Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What It Takes To Build Community

While I took some lovely end-of-August time off, there’s been buzz about the Deloitte & Touche/Beeline Labs/Awareness Networks study with the provocative title “Tribalization of Business.” It has some worthwhile findings to which I’d like to add my two cents. You can access the entire presentation on Slideshare.

I’ve written before about successful community building, especially in the B2B space. Whether you believe that “communities will transform most business processes” (slide 23) or whether you have more modest expectations, most of us are interested in what makes communities work and why they fail. The study has some interesting data on those two subjects.

Talking about the dynamics of communities they point out that the more content you have the more members you will attract and the more members you attract the more content you will get. That’s a really virtuous circle! To be more specific they identified the three most powerful forces for success as the “ability to connect with like-minded people, the ability to help others, and community [that is] focused around a hot topic/issue". Of those, connecting stands out, and I’ve found that there’s no substitute for hard, continuous work to make those connections—no build-it-and-they-will-come mentality allowed. Everything from one-to-one contacts “thanks for the great content I just linked to” to formal email campaigns that build awareness and traffic can be useful. Above all, integrate your communications, so they all lead into your community. But don’t make the mistake of assuming it’s all about traffic. It’s about measurable increases in awareness and the new ideas that you get (slide 14). Connie Bensen encourages managers to think about “Return on Interaction.”

Don’t overlook the importance of people helping other people. I keep running across that issue as people talk about product and experience ratings. They really want to tell others about wonderful products or services and to keep them from making mistakes they’ve made. Harness that desire to help! I’d also point out that there are two sides to that coin. A hot issue draws a lot of attention and it may be hard to make yourself heard. When I first started a green building blog, there wasn’t a lot of Web 2.0 type of activity. In three years, that’s changed and you have to be really clear about where you can make a contribution and where you need to leave it to the experts. That’s fine; you just need to understand your own role.

The other side of the coin, of course, is what causes communities to fail. Note that lack of awareness isn’t number one, although it’s important. Number one is “getting people to engage.” Boy, is it ever! Some audiences—as we know, particularly the young—just engage all over the place, although it may not be around the subjects we marketers are interested in. Other audiences don’t engage much, no matter how hard you try. That’s obviously the older, less web-savvy. Do all you can; ask questions, run contests, add a poll to your content from time to time—anything you can think of that’s relevant and meaningful. Silly or obvious doesn’t work; it has to be significant to the visitor. Number two is “finding time to manage the community.” It takes nurturing, it takes oversight. If you don’t have the person power to give a community effort the attention it deserves, don’t do it. Especially don’t make the mistake of trying to substitute technology for human talent (slide 23).

Dion Hinchcliffe has some compelling thoughts on what makes communities work on his ZDNet blog. He starts with keeping the needs of the community (not the marketer!) paramount—surprise, surprise—and continues with other good insights. If you want more thoughts on strategy, check out the best practices slideshow posted by Jeremiah Owyang of Forrester back in the spring.

And remember, there’s no technological substitute for thoughtful and skilled human attention!

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