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