We’ve been hearing a lot about the “Metaverse” in the last few months, and the conversation has reached somewhat of a fever pitch this week with Facebook announcing an upcoming rebrand to position the company as a “metaverse company”.
The concept of a fully-immersive digital reality isn’t new. This has been a staple of speculative fiction for decades, and we’ve had working hardware since the 90’s. For me personally, the idea that there was a world inside the machine was imprinted on my brain since I was a kid – I had the fortune (misfortune?) of seeing TRON around the same time I got my first personal computer.
In recent public and private conversations, one important way my thinking has evolved around the concept of the Metaverse is that it isn’t necessarily a full immersive experience (VR). If you think about Metaverse as *any* digitally-mediated experience that you interface with through any device, and certain aspects of that experience are persistent (identity, wallet, etc) things get really interesting. In many ways, most of us have been living in the metaverse since March of 2019. All of this makes it especially sinister that Facebook wants to own this experience… especially since they’ve done such a good job with creating positive outcomes through social networks </sarcasm>.
There is so much more to unpack around this concept – what I have to offer today is a short conversation I had with Dr. Lauren Vargas yesterday, We will certainly be discussing this topic in more depth the coming weeks and months.
Reading list from the show:
Note: this is the second in a series of posts about community value. If you missed “A Perspective on Community Value“, I’d recommend starting there.
In the last decade, many companies have come to understand how valuable (and critical) their direct relationships with customers are. The most strategic organizations understand that these relationships are part of a larger network – the hub and spoke model, with the company at the center – is very much a thing of the past.
These “networks of relationships” amongst customer, prospects, partner and employees are often largely unactivated – primarily because companies don’t understand the potential value and how to begin to explore the possible opportunities. They often have trouble envisioning a future state of their community because a) they can’t see beyond the “traditional” model of support-based communities or b) they lack the internal capability and skill to lead a comprehensive discussion. In our work at Structure3C, we’ve found that understanding and discussing the following three contexts is a helpful way to begin the conversation.
In the simplest terms, the three contexts are:
- Customer lifecycle journeys: Where in the journey is community valuable?
- Criticality of product / service engagement: Which community experiences are valuable, based on use of product or service?
- Total addressable community: How many people can you expect to participate in your communities?
1. Customer Lifecycle Journey – Career Journey (as an initial model)
Understanding your customer relationship lifecycle, by persona, will provide helpful context to envision where in the set of journeys community may play a valuable role. We will use a career arc as a specific example here, but one can envision other scenarios beyond enterprise software, like the lifetime relationship a customer might have with a technology brand like Apple.
Example: Think about the career arc of an Industrial Designer using Autodesk’s Fusion 360 design software. Throughout her career, the designer will progress from primarily designing, to leading a small team of designers, to “owning” the design function at a company (the Skilled Practitioner arc in the diagram below). This designer’s peer may start off in design but decide she would prefer to focus on leadership and progresses through to become the CTO or CMO of the company (the Executive arc in the diagram).
- Number of distinct Customer Profiles (~Personas)
- Entire career journey, length of career, and the stages in that career journey
- What role might community play in each career transition point?
- How does / could the community support development and transition?
- Can your organization support the full Customer Career Journey, or does it make sense to partner with complimentary organizations?
2. Engagement with Product by Customer Profile, Over Time
Understanding the depth of product / service engagement by customer profile can give insight into the level of effort, the specific motivations, and the needed resources customers need to master your product, and by extension, advance in their career. This understanding can guide what community experiences you offer (and what community investments you make). Consider the previous example of an Industrial Designer who would be using design software tools most of her day early in her career, but would likely manage tool users later in her career. Her relationship with the tools changes over her career, and her needs related to skills development and learning change as well.
- Complexity of product / services
- Effort required to attain skills / mastery
- Amount of time spent using product / service
- Amount of time spent in surrounding ecosystem – courses, conferences, meetups, online content, expert communities, etc.
- How much time will the customer spend mastering product / services and necessary skills?
- How much time will the customer use the product in their work?
- How much time is it reasonable to expect a Customer to spend participating in your community weekly?
- What form factor and level of effort is required for quality participation?
3. Total Addressable Community & Crowd
Lastly, back to the point made at the beginning of this post: customer, prospect, partner and employee relationships are all part of a larger network. Understanding how big that network is creates your “denominator”, or gives you a sense of the largest possible size of your community. What if you were able to connect with 25% of your customers and prospects – what might that look like? How many customer types are represented in that percentage? Would they all naturally interact in one community experience, or might you need to support multiple experiences by customer type and / or stage in the relationship?
- Overall Market Size
- Current Customer Base
- Projected growth (ideally segmented by Customer Profile)
- Target vs Current Community Membership (again, segmented by Customer Profile)
- How big is the total addressable market?
- What % of active customers are targeted for community engagement?
- What business value can be realized at scale?
- How can the community business case be optimized by extrapolating investment vs return at scale? At what point does the investment vs return reach equilibrium? Go negative?
- How does the Customer value proposition change at scale? Is there a true Network benefit, or flat / diminishing return at a certain point in the growth arc?
Next Up: Strategy
I hope you found the ideas in this post useful, and to a certain degree novel. My intention with this series is to help open the aperture a bit on how community strategy is considered, developed and implemented. I hope it is now clear that I’m advising an approach that things about the entire lifespan of customer relationships, the complexity (and exponential value) of thinking about customer relationships in networks (vs 1:1), and considering the dynamic nature of a customers relationship with a brand and products (and therefor, any potential community) over time.
Next up in the series: My framework on community strategy + planning templates for your 2022 community initiatives.
This is a follow up post for those that participated in the Adventures in Collaboration session for MURAL’s Hybrid series.
First off – thanks for attending!
Secondly – the screen resolution shared through Zoom isn’t as good as having access to the actual material, so I’ve included screenshots and the MURALs below for both of the cases I walked through… as well as a completely unapologetic love letter to one of my favorite books – “The Universal Traveler” by Koberg and Bagnall.
Community Leaders / Advocates
The first case study was the Community Leader session we ran with Atma Connect. It was an honor to be asked to assist the team with their strategic discussions that focused on pivoting their product and community model to be based on local (in country / community) leaders.
I’ve included a screenshot of the session MURAL below as well as a blank template should you want to run a similar session.
Link to the MURAL:
AI & Communities
The second case described a research debrief / sense-making session we ran last year with our Cohere Mastermind community of brand community executives. After reviewing our 2020 report, we guided the group through an exercise to help envision and plan their own “expedition” to pilot AI initiatives.
The session went from reviewing highlights from the report:
To teeing up the concept of a pilot as an adventure / expedition:
Introducing the idea of anthropomorphizing AI as a super hero:
And finally moving into MURAL to explore concepts and plan an AI adventure (pilot).
Link to the MURAL:
The Universal Traveler
I was introduced to the first version of this book in college. I was a fine arts major, and my freshman year (’90) Sculpture class read, discussed and followed the creative process outlined in the book.
At first I really didn’t get it, and it was frustrating to be made to study and follow a process, instead of just being… creative.
Over the years I’ve grown to appreciate the creative muscle memory the book (and the awesome and thoroughly updated 2nd edition) has created. If you want to dig in and explore beyond “Design Thinking” to design process and a holistic method for designing, well, anything – this book is for you!
Additional books / sources of inspiration:
- Open Space Technology – Harrison Owen
- Gamestorming – Gray, Brown and Macanufo
- Liberating Structures – Lipmanowicz and McCandles
I hope you found the session and these resources valuable. If you have additional questions or want to discuss a possible project – please reach out.
This is the first of a five-part series on the topic of community value. The series is based in large part, on the output of a series of small-group working sessions and primary research that began in 2018, as well as learnings and observations from my career.
A Personal Perspective
I’ve worked with some form of community for the majority of my 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 managers and moderators – “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 beyond answering technical questions 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 also impressed that we all had so much to discuss. The central topic was about how technology -especially the Internet- was changing business.
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 to companies. That journey continued with Forum One, Dell, and 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, and much more.
In my opinion, ground zero for community analytics has been measuring the value of knowledge generated in online communities, 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, 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.
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 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;
- Well intentioned, but misguided community leaders sometimes intentionally try to keep their teams and the overall community at arms-length from the organization;
- 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.
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-building practices into the fabric of their business with great success.
The Value of Networked Businesses & Connected Customer Experiences
Organizations have engaged in various forms of online community development for well over 20 years, but questions central to the issues of strategy, investment priorities, performance analytics and business impact remain largely unanswered. The good news? An emerging body of research suggests that businesses that embrace community-building are more resilient and innovative, and that customers connected to a company’s community are more valuable customers. In the face of market disruption being driven primarily by exponential technologies, and in the midst of a range of business and digital transformation models intended to navigate market disruption, communities aren’t just a way to save a few million dollars in support costs – communities and networks are critical for future business success.
Connected Customers Are More Valuable
The 1:1 relationship between a company and a customer is increasingly perishable. The customer is blessed by an abundance of choice in the market, and increasingly (especially for technology) the lifespan of a company to customer relationship can last only days, weeks or months — not years. As an example: most software companies are moving from a perpetual license to term-based licensing that can be as short as 24 hours. Creating a great customer experience and minimizing churn are key.
One key strategy is to develop customer communities where customers connect to people in the business (as hosts) as well as other customers and prospects (as peers). This creates a network of many:many connections, where bonds strengthen over time and value is exchanged in the form of knowledge, content, advice and help.
These communities translate into real value for the customer and for the host business. Companies like Autodesk have found that community members were more loyal and more likely to recommend than non-members. Autodesk was also able to quantify cost savings from their support community to be several million dollars. Similar research at Dell, uncovered the fact that IdeaStorm community members spent 50% more than non-members, and members’ purchase frequency was 33% higher than non-members. Community member ideas from IdeaStorm created $100’s of millions of dollars in revenue in the period between 2007–2011. Further, taking an account-based marketing approach, Dell was able to correlate patterns of community participation with increased purchase size and frequency on their TechCenter community for Large Enterprise customers.
“Engaged consumers exhibit enhanced consumer loyalty, satisfaction, empowerment, connection, emotional bonding, trust and commitment.”Brodie, Ilic, Juric, Hollebeek (2016) Consumer engagement in a virtual brand community: An exploratory analysis
Networked Companies Create More Value (and are more resilient)
In a 2014 article from Harvard Business Review, a study between Deloitte and a team of independent researchers examined 40 years of S&P 500 data to examine how business models have evolved with emerging technologies. The study had 3 key findings, including the emergence of a distinct new business model of “Network Orchestrator”. As defined by the study:
Network Orchestrators. These companies create a network of peers in which the participants interact and share in the value creation. They may sell products or services, build relationships, share advice, give reviews, collaborate, co-create and more. Examples include eBay, Red Hat, Visa, Uber, Tripadvisor, and Alibaba.
The study also determined that fewer than 5% of the S&P 500 qualified as a Network Orchestrator. This signals both an opportunity and underscores the urgent need for transformation, as the average lifespan of the S&P 500 has sharply declined from 90 years (in 1935) to just 18 years.
Another study by NFX found that in the last 25 years (since the launch of the commercial Internet) 70% of value in tech is driven by network effects.
“In other words, companies that leverage network effects have asymmetric upside. They punch above their weight. They are the Davids that beat the Goliaths, and then become the Goliaths.”NFX: 70 Percent of Value in Tech is Driven by Network Effects
What both the ’14 Deloitte study and the NFX study point to is the opportunity for businesses to accept the network contexts they are already operating in, and to evolve their businesses to cooperative models that look more like communities than the hierarchical company / customer models of the industrial age.
Value to Members
One aspect of value creation that is surprisingly overlooked is the value created for community members. At its most basic, value can take the form of questions answered in a technical community – and this is where many organizations primarily focus. This unfortunate limiting belief is holding many community programs back and preventing the community from reaching its full potential.
Leading organizations have taken a more sophisticated approach, with a focus on the “whole” customer and the potential for a career-long relationships being developed and strengthened through the community. Although more difficult to quantify, these more sophisticated approaches yield value to the members in the form of career advancement, skills development and mastery, and in the very best cases, the ability for members to discover and actualize their purpose.
Next, think about what a community might look like if the host organization was actively refining and expressing its purpose through community interactions. As an example: If a software company’s purpose is to empower the world through digital design software, you could imagine community activities going well beyond break/ fix support forums and into eduction, skills mentoring and specific efforts to reach people in the developing world and the associated technological challenges. The host organization evolves from an authoritarian role to become a responsive partner in co-development.Purpose Will Power Future Online Communities – Bill Johnston
An Executive Mindset Shift
When most Executives think about customer communities, there is an unfortunate tendency to view them as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This misguided 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 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.
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 1) the brand and 2) the customer experience;
- Understand how community can play a meaningful role during the entire lifespan of the customer relationship;
- Develop a community strategy that aligns with, and complements, corporate strategy as well as customer needs;
- Understand how the community ecosystem creates value for all business functions;
- Develop a community ecosystem – a portfolio approach versus investing only in a destination community or a social media outpost;
- Develop community programs, goals and KPIs that tie to Business Unit goals and objectives and are translated into team, manager and individual performance goals
- Prepare to integrate community ecosystem data, analytics and insights into enterprise analytics, communications and annual & quarterly business reviews;
- Most importantly: Be open to the possibility that as the community develops and becomes embedded in the fabric of the organization, the community can catalyze organizational transformation.
Upcoming posts in this series will explore:
- methods for framing and sizing your community opportunity;
- how to develop a value-focused strategy;
- guidance on developing goals and measurements;
- how to evangelize community, secure funding and sustain engagement in community investments.
The best way to stay up to date when new posts come out? Subscribe to the Cohere newsletter.
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:
The Cohere podcast is in its second season. In season 1 covered a range of important topics related to communities and networks, including creating connection during the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the next 3 billion people coming online and how to create a collaborative online future with AI.
We’re well underway with Season 2, and I say “we”, because I’m joined this season by Dr. Lauren Vargas (also a Season 1 guest). Together, we are exploring the role networks play in our lives, and the range of disciplines studying networks, and the most important research focused on the emerging field of network science.
The reason for the focus on networks? Complex networks are springing up everywhere, driven in large part by increasingly ubiquitous internet access. Imagine what will happen when three billion more people come online in the next five years! For organizations, a planet-wide network of logged-on human beings brings both limitless opportunities and unprecedented threats.
As we increasingly use networked technologies to augment human experiences, the Cohere podcast asks, what’s the best path forward? What do we need to learn and understand? How might science and existing research guide us towards optimal norms and conditions? How should we navigate, evaluate, and administrate a complex technological landscape so we can protect, promote, and empower our human networks? How will we ensure that digital communities deliver on the promise of enhancing our lives, both individually and collectively? And what steps must we take to ensure our approach to community development is sustainable, equitable, and morally sound?
The first four episodes of The Cohere Podcast – Season 2 are out now.
Ep. 1 – Why Community Leaders Need to Understand Networks – With Bill Johnston and Dr Lauren Vargas
Ep. 2 – The Golden Age of Online Communities & the WELL with Gail Ann Williams
Ep. 3 – Building Communities with Purpose and Integrity with Carrie Melissa Jones
Ep. 4 – The “Great Connecting” Continues with Jim Cashel
It’s March (again). Congratulations on what is likely your pandemic lockdown anniversary month. Humanity’s re-emergence into whatever new normal awaits us has been on my mind for the last few weeks. Looking back on the last year, the closest analogy I can come up with is the concept of a singularity — the hypothetical point when technology drives unforeseen, irreversible, and uncontrollable change. We are passing through a similarly disruptive and consequential event, with the CV19 pandemic as a forcing function.
- One year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the developed world almost instantaneously into mass adoption of online collaboration;
- For the last year, our reality and relationship with the world at large has been almost exclusively mediated by digital media and tools;
- We witnessed (in the US) the first-hand effects of bad actors using digital platforms to damage public health, democracy, and our shared social fabric;
- The digital platforms that were catalysts for abuse and damage have gone largely unchecked and unpunished
Fleeing to the Virtual World
When we look back on the pandemic in the coming years, one area of focus will clearly be our relationship with technology during this period. In particular, we will need to examine the role the Internet played as a virtual proxy for the real world — our work, education, information, and entertainment. In a recent Financial Times article, Yuval Noah Harari contrasts the 1918 flu epidemic (lacking digital technology) with the COVID19 epidemic:
“ In previous eras humanity could seldom stop epidemics because humans couldn’t monitor the chains of infection in real time, and because the economic cost of extended lockdowns was prohibitive. In 1918 you could quarantine people who came down with the dreaded flu, but you couldn’t trace the movements of pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic carriers. And if you ordered the entire population of a country to stay at home for several weeks, it would have resulted in economic ruin, social breakdown and mass starvation.”
It was very different with Covid-19. By January 10 2020, scientists had not only isolated the responsible virus, but also sequenced its genome and published the information online. Within a few more months it became clear which measures could slow and stop the chains of infection. Within less than a year several effective vaccines were in mass production. In the war between humans and pathogens, never have humans been so powerful.”
Yuval Noah Harari: Lessons from a year of Covid | FT Feb 25, 2021
While we’ve never been better equipped to respond to an epidemic scientifically, humanity has never been in a more vulnerable position in our relationship with digital networks. In the article cited above, Harari goes on to make the point that humans fled into the virtual world to escape the virus that was propagating globally. During our time in this mostly virtual world, humanity suffered through manipulation and abuse at a scale we’ve never experienced. As we start to contemplate a shift back to the real world, our digital health and well-being must be prioritized along with our physical health.
There are so many questions for community leaders to grapple with as we re-emerge into the “real world”:
- What do our community members need from us during this transition?
- How do we, as community leaders, play a role in healing or helping repair the damage done to our digital social fabric?
- How do we reclaim the concept and intention the community from mass social media?
- How do we center on our communities as we move our organizations forward?
- And so many more
Navigating Disruption, Together
In March of 2020, when it became clear that the pandemic would cause global disruption, I recommended steps to take (a “Plan C” of sorts) to prepare community programs for the shift to lockdown. What I (or anyone else) couldn’t predict at the time were both the severity and length of the lockdown for most of the developed world.
Over the last year, I’ve run a number of small group sessions to help community leaders (including myself) navigate the pandemic-driven disruptive period we are in. The sessions have ranged from topical discussions to a small working group publishing the Better Communities manifesto and related initiatives.
In the spirit of these collaborative sessions, I’m starting a new series of sessions to discuss the issues, challenges, and opportunities for community development as we re-emerge from the pandemic over the next few months.
In particular, the sessions will focus on:
- Taking stock of the last year of lockdown and lessons learned from your community and community practice;
- Promoting positive mental health for community leaders and supporting community members that may be struggling;
- Understanding the digital collaboration fatigue many are experiencing and discussing plans to address;
- Discussing the role social platforms should play in community ecosystem strategies, and how we, as community leaders, can respond to the negative effects of these platforms through the power of our communities;
- A return to first principles with communities — articulating and actualizing a shared purpose, centering community in our organization, ensuring inclusion in our communities, equitable value exchange, and creating sustainable programs.
SWARM is one of my favorite community conferences. Lead organizer Venessa Paech does an amazing job of curating a timely and diverse set of topics and speakers year over year.
COVID19 necessitated a shift to an online-only conference this year, which allowed Venessa and team to design a program that spanned 9 days and 30+ sessions.
One of the experiments I helped with this year was to create a visual artifact during the conference that would serve to help document the experience and capture key ideas. We used Mural, essentially a digital whiteboard, as the tool. You can find the results here. Please have a look and let me know what you think!
Leaders often use the word “transformation” to describe a small or incremental change, but the definition is “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance”. When using the phrase “Transformational Communities”, my intention is to define these communities as having a profound and thorough change effect on participating stakeholders.
One of the most interesting examples I’ve encountered is the hybrid online & real-world community development model that Family Independence Initiative uses for its UpTogether program. To date, families participating in FII’s community-powered program have experienced a 27% lift in income, have established an average of $1,000 in personal savings, and have collectively established $2.5 million in home equity.
Jorge Blandón, Executive Vice President at FII, joins me on the Cohere Podcast to talk about the mission of FII, to discuss their community model in detail, and to talk about the stories of some of the families who have collectively walked out of poverty together.
Key Quotes From the Episode:
“FII really is aiming for all people in the United States to be seen and invested in for their strengths and that they’re able to build their social and financial assets. I think until today, there are systemic barriers that prevent a lot of low-income families from leveraging their assets, their strengths, and even community. FII wants to remove those barriers and really create a new environment where families are trusted as change agents and communities are collectively addressing the challenges that prevent them from pursuing their wellbeing.”
“FII’s approach is really anchored in historic models of just how communities and families would come together to support each other from barn raisings to examples of the Chinatowns throughout the country, the Black wall street and in Tulsa, or the fact that there are over 1500 donut shops owned and run by Cambodians. These are people, that are coming together, leading the way, showing a path forward. This country has a rich history of, of people just pooling their resources, their money, their time, and collective strength and, and, and wisdom.”
“So UpTogether is an online community-building platform. It’s a place where low-income families can take their offline conversations and bring them online to connect with other UpTogether members. They may live in their same neighborhood, in the same city, or connect with other families, experiencing similar challenges across, across the country. It’s really the place where social and financial capital is exchanged and ultimately accelerated. On UpTogether families can, can share news around accomplishments, like paying off debt, buying a home, sending their kids to college, eating healthier. They can curate groups to share ideas around parenting, children with special needs, starting a business, or even being civically engaged. It’s really a platform that recognizes that we all bring something to the table.”
Key Resources From This Episode
Jorge Blandon on LinkedIn
Family Independence Initiative
FII’s UpTogether Platform
Analytics – Learning From Families
Stories from UpTogether Member’s
Help if you can:
Lastly, low-income families have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Please consider making a donation to #GiveTogetherNow, a campaign that FII families benefit directly from.
Do you know someone who would be an interesting guest for the Cohere Podcast? Someone who has built an extraordinary community, is nurturing an novel human network, or has an extraordinary vision for the future of human networks? If so, please send me a note – I’d love to talk to them.
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.