I got my start building online communities in 1999 with the launch of TechRepublic.com. We grew from a cold start of 0 to 2 Million members in less than 2 years before being acquired by Gartner – it was an insane ride.
I was first asked the question of (more or less) “What makes a thriving community” during the first few months of our growth, and frankly, I didn’t have a good answer at the time. I was primarily focused on designing the site, rolling out new features (like one of the first peer networks in the space), and tweaking architecture. One night when we were working on what was essentially a Social Q&A feature, I checked into our forums to look for inspiration and ideas around how people typically ask technical questions. What I stumbled into was an exchange in the forums about configuring Windows NT for a very specific enterprise environment. Probably 100 in the entire world were capable of having a meaningful conversation about this topic, and we had attracted 10 of this. For TechRepublic at that time, a thriving community meant attracting the most knowledgeable IT Pros in the world, and incentivizing them to share and participate.
I’ve asked myself the “what makes a thriving community” a lot over the years, especially when my practice takes me into a new domain. What worked at TechRepublic in ’99 and Autodesk in 2001 wasn’t necessarily the same criteria for the large NPO communities and collaboration spaces we did at Forum One, or even the range of communities we built and nurtured at Dell.
I was asked to think about the question again last week, and I put together the following list. Given where brands generally are with their social and community efforts, I feel like this is a good and succinct list – by no means comprehensive – but directionally correct.
Attributes of Thriving Communities
|Attribute||What it looks like to host:||What it looks like to member:|
|Shared Value||Business value in the form of answers, content, connection, expertise, & advocacy.||Value in the form of answers, content, connection, expertise & access.|
|Shared Identity||Members rally around, inhabit, and shape community brand.||Helps birth and shape community brand.|
|Vibrant Participation||Visible, regular and quality member participation and contribution.||Regular Host presence, contribution and facilitation.|
|Community Leadership||Defined rank and reputation model; extending management to members.||Meaningful ranks and status; clear paths to achievement and privileges.|
|Quality Content||Content base growing and evolving to most valuable state.||Contribution, curation and feedback to evolve content quality.|
|Expertise||Community attracts and develops SMEs.||SMEs from host are regular community participants; opportunity to learn & develop.|
|Culture of Trust||Culture of openness and civility. Members air grievances respectfully.||Feel connected to host, part of governance & free to provide critical feedback.|
|Elegant Experience||Mature community & social tools, fantastic UX, committed roadmap.||Easy to participate and contribute, needs-driven features.|
|Growth & Responsiveness||Base follows growth curve of brand / product. Base guides features & policy.||Steady influx of new & quality members, participation in community governance.|
What would you add?
I wanted to provide a quick update regarding the Online Community Unconference that we are putting together in Mountain View on May 21. It has been an amazing experience to reconvene the “community of community managers” that were first brought together during the period Forum One hosted these events, and inspiring to see the new members of the community: both practitioners and organizations that are embracing the art and science of building and sustaining online communities.
We are currently just shy of 100 registrants, with a target of 200. We have an amazing group of organizations and industry experts registered, including leaders from:
- Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
- George Lucas Education Foundation
and many more.
We will also be joined by independent practitioners, industry analysts and authors that are deeply invested in and knowledgable about the community space, including:
The OCU is shaping up to be a fantastic day of learning, sharing and networking. If you haven’t had a chance to register, you can find more info here:
Online Community Unconference 2013 Registration
I hope to see you all on May 21st at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View!
File under: blog posts I never thought I would be writing – but excited that I am.
It’s been an interesting journey to get here (and I’m certain it will continue to be), but I’m very pleased to announce that we will hosting the Online Community Unconference in Mountain View, CA on May 21ist.
The Unconference planning team is rooted in the #OCTribe meetup and is made up of me, Kaliya Hamlin, Randy Farmer, Scott Moore, Susan Tenby, Gail Williams, Rachel Luxemburg and Maria Ogneva. Our plan is to closely follow the successful format of the Online Community Unconferences that ran from 2007 – 2010 in the Bay Area and New York that I produced when I was at Forum One – specifically:
- Personally inviting key professionals in the industry to ensure a knowledgeable and experienced group
- Adhering to the principles of Open Space Technology to ensure a quality event experience & maximum content – no filler / no talking head keynotes and no recycled presentations that you’ve seen from “noted experts” at other conferences. This is about real professionals having real conversations
- A great location in the Computer History Museum
- A commitment to document the proceedings – see an example of the Book of Proceedings from the OCU 2009.
