It’s clear that the Corvid-19 Pandemic will drive the global economy into a recession. Periods of economic turbulence tend to have a catalytic effect on the role of online communities and related social and network-based experiences. In particular, it seems public participation increases, followed by corporate investment. We saw this play out with the investment in brand-hosted communities following the 2001 dot com crash, and with the heavy investment in brand social media following the 2008-09 recession. As it seems we are on the cusp of another wave of change, I thought it would be helpful to look back at what some of the brightest minds were thinking as we made the last transition, from what I call the “Customer Community 1.0” era, to the rise of corporate social media, which more or less started in 2010.
I helped write and edit the Online Community Report blog and newsletter while I was Chief Community Officer at Forum One. We had a great run from 2007-2010. Although the OC Report’s publication was suspended, thanks to the magic of the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I was able to find an archived copy of the site. I’ve linked to several of the interview archives below, as well as added key quotes from the interviews. The pictures are from the original interview posts, which is why they are so small in many cases.
Shawn Morton (TechRepublic / Cnet)
I interviewed Shawn when he was still Community lead at TechRepublic / Cnet. I had the good fortune of working with Shawn to help launch and grow TechRepublic. TechRepublic was a very creative environment, and we develop and test new features on the site constantly. Shawn’s shared his point of view with me on balancing new feature development with member’s needs:
“I think I’ve seen just about all of trends at some point over the past 8 years – from collaborative desktop apps, to discussion boards, to blogs, to wikis to social news.
In fact, a couple of years ago, TechRepublic pushed out a lot of new features like social bookmarking, member blogs and wikis with the goal of driving increased usage within the community.
In the end, we found that what our members really wanted was for us to focus on improving the features they used the most discussion and technical Q&A. The big lesson from that exercise was to follow the needs of the community first, not the latest new thing that analysts, journalists or bloggers are raving about: unless your community is geared toward analysts, journalists or bloggers.
We also learned that it’s OK to phase out features if they’re not working. In my experience, you need to continuously justify every feature on the site. If something isn’t getting used, it is noise and the more noise you have, the harder it is to clearly articulate your value proposition.”
I’d also like to add that Shawn passed away in 2018. He was a bright and creative spark in the industry and is sorely missed.
Lee LeFever (CommonCraft)
Lee’s interview from April 2007 featured this great response to my question asking him what trends he saw emerging:
“Two big things come to mind:
1) In terms of overall trends, community is a big focus in the business world – and it feels real this time. When I started working with customer communities in 1999 I spent a lot of time describing the concept and evangelizing. There was a lot of misunderstanding, doubt and nay saying. When the bubble burst it added fuel to the fire. In the last couple of years, the tools have improved, there are many exciting new models and success stories and your average Internet user has a renewed, more positive perception of community. While there is still misunderstanding, it’s exciting to see renewed focus and attention in the community space. Already this year there were two well-attended conferences focusing on community (CommunityNext and Community 2.0).
2) In my experience, there is a much needed focus on the role of the community manager. Companies are starting to understand that community isn’t a technology that you plug in and leave alone – it’s a way of doing business that takes time and hard work. In the best success stories, there is almost always a person or small group that understands community processes, sets expectations, and balances the needs of the community and the organization. Community management is an important skill we need to develop more in the future.”
Jake McKee (Ant’s Eye View)
In his August 2007 interview, Jake offered guidance on the ramp up of interest in community and social media that his firm was seeing at the time:
“The last 12 months or so has been an interesting time to do what I do. 12 months ago, I was having lots of conversations with clients and potential clients where they were asking us to first explain what all this social media and community stuff was about. In many cases, we were helping to support our client contacts within an organization to pitch it or explain it to their colleagues and managers.
Lately, it seems like that they know they want to do something, their bosses expect them to do something, they’re just not really sure what to do or how to get started. I talk to a lot more business professionals with their own Facebook profiles, and who joke about playing with Twitter, posting Amazon reviews, and any number of other online social activities. These same types of people a year ago were brushing off social concepts because “MySpace is ugly and meant for teens”.
Joi Podgorny (Ludorum)
I this interview from September 2007, Joi had a lot of thoughtful things to say about kids / tweens / teens and social media and community use:
“I like the question regarding whether kids’ needs are different than adults’ needs online. My answer is yes and no. Adults are usually more aware of their multiple identities, both on and offline. They have their work personality, their friends’ personality, their (seemingly) anonymous online personalities, etc and they are more able to see the lines of distinction between these identities. Kids also have multiple identities but they are less paranoid about separating them. Many kids, teens and young adults are comfortable with living aspects of their lives very publicly, online. I see pros and cons to both ways of identity juggling. Adults seem to have a better grasp (again, usually) on the ramifications of their actions and will/should act accordingly. Kids/Teens are freer in their identity exploration and therefore, they are able to learn so much more than if they were in a more protected stance.
One aspect that I think hasn’t been looked at as thoroughly as it could have been, is how to deal with late tween/early teen audiences specifically. We have reached a point in our industry where there are handful of people with experience in managing youth communities. We know about moderation, COPPA compliance, filters and the like. Communities/Virtual Worlds like Club Penguin and Webkinz cater to younger children and their parents and have very strict parameters regarding how communication happens between users. But the population that I think needs more attention is that of kids between 11-15 (and the outliers). These young adults are huge communicators online, but are sometimes held back from their true potential due to the strict and rather archaic ideologies as to how they are allowed to interact online. Don’t get me wrong, I am a youth online privacy advocate from the old school, but I think we need to look at the legislation and rules we put in place years ago, and see if any updates need to be made to accommodate where our communities have evolved. If we don’t, I think we could miss out on some great opportunities for everyone online, not just kids and teens.”
Ross MayField (Socialtext)
I was fortunate enough to interview Ross in the run up to the 2008 recession. Ross offered his observations on the effect of the dot com bust (2001) on online communities and gave forward-looking advice on what the post-recession environment might look like for social software:
“We started Socialtext in the last recession, back in 2002. Its interesting that Social Software took hold then, perhaps people took to blogging when they were unemployed. But seriously, there are some key trends that will continue regardless of the hype cycle and macroeconomic conditions:
* NetGens, the first generation to grow up with the internet throughout their lives, are in their second year of employment after college. This is the largest demographic shift, at the same time when the Baby Boom generation is retiring, and will have a profound impact on adoption of social software, organizational culture and work preferences and styles.
* The Consumerization of IT, where innovation happens first in consumer markets, is adapted for the enterprise or driven by individuals serving themselves with SaaS and Open Source alternatives without IT
– Individuals trust peers more than institutions to inform their decisions. This not only impacts consumer marketing, but politics and management.
* Its become common for people to express a facet of their identity publicly on the net, and values of transparency over privacy are changing
* The cost of personal publishing and forming groups that can take action is falling to zero
* Enterprise Social Software is being treated as a serious category of enterprise software by executives and IT, especially as more case studies demonstrate business value.
As we enter into a recession, enterprise budgets will tighten, but it remains to be seen if the relative low cost of Social Software solutions are impacted. We have seen a change in Financial Services, but so far its fairly contained. However, the US isn’t the only market where companies have difficulties collaborating.”
Allen Blue (LinkedIn)
Allen was kind enough to spend some time with me discussing communities from the perspective of product development. In particular, I found his perspective on balancing product vision with customer feedback very compelling:
“When I think about Vision, I think about a statement of what we’re going to be when we grow up and take our place in the market. And it’s a promise to our customers — an implicit contract describing what we’re going to provide them, what the ground rules are for our relationship with them. We may not share the entire vision with our customers, but the spirit of that vision is part of all the products we produce. This is one of the reasons that Visions have ethical overtones.
It’s important not to confuse a Vision with a product design, or even a strategy. I think people frequently say “Vision” when they mean “the product I’m building.” The product you’re building should always be open to substantial modification and change: you either got it right, or you didn’t, but what matters is how you react and make it successful.
If a Vision is formulated correctly, then it is lofty, generally applicable to many situations, and axiomatic. Take “Access to all of the world’s information” as an example. There are many ways to get to that kind of vision — many products and strategies that will get you there. If a Vision is tied to a specific product and strategy, it’s unlikely to succeed.
And even Visions are really hypotheses at first — they are insightful observations of the market. But they should be shaped by realities in the market in the early days, and made higher, less detailed, more like magnetic north and less like a plan to get there.”
Scott Wilder (Intuit)
Scott is one of the true pioneers in developing customer communities. I was fortunate enough to participate in early best practice sessions at Intuit with Scott while I was at Autodesk. In particular, Scott’s perspective on community’s role in creating brand equity, and community’s effect on customer experience have always stuck with me.
“At Intuit, we look at our online community team as a Center of Excellence because it impacts all areas of the business.
The product development group, for example, learns a great deal by reading what customers are saying in the community and even more importantly by interacting with those customers online. Our product managers aim to ‘close the loop’ with our users by sharing how they actually incorporate their customer learnings into our product offerings. For example, you can see how customer input has a direct impact on our products if you go to the We Hear You section of the community website. Then there’s customer service. Many of our users questions are answered by other users, by members of an ecosystem that likes to share learnings, knowledge and experiences. This is especially important with our products because people in various industries use our products differently. For example, we might both be using QuickBooks, but you sell widgets and I provide consulting services, which are two very different types of business. There’s also marketing. The community provides a great way to reinforce our brand attributes, which are being knowledgeable and approachable. And lastly, to meet our company’s big goal of helping empower Small Businesses in any way we can.“
Aaron Strout (Powered)
In addition to being the lead organizer of the Community 2.0 conference, Aaron Strout saw the value for brands of augmenting hosted communities with social media outposts early on, as we fully transitioned into an era of heavy corporate investments in social media (2009-2010). Aaron’s take on the thinking about the right mix of community and social media from our January 2009 interview:
“I like how you worded your question. It implies that social media SHOULD be in a company’s marketing mix vs. being a standalone solution. At the end of the day, companies will enjoy the greatest success when they are coordinating all of their efforts and driving their customers to their online communities and/or social outposts on places like LinkedIn and Facebook. In those places, customers and prospects alike can interact with a company’s employees, talk to one another, interact with content that company has created to provide a learning experience and ultimately, feel more a part of the company’s brand.”
I hope you’ve found this trip into the archives valuable and interesting. I found it helpful to look back on the last major period of transition in the community space – both to be reminded that we go through regular cycles of opportunity and investment with communities, but also to be reminded that it seems value, participation and the importance of communities (and all related experiences) increases with each cycle.
Hi Folks – a quick post to let you know that I am leading a discussion at the #OCTribe Online Community Meetup in SF this Wednesday night.
I’ve been involved with this meetup for many years, and it is an honor to be asked to speak!
Description and registration information follow. I hope we can meet Wednesday night!
Online Communities are Your Organization’s Future
I will present and then lead a discussion on:
- Why 20th century businesses aren’t adapting to 21st century realities, including mobile
- Why we need a fundamentally new and more expansive approach to building online communities in our evolving global economy (hint: mobile)
- How to manage one of the most important (and misunderstood / undervalued) organizational functions
- Why the roles of “Community Manager” and the Community Team need to evolve
- Emerging opportunities for businesses to create and exchange new forms of value with their communities and, in the process, become more sustainable.
This meetup and group is always high signal / low noise.
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.
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?
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.
These are my slides from the Intranet Reloaded Conference in Berlin on April 17th. My presentation was on the evolution of Dell’s IdeaStorm open innovation community.
Serendipity sure seems to be a key theme for me in 2012. First, I was on a panel at SxSWi with a few very smart folks titled “Get Lucky: Create Serendipity to Spur Innovation” – Panel organizer Rawn Shah posted a great recap post here: Serendipity and Innovation at SXSW .
– How to uncover hidden customer needs to drive innovation
– How to meet the needs of different business stakeholders, while leaving room for serendipity
– What it means to have a successful community in a sales-driven/product-driven or customer-centric culture
– How to design effective programs that serve different community goals
How to Succeed as a Permeable Organization