Nevertheless, we now realize that no whole, be it a family, a business, a community, or a nation, can be managed without looking inward to the lesser wholes that combine to form it, and outward to the greater wholes of which it is a member.”
Allan Savory, from “Holistic Management”
Need a Community? You Have (at least) One
After 15 years of designing and activating online communities, I’m still surprised when I hear from a potential client that they “need to create” an online community. Wether you realize it or not, you have and belong to many communities. Further, you intentionally or unintentionally play many roles within those communities – host, member, participant, advocate, creator, and at times, possibly even destroyer. You may be asking yourself “so, what is a community? How do I know where my community is? How do I define community?” Though typical, those are the wrong questions to start with.
Context is King
The word “community” is problematic. It can have as many meanings as there are people in an organization to make meaning, ranging from the local geographical community, to a peer to peer technical support community, a social media page or a working group focused on solving a specific problem. I’ve held conferences where the question of a canonical definition of community was debated by some of the smartest people I know in the industry, and the question was left unanswered. Why? Two reasons: 1.) a helpful answer must be developed in the strategic context of the host organization and their extended network and 2.) community as a metaphor is often too specific and limiting – why we often see communities as a solution looking for a problem.
To expand on the Savory quote at the beginning of this post, to fully understand the potential for communities in your organization, you have to understand the actual smaller and discrete communities that make up your organization (employees, partners, alumni) , and the larger communities that your organization is a part of (industries, markets, causes, etc.). The “whole”, if you will, is really a network. Increasingly, I find starting a strategy conversation with “community” can be burdensome, and that “network” is a more helpful (and neutral) place to start.
Network as a Rubric
Why “Network”? Network, defined as “a group or system of interconnected people or things” describes a set of connected entities but does not imply or assign activities, relationships or outcomes the way “community” seems to. Using network as a blank canvas allows you to create strategy from drawing from the largest possible pool of value. Thinking “Network” means you are considering the full set of relationships among stakeholders, assets, and increasingly, artificial intelligence actors that could potentially be developed. From the baseline of network, a more holistic strategy can be created that is inclusive of community, social, and digital innovation.
As an example of Network Thinking, I developed the graph below as part of an exercises to inventory and explore opportunities for stakeholder groups allowing access to assets in an online marketplace.
The Future of Networks
“What is true for the machines all around us now is true for us too: We are what we are connected to. And mastery of that connection turns out to be the modern version of Napoleon’s coup d’oeil, the essential skill of the age.”
Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks
One of the best books I’ve read recently is The Seventh Sense” by Joshua Cooper Ramos. In the book, Ramos describes the role of networks in the age of massive disruption that we are beginning to live through – on par with the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. Ramos goes on to evangelize the need to develop a “Seventh Sense”, the ability “to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed by connection” in order to survive and thrive amidst the change. Ramos, along with recent books by Reid Hoffman and great thinking by the team at a16z represent some of the most helpful and cogent thinking on networks and network effects.
I believe we need a new and more holistic approach to develop modern communities – communities that are a significant evolution of the current support and Q&A-based silos. In my own practice I’ve begun to refer to the skills and methodologies for designing modern social networks and communities as “Network Thinking”, and I’ve begun to tag related research and writing as #FoN, or “Future of Networks”. To stay up to date, subscribe to my newsletter here.
I’m currently working with a select list of clients to build modern community and network strategies. If you would like to schedule some time to talk about how I can help, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Many organizations are struggling to understand and respond to the changes being driven by the Collaborative (some say On Demand or Sharing) Economy. A simple way to get started is to think about 1) what assets you have to offer and 2) how digital networks enable distribution, usage of and collaboration with those assets. This process is another element of a concept I am calling “Network Thinking”.
I’ve developed a short exercise to help organizations think through ideas, threats and opportunities, and develop a simple plan to start pilot programs. When I facilitate this exercise at workshops and events it is designed to take 45 minutes. using time as a constraint and forcing function. I typically do a quick briefing on communities and the collaborative economy before running the exercise. If you need inspiration, I’ve added a video of a recent talk at the end of this post.