- A fun and collegial environment
I’ll have more details as we get closer to the date, but the key things for now are:
- Registration is open now with early bird rates @ $85
- We are currently looking for a modest amount of sponsorship (feel free to email me)
- Our hashtag is #OCU2013
- We hope you can join us on 5/21!
And lastly… its nice to be back 🙂
Today (ok, technically tomorrow) is Community Manager Appreciation Day, or #CMAD. As I mentioned before, Jeremiah Owyang will be tracking the global celebration via his blog: 4th Annual Community Manager Appreciation Day: Jan 28, 2013 In my last post about #CMAD, I encouraged everyone participating to “find there own A”:
I originally chose to support #CMAD because I believe that most organizations are underinvesting in and not properly prioritizing the role online communities can play in their marketing, sales and support strategies. I see #CMAD as a way to raise the visibility of the role of Community Management in addition to a whole lot of gratitude for Community Managers being passed around.
My “A” is still appreciation, but I wanted to call out a handful of people in the industry who have really helped shape my thinking about Community Management, and consequently, my career in the industry. Specifically, I wanted to acknowledge:
Howard Rheingold: @hrhreingold
Howard is one of the true pioneers in the space, and if you are unfamiliar with his work, you really are missing key pieces of the foundation of the Online Community industry. Howard’s work in and impact on the space is incredible, from his seminal book “The Virtual Community“, to his early participation in The WELL, his book on mobile social Smart Mobs, and his recent work in social and collaboration including classes at Stanford. A brilliant man and a gentle soul.
What I specifically appreciate: Howard laying the foundation for an objective conversation about online communities and collaboration.
Amy Jo Kim: @amyjokim
I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Amy Jo Kim in real life, but I consider her book “Community Building on the Web” on of my best Community friends. The book is almost 7 years old, but still remarkably useful in day to day practice. In particular, I find her definition of online community as the one I always go back to:
My working definition for community is a collection of people who have come together for some common purpose, interest or activity, and who are able to get to know each other better over time.
Excerpted from this great interview with Nancy White.
What I specifically appreciate: Amy writing the first book on online communities that was both strategic and practical.
Randy Farmer: @frandallfarmer
Continuing the list of pioneers with Randy Farmer, one of the first Community Architects and also an expert in Reputation Management Systems. I first got to know Randy in 2007 through the Forum One Network events that I developed and hosted with Jim Cashel. For me, Randy has consistently been one of the smartest, most pragmatic, and most helpful voices in the online community industry. We’ve worked together personally on a couple of projects, including an RMS project for Dell’s Communities.
What I specifically appreciate: Randy’s guidance and advice as the industry transitioned from Virtual Communities 1.0 to Social Media and beyond.
Joe Cothrel: @cothrel
Joe Cothrel is Chief Community Officer at Lithium (disclosure, Autodesk is a customer). Though not as widely published as the previous folks that I have mentioned, Joe is truly one of the smartest strategists and practitioners in the industry. Joe was another connection that I made via Forum One events, and I’ve always found his opinions and feedback valuable. Joe is particularly great at brand communities and the organizational issues and opportunities with online communities.
What I specifically appreciate: Joe’s advice and feedback on the best ways to create value with brand communities, and how to describe that value.
No #CMAD list would be complete with giving a shout out to Jeremiah Owyang. Although Jeremiah covers many parts of the Social Business spectrum, we has consistently tracked, reported on and researched online communities and the role of community manager throughout his career. Jeremiah has been supportive of many of my personal community building initiatives, including my early Online Community Roundtable meetups and Forum One Unconferences. Jeremiah continues to study the value and impact of online communities and the fact that he continues to steward #CMAD is icing on the cake.
What I specifically appreciate: Jeremiah’s ongoing interest in, and quality coverage of, the Online Community space.
How about you?
Who is on your list? Who are you most appreciative of on Community Manager Appreciation Day?
PS – Looking forward to seeing Bay Area folks at the #CMADSF event on Monday night.
First established in January of 2010, Community Manager Appreciation Day (#CMAD) is held on the 4th Monday of January to celebrate the role of Community Manager. The celebrations range from small acts of gratitude, like thanking a staff community manager with a note, to major events and meetups all over the world.
