Leaders often use the word “transformation” to describe a small or incremental change, but the definition is “a thorough or dramatic change in form or appearance”. When using the phrase “Transformational Communities”, my intention is to define these communities as having a profound and thorough change effect on participating stakeholders.
One of the most interesting examples I’ve encountered is the hybrid online & real-world community development model that Family Independence Initiative uses for its UpTogether program. To date, families participating in FII’s community-powered program have experienced a 27% lift in income, have established an average of $1,000 in personal savings, and have collectively established $2.5 million in home equity.
Jorge Blandón, Executive Vice President at FII, joins me on the Cohere Podcast to talk about the mission of FII, to discuss their community model in detail, and to talk about the stories of some of the families who have collectively walked out of poverty together.
Key Quotes From the Episode:
“FII really is aiming for all people in the United States to be seen and invested in for their strengths and that they’re able to build their social and financial assets. I think until today, there are systemic barriers that prevent a lot of low-income families from leveraging their assets, their strengths, and even community. FII wants to remove those barriers and really create a new environment where families are trusted as change agents and communities are collectively addressing the challenges that prevent them from pursuing their wellbeing.”
“FII’s approach is really anchored in historic models of just how communities and families would come together to support each other from barn raisings to examples of the Chinatowns throughout the country, the Black wall street and in Tulsa, or the fact that there are over 1500 donut shops owned and run by Cambodians. These are people, that are coming together, leading the way, showing a path forward. This country has a rich history of, of people just pooling their resources, their money, their time, and collective strength and, and, and wisdom.”
“So UpTogether is an online community-building platform. It’s a place where low-income families can take their offline conversations and bring them online to connect with other UpTogether members. They may live in their same neighborhood, in the same city, or connect with other families, experiencing similar challenges across, across the country. It’s really the place where social and financial capital is exchanged and ultimately accelerated. On UpTogether families can, can share news around accomplishments, like paying off debt, buying a home, sending their kids to college, eating healthier. They can curate groups to share ideas around parenting, children with special needs, starting a business, or even being civically engaged. It’s really a platform that recognizes that we all bring something to the table.”
Key Resources From This Episode
Jorge Blandon on LinkedIn
Family Independence Initiative
FII’s UpTogether Platform
Analytics – Learning From Families
Stories from UpTogether Member’s
Help if you can:
Lastly, low-income families have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Please consider making a donation to #GiveTogetherNow, a campaign that FII families benefit directly from.
Do you know someone who would be an interesting guest for the Cohere Podcast? Someone who has built an extraordinary community, is nurturing an novel human network, or has an extraordinary vision for the future of human networks? If so, please send me a note – I’d love to talk to them.
Too often the deployment of digital strategies and tools begins humans conforming to technology limitations instead of technology being deployed intentionally in the service of human needs and opportunities – a human-centered approach.
Dr. Lauren Vargas joins me on the Cohere podcast to discuss bringing humans back into the center of the “digital transformation” conversation and provides the CALM framework and specific examples for leaders to draw from.
Lauren is particularly well suited to give guidance here, as she is one of the most experienced and widely practiced digital strategists I know. She’s had an impressive range of experiences in both the public and private sectors, including senior roles at Radian6, Aetna, and Fidelity. In private practice now, she’s most recently been focused on helping museums around the globe with digital transformation. We recently reconnected in London where I also got to walk through the AMAZING Clash exhibit at the Museum of London with her to see some of her work first hand.
Key Quotes from the episode:
On Infusing Technology with Humanity
“it’s talking like technology with heart, right. So it’s, it’s when we talk about it being embedded in, in an organization, and we talk about being embedded in an ecosystem, in the DNA, it’s how do we have technology with a pulse? How do, how are we having conversations and using and understanding, managing and creating digital, and technology in a way that is, is human-centered.”
On Culture as Terroir
“I think culture is having a common language. It’s having a shared belief and value system, implicit and explicit practices.
You know, those conditions, those contexts are different for every single organization. Every organization has its own terrior. Each, each organization has its own unique fingerprint, contextual characteristics unique to that certain place that can influence and shape its character.
So when we think about terroir, an agricultural and an ecological term, it’s the soil. It’s the topography. It’s the climate that collectively gives and produces a particular characteristic. For organizations, terroir might be attributed to the type and size of the organization and the industry it is anchored in, it’s visitor or customer demographics. It’s physical locations and all forms of media that terroir, it’s complex and it is comprised of internal and external forces that are unique to the organization. And, those forces ebb and flow. They adapt and adopt over time.”
The CALM Approach to Digital Leadership
“Taking a CALM approach to digital leadership, to digital transformation, is incredibly powerful. And when I say calm, it’s an acronym.