Page 1: Synthesis, Threats, Opportunities & Inventory
Synthesis – 5 min
Quickly list ideas about the Collaborative / On Demand / Sharing Economy that resonate, inspire and challenge you.
Disruptive Threats – 5 min
Think through and list the disruptive threats to your business. Startups that are emerging and offering your product or service at a discount, a privileged position in a market that is eroding, etc.
Transformational Opportunities – 5 min
Explore and list the transformational opportunities at hand, as you currently understand them. This could be a new line of business enabled by digital technologies, replacing your current distribution channel with one that is based on customers or online.
Inventory – 10 min
Explore and list all assets available to you. Consider any tangible asset, including office space, IP, product archives, talent, supply chain, customer talent, etc.
The first page of the worksheet, with the sections described above:
Page 2: Ideation & Action Plan
Ideation Canvas – 10 min
Take the list of assets from page one and list them across the x axis on the bottom of the diagram. Going up the y axis for each stakeholder group, think about how that asset might be used by or with the stakeholder group to create new business value. A simple example is shown on the second image below. The asset “office space” could be used by Partners as a sublet or on-demand office space, or the space could be used by customers or the crowd as a makerspace.
Action Plan – 10 min
Taking inputs from page 1, and reviewing all of the ideas generated on the Ideation Canvas, list your 3 best ideas, develop a short pitch, and answer 3 key questions about getting started.
The second page of the worksheet, with the sections described above:
The second page of the worksheet, with the ideation canvas partially completed:
In less than an hour you have a solid draft of a possible Collaborative Economy initiative. You can use this output as a tool to start conversations in your organization about a pilot program, or use the Worksheet as part of an internal workshop or planning meeting.
I use this tool in many of my workshops. If you are interested in discussing my workshop offerings, or hosting a facilitated version of this exercise at your company or during a retreat, please reach out to my assistant to schedule some time to connect.
My recent session at the Online Community Tribe Meetup in SF gives an overview of the Collaborative Economy and introduces the concept of Network Thinking as a tool to help organizations explore future business models in the Collaborative Economy.
Are you “Member Shy”?
In its most basic form, a community strategy is a balance of an organization’s goals and its member’s (a.k.a customer’s) needs. Organizations have methodologies for developing goals and objectives, yet I continue to be surprised at how many organizations are missing research as a core part of their online community development process. Even for organizations that are highlighted as examples of “getting it”, there are still cases where the community wasn’t engaged in research about a major platform change, feature enhancement or policy shift (the historical / hysterical facebook privacy anyone?). In many cases there seems to be a real fear (or at least discomfort) in connecting 1 to 1 with customers. That fear could be rooted in the inability to have meaningful interaction at scale, the overhead associated with regular contact, or the lack of an evolved organizational culture that encourages this type of interaction. Any community development (or refinement) initiative *requires* the input and direction of the members.
Note: I will be using the terms “member” and “customer” interchangeably in this post. I will also use the term “member” as a placeholder for current and potential members of a community.
Why Conduct Member Research?
Conducting member needs research as part of the strategy development process brings the voice of customer to the center of the strategy, and helps create a lens through which to focus your community building activities. As I mentioned in my kickoff post to “Network Thinking“, there are really five core questions to frame your community strategy:
- WHO are your customers?
- WHY are they motivated to build relationships with each other?
- WHERE do they want to build relationships with each other?
- HOW do they want to build relationships with each other?
- WHAT value can you provide as a HOST to strengthen and deepen these relationships over time?
Member research can also help answer more tactical questions like:
- What role should you play as host, and what community activities should you facilitate?
- What types of content and features should be present in the community?
- Should the community be an “on domain” destination, or should the community presence extend on to other sites, like Facebook?
- What types of members does the community want to include?
- What type of culture does the community need to thrive?
