I feel very fortunate to have established a career developing communities (both on and offline) over the last 20+ years. During this time, I’ve seen a steady series of boom and bust cycles for “community” – large waves of investment and development followed by retreat and divestment. During the transition times between the cycles, one of my favorite questions to ask friends and colleagues in the space is: “Where are we on the map?”
We Need a New Map
We are in another period of community investment and growth, fueled in part by COVID-driven restrictions that prevent us from connecting in-person. There is also reason to believe that this wave will actually break the invest/retreat cycle we’ve seen since the late 90’s, and put community (as a concept, practice and industry) on a path towards sustainable growth and development. As such, we are largely entering new territory, and there aren’t maps for where we need to go.
Over the past 2 years, through a combination of primary research and a hosted Mastermind community (the Cohere project) I’ve been thinking about this new territory and how to begin our journey through it. In the post below I attempt to summarize my thinking by giving an overview of:
1. Three focal areas community leaders need to pay attention to;
2. The exiting of the long “Social Boom” and a notional look at what the next epoch of community might look like;
3. How community strategy is evolving
3 Focal Areas
There are many things that shape the opportunity and need for community development. Some are technical, some are societal, others relate to individual human behavior. The list below intends to highlight what I consider the three most important and consequential areas.
- Global Internet access – in the next 10 years, the majority of the rest of the world will come online, bringing all the opportunities and issues we’ve witnessed in the developed world, along with a whole host of new ones. We (collectively) are wholly unprepared for this change in almost every way, with issues ranging from policy, to security, access rights and more.
2. “Humanity’s Graph”- Mark Zuckerberg’s stroke of genius was realizing that not only was an individual’s digital data incredibly valuable, but their network of relationships (both actual and possible) was as well. In the coming years, the pressure of competition, policy, technology and individual behavior will crack open these currently frozen and proprietary social graphs to create a global mesh that will essentially be “Humanity’s Graph.”
3. The impact of exponential technologies – Exponential technologies are defined as technologies that double in power and/or speed, or the cost drops by at least half annually. An example is the combinatorial effect of AI, machine learning and automation that not only shapes your experience on a social network like Facebook, but can also participate in that experience as a non-human actor.
Any one of these focal areas alone is powerful. We are literally struggling to imagine the combinatorial effect of all three.
The End of the Social Boom
Web-based online communities have been around since… well, the inception of the web. News to you? OMG read a book. Starting in the late-2000s, the grass roots dynamics of the early web (which felt very much like a giant community) shifted to increasingly centralized social media and social network sites and apps, with Facebook drawing the lion’s share of global attention and engagement.
For community leaders working within large brands, this myopic focus on social media has wreaked havoc on community programs – from creating dissonance around the concept of community, a misguided predisposition to invest in social media presences and the unfortunate tendency to relegate (and isolate) community programs to functional areas within the business, usually support. This is an especially vicious cycle, as “enterprise class” platform investments can be well over 7 figures annually, essentially creating community programs with multi-million dollar investments in people and tech that, at best, are just breaking even with their resulting cost savings. This practice stifles more strategic conversations about community strategy and the possible value of community.
Fortunately, we are seeing green shoots popping up everywhere that signal a community spring of sorts. From innovative (and lower cost) platforms, to community organizations being integrated into the fabric of the business. More nuanced conversations about the value of communities, and an equitable distribution of that value between host and member are being had.
As we exit the Social Boom, what’s next for communities? An era I’m optimistically dubbing “Transformational Communities” – one that centers on the power of communities to transform individuals, groups and organizations for the better.
The Evolution of Community Strategy
To begin to explore, and eventually inhabit, this new territory, we need we need new ways of thinking, new methods of practice and new tools.
In particular, we have to break out of the pattern of relying on technology to dictate strategy. Legacy community platforms are hyper-optimized for support interactions and social media platforms are optimize user attention – laggards are stuck struggling with native functionality. We need to understand where community can add value to individual customer experiences and shift our thinking to the possibilities of creating value throughout the entire lifecycle of a customer relationship – Leading programs are investing here.
Future growth opportunities will be unlocked through a more sophisticated approach to community development, where every stakeholder has the opportunity to participate, and the “network of relationships” is seen as both a valuable asset and a catalyst for transformation.
Exploring the Territory
If you are interested in learning more, there are several opportunities:
I’ve worked with some form of community my entire career. In 1999 I took a job with TechRepublic.com as “UX Program Manager” and spent 9 months helping design, build, launch and grow what would become one of the largest online communities of global IT Professionals. Community platforms, as we know them now, didn’t exist. We had to build everything from the ground up. A design for threaded discussions went from whiteboard to production over a weekend. Content editors played the roles of community manager and moderator – “community management” wasn’t a term of art yet. It seems quaint that for the first two years of TechRepublic we only cared about two numbers: uptime and membership.
My first taste of what might be possible with communities of practice was volunteering to be one of the first Fast Company Company of Friends organizers in Louisville KY in 2000. The FastCo mothership gave me a list of local subscribers, a discussion guide, some facilitation guidelines and an organizer’s button. We held the first meeting in a local business conference room, and frankly, I was amazed that anyone showed up (we had 15 people at the first meeting) and impressed that we all had so much to discuss. The central topic was about how technology was changing business – especially the Internet.
In 2001 I was offered the chance to move to California and work on an in-product community with Autodesk. The focus of the community was to support customer onboarding and product usage. Autodesk was the beginning of a personal journey to study the implicit and explicit value of communities (in their various manifestations) to companies. That journey continued with Forum One, where we developed the first conference series for community executives and developed the first practitioner research on analytics, strategy and practice. Dell allowed me to learn and experiment at a global scale, and incorporate community analytics into marketing mix models and enterprise-wide reporting. My journey now continues with Structure3C. Along the way I’ve studied and helped develop different methods and measurements for community value: the impact of forums on the support burden, the effect of community on NPS and LTV, the effect of community on purchase frequency and size, understanding how a community ecosystem develops, and much more.
Historically, measuring the value of knowledge generated in online communities has been the focus for community analytics, particularly in the context of customer support. Over the years different approaches have been fielded for measuring this value in support communities, including the cost savings of customer labor vs staff, the value of a call deflection, the long-term value of a qualified or accepted answer, and possible causal effects of participation on customer behavior. Several thoughtful methods have been formalized and documented by platform vendors and industry experts. This “ground zero” problem seems to have been solved, and cyclically re-solved and re-quantified to the point of diminishing returns, like a community version of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day – and we still have executives pushing back on the validity of the calculus, and the corresponding results. This is perplexing to me.
Keep in mind, the customer support scenario I describe above is arguably the most tested, proven and accepted (by community professionals) example of community value. Yet organizations continue to regularly debate this. When the conversation moves towards the value of community across customer lifecycle, and the potential value across business units our current methods, measurements and metaphors fail us.
What Got Us Here Isn’t What We Need To Move Forward
It seems we missed something along the way in developing best practices for communities. Admittedly, it’s not a simple problem to solve, but the key problem areas seem fairly clear:
- “Community”, as a term, is largely subjective;
- Community as a concept is still largely misunderstood by the extended organization;
- Investments in social media activities have claimed large portions of budgets and resources and have been mistakenly viewed as the primary focus for community, as opposed to a component of the community ecosystem;
- Community strategies are often independent of, and so therefore misaligned with, corporate strategy and have no clear connection to corporate goals;
- Community as a function is separated from other customer-facing functions;
- Community analytics and activities often don’t communicate value in the context and language of the business;
- Because the community function is separated from the business, it is often viewed as a cost center, as extra overhead for extended teams, and is asked to quantify value and impact in unusual or extraordinary ways – often in an ongoing, and sometimes ad hoc fashion;
Hampered by the aforementioned factors, the final straw is that community analytics and data aren’t integrated technically or programmatically into enterprise analytics, data and reporting – a critical dimension of individual customer profiles and the ability to gain insight into entire market segments is wholly missing.
Integrate Community Into The Fabric of the Organization
When most Executives think about customer communities, there is an unfortunate tendency to view them as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This thinking leads to strategies and outcomes that fail to realize the full value of customer communities. This typically manifests in the form of a myopic focus on customer support communities and an overburdening of customers taking on the role of customer support agent. In extreme examples, this sort of strategy breeds resentment with valuable customers and leads to a dangerous dependence on an unsustainable resource. When the Executive mindset shifts to “value producing”, the aperture of community strategy widens to a rich set of possibilities: community advocacy programs, open innovation, peer to peer mentoring, complex content sharing, co-design of products and much more.
As we enter into an increasingly digital & connected era, future-state communities will be key locations where tangible value is co-created and exchanged between companies and customers. To have any chance of long term success with customer communities, mindsets have to evolve beyond a fixation on cost savings to a more enlightened view of communities as a valuable catalyst for growth.
Moving forward: in order for businesses to begin defining a future state community model, they should:
- View community building as a capability and view their extended community ecosystem as a strategic asset;
- Explore and define what “community” means in the context of their customer’s and employee’s collective experience;
- Develop a community strategy that aligns with, and complements (in some cases, shapes), corporate strategy;
- Don’t “build a community” – develop a community ecosystem;
- Understand how the community ecosystem creates value for all external stakeholders and all business functions;
- Develop community programs, goals and KPIs that tie to Business Unit goals and objectives and are translated into team, manager and individual performance goals;
- Integrate community ecosystem data, analytics and insights into enterprise analytics, communications and annual & quarterly business reviews.
In short: many organizations are missing the community opportunity because of a short sighted focus on transactional value in the context of specific use cases. Growth-minded companies are fully embracing community as a concept and integrating community ecosystem development practices into the fabric of their business with great success.
This post is the first in a series on the future state of online community ecosystems, and contains excerpts from the report out of Structure3C’s Community & Crowd Mastermind session on Community Analytics and Value. A version of this post appeared on LinkedIn in February of 2019.
To learn more about the Mastermind group, Structure3C’s offerings, or discuss how we can help you develop the community ecosystem for your brand, please reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org.