriately placed throughout the greater universe.

    Cow 3 has no license to forage only in a miniature pasture. Every month the community manager/director needs to revisit where it is that community members are reading, writing, discussing with others and each other, participating in actions, conferences, meetups, blogs, tweetups, collaborative spaces, workshops, virtual worlds, and unconferences. She/he needs to know what’s being said and done that is relevant to their community, and figure out how to respond/participate appropriately and constructively in a manner that re-inforces the importance of their community in the members lives (not merely in the lives of the so-called influencers). She/he who does less will wake up one day wondering where the herd has grazed off to. The challenge is to balance the number of outside environments in which you, as a community manager, can stay up-to-date, relevant, and contribute value to without killing yourself. Use the 80/20 rule: be aware of the tenor, positions, philosophy, and movement occuring in 20 percent of the other places where 80 percent of the thought leadership most valuable for your community is happening.

    These bridges between communities and their outposts require a lot of maintenance which can’t be done without valued crowd-sourcing participants. One of the many peculiarities that set in is the conflict which arises between the volunteers and the managers over attribution. Managers are too ready to under-value the whole contribution of the volunteers (crowd-sourced contributors – CSC). Managers can be too quick to dismiss CSC or to promote them into meaningless positions of non-authority (recall the wisdom of Randy Farmer on his need to frequently purge volunteers). Conversely, the CSC have some tendency to over-value their contributions to the community. If you don’t get a grip on this battle, then the war is lost.

    Paul Mabray (CSO, Vintank) says that businesses need kiosks in virtual malls to keep its’ actual and its’ prospective audiences coming back ( Engagement Begins Wherever and Whenever The Customer Wants – except that in this case the customer is the community member http://richreader.blogspot.com/2010/03/engagement-begins-wherever-and-whenever.html ). It’s also reminiscent of Francois Gossieaux’s review of his “Tribalization of Business” where he points out that communities are starved of resources to the point that they can’t accomplish what they are set out to do (see http://richreader.blogspot.com/2009/08/making-communities-work-some.html )

    To loop back in to where I start with the problem of perceptions, it may be a matter of looking at your community’s social media programs as components in your overall media mix, and re-blending or re-apportioning the mix by cutting print, radio, tv, and banner ads by another 20 percent to get a better overall result for a marketing budget. It might be a creative challenge to integrate traditional and new media functionally. It may also be a matter of elevating the community manager to report to the CFO, CEO, or other C-suite executive to make the community sensible and in tune with corporate strategic objectives, and not just those of the sales department.

  6. Teddi Dunson

    You also have to figure out how to keep the heard in the pasture permanently. The grass always looks greener on the other side. Once the heard leaves the pasture they may keep going and not come back.

  7. Cy jervis

    I’ve always said that the community doesn’t belong to the members. Ultimately they don’t control the platform, rules or engagement brought by the company and members know that.

    Listening may be a good way to start but engagement is the ultimate goal. Without participating, members will resort to bad behavior in an effort to elicit a response. Simply making canned statements also is detrimental. Quality engagement encourages members to participate and leads them in the proper direction.

    I agree 100% that companies cannot rely solely on outside sites such as facebook since only members of those sites can contribute. Believe it or not, not everyone belongs to these sites.

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