- What activities are members prepared to participate in that will directly or indirectly benefit the host?
- What types of marketing and advertising would members find acceptable?
Techniques for Conducting Member Research
The process for conducting member research is straightforward: decide on the appropriate techniques given your budget, recruit subjects, conduct the research and analyze the results. Great places to recruit research subjects:
- Your existing community
- Your blog
- Your corporate web site
- Newsletter mailing lists
- Customer Conferences
- Independent communities about your product or in your market or topic area
- Facebook or Linkedin groups about your product or in your market or topic area
- Using social network analysis tools like LittleBird or NodeXL to analyze open networks like Twitter.
One on One Interviews
One on one interviews can be conducted either in-person or over the phone. The key ingredients are a customer, an interviewer, a notetaker and a simple interview script (a sample can be found below). Interviews can be as short as 30 minutes, and generally should last no more than an hour. In my experience, a minimum of 5-6 interviews will yield useful themes and give good data for strategy direction. If your community will serve many different products, market segments, or customer types a good rule of thumb is to try and do interviews with at least 3 people from each segment. One on One interviews can also be augmented nicely by a follow up online survey to a larger group, in order to drill down further on issues uncovered in the initial round of interviews. Interviews can be conducted in person, via a hangout (or other video chat service), or over the phone.
Another great way to get feedback, and to get a lot of feedback at once is to conduct a group feedback session. This is similar to the one on one interviews, except you are guiding a group of members through the script, as opposed to just one. Involving multiple subjects at once increases the complexity of the process, so be sure to have someone skilled at facilitation leading the session to keep the conversation on track (per the script), as well as to ensure that all participants have equal air time to give their opinions and feedback.
The fastest, and often lowest overhead way to get member feedback is to create a short online survey to send to research participants. Online surveys are really great at getting quick quantitative feedback, and the results (depending on the tool) are fairly easily to analyze and study. A few issues with online surveys are that the quality of the results depends on the quality of the questions, and in particular, thinking through appropriate choices for multiple choice questions, and also creating effect write in questions that will yield helpful qualitative feedback.
In most cases for the community and social media strategy work I do at Structure3C, I will generally start with an online survey to at least 100 community members,and follow up by conducting a set of 7-10 one on one interviews with community members.
Questions to Ask During Research
There are essentially 5 overarching questions for your community strategy, 4 of which you want to answer as an output of member research:
- Why do community members want to build relationships with each other? What do community members need from each other? Explore what community members might desire from interactions with other community members, and try to understand why they are motivated to sustain this activity over time. Answers could range from knowledge sharing, to providing mentoring, to ongoing professional or personal support.
- Where do you customers want to build relationships with each other? This question is particularly important to avoid duplicating community features and value that exist elsewhere. The key insight to uncover in this line of questioning is what unique value you can provide in your hosted community AND which external communities and social media sites you need to participate in in order to create a holistic community presence. Increasingly, mobile presents a unique opportunity to host your customer network in fundamentally new ways.
- How do members want to build relationships with each other? What value can community members contribute / exchange? It is important to understand what ways community members are capable of, prepared to and willing to participate. Participation could include sharing domain expertise, offering content samples, answering support questions, or even just participating in casual online conversation.
- What do community members need from you as the host? Ask questions that explore member expectations of your organization in the role of host. What are the member expectations around your level of participation, your effort in developing content, in fostering participation and your commitment to hosting the community long-term?
In order to answer the key questions, you will need to ask a series of baseline demographics questions (for context), as well as exploring each of the four key questions in a more granular way. A sampling of questions that can be used to create a script or facilitation guide are included below.
A simple list of survey or interview questions might include:
- Name, organization, title, a brief role description
- Browser and mobile preferences: Chrome vs Safari, iOS vs Andriod, etc.
- What information sources do you rely on (relating to the topic of the community)?
- What groups (on/offline) are you a member of (relating to the topic of the community)?