Jeremiah Owyang, the event’s creator, is tracking all of the activity on his blog here:
4th Annual Community Manager Appreciation Day: Jan 28, 2013
San Francisco Happy Hour on 1/28
I am helping organize a San Francisco happy hour on the evening of the 28th at District Wine Bar. The event is free, but you must register and RSVP here:
Community Manager Appreciation Happy Hour – San Francisco
Google Hangout from the folks at My Community Manager
Tim McDonald and the team at My Community Manager are hosting a hangout on Google + all day on the 28th – more info at:
My Community Manager G+ #CMAD Hangout
Again, Jeremiah is doing a great job of tracking all of the activity across the globe via this blog post.
Find YOUR own “A” in CMAD
I originally chose to support #CMAD because I believe that most organizations are underinvesting in and not properly prioritizing the role online communities can play in their marketing, sales and support strategies. I see #CMAD as a way to raise the visibility of the role of Community Management in addition to a whole lot of gratitude for Community Managers being passed around. With that being said, I have a couple of suggestions for celebrating #CMAD:
- As a baseline, acknowledge the community managers on your staff with thanks and perhaps a small gift
- Thank a community manager in one of your passion or hobby communities
- Thank those you have learned from in the space – I threw a shout out to Amy Jo Kim, Howard Rheingold and Joe Cothrel… and I will continue to add to that list on the run up to the 28th
- Think about how we go beyond “appreciation” for the CM role next year – should it be Advancement? Acceleration? Let’s ave this discussion during the year!
As I look back on my 14 years in the space, I am encouraged by the progress in tools, practices, programs and professional network… but we still have a long way to go! I look forward to seeing Bay Area Community Managers at the Happy Hour on 1/28.
There seems to be a wave of bad advice and misguided thinking regarding where and how brands should engage with their communities. Examples include pundits advising brands to prioritize social efforts “off domain”, being passive observers in their communities instead of active hosts, and a general sentiment that hosting a brand-based online community is high effort and low return.
This is really unfortunate, as I’m convinced many organizations are missing key opportunities to realize value from online communities. The reasons for the bad advice and thinking are myriad and may include legitimate causes like: steady pressure from a slowly recovering economy, increased demands for customer attention online and competition for prioritization amongst a growing list of places to play in social media. Unfortunately, the lack of direct experience and ego play a role as well.
So, what’s at stake? Your network of customer relationships. Said another way: you can rent this network on Facebook (along with other tenants), or you can make the investment in hosting, growing and managing the network yourself. Renting is cheaper in the short term. Building and hosting the network creates a business asset that is generative in value if managed properly.
The Role of Host
When I say “host”, I am specifically talking about on-domain, brand-hosted communities that are built on a community platform (like Lithium or Jive) and housed under the brand’s domain. Examples include Autodesk’s AREA, SAP’s Community Network , Dell’s TechCenter and Lego’s CUUSO . The value of these communities is multi-dimensional, but hosted brand communities are generally a “clean, well-lit place” for a company to:
- offer customers peer to peer support, lowering support costs and increasing customer satisfaction;
- co-develop product and service ideas with customers, lowering research costs and creating products with a built in market;
- give special access to and content from insiders (like product developers) in the company, increasing the value of the community for members;
- share special content to enhance the use of (or use in) the products;
- discuss improvements or extensions to products and services;
- facilitate niche communities of practice around specializations;
to name just a few in the long list of possible activities that produce value for both the brand and community members.
Being a Good Host
The web is littered with failed attempts by brands trying to kickstart communities. Many remind me of the famous Bette Midler quote “but enough about me… what do YOU think about me”. Many early failures hit the wall simply because they made the simple mistake of being selfish. Brands need to be able to come up with a simple value equation as part of the strategic development process for community that accounts for both their business needs as well as that of the community member. If both parties can’t win, there is really no sense in playing. I offer the examples I gave earlier as proof that this can be done – Lego, Autodesk, Dell and others have been and are successful in their efforts. A few reminders on etiquette for being a good host (and there are many others):
- Be present and attentive
Ensure that staff are available to participate, answer questions and respond to feedback.
- Be engaged
Actively manage the community, ensuring basic moderation is happening and that there is a regular cadence of content and activity.
- Be respectful
Ensure that communications, content and activities are geared towards shared value, vs one-sided discussions about the host organization. Being respectful goes beyond generally being civil and includes the expectation that the community hosts will form relationships with members and support the community over the lang haul.
Brands as Networks
One definition of brand is “the collectively held perceptions about an organization shared amongst its stakeholders”. I find this fascinating because the statement implies that a brand can’t manifest unless it is in a networked environment. Brands need networks in order to exist. Online (and offline) Communities are a living, breathing expression of a brand.
- Online Communities should be a focal point of brands social strategy, and a “center of gravity” for social presence;
- Brands should not shy away from the role of active community host – it’s not an option, it’s a responsibility
- To be a good Community host, approach the task with the attitude that *everybody can win* instead of a zero sum game of Brand vs Customers
Let’s face it – the vendors you rely on for social media & community platforms, services and advice have you outnumbered and surrounded. Between account reps, sales reps, relationship managers, executive success partners and the rest of the cast, most vendors have a veritable army of skilled professionals whose primary purpose is to maximize revenue derived from their relationship with you. I’m not saying that this is all bad (profitable vendors = sustainable vendors, after all) and that these relationships can’t be mutually beneficial. What I am saying is that the sides of the social vendor relationship game aren’t evenly matched. For social executives, it’s time to step up our game and more proactively manage these vendor relationships.
What’s at stake? Ultimately, the long term success of your social programs. Have you ever been through an Online Community platform migration? It sucks – from a technical perspective, let alone a community management perspective. Ever had to buy an additional social listening package because your primary did a bad job of influencer identification? Ever had analysts completely contradict each other on best practices for rolling out a Reputation Management system in back to back briefings? Issues with vendors as isolated incidents are painful and expensive. Issues with some or all of your vendors simultaneously can kill social programs.
The opportunities at hand are to gain the most value from your vendor relationships ideally by:
- Gaining access to and influencing product roadmap
- Guiding the vendor into partnership & integration discussions with other vendors that you use
- Staying abreast of best practice and useful case studies from other customers of the vendor
- Understanding if you and the vendor are on paralell or divergent paths long term
SWGD? (So Watcha Gonna Do?)
I offer the following tactics and suggestions in the spirit of SWGD :
1. Host an Annual Social Vendor Summit
Ask your vendors to come onsite for an annual Social Vendor Summit. I hosted one of these at Dell in January of this year, and had all of our community, social media, listening, social CRM, social marketing, analytics and touchpoint partners in for a day of shared briefings. The briefing format was dead-simple- each vendor had 30 minuts to share 3 slides: 1) An overview of current state and feature usage, 2) Suggestions on how we could improve use and effectiveness of their offering and 3) Anything else they wanted to tell us. They sessions were a great way to get the internal team on the same page and also to spur brainstorming and collaboration amongst the vendor partners.
2. Conduct Quarterly Business Reviews
These reviews are likely common as an internal practice in your organization, so why not expect them of your vendors? Reviewing product roadmap updates, strategy updates, progress on key programs and any interesting new customer examples or case studies is a few hours well spent in the quarter. This is a much deeper and more exclusive dive than the Summit mentioned above, and is really intended to be a frank feedback sharing and strategy session. Are some of your vendors not willing to spend the time to do this? Great segway to my next suggestion…
3. Stay in Touch With Competitive Vendors
Competitive social vendors are likely calling you anyway – make the best of it! I was generally willing to take a call or briefing with a competitive vendor at Dell if I was sure about our internal position on the incumbent vendor (favorable or not) and I would always let the competitive vendor know if there was any chance of them winning the business prior to the briefing.
4. Understand & Influence Product Roadmap
Your social vendors with product roadmaps should be more than willing to share fairly long-term (at least 18 mos) roadmaps with you. They will be caveated to the Nth degree and be bookended by safe harbor statements… but they should be shareable. You should feel empowered to have a discussion about the planned features and you should generally feel like your priorities are taken into account. If not, this should be a huge red flag (and see previous point re: Competitors).
5. Build Your Peer Network
It is critical to have a network of peers in similar positions to compare notes with and to seek advice from. Analysts are great for general snapshots of the social landscape and directional advice, but being able to have a conversation with a peer sitting in *your* seat in another organization is invaluable. Your social vendors will likely have conferences and events that will offer great networking opportunities. Vendors can also make intros for you. There are also many great networking organizations like The Community Roundtable and SocialMedia.org. To put a fine point on it: build your network before you need it.
6. Get Personal
Along the lines of building a peer network, get to know the key players working for your vendors as well. Invest the time in building one to one relationships outside of the conference room. Personal relationships often make the difference in getting a heads up on a feature change, getting a feature request into a release or getting a little extra help with a configuration.
The Net-net: a little extra effort put into elevating your relationships with your key social vendors to a *true* partnership will likely pay back valuable dividends in the form of better platforms, more effective social programs and higher return on your social investments.
Do you agree that spending more time managing your social vendor relationships could create value? Do you have additional suggestions on why and how to manage these relationships? I’d love to hear your thoughts and any stories or suggestions you could share.