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Why people participate in online communities

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A great post last week from the NEXT web on why people participate in online communities (see post here). It’s an interesting read, bringing together various bits of thinking in this space.

What I like most is that the discussion makes us start before why users participate to just understanding their users. This is a process that some often overlook and to their peril.

Most important in this understanding of users is to acknowledge and accept that not everybody who uses your community will actively contribute. In a large public