- What products / services do you use (relating to the topic of the community)?
- What is the biggest challenge you face in your day to day work (assuming this relates to the topic of the community)?
- How satisfied are you with the level and type of communication you have with organization x?
- Do you currently participate in any of the following social media activities: blogging, discussion forums, facebook, twitter, youtube etc (shape the list based on your market)
- What information, insight or content do you want to share with other customers?
- What kinds of information would be helpful for other customers to share with you?
- If organization x were to offer the following content or features, please rate how useful each would be to you: discussion forums, expert Q&A, tutorials & tips, video previews, customer blogs, etc.
- Would you be interested in connecting with other members at local, in-person events?
- Exploring usability issues around current experiences and apps
I’ve seen investment in member research pay off consistently, just as I’ve seen the severe cost of not conducting member research hamper or sink many community initiatives. In short: Want to know what your members want from their online community? Just ask.
Customer & member research is a core part of my community development practice at Structure3C. If you are starting a new community or crowd initiative, my team can plan and deliver community research to build a strong foundation for your program. You can book time with my through my assistant Karelyn.
In March I embarked on a series of qualitative research projects to help organizations prepare for the disruption and opportunity emerging from the Collaborative Economy, and understand what resources they need to be successful. Wave 1 responses are in and the analysis is almost finished. I wanted to share a preview of the results to date. The full set of results will be published in June.
The pool of organizations that completed the survey ranged from Fortune 500 software, media and retail companies to small startups in the sharing economy space. A handful of non-profits also participated.
- A shared understanding of the Collaborative Economy is still forming.
- The Collaborative Economy is relevant to organizations, but the level of urgency isn’t high (yet).
- The most interesting sectors are Learning, Services and Corporate (“Sectors” as described by Crowd Companies Honeycomb model).
- Many organizations see online communities, social networks and collaboration platforms as “enablers” and areas to begin experimentation.
Getting to a crisp definition and shared understanding of the Collaborative Economy is challenging because the concept describes the interplay of a number of other large trends and movements, including (but not limited to) the Sharing Economy, Sustainable Development, Digital Transformation, the Maker Movement, Internet of Things, Future of Making Things and more. In the context of this research project, when asked to describe their understanding of the Collaborative Economy, respondents mainly spoke to 3 key themes of the Collaborative Economy as:An economic model…
“A model in which the creation and exchange of value (of goods, services, knowledge, etc) occurs through human interactions versus (solely) financial transactions. Asset allocation is optimized such that resources are jointly consumed and assets rarely stand idle.”
A social movement…
“Where brands and people start thinking more cooperatively for the greater good…instead of competitively & businesses go back to being more sociable and people-focused.”
A technical platform…
“Coordination of mobile devices, cashless payment systems, reliable rating mechanisms to get value from each other as opposed to centralized corporation of assets.”
- Don’t understand how to formulate a strategy
- Don’t have the necessary vision, leadership and resources to engage
- Don’t see a burning platform of missed opportunity or competitive threat
- Aren’t willing (yet) to make the investments in platforms, partnerships, open collaboration and the making corporate assets available.
The respondents who did indicate a high level of urgency, and had active pilots, were engaging in activities ranging from: investment in or partnership with complimentary startups, development of platforms and marketplaces, evolving existing social business programs, and re-developing the value exchanges of their online communities. These pilot programs will be covered in more detail in the final report.
3. Emerging Sectors
Research participants were asked to rank certain sectors of the Collaborative Economy by level of interest. The sector categories were sourced from the Crowd Companies Honeycomb model.
Survey participants were asked to rank the following systems, technologies and engagements based upon their perceived value in enabling an organization to engage in the Collaborative Economy.
The full Brands and the Collaborative Economy report will be released in June, going in to further detail on the topics above, as well as:
- An overview of current pilot programs being conducted by the respondents;
- Key sources of information and data about the Collaborative Economy;
- An overview of missing or underdeveloped resources and services needed by organizations for their Collaborative Economy initiatives.
Wave 2 Research begins June 1st.
Wave 2 research will begin the week of June 1st, and will cover:
- Lessons learned from early successes and failures
- Organizational resources needed to develop and sustain pilot programs
- Development of a simple framework for Collaborative Economy pilot programs
If you are interested in participating in the research (via survey), being interviewed or profiled for the report, or sponsoring a future report, please send me an note.
Private Briefings & Advisory Sessions
I am also doing a limited number of private briefings on the Collaborative Economy research and how a modern approach to online communities can support innovation, customer acquisition and retention.
I’m available for online session booking via Popexpert, or feel free to drop me a note.
You’ve probably been hearing a lot about the Collaborative Economy lately. The key question many brands are asking: How do I get started?
The good news? You may already have. Most organizations have an existing online customer community (or communties). Most are as simple as technical support forums, but many organizations have explored community engagement that touch most parts of their businesses, from product, to marketing, even recruiting and talent development. Organizations as diverse as Lego, Autodesk, Patagonia, Starbucks, BMW and GE have all shown leadership in this area. Like the previously mentioned organizations, if you have been engaged in building the social business muscle in your organization, you have been building a solid foundation for engagement in the Collaborative Economy.
Big Challenges / Early Days
If you consider the evolution required for most organizations to embrace the Collaborative Economy, the task can seem overwhelming and the path perilous. Unfreezing corporate assets, opening up IP portfolios, bringing customers in to every stage of product development, even bringing customers inside the organization for extended periods – these are all huge issues to wrestle with, there is no doubt. But just like customer voices drove the social media revolution and customer’s preferences drove the customer experience and mobile revolutions, customer choice with experiences like AirBNB, Uber, Kickstarter and taskrabbit will increasingly fuel demand for radical change in products and experiences from established organizations.
So again we are back to the question: How do I get started? To borrow a phrase from one of my favorite professors in my Sustainable Development program: “Start where you are, do what you can.” It is important to note that we are in the early days of this revolution, and as such, there are few hard and fast rules. Being crisp on business goals and measures of success, while being open to unexpected learnings and sources of value are all key. Specifically, my guidance is to start with your Community and Social Business programs and extend from there.
Places to Start
The list below is meant to give a few examples to start your own internal conversations about the Collaborative Economy – feedback and ideas are welcome in the comments.
1. Explore “Community” with a capital “C”
Move beyond break-fix support forums, and explore ways to engage your customers in product design, product development, content creation and local meetups. The state of online community development has been stalled in recent years by a fixation on customer acquisition via social media. The opportunity is ripe to invest in building your on-domain community and crowd-engagement experiences.
Autodesk’s Fusion 360 Community
2. Open Products,IP, and Assets
Is there an opportunity to open up some, or all, of your product or IP assets to encourage co-creation with your customers or spur market development? These could be in the form Digital Assets (design files, specs, branding, instructions), Product Assets (Digital or physical kits, tooling, specs) or other
Telsa Opens Patents
Toyota Opens Fuel Cell Patents
3. Open Space:
Organizations generally have a large physical footprint. Many have experimented with opening up unused office space for rent or as on-demand meeting or co-working space. Other companies have tapped their unused manufacturing or production capacity. Retailers are beginning to bring in outside brands and individual makers to sell wares in their retail spaces. Some of the most innovative or actually creating labs and makerspaces and inviting the public in to co-create.
Office Space Yield Management
Maker’s Row helps match factories with designers
Shop’s at Target (First version of this failed, expect to see more)
GE’s FirstBuild MakerSpace
Autodesk Artist in Residence
4. Share Digital Platforms
Just as many organizations have underutilized physical space, they also have underutilized digital capacity & platforms. What are the possible initiatives for opening up your existing platforms and sharing other forms of digital capacity and data?
Amazon opens store on Alibaba (example of one retailer opening to competitor)
Can I trust you really? The Reputation Currency
Why Online Reputation Needs to be Portable
5. Allow Access to Talent
One of the most interesting and largely unexplored areas of opportunity is the talent & cognitive surplus present in most organizations. What if that talent and expertise could be could be made available outside the organization? There are a number of challenges here, including an equitable vs exploitative approach, but the results of unleashing creatives and knowledge workers to explore problems beyond their “corporate” boundaries could be amazing. What if you could buy 2 hours of an Apple product designer’s time? Or get feedback from engineer at Boeing on product idea? Or hire a staff writer from Hallmark to write your Mother’s Day Card?
6. Open Access to the Community & Crowd
I mentioned the opportunity to create “Community with a Capital C” earlier in the post. One key challenge with any brand community, no matter how engaging or interesting the brand might be, is that it will likely only be relevant to a specific dimension of a customer’s work or life. Not understanding and accepting this simple fact has been the demise of many online community strategies. To get full value and engagement from online communities in the Collaborative Economy, brands are going to have to get more… well, collaborative. Radically so. Partnering with, and engaging independent communities, existing partners, and increasingly, competitors will be key. One example I would point to is the ongoing series of events that Hackster.io (a community for hardware hackers) is putting on with support from a range of incubators, hardware and software companies. All parties involved are prioritizing community engagement above competitive differences – as a result, everyone wins.
Hackster.io Hardware Weekend
7. Explore Incubation & Innovation
There are essentially three approaches here: 1) Outpost: Open an innovation or research center in a market hotspot like silicon valley; 2) Scout: Send Innovation scouts out into key markets to identify trends, find partners and start pilots or 3) Incubate: Create labs or workshops inside existing corporate locations. All serve similar approaches as they try to equalize the innovation equilibrium inside and outside the corporate membrane.
Ford Silicon Valley Research Center
Swisscom Open Innovation
Autodesk’s Pier 9 Workshop
Net: Brands have an amazing opportunity for growth and value-creation in the Collaborative Economy. Those with existing social business and innovation programs are well positioned to navigate the transformation and be the early market leaders. Expect innovative brands to do a lot of experimentation in 2015.
The latest version of the Collaborative Economy Honeycomb – visualizing the industries showing meaningful growth and / or activity – has been released on Jeremiah Owyang’s blog.
The new version adds 6 new industries:
- Health & Wellness
- Corporate (Platforms)
You can get multiple versions of the Honeycomb file, a directory of all the businesses in the Honeycomb, and a deeper overview on Jeremiah’s blog post.
Digital Content & Tools?
One cell that I was hoping to see added this time around was Digital Content – maybe “Digital Things”. There are a growing number of communities and networks of people exchanging the digital files, knowledge and expertise needed to make physical goods. Expect these networks and communities of makers, tinkerers, hackers and artists go more mainstream as more people become inspired by the Maker movement and the ease of use for the software and hardware tools becomes better.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I do think the Collaborative Economy is a real and emerging force, poised to disrupt existing brands and create many new ones. Tools like the Honeycomb help capture a snapshot of the current state of a complex system – Thanks to Jeremiah for continuing to analyze, capture and help make meaning from all the activity in the space.
I stumbled on the following report from the P2P Foundation, and it was too good (and comprehensive) not to share. The main caveat with the doc is that it was published in 2012 and not 100% current with trends… but with that said, the content is generally helpful, and the editors / researchers were very prescient.
By way of a short overview (warranted, as this doc weighs in at 346 pages), the report gives a fantastic foundational overview and frame of what is now generally referred to as the “Collaborative Economy”, drawing from the best sources in the social business, online community, social media, innovation and collaboration spaces in the last 10+ years – Benkler, Tapscott, Chesbrough Botsman, and many more.
In short: these are the essential cliff notes you wish you had been taking over the last 15 years, but probably weren’t, coupled with thoughtful analysis. It is an excellent preamble to the work Jeremiah Owyang and Crowd Companies (and others) are extending and putting in to practice.