C — Collaborative
A — Anticipatory
L — Letting go of Command and Control Leadership and Embracing Collective Leadership
M — Mindful
How do we, how do we think about a collaborative first environment? How do we embed, an anticipatory rhythm of practice and ritual? How do we let go of command and control leadership and how do we create the space to reflect?”
Resources From This Episode
Find Lauren online:
Articles mentioned in this episode:
- Keep ‘CALM’- not just carry on business as usual
- Take ‘CARE’ to be ‘CALM’: Emotional intelligence is key to achieving digital maturity
Books Lauren mentioned in this episode:
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.
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.
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.
I’ve worked with some form of community my entire career. In 1999 I took a job with TechRepublic.com as “UX Program Manager” and spent 9 months helping design, build, launch and grow what would become one of the largest online communities of global IT Professionals. Community platforms, as we know them now, didn’t exist. We had to build everything from the ground up. A design for threaded discussions went from whiteboard to production over a weekend. Content editors played the roles of community manager and moderator – “community management” wasn’t a term of art yet. It seems quaint that for the first two years of TechRepublic we only cared about two numbers: uptime and membership.
My first taste of what might be possible with communities of practice was volunteering to be one of the first Fast Company Company of Friends organizers in Louisville KY in 2000. The FastCo mothership gave me a list of local subscribers, a discussion guide, some facilitation guidelines and an organizer’s button. We held the first meeting in a local business conference room, and frankly, I was amazed that anyone showed up (we had 15 people at the first meeting) and impressed that we all had so much to discuss. The central topic was about how technology was changing business – especially the Internet.
In 2001 I was offered the chance to move to California and work on an in-product community with Autodesk. The focus of the community was to support customer onboarding and product usage. Autodesk was the beginning of a personal journey to study the implicit and explicit value of communities (in their various manifestations) to companies. That journey continued with Forum One, where we developed the first conference series for community executives and developed the first practitioner research on analytics, strategy and practice. Dell allowed me to learn and experiment at a global scale, and incorporate community analytics into marketing mix models and enterprise-wide reporting. My journey now continues with Structure3C. Along the way I’ve studied and helped develop different methods and measurements for community value: the impact of forums on the support burden, the effect of community on NPS and LTV, the effect of community on purchase frequency and size, understanding how a community ecosystem develops, and much more.
Historically, measuring the value of knowledge generated in online communities has been the focus for community analytics, particularly in the context of customer support. Over the years different approaches have been fielded for measuring this value in support communities, including the cost savings of customer labor vs staff, the value of a call deflection, the long-term value of a qualified or accepted answer, and possible causal effects of participation on customer behavior. Several thoughtful methods have been formalized and documented by platform vendors and industry experts. This “ground zero” problem seems to have been solved, and cyclically re-solved and re-quantified to the point of diminishing returns, like a community version of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day – and we still have executives pushing back on the validity of the calculus, and the corresponding results. This is perplexing to me.
Keep in mind, the customer support scenario I describe above is arguably the most tested, proven and accepted (by community professionals) example of community value. Yet organizations continue to regularly debate this. When the conversation moves towards the value of community across customer lifecycle, and the potential value across business units our current methods, measurements and metaphors fail us.
What Got Us Here Isn’t What We Need To Move Forward
It seems we missed something along the way in developing best practices for communities. Admittedly, it’s not a simple problem to solve, but the key problem areas seem fairly clear:
- “Community”, as a term, is largely subjective;
- Community as a concept is still largely misunderstood by the extended organization;
- Investments in social media activities have claimed large portions of budgets and resources and have been mistakenly viewed as the primary focus for community, as opposed to a component of the community ecosystem;
- Community strategies are often independent of, and so therefore misaligned with, corporate strategy and have no clear connection to corporate goals;
- Community as a function is separated from other customer-facing functions;
- Community analytics and activities often don’t communicate value in the context and language of the business;
- Because the community function is separated from the business, it is often viewed as a cost center, as extra overhead for extended teams, and is asked to quantify value and impact in unusual or extraordinary ways – often in an ongoing, and sometimes ad hoc fashion;
Hampered by the aforementioned factors, the final straw is that community analytics and data aren’t integrated technically or programmatically into enterprise analytics, data and reporting – a critical dimension of individual customer profiles and the ability to gain insight into entire market segments is wholly missing.
