Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Cohere Podcast! I’m very excited to bring you this discussion about the effects of exponential technologies with my good friend Kent Langley, CSO of OpenExO.
Broadband and wireless Internet connectivity are now commonplace in the developed world, but this wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of the 21st century, just over 300 million people (roughly 5% of the globe )had Internet access. The number of participants, and the type of participation has evolved rapidly over the last 20 years.
In today’s episode, OpenExO’s Chief Science Officer Kent Langley and I discuss this evolution in three eras:
1. The Dawn of the Internet & PCs,
2. The Introduction of the Web 2.0 & Mobile,
3. The Rise of Exponential Technologies – the Exponential Now.
We explore what each of previous eras looked like, and what we can expect from the global human network as we move forward.
In this episode, Kent Langley and I discuss:
- When the commercial internet gained mass adoption- 7:00
- Evolution of web technology and community platforms – 14:52
- Understanding exponential technologies and the concept of exponential organizations – 18:53
- The role AI (and related technologies) will play in the global human network – 26:19
Main resource mentioned in this episode:
Books mentioned in this episode:
- Exponential Organizations by Salim Ismail
- More Than Human, The Infinite Resource: The Power of Ideas on a Finite Planet, and The Nexus Trilogy by Ramez Naam
- AI Superpowers: The Course and My Journey Into AI by Kai Fu Lee
- The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson’s
Software mentioned in this episode:
- Ava Music Group
- Microsoft Azure Free Trial
- Amazon Web Services Free Tier
- IBM Tutorials
- Google Colab
- NVIDIA & VMware Test Drive
Other resources mentioned in this episode:
Kent Langley is a leader and technology visionary with a background in Technology Operations, Cloud Computing, AI, Exponential Organizations, Data Science, and Blockchain. He works on projects that educate, feed, clothe, and empower people as the co-founder of OpenExO Inc., and as a six-year faculty member at Singularity University.
I’m excited to announce the second round of Structure3C’s AI & Communities research. This research builds on our foundational project in 2018 (more on this below) and comes at a critical time when global internet connectivity races towards 100% coverage, and algorithms and non-human actors play an increasingly central role in this global human network.
If your role involves developing communities or networks for your organization, I’d like to invite you to participate (if you haven’t) in a short survey focused on the intersection of AI and Community.
You can take the survey here:
Your ideas and expert opinions are critically important in shaping a human response to the impact of exponential technologies. The survey will take approximately 15 minutes, will only involve participants on the enterprise & brand side (no agencies or consultants), and all participants will get a copy of the final report and receive an invite to one of our mastermind-style debrief sessions in early 2020.
We ask that you complete the survey on, or before January 10.
Results From Wave 1 – 2018
Our 2020 project builds on the first round of research we conducted on AI, Automation and Agents in 2018. The respondents from the first wave generally considered the value of AI is threefold for Community Professionals:
- AI will allow for the automation of routine community tasks and processes so that focus can be put on more valuable activities;
- AI will provide real-time analytics, insight, and specific and contextual suggestions;
- AI will shape the community experience for all stakeholders, including members (onsite), prospective members (externally), Community Managers and Executive Stakeholders.
You can find a recap of the 2018 project here:
You can find the summary deck with findings from the 2018 research here:
Why AI & Communities is a critically important topic for 2020
When we (Structure3C) did the first primary research on AI and Communities, it was clear that AI, as a topic, had was being discussed but there weren’t many practice examples in the field beyond rudimentary personalization and early experiments with RPA (robotic process automation). We expect the results from this wave of research to yield a broad swath of new ideas and case examples of actual programs and technology deployments.
We hope to wrap up the online survey by the second week of January and then begin interviews with technology providers (including community platform companies) and practitioners that have deployed AI, Automation and Agent technologies in their communities.
Again, please participate as soon as you can:
I would also appreciate any recommendations for additional people to include in the survey and platform providers to interview.
As always, feel free to reach out with feedback, questions or ideas!
Open Innovation Communities – where companies and customers collaborate on ideas for new products and services – can be one of the most valuable ways to invest in community engagement. Unfortunately, this type of community is also one of the most difficult to get right. Many companies have experimented with this type of Open Innovation – Lego Ideas, Dell’s IdeaStorm, Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea – and each of these companies have seen value from the communities. The bad news is that most companies fail because they lack the vision and commitment to see beyond the initial tactic of just soliciting customer ideas.
In my community practice, I’ve seen 4 stages that are typical in the maturation of an Open Innovation Community.
- The Social Suggestion Box – Launch an open space for customers to give feedback or make suggestions
- Overwhelming Backlog – Period where the company can no longer process the backlog and may abandon the community
- Managed Sprints – Develop a strategy to shape feedback and ideas by introducing a more formal process and constraining topics & time
- Collaborative Innovation – A significant evolution of programs and platforms that layer ongoing ideation into all design and decision making
The Four Stages of Open Innovation Communities
Stage 1. The Social Suggestion Box
Most companies start their Open Innovation Community with an open-ended call for ideas and feedback. Community members are welcome to submit any idea, and the broader community (hopefully) comments on the idea and rates the idea using a simple scale or upvote. Community managers take the most highly rated ideas to the product team for discussion, and eventually some ideas are chosen for production.
The Social Suggestion Box phase is valuable in the short term, as customers will likely have suggestions they have been holding on to since they began their relationship with the company – essentially a communal backlog, if you will. Companies become stuck in this phase when they are unable to process the backlog of ideas, manage the growing community and deliver quality ideas to internal teams (typically product) in a format and within a timeline that aligns with product roadmaps. This break between the promise of a constant stream of new ideas, and the lack of a process and the ability to shape ideas into a usable format is the key challenge.
Stage 2. Overwhelming Backlog
The equivalent of the “trough of disillusionment” from the Gartner Hype Cycle, companies in the Overwhelming Backlog phase can often find themselves with a large pile of unread ideas, a community platform in need of a serious overhaul, an innovation program that no one really values and a community in revolt.
This situation may sound extreme, but it was exactly the one I walked in to when I joined Dell in 2010. IdeaStorm, Dell’s Open Innovation Community, had launched in 2007. After enjoying 2 years of valuable idea contributions, positive PR and internal support, year 3 found IdeaStorm as a “ghost ship” community, with no leadership, vision or community management. Things became so bad that a community member posted the idea that Dell should shut IdeaStorm down. The community quickly upvoted that idea, it caught the attention of Michael Dell and my team was given the task of “making it better, fast”. I eventually hired the community member who posted the “take it down” idea to become the new community manager for IdeaStorm.
To navigate out of the mess we were in, the team immediately began research to inform our new strategy. I wanted to know the financial impact of IdeaStorm to date, understand why ideas weren’t being responded to, and to understand what the barriers were in getting ideas from the Community into the the product teams at Dell. We found that the financial impact from IdeaStorm was really high ($100s of Millions), that we lacked an agreed upon internal process for scoring and prioritizing ideas, and that we needed to create a new type of community management role to help facilitate the new process – an Idea partner that lived on the product team. The final piece of the puzzle was implementing an archiving policy for ideas that didn’t score well in the community. Within a few months we had processed the ideas backlog, started design on a new platform (with the community), and had reengaged most internal product teams.
Stage 3. Managed Sprints
Companies come out of the Overwhelming Backlog phase with the key insight that shaping the topic, type and form of ideas they would like to receive is critical to realizing value and long term success. Many companies will implement a sprint-like approach to ideation, using phased ideation and design sessions to focus on a single topic or product.
This approach involves developing a clear business or design problem, and then breaking solution development in to smaller ideation projects that are facilitated, in sequence, over a number of weeks. The output of each sub-project helps shape the proceeding sub-project. Ideas and design concepts are generally of higher quality because the problem definition is clear, product teams participate, and community members get real-time feedback from the product team.
Dell did this successfully on IdeaStorm with Project Sputnik, co-creating a Linux-based laptop with and for developers. Other examples of the Managed Sprint stage include Unilever and General Mills. Jovoto (client), an “On Demand Creative Community”, has on of the best Managed Sprint approaches I have seen – you can find more information on their site, and in the book their CEO Bastian Unterberg coauthored, “Crowdstorm“.
Stage 4. Collaborative Innovation
In many ways, moving through Stages 1-3 are a necessary process for companies to undertake in order to develop the strategy, process, alignment, platforms and business models to move beyond what are essentially sporadic innovation campaigns.
Collaborative Innovation is an ideal state where an organization and its community of customer, partners and employees are engaged in an ongoing process to perfect existing products & services and to bring new products and services to market. We’ve talked for years about the boundaries between companies and customers disappearing – in the Collaborative Innovation stage, the boundary is permeable – customers create new products & services with the companies assets, and receive value in return (use, compensation, reputation, etc.).
There are examples of large companies partially engaged in the Collaborative Innovation stage, but none that have extended this to every part of their business.
Some examples include:
- IP Sharing: Tesla & Mozilla opening their patents
- Product Co-Development: Lego Ideas, Firstbuild
- Pretailing: Kickstarter, Barnraiser (previous client),
- Customer Lab: Autodesk’s Pier 9, Firstbuild’s Microfactory
- XIR (X in Residence): Autodesk’s Artist in Residence, MAKE’s Maker in Residence
Opportunity While Other Stall
The truth is, most companies never make it beyond stage 2, “Overwhelming Backlog”. Dell, an early pioneer in the space (and my former employer) had been regressing back from Stage 3 for a few years (unfortunately) and the IdeaStorm site now appears to be offline. The other notable pioneer, Starbucks, has essentially taken My Starbucks Idea offline as well. While Communities at each stage offers some dimension of value, companies progressing through to Stages 3 & 4 will discover the most value and innovation.
The potential opportunity for the next wave of Open Innovation Communities is incredible. Why?
- Customers have shown they are willing to collaborate & create
- Customers are willing to buy products still in the conceptual phase (millions of examples of crowdfunding)
- The tools to create & share complex designs are free and relatively easy to use – see Fusion 360 & OnShape
- Innovation platform companies have an opportunity to move beyond text / pictures / video into immersive & real-time 2d & 3d collaboration. PS – Platform companies – I would LOVE to work on this and have a ton of ideas.
Many companies could realize tremendous value from Open Innovation Communities. Most don’t because they don’t experiment, or do a poor job of planning their initiatives. Companies that commit, support and evolve their Communities see value. Beyond the current practice examples of Open Innovation Communities, the next wave will feature immersive and real-time design as a key feature. Those who wish to innovate need to be evolving their platform, programs and internal process now.
To say current conversations about influencer marketing are heated would be an understatement. With estimates of influencer marketing industry size ranging well into the billions of dollars, “influencers” certainly seem to be on the minds (and in the budgets) of marketers.
Let’s be honest – influencer marketing currently seems to be a bit of a mess. Issues with performance, lack of disclosure, authenticity, analytics, ethics, and even debate on what constitutes an “influencer”.
I’ll admit I’ve personally struggled with the concept of influencer marketing programs. I’ve focused on developing customer communities throughout my career, and it was always galling to see budgets dedicated to what I perceived as shallow and short term investments with influencers and opinion leaders competing for budget with community programs.
Now I see an opportunity to align influencer marketing programs with community development – or, said another way, I see an opportunity to identify and develop an evolved form of “influencer” from your community ecosystem. Specifically, I see an opportunity for many brands to see “influencer” development through the lens of community ecosystem development, and to align influencer investment with community-based champion and mvp programs.
To take advantage of this opportunity, three key transformations are needed:
- Community Ecosystem Development: A shift from community development, slio’d by business function and digital touchpoint, to a comprehensive approach that includes all customer-facing programs, (on and offline) brand-hosted communities, social media touchpoints and partner / industry communities.
- Community Advocacy Programs: Evolving community advocacy (MVP) programs (rooted in the dated Microsoft MVP model) to a model that identifies, celebrates and enables exceptional community stakeholders of all types (customers, prospects, fans, experts, employees and partners). This evolution would also involve an equitable value exchange between the community hosts and advocates.
- Community Leadership Models: Evolve community leadership models to: 1) involve (enlist) more brand-side participants, 2) account for a broader range of community & ecosystem leadership activities (on and offline), and 3) ground community activity in purposeful transformation for all community members (a.k.a. ongoing personal improvement)
In short: most current “influencer” strategies are essentially paid media masquerading as social media. Grow influence through, and for, your customer community.
The last few years have seen big brands make extraordinary investments in developing massive “digital transformation” and social media programs. On one hand, these programs have yielded moments of customer connection, advocacy and insight. Unfortunately, for the majority of programs reliant on mass social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, organic reach has dropped effectively to 0 and companies are now forced to pay to engage sporadically with the “audiences” they worked so hard to build. Companies now realize they have been renting their customer communities on social platforms.
The alternative to social media campaigns and digital transformation theatrics? Developing Customer communities. Specifically, online Customer communities that companies build, host and manage. Customer communities hold the key to Customer acquisition, retention and growth. Further, communities can be a catalyst for development and innovation, and will be critical to future business models. Below I explore the opportunity for Customer community in three key Corporate areas: Brand, Product and Innovation.
Community is the Fabric of Brand
What is the nature and value of brand in a hyper-connected world? A recent HBR article asserts that the collective value of Customer relationships is outstripping the value of “brand. The authors of the article nail the point that Customer relationships are incredibly valuable, but may have missed an opportunity to explore the effect of the customer community as a brand asset & catalyst — the line between brand and relationship isn’t as crisp as the authors imply. Further, I would assert that the “network” of relationships represented by the collective customer base of a company is a manifestation of brand, every bit as important and as valuable as the components of brand identity. My primary research and experience has shown connected customers (via community and social) are more valuable than those that aren’t. Third party research by Deloitte has shown that Networked companies (“Network Operators”) perform better, live longer, and are more valuable. All of these points are are vectoring towards a new opportunity and a new frontier in business: Community-Centric Customer Experience — an approach to customer experience design and business strategy that not only strengthens the Company to Customer relationship (1:1), but also strengthens and develops the Customer to Customers & Company relationship (1:Many, a.k.a. the “Community”). and considers development of the Community the primary .
Communities Will Infuse & Enhance Product Experience
Customer communities are an essential part of most technology products now. At the very least, online support forums are expected as part of the offering (more on that in a bit). Many companies are experimenting with customer communities as a means to raise product awareness, convert trial customers and retain existing customers. A radical new business opportunity is emerging where the community (both the people and the platform) are the actual product. Purchases are artifacts or a gateway into the community experience, and the real “product” is the collective experience, knowledge, content and means of collaboration with the community. There are many early examples in the gaming world, from MMOG’s like World of Warcraft to the new “build and explore” virtual worlds like Roblox. Software companies are attempting to build communities that address the “whole customer”, and focus on experiences well outside of product support. Adobe (Behance), Autodesk (Instructables, Fusion360, AREA), Salesforce (Trailblazer Community), and Sephora (Beauty Talk) are actively investing in the community space.
Communities Drive Innovation & Long-Term Value
There is an unfortunate tendency to view Customer communities as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This thinking leads to strategies and outcomes that fail to realize the full value of customer communities, and is rooted in a long standing dependence by some companies on customer support communities. In extreme examples, this sort of strategy breeds resentment with valuable customers and leads to a dangerous dependence on an unsustainable resource. When the Corporate 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, customer co-design and much more.
Moving forward, Customer communities will be the medium by which 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 innovation and growth.
The Bottom Line:
Customer communities are the “fabric of brand”, the medium in which the network of customer & company relationships develops and thrives. Companies that create modern communities with their customers will be more innovative, realize more value and have more resilient businesses than their competitors who don’t.
Use these three contexts to help create long-term value with your company’s community.
When developing or refining a community strategy, it is critical to understand the larger market and business contexts the community will exist in. This sounds obvious and straightforward, right? Yet the needed research, discussion and development of shared understanding of these contexts rarely happens. As a side note, this concept was literally hammered into my brain by a former boss at Autodesk, Moonhie Chin, who was the SVP of Digital Platform and Experience. She always had a simple question for any data she saw: “What is the denominator?” – meaning, what is the whole, or what is the largest meaningful context.
I’ve been primarily focused on developing Business to Business communities during my career, and I’ve come up with three key contexts that I think are critical to understand the opportunity for community development.
1. Customer Career Journey
Understanding your customer’s career journey, the number of distinct journeys, and how your product / service plays a role can help determine where in the journey community may play a valuable role.
- Number of distinct Customer Profiles (~Personas)
- Stages in Career Journey
- Centrality of products / services to productivity & advancement at each stage
- Is product or service critical throughout career, or only at certain points?
- 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. Criticality of Product / Service
Understanding the criticality of your 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 your offer (and what community investments you make).
- 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
Taking insights uncovered from the discussions in the customer career journeys and the depth of engagement categories, what do the opportunities and required investments look like at scale?
- 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?
In the simplest terms, the three contexts give you:
- Customer career journeys: Where in the journey is community valuable?
- Depth of product / service engagement: What community experiences are valuable?
- Total addressable community & crowd: How many people can you expect to participate in your communities?
These contexts are for considering an Enterprise strategy, and you can imagine similar contexts for Medium & Small Business and Consumer. This approach doesn’t replace a comprehensive strategy development exercise, but is intended to sketch out a future state and give relative sizing for future planning or assessing current efforts.
If you would like to discuss this sizing approach, or other advanced ideas for creating a bigger and better future for you community, please reach out.
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: email@example.com.
Artificial Intelligence is arguably the buzziest of buzz words these days. Yet, there is a reason for the hype: AI could support a radical transformation of online community management and experience: automation of routine tasks, real-time insight, enhanced personalization and the enhanced agency of an individual in digital ecosystems.
For business leaders shaping online community strategy, AI holds promise to help solve two of the biggest challenges with online communities: 1) Quantifying the value of community investment and delivering timely and actionable insight and 2) Managing large networks of relationships at scale.
To Start: What is AI?
In the context of Community, AI can be thought of as an agent, or set of agents that
- is / are connected to real time data sources;
- has / have the ability to act in the community (or admin interface); and
- has / have specific goals to make progress towards.
From the Wikipedia entry on AI:
“In computer science AI research is defined as the study of “intelligent agents“: any device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving its goals. Colloquially, the term “artificial intelligence” is applied when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as “learning” and “problem solving”. “
“Isn’t this just an algorithm?” is the next natural question, and the answer is “well, not really.” Algorithms are complex sets of bounded instructions, and they aren’t (typically) designed to learn from their environment and evolve.
Where are we on the map?
Clearly, interest, investment and experimentation in AI by corporations is increasing year over year. According to Harvard Business Review, which surveyed over 3,000 organizations, 20 percent of companies used AI in a core part of their business model, and 41 percent were experimenting or piloting in 2017 (a total of 61 percent).
Narrative Science partnered with the National Business Research Institute and found the same numbers: 61 percent of surveyed respondents utilized AI in their corporations in 2017 (up from the 38 percent in 2016). The study also found that 35 percent of respondents use AI for interaction with customers (a.k.a. potential community members).
A recent study by Constellation Research found that 70% of the organizations they studied were already investing in AI and that 60% were expecting to increase their investment by 50% or more this year.
Community Leaders and Community Platform Providers have been leveraging simplistic AI tools for more than a decade, primarily for automating community moderation tasks and supporting member personalization. An early example: we launched TechRepblic.com in ’99 with an overly-complex community and content personalization function and wound up pulling back on the functionality in subsequent releases because of the technical overhead.
Emerging Use Cases for AI
We (Stucture3C) are in the midst on a year-long research project, C3/A3, studying how organizations are using / planning to use AI in their online communities. In our first wave of research with 40 Community Professionals at large organizations, we asked what types of advanced technologies they are considering or implementing, including AI and related technologies. Personalization, bots / agents and analytics topped the list.
- Advanced personalization based on profile / activity
- Recommendations of people and content
- Conversational interfaces, including chatbots
- Agents (acting on behalf of a member)
From the write in responses:
“(We are evaluating)… Machine Learning that automates personalization for content, news, interaction models.”
- Influencer & Advocate identification
- Escalation identification – ID’ing people who need help, like Facebook’s suicide threat technology
- Moderation of content and member behavior
- Suggested actions (what to do next in the community)
- Suggested content (to produce, based on member behavior and other signals)
From the write in responses:
“(We are)…Leveraging machine learning in our peer to peer support community to predict certain kinds of moderation needs, such as suicidal escalations or harassment etc. Better sentiment/text analysis.”
“(We are piloting)…AI text analysis to draw insights from unstructured data feeds (with reduced dependency on tagging)”
- Community health
- ROI measures
- Areas of investment
- Identifying customer behavior trends
- Gleaning insight for product / service enhancement
From the write in responses:
“Predictive – I want to present our users with timely and relevant content, before they even know they need it in some cases. If we know what you’re doing with our products and what your behaviors are in community, we should be able to activate that data into meaningful upgrades to the experience in both places.”
#TeamHuman vs. the Machines
Swiss Futurist Gerd Leonard characterizes the broad adoption of AI and related technologies as a battle of “Technology vs. Humanity”. The statement is hyperbolic, but the intent is spot in: we have to act now to ensure enabling human agency and purpose remains at the heart of any broadly deployed technology, including AI. Australian Online Community pioneer Venessa Paech says it best in a recent article:
“Instead of being replaced, community experts will upgrade. We’ll work to help businesses set up bots and intelligent interactions. We’ll plot behavioural frameworks for machine learning. We’ll spill into HR, marketing, IT, innovation – anywhere there’s a need to understand and optimise social intelligence. Leveraging AI for communities demands we extend our capabilities as social systems engineers. If we get it right, we can see to it that AI augments our best natures, not our worst.“
Participants in Wave 1 of the C3/A3 project are also optimistic about the possibilities of AI:
“I’m excited about the shift that AI could bring – instead of being reactive, let’s be proactive. I’d also like to use this tech to identify the things that we can flatly stop doing and redirect those efforts into more valuable activities.”
“I’m really excited to see how AI & ML augment and enhance a community member’s experience rather than replace any of the human aspects!”
Essentially, we think the value of AI is threefold for Community Professionals:
- AI will allow for the automation of routine community tasks and processes so that focus can be put on more valuable activities;
- AI will provide real-time analytics, insight, and specific and contextual suggestions;
- AI will shape the community experience for all stakeholders, including members (onsite), prospective members (externally), Community Managers and Executive Stakeholders.
We think future communities will thrive with AI if the ultimate goal of the community is enabling member agency and purpose. Perhaps paradoxically, the future of community management will likely depend on Community Managers becoming comfortable with, and knowledgable about, intelligent agents and automation, while doubling down on the art and science of human interactions and group facilitation.
Have questions, or interested in a briefing? Please reach out.
Collaborative Innovation Communities – where companies and customers collaborate on ideas for new products and services – can be one of the most valuable ways to invest in community engagement. Unfortunately, this type of community is also one of the most difficult to get right. Many companies have experimented with this type of Open Innovation – Lego Ideas, Dell’s IdeaStorm, Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea – and each of these companies have seen value from the communities. The bad news is that most companies fail because they lack the vision and commitment to see beyond the initial tactic of soliciting customer ideas.
With the right programs, platforms, community ecosystem design and internal alignment, Collaborative Innovation communities can produce incredible value.
Intense Pressure to Innovate
In an updated version of their famous “Creative Destruction” Report, research firm Innosight predicts that the average tenure of a company in the S&P 500 index will drop from 24 years (2016) to just 12 years by 2027. In a recent survey of Corporate Innovation Executives, research firm CB Insights found that ~41% of executives said that felt their companies were “extremely” or “very” at risk of being disrupted.
Spectrum of Innovation Communities
In studying the types of innovation communities, we feel the range can be narrowed down to 3 categories:
- Brand-Hosted Communities: Where a single brand hosts an innovation community focused on the brand’s products, services or business model
- Project-Based Communities: Communities of experts that come together to solve problems or challenges around a particular domain.
- Grand Challenges: A challenge-based community that convenes a diverse ecosystem of smaller communities to solve massively complex problems.
In practice, most corporate innovation initiatives ignore the value communities and networks can provide. The chart below is a simple illustration of how community could support different innovation types:
The full slide deck, with examples of Brand and Project-Based communities can be found here:
The companion worksheet for planning your Collaborative Innovation initiative can be found here:
The working list of Brand-based communities, Project-based communities and host platforms can be found here:
I’ve developed a workshop to help organizations learn about, ideate on and plan their Collaborative Innovation strategy. I’m also creating a small work group (mastermind style) to help non-competitive organizations share their progress and lessons learned. If you would be interested in discussing either of these, please feel free to reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org
The C3/A3 Project
C3: Community, Crowd, Collaboration
A3: AI, Agents and Automation
Humans instinctively seek meaning, connection and resources through community. Driven by near ubiquitous access to broadband and the rapid adoption of smartphones, our new and ever-expanding digital world offers instant access to a rich tapestry of social experiences, fundamentally changing the way we seek, find and participate in community.
Currently, individuals and organizations are struggling to adapt to our evolving digital world, particularly the social technologies we use to connect and communicate with each other. Complex human networks are springing up on and across myriad social media, social network and topic-based communities, forming community ecosystems that transcend technological, geographical and organizational boundaries.
Looking forward, it seems things are about to get even more complicated. A new set of technologies is emerging to augment human cognition (AI), enhance human agency (Agents) and shape digital experiences and outcomes by taking advantage of a rich set of tools and APIs (Automation). We see these three technological forces (AI, Agents and Automation) as the next immediate wave of disruption in digital experience, and we see Community, Crowd and Collaboration as the social contexts in which technology and humanity will interact for the betterment (or detriment) of humankind.
The C3/A3 Project Overview
Our hypothesis is that this combination of social technologies with human augmentation technologies will usher in a new age of digital community experiences. These new experiences will present unprecedented opportunities and challenges for organizations and individuals, and complex policy issues for society. The C3/A3 project will explore the technological, business and societal implications of this next wave of change and offer a helpful path forward.
- Technology: The current and emerging technology landscape
- Business: Corporate strategy, competence, needs and level of readiness
- Individuals: Customer (a.k.a. Community member) needs, expectations and likely challenges
Key Components of the Project:
- Community Executive survey – February 26th
- Technology landscape analysis
- Community platforms
- AI technologies ( ex: Watson, Einstein)
- Agent interfaces (ex: Cortana, Alexa, Obindo)
- Automation platforms
- Executive interviews with select technology providers, early adopters and startups
- Mass practitioner survey
- Customer (Community End-user) survey
Reports and Mastermind
The output of the project will be a series of reports throughout 2018 that publish key findings. An executive mastermind group for brands and select startups will be formed to deeply explore relevant topics.
The first wave of research launches on Monday, February 26th with an invitation-based survey to Executives who own community and social media experiences for their respective companies. Detailed results will be shared privately amongst this group, and summary data will be shared publicly.
If you would like to participate in the research survey and subsequent Mastermind discussion, please send me a note: email@example.com.
Reminder: This phase of the research is open to Executives at large organizations (5000+). No agencies or consultancies please.