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?
T hese 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.
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.
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.
Nevertheless, we now realize that no whole, be it a family, a business, a community, or a nation, can be managed without looking inward to the lesser wholes that combine to form it, and outward to the greater wholes of which it is a member.”
Allan Savory, from “Holistic Management”
Need a Community? You Have (at least) One
After 15 years of designing and activating online communities, I’m still surprised when I hear from a potential client that they “need to create” an online community. Wether you realize it or not, you have and belong to many communities. Further, you intentionally or unintentionally play many roles within those communities – host, member, participant, advocate, creator, and at times, possibly even destroyer. You may be asking yourself “so, what is a community? How do I know where my community is? How do I define community?” Though typical, those are the wrong questions to start with.
Context is King
The word “community” is problematic. It can have as many meanings as there are people in an organization to make meaning, ranging from the local geographical community, to a peer to peer technical support community, a social media page or a working group focused on solving a specific problem. I’ve held conferences where the question of a canonical definition of community was debated by some of the smartest people I know in the industry, and the question was left unanswered. Why? Two reasons: 1.) a helpful answer must be developed in the strategic context of the host organization and their extended network and 2.) community as a metaphor is often too specific and limiting – why we often see communities as a solution looking for a problem.
To expand on the Savory quote at the beginning of this post, to fully understand the potential for communities in your organization, you have to understand the actual smaller and discrete communities that make up your organization (employees, partners, alumni) , and the larger communities that your organization is a part of (industries, markets, causes, etc.). The “whole”, if you will, is really a network. Increasingly, I find starting a strategy conversation with “community” can be burdensome, and that “network” is a more helpful (and neutral) place to start.
Network as a Rubric
Why “Network”? Network, defined as “a group or system of interconnected people or things” describes a set of connected entities but does not imply or assign activities, relationships or outcomes the way “community” seems to. Using network as a blank canvas allows you to create strategy from drawing from the largest possible pool of value. Thinking “Network” means you are considering the full set of relationships among stakeholders, assets, and increasingly, artificial intelligence actors that could potentially be developed. From the baseline of network, a more holistic strategy can be created that is inclusive of community, social, and digital innovation.
As an example of Network Thinking, I developed the graph below as part of an exercises to inventory and explore opportunities for stakeholder groups allowing access to assets in an online marketplace.
The Future of Networks
“What is true for the machines all around us now is true for us too: We are what we are connected to. And mastery of that connection turns out to be the modern version of Napoleon’s coup d’oeil, the essential skill of the age.”
Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks
One of the best books I’ve read recently is The Seventh Sense” by Joshua Cooper Ramos. In the book, Ramos describes the role of networks in the age of massive disruption that we are beginning to live through – on par with the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. Ramos goes on to evangelize the need to develop a “Seventh Sense”, the ability “to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed by connection” in order to survive and thrive amidst the change. Ramos, along with recent books by Reid Hoffman and great thinking by the team at a16z represent some of the most helpful and cogent thinking on networks and network effects.
I believe we need a new and more holistic approach to develop modern communities – communities that are a significant evolution of the current support and Q&A-based silos. In my own practice I’ve begun to refer to the skills and methodologies for designing modern social networks and communities as “Network Thinking”, and I’ve begun to tag related research and writing as #FoN, or “Future of Networks”. To stay up to date, subscribe to my newsletter here.
I’m currently working with a select list of clients to build modern community and network strategies. If you would like to schedule some time to talk about how I can help, firstname.lastname@example.org.
“…people’s identification of, and intention to pursue, particular highly valued, overarching life goals.” (Steger & Dik, 2010).
a.k.a. “Your reason for getting up in the morning.”
Bryan Dik PhD – Professor of Psychology at Colorado State & Cofounder of Jobzology
The Fine Line Between Engagement & Manipulation
Growthhacking, gamification, content snacks and personalization. Your feed is overflowing with tricks, hacks and best practices to “drive engagement”. The best of these techniques tap into a member’s intrinsic motivation to trigger participation, the worst rely on psychological tricks and negative emotional responses.
What if there was a way to create sustained engagement in communities and collaborative experiences that harnessed genuine motivation and strove for positive outcomes for participants? Through my work as a Fellow with Life Reimagined, I have (with my team of Fellows) developed an approach that taps into the power of purpose to drive community engagement.
As Community Architects (and Builders, Managers, Hosts, etc), we’ve always known that we needed to define a community’s purpose as part of strategic development, but we generally haven’t paid much attention to the role of purpose for community participants. Tactical goals in the context of a community experience, yes. Thinking about the community member as a “whole person” with a life beyond your community? Let’s be honest – rarely.
Our community experiences today are largely designed around the limitations of the platform we choose to grow our communities on. Content (posts and messages) is typically the most dynamic element, followed by algorithmically-driven “streams”. Reputation elements develop over time and are helpful to make judgements about the value of content and contributors, but it is hard to say any given community experience truly evolves. On the whole, the Community experiences are surprisingly static.
There is opportunity for improvement here. Looking at Communities through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, you can make a case that online communities support many of the needs that Abraham Maslow describes in his model, especially 1.) Belonging (through social connections), and 2.) Esteem (through participation and the advancement through reputation system). The missing ingredient has been the proverbial top of the pyramid: Self-Actualization.
What might happen if the community and collaborative experiences we designed supported the discovery, refinement and actualization of a person’s 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.
Early Development of the Purpose Model – In Flight Now
In November of 2015, I was honored to be chosen as part of the inaugural Rand Fellows with the Life Reimagined Institute. I was asked to be team leader and had the opportunity to work with Bryan Dik, Brooke Erol and Roberta Taylor on my team. Our team was mentored by an amazing group of thought leaders, including Richard Leider, Alan Weber (co-founder of Fast Company) and Dr. Janet Taylor. The goal of my team was to create community-based programs that help people discover, refine and express their purpose. My team of fellows is in the middle of a pilot and research project that lasts through the end of July to study the best ways to help our community of participants discover, refine and express purpose through their work. Our team took the Life Reimagined process (shown in the graphic below) and mapped community activities to each stage to come up with the needed content and features for our pilot community program.
Meaningful Results Beyond Engagement
One of the most incredible outcomes of our pilot program was that we saw significant improvement in 12 of 20 psychosocial variables that we measured in our participants. Specifically, we saw large gains in feelings of Happiness, Resilience, Presence of Meaning, and Career Decision Self-Efficacy. We also saw reductions in feelings of Loneliness and Depression in participants.
We are in the early days of developing a model for Purpose-Driven Communities but we are already seeing impactful results from our studies. The Purpose-based model I’ve described doesn’t exist in the wild (yet), but the time to consider the implications and possibilities is now if you want your organization’s community to evolve beyond static growth, low engagement and specious results & impact . There are many positive and disruptive implications of the model – I’ve highlighted a few below.
- Shared Purpose of Community
- Hosts will have to clearly state the purpose of their community, as well as help individual community members define, refine and express their purpose in the community experience. The development of a “Purpose Model” is required.
- Purpose Expressed in Community Leadership and Actions (Member)
- Once the “Purpose Model” is created, more effective Member journeys, reputation and roles can be developed that align near term activities with longer-term accomplishments.
- Evolving Role of Community Manager
- Once the language of Purpose is understood in a community, and once members and hosts can share their purpose (via statements / profile), the Community Manager can play a critical role of connecting members with the content, people and activities they need to actualize the member’s purpose.
- A New System of Context & Feedback Loops (Platform)
- New tools will need to be developed to facilitate purpose discovery, and to drive the community experience through context (activity streams, member matching & networking, journey models) and feedback loops (based on activity).
- Federated Communities
- The expression of an individual’s purpose is a large and complex topic. It is unlikely that any one community or organization can fully support the breadth of an individual’s need. Complimentary communities have an opportunity to partner around customer types and segments to offer experiences that support purpose. We will begin to see examples of Federated Communities as an alternative to mass social networks in the next 12-24. Powering these Community Federations with Purpose will be a game changer.
Creating a Purpose-driven model for communities will be a break through in performance, engagement and impact for many organizations. This new model will create the canvas for life-long relationships that are based on mutually beneficial outcomes for the host and member. Community platforms, programs and roles will need to evolve to realize the full value of the model.
I will continue to research and write about the Purpose-driven Community Model as part of my ongoing #NetworkThinking series. To stay up to date, subscribe to my newsletter here.
I’m currently working a select list of clients to build amazing communities. If you would like to schedule some time to talk about how I can help, email@example.com.
Many organizations are struggling to understand and respond to the changes being driven by the Collaborative (some say On Demand or Sharing) Economy. A simple way to get started is to think about 1) what assets you have to offer and 2) how digital networks enable distribution, usage of and collaboration with those assets. This process is another element of a concept I am calling “Network Thinking”.
I’ve developed a short exercise to help organizations think through ideas, threats and opportunities, and develop a simple plan to start pilot programs. When I facilitate this exercise at workshops and events it is designed to take 45 minutes. using time as a constraint and forcing function. I typically do a quick briefing on communities and the collaborative economy before running the exercise. If you need inspiration, I’ve added a video of a recent talk at the end of this post.
Page 1: Synthesis, Threats, Opportunities & Inventory
Synthesis – 5 min
Quickly list ideas about the Collaborative / On Demand / Sharing Economy that resonate, inspire and challenge you.
Disruptive Threats – 5 min
Think through and list the disruptive threats to your business. Startups that are emerging and offering your product or service at a discount, a privileged position in a market that is eroding, etc.
Transformational Opportunities – 5 min
Explore and list the transformational opportunities at hand, as you currently understand them. This could be a new line of business enabled by digital technologies, replacing your current distribution channel with one that is based on customers or online.
Inventory – 10 min
Explore and list all assets available to you. Consider any tangible asset, including office space, IP, product archives, talent, supply chain, customer talent, etc.
The first page of the worksheet, with the sections described above:
Page 2: Ideation & Action Plan
Ideation Canvas – 10 min
Take the list of assets from page one and list them across the x axis on the bottom of the diagram. Going up the y axis for each stakeholder group, think about how that asset might be used by or with the stakeholder group to create new business value. A simple example is shown on the second image below. The asset “office space” could be used by Partners as a sublet or on-demand office space, or the space could be used by customers or the crowd as a makerspace.
Action Plan – 10 min
Taking inputs from page 1, and reviewing all of the ideas generated on the Ideation Canvas, list your 3 best ideas, develop a short pitch, and answer 3 key questions about getting started.
The second page of the worksheet, with the sections described above:
The second page of the worksheet, with the ideation canvas partially completed:
In less than an hour you have a solid draft of a possible Collaborative Economy initiative. You can use this output as a tool to start conversations in your organization about a pilot program, or use the Worksheet as part of an internal workshop or planning meeting.
I use this tool in many of my workshops. If you are interested in discussing my workshop offerings, or hosting a facilitated version of this exercise at your company or during a retreat, please reach out to my assistant to schedule some time to connect.
My recent session at the Online Community Tribe Meetup in SF gives an overview of the Collaborative Economy and introduces the concept of Network Thinking as a tool to help organizations explore future business models in the Collaborative Economy.
Are you “Member Shy”?
In its most basic form, a community strategy is a balance of an organization’s goals and its member’s (a.k.a customer’s) needs. Organizations have methodologies for developing goals and objectives, yet I continue to be surprised at how many organizations are missing research as a core part of their online community development process. Even for organizations that are highlighted as examples of “getting it”, there are still cases where the community wasn’t engaged in research about a major platform change, feature enhancement or policy shift (the historical / hysterical facebook privacy anyone?). In many cases there seems to be a real fear (or at least discomfort) in connecting 1 to 1 with customers. That fear could be rooted in the inability to have meaningful interaction at scale, the overhead associated with regular contact, or the lack of an evolved organizational culture that encourages this type of interaction. Any community development (or refinement) initiative *requires* the input and direction of the members.
Note: I will be using the terms “member” and “customer” interchangeably in this post. I will also use the term “member” as a placeholder for current and potential members of a community.
Why Conduct Member Research?
Conducting member needs research as part of the strategy development process brings the voice of customer to the center of the strategy, and helps create a lens through which to focus your community building activities. As I mentioned in my kickoff post to “Network Thinking“, there are really five core questions to frame your community strategy:
- WHO are your customers?
- WHY are they motivated to build relationships with each other?
- WHERE do they want to build relationships with each other?
- HOW do they want to build relationships with each other?
- WHAT value can you provide as a HOST to strengthen and deepen these relationships over time?
Member research can also help answer more tactical questions like:
- What role should you play as host, and what community activities should you facilitate?
- What types of content and features should be present in the community?
- Should the community be an “on domain” destination, or should the community presence extend on to other sites, like Facebook?
- What types of members does the community want to include?
- What type of culture does the community need to thrive?
- What activities are members prepared to participate in that will directly or indirectly benefit the host?
- What types of marketing and advertising would members find acceptable?
Techniques for Conducting Member Research
The process for conducting member research is straightforward: decide on the appropriate techniques given your budget, recruit subjects, conduct the research and analyze the results. Great places to recruit research subjects:
- Your existing community
- Your blog
- Your corporate web site
- Newsletter mailing lists
- Customer Conferences
- Independent communities about your product or in your market or topic area
- Facebook or Linkedin groups about your product or in your market or topic area
- Using social network analysis tools like LittleBird or NodeXL to analyze open networks like Twitter.
One on One Interviews
One on one interviews can be conducted either in-person or over the phone. The key ingredients are a customer, an interviewer, a notetaker and a simple interview script (a sample can be found below). Interviews can be as short as 30 minutes, and generally should last no more than an hour. In my experience, a minimum of 5-6 interviews will yield useful themes and give good data for strategy direction. If your community will serve many different products, market segments, or customer types a good rule of thumb is to try and do interviews with at least 3 people from each segment. One on One interviews can also be augmented nicely by a follow up online survey to a larger group, in order to drill down further on issues uncovered in the initial round of interviews. Interviews can be conducted in person, via a hangout (or other video chat service), or over the phone.
Another great way to get feedback, and to get a lot of feedback at once is to conduct a group feedback session. This is similar to the one on one interviews, except you are guiding a group of members through the script, as opposed to just one. Involving multiple subjects at once increases the complexity of the process, so be sure to have someone skilled at facilitation leading the session to keep the conversation on track (per the script), as well as to ensure that all participants have equal air time to give their opinions and feedback.
The fastest, and often lowest overhead way to get member feedback is to create a short online survey to send to research participants. Online surveys are really great at getting quick quantitative feedback, and the results (depending on the tool) are fairly easily to analyze and study. A few issues with online surveys are that the quality of the results depends on the quality of the questions, and in particular, thinking through appropriate choices for multiple choice questions, and also creating effect write in questions that will yield helpful qualitative feedback.
In most cases for the community and social media strategy work I do at Structure3C, I will generally start with an online survey to at least 100 community members,and follow up by conducting a set of 7-10 one on one interviews with community members.
Questions to Ask During Research
There are essentially 5 overarching questions for your community strategy, 4 of which you want to answer as an output of member research:
- Why do community members want to build relationships with each other? What do community members need from each other? Explore what community members might desire from interactions with other community members, and try to understand why they are motivated to sustain this activity over time. Answers could range from knowledge sharing, to providing mentoring, to ongoing professional or personal support.
- Where do you customers want to build relationships with each other? This question is particularly important to avoid duplicating community features and value that exist elsewhere. The key insight to uncover in this line of questioning is what unique value you can provide in your hosted community AND which external communities and social media sites you need to participate in in order to create a holistic community presence. Increasingly, mobile presents a unique opportunity to host your customer network in fundamentally new ways.
- How do members want to build relationships with each other? What value can community members contribute / exchange? It is important to understand what ways community members are capable of, prepared to and willing to participate. Participation could include sharing domain expertise, offering content samples, answering support questions, or even just participating in casual online conversation.
- What do community members need from you as the host? Ask questions that explore member expectations of your organization in the role of host. What are the member expectations around your level of participation, your effort in developing content, in fostering participation and your commitment to hosting the community long-term?
In order to answer the key questions, you will need to ask a series of baseline demographics questions (for context), as well as exploring each of the four key questions in a more granular way. A sampling of questions that can be used to create a script or facilitation guide are included below.
A simple list of survey or interview questions might include:
- Name, organization, title, a brief role description
- Browser and mobile preferences: Chrome vs Safari, iOS vs Andriod, etc.
- What information sources do you rely on (relating to the topic of the community)?
- What groups (on/offline) are you a member of (relating to the topic of the community)?
- What products / services do you use (relating to the topic of the community)?
- What is the biggest challenge you face in your day to day work (assuming this relates to the topic of the community)?
- How satisfied are you with the level and type of communication you have with organization x?
- Do you currently participate in any of the following social media activities: blogging, discussion forums, facebook, twitter, youtube etc (shape the list based on your market)
- What information, insight or content do you want to share with other customers?
- What kinds of information would be helpful for other customers to share with you?
- If organization x were to offer the following content or features, please rate how useful each would be to you: discussion forums, expert Q&A, tutorials & tips, video previews, customer blogs, etc.
- Would you be interested in connecting with other members at local, in-person events?
- Exploring usability issues around current experiences and apps
I’ve seen investment in member research pay off consistently, just as I’ve seen the severe cost of not conducting member research hamper or sink many community initiatives. In short: Want to know what your members want from their online community? Just ask.
Customer & member research is a core part of my community development practice at Structure3C. If you are starting a new community or crowd initiative, my team can plan and deliver community research to build a strong foundation for your program. You can book time with my through my assistant Karelyn.
A recent benchmarking report from Demand Metric on Customer Lifecycle Marketing illustrates the impact of aligning marketing efforts around a customer journey model. The report also illustrates a number of blindspots that are derailing Customer Lifecycle Marketing efforts.
The missing ingredient? Community Management.
First, highlights from the report (direct quote):
The analysis of this study’s data provides these key findings:
- The study found that less than 20% of organizations are currently marketing across the entire customer lifecycle.
- Participants spend twice as much of their marketing budgets on acquiring new customers as on retaining existing ones. (Yet most of their revenue comes from existing customers!)
- Almost 90% of the study participants indicate that marketing currently owns the understanding and management of the customer lifecycle.
- Of the lifecycle stages – Awareness, Consideration, Purchase, Retention and Advocacy – Awareness enjoys the greatest clarity of ownership, with marketing owning the stage 88% of the time. Retention is most fragmented, with few organizations defining clear ownership of this stage.
- The Awareness and Consideration stages enjoy “adequate” or “ample” levels of investment for over 70% of study participants. Retention and Advocacy both fall at the “minimal” to “none” level of funding for 55% of study participants.
- The greatest benefit to executing a customer lifecycle marketing strategy is greater customer engagement.
- The greatest challenge to marketing across the customer lifecycle is understanding customer content needs.
- 72% of strategy adherents are experiencing a revenue lift from customer lifecycle marketing.
- Over three-fourths of participants plan to increase their commitment to and investment in customer lifecycle marketing.
Clearly Customer Lifecycle Marketing is incredibly valuable when all stages of the lifecycle are addressed. So what is the problem? Based on my direct experience and years of studying the intersection of marketing and online community, I would assert that building meaningful relationships at scale is still an undeveloped function in the majority of most organizations. Further, as the data from the report shows, the “ownership” for customer retention is scattered among many departments. Add to the mix the eternal debate about “who owns social / community” and things get even more messy.
So what is a modern marketing organization to do? Consider three things:
- Community Drives Customer Lifecycle
A modern definition of online communities expands the location of “community” to be any on or offline touchpoint where customers can meet and form relationships. A modern definition also expands the concept of community management to include any form of relationship building and nurturing. Modern online communities produce a range of value for customers and businesses. Peer to peer support is the classic example, yet modern approaches include a range of deep collaboration on new product development to expansive crowdfunding campaigns – and everything in between. Community can play a valuable role in every stage of the customer lifecycle, and can often be the connective tissue to hold the entire experience together.
- Treat Engagement & Retention as a Community Management Opportunity
The practice of building and nurturing customer relationships is a job modern community managers understand very well. In particular, Community Managers can be very effective as resources in Customer Nurture campaigns during the consideration phase. I had my community management team at Autodesk reboot a nurture campaign that supported a 30 day product trial, and the results were amazing.
Further, Customer Advocacy programs grew (at least partially) out of Community Advocate / MVP programs. It is a relatively straightforward process to scale current Advocacy programs to include different customer types. There is also a massive opportunity to harmonize Influencer programs (which typically look outside of existing communities) with Advocacy programs. These are essentially two sides of the same coin – Advocates have typically been nurtured through a hosted community and Influencers have established their own communities and networks. A modern Community Manager treats these contexts as part of the larger community ecosystem.
Treating engagement and retention as a community management opportunity allows the staff with the skills to manage relationships at scale do what they do best. This is a huge missed opportunity in marketing.
- Get Real About Digital Transformation & Social Business
A modern approach to online community takes into account the entire digital ecosystem, not just single online touchpoints. A modern approach to community management nurtures engagement across the digital ecosystem. So if Community Managers know how to address the key gaps illustrated in the Demand Metric report, what’s the problem? Why isn’t it happening? There are many answers, but one factor that has had a huge negative impact is the trend of Digital Transformation initiatives absorbing (or in some cases, abandoning) Social Business efforts. I expand on (and in some ways, rant about) this in my 2015 recap post. Most Digital Transformation initiatives have focused on technology at the cost of customer engagement. Many Social Leadership teams and organizations have been disbanded or fractured and embedded to the point of being ineffective. Customer Experience initiatives often focus on superficial and in the moment customer engagements at the cost of growing the life long relationship.Bottom Line: We need a new Leadership model that addresses not only the Company : Customer relationship but also the complex network of Customer : Customers : Company relationships.
Netting it out:
- To create successful Customer Lifecycle Marketing initiatives, modern marketers must include online community and community managers.
- Community Managers can help address the current engagement and retention gaps in Customer Lifecycle Marketing programs.
- Organizations need to renew focus and investment in Online Community Leadership to drive growth via Customer Lifecycle Marketing
I am working with a portfolio of clients on evolving their community and marketing programs (lifecycle, influencer & advocacy, community management). I am also kicking off the year by offering a complimentary consultation session (for a limited time & very limited slots). If you would like to get feedback and guidance on your 2016 plans, feel free to register for a consultation here.
Honestly, I wasn’t going to do this. I’m already rolling eyes at all the “prediction” posts. And there are way too many 2015 retrospectives to look back on… but I’m feeling optimistic and inspired! You are taking the time to read this – THANK YOU! I have had an incredible amount of support for my first year of Structure3C. Thank you for being part of it.
This is a long-ish post – the short version is a list of personal highlights from 2015, and a look ahead to 3 big ideas and aspirations for 2016.
A Look back at the first year of Structure3C
Thank you for letting me take a moment to reflect on a few key accomplishments from this year.
- Launching Structure3C on February 4, 2015 to help brands create successful customer communities and crowdsourcing initiatives
- Chairing the inaugural Collaborative Economy conference in San Francisco in March
- Conducting the first research study on Brands & The Collaborative Economy – exploring a range of organizations level of knowledge, interest, priority and current activities in the Collaborative Economy
- Having a number of prominent speaking engagements, including SxSWi, Social Business Forum 2015 (Milan), The Silicon Valley Boomer Business Summit and Crowdsourcing Week Europe (Brussels)
- Helping a growing portfolio of brand and startup clients with briefings, crowdsourcing strategy, online community development and product design
- Being interviewed by Virgin Entrepreneur on Crowdsourcing
- Holding the closing workshop at the Crowd Companies 2015 Main Event in SF – (you can download my custom workbook from the event)
- Being honored as one of the inaugural A. Barry Rand Fellows for the Life Reimagined Institute
- And on a personal note: I made a commitment to my family to be present more throughout the year – one lagging indicator of success is the number of pancakes and pieces of french toast made in 2015 numbers just shy of 1,000! (disclaimer: back of the napkin calculation)
3 Big Ideas for 2016:
1.) Beyond “Digital Transformation”
In 2015, it seemed like Digital Transformation ate the business world. Almost overnight, the big consultancies dropped “Social Business” and began to sell Digital Transformation strategies. Thought leaders and former champions of social published articles and books about establishing, then disrupting “Digital Business”. Former Social Centers of Excellence were abandoned or repurposed for the “new” digital business journey.
In some ways, this is completely logical. Big consultancies need to keep clients anxious and their armies of consultants employed. Thought leaders need a constant stream of new terms, concepts and frames to stay relevant and top of mind. Executives need to frame annual objectives in ways that are novel and show progress year over year.
And, let’s face it: Social, Community, Customer Collaboration are all hard. Really hard.
Obviously, technology plays a critical role in modern business. The problem with many Digital Transformation efforts is a hyperfocus on the technology at the cost strategy and customer relationships.
Further, the definition of “Social Business” was always somewhat nebulous, and the internal culture shift and alignment needed to be successful was an arduous task. Pursuing a primarily technology-driven agenda likely seems more attainable, and “Digital” is an easier sell – both the perceived value and anticipated results.
What is lost in the shift from social to digital is the opportunity to fully realize the business value of connected customer relationships at scale. Realized specifically through strategies based on networks, communities and deep collaboration. Sound nebulous? I’ve shaped and seen first hand the value of social and community in the form of increased direct revenue, increased loyalty, crowd driven products and early market dominance based on building communities in parallel with products. Examples: The quantified value of Dell’s IdeaStorm was in the hundred’s of millions of dollars, Dell’s TechCenter community had billions of dollars in impact on Large Enterprise sales, Autodesk’s support community saves the company millions of dollars a year… I could go on.
2.) Digital / Social Business reframed as Business, Networked
Based on my experience building online communities and collaborative experiences, as well as research I’ve conducted, I’m convinced that a new and comprehensive approach to online communities is the way forward.
An approach where:
- What we thought of as “social” is really the networked marketplace
- Your market is synonymous with your crowd
- Online communities build lasting relationships amongst your customers, prospects, employees and partners and
- Collaboration looks like a true partnership with customers, not an internal social network no one really uses.
In order to begin exploring business opportunities in the networked economy, businesses need to shift their mindset to think about markets as networks. Their total addressable market(s), connected via platforms & social networks.
There are three important contexts to think about in the Network Marketplace:
- Crowd: A group within a Market Network that has:
- A shared interest or goal
- The ability and assets to participate in a shared marketplace, task or activity via common platforms
- Community A connected & hosted group within a Market Network that has:
- 1 or more shared interests or goals, leading to shared identity & purpose
- The ability, motivation and assets to work towards a common purpose over time
- A host with intention to support & manage community over time
- Collaborative Organization Collaboration amongst organizations, partners and customers essentially functioning as one organization:
- Shared IP & Common resources
- Shared vision of activities and outcomes
- Shared risks and equitable outcomes
3.) Radical New Leadership
To truly make progress in the evolving online community strategy we need new leadership, and evolved (not incremental) vision. This requires a shift from quarterly-driven decision making by businesses and a “sell what we have” mentality from our collective social vendors. Specifically:
- A new function that owns customer experience across every touchpoint – and further – owns developing the 1:Many relationships in the market network, not just 1:1
- A new Executive to lead this function
- Integration of platforms, systems and customer data that create internal efficiencies, better customer experiences, and put the customer in control of their experience, relationships and data
- A new point of view on value, and specifically, the value of customer engagement and participation. The days of customers supporting other customers without compensation are coming to an end.
- We need a bolder vision for online community platforms and social media & network tools. Platforms now are: 1) optimized around specific functions, like peer to peer support 2) are incredibly hard to customize and 3) are incredibly hard to integrate. We need better from you.
- Reign in sales-driven organizations that over-promise and under-deliver on community quality and outcomes.
- We need vendors to come together on feature & data standards and interoperability. Just to pick a specific example: The current disconnect between CRM, Marketing Automation and Community Platforms (even from the SAME vendor) is unbelievable. Invest in fixing it.
- You need something new to talk about and sell. I get it. I humbly ask:
- Connect the dots between your concepts, especially when retiring an old concept for a new one.
- Talk to your peers in the industry when selling new ideas so clients aren’t dealing with 10 flavors of the same burning platform concept.
- Show your source data when you have it.
- Attribution is appreciated. Especially for concepts you are essentially recycling.
- Show you really care about the future of the industry by cooperating on standard definitions, benchmarks and training
- Try to coordinate conference data and overarching themes
- When collecting practice data you intend to use for consulting or products, please provide a disclaimer at point of collection.
Do you agree? What would you add to this list?
With that said, 2016 is shaping up to be even more fun.
A preview includes:
- An upcoming announcement for a series of Crowd Economy “Rapid Orientation Workshops”
- Select speaking engagements focused on describing a Modern Approach to Online Community Building by developing Market Networks
- Ongoing research into how Brands continue to evolve their Crowd and Community business strategies
- An expanded set of consulting offerings, including modules for leadership & team development, value / ROI analysis and scorecard development.
Should we talk? I’m offering a limited number of free introductory consultations (via phone). I’d love to learn more about your community & crowd plans for 2016, and I promise your will take away new ideas from our call.
In the spirit of the New Year, I wish you a peaceful and epic 2016. Thank you for helping make Structure3C ‘s first year a success!