Integrate Community Into The Fabric of the Organization
When most Executives think about customer communities, there is an unfortunate tendency to view them as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This thinking leads to strategies and outcomes that fail to realize the full value of customer communities. This typically manifests in the form of a myopic focus on customer support communities and an overburdening of customers taking on the role of customer support agent. In extreme examples, this sort of strategy breeds resentment with valuable customers and leads to a dangerous dependence on an unsustainable resource. When the Executive mindset shifts to “value producing”, the aperture of community strategy widens to a rich set of possibilities: community advocacy programs, open innovation, peer to peer mentoring, complex content sharing, co-design of products and much more.
As we enter into an increasingly digital & connected era, future-state communities will be key locations where tangible value is co-created and exchanged between companies and customers. To have any chance of long term success with customer communities, mindsets have to evolve beyond a fixation on cost savings to a more enlightened view of communities as a valuable catalyst for growth.
Moving forward: in order for businesses to begin defining a future state community model, they should:
- View community building as a capability and view their extended community ecosystem as a strategic asset;
- Explore and define what “community” means in the context of their customer’s and employee’s collective experience;
- Develop a community strategy that aligns with, and complements (in some cases, shapes), corporate strategy;
- Don’t “build a community” – develop a community ecosystem;
- Understand how the community ecosystem creates value for all external stakeholders and all business functions;
- Develop community programs, goals and KPIs that tie to Business Unit goals and objectives and are translated into team, manager and individual performance goals;
- Integrate community ecosystem data, analytics and insights into enterprise analytics, communications and annual & quarterly business reviews.
In short: many organizations are missing the community opportunity because of a short sighted focus on transactional value in the context of specific use cases. Growth-minded companies are fully embracing community as a concept and integrating community ecosystem development practices into the fabric of their business with great success.
This post is the first in a series on the future state of online community ecosystems, and contains excerpts from the report out of Structure3C’s Community & Crowd Mastermind session on Community Analytics and Value. A version of this post appeared on LinkedIn in February of 2019.
To learn more about the Mastermind group, Structure3C’s offerings, or discuss how we can help you develop the community ecosystem for your brand, please reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
I was honored to be asked to keynote the SWARM Community Managers Conference in Sydney this week, hosted by conference Co-Founders Alison Michalk and Venessa Paech. The conference featured a range of topics and an impressive group of expert practitioners sharing their views on Community building.
My keynote focused on the need for a modern approach to community building in response to the accelerating change and disruption driven by exponential technologies. I’ve summarized the talk below and included the full deck at the bottom of the post.
Exponential Technologies and the Missing Human Dimension
Exponential Technologies are defined as technologies that are on a growth curve of power and speed are doubling annually, or the cost is dropping in half annually. Further, these technologies interact in a combinatorial way to create disruptive change and opportunity. Futurists Frank Diana and Gerd Leonhard do an amazing job of unpacking this concept on this recent podcast.
Online Communities are poised to have a break through moment if we, as community builders, can blaze the trail.
There are several trends converging to support this approach:
- Many organizations are experiencing a social media hangover and are actively exploring the possibilities of hosting their networks and communities;
- Research is showing that network-building and platform building activities are a path for organizations towards resilience and growth;
- We know online communities can generate significant and varied forms of value, and that connected customers are typically more valuable.
A New Approach to Community Building
A new and comprehensive approach to online communities can create a path forward through the change being driven by exponential technologies. The key factors, as I see them:
- Leadership that prioritizes learning over labor;
- Community experiences that are powered by purpose;
- A move beyond destinations to community ecosystems;
- Community presence across contextual interfaces;
1. Shifting Leadership Mindsets
To create the environment for Communities to be successful, leaders within organizations have to shift from a primary focus on Scalable Efficiency (Fixed Mindset) to a focus on Scalable Learning (Growth Mindset). Scalable efficiency is all about defined roles, repeatable processes and limited experimentation. This works well in a static environment but works poorly in a dynamic one. A focus on experimentation, learning and evolution creates the opportunity to adapt to changing conditions and shifts the role of community from one of cost-savings to one of value-creation.
2. Purpose-powered Communities
As Community Builders, 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. Further, an emerging body of research (including my own primary research) has shown that helping community members discover, refine and actualize their purpose can create truly extraordinary outcomes and high levels of engagement.
3. Developing Community Ecosystems
Developing a community ecosystem, to date, has typically involved bolting on a handful of social channels to a hosted community strategy. A number of new opportunities have emerged to explore in-person experiences, community partnerships and mastermind-style engagements (to name a few).
4. Interfaces into Community
Perhaps one of the most interesting opportunities is to think about the expression of your community across a range of interfaces. In-product experiences are going to be particularly valuable. As an example, Aatif Awan, VP of Growth at LinkedIn stated that “Product integrations with Microsoft are the biggest growth opportunity” for LinkedIn.
Community Builders as Architects of the Exponential Experience
Full slide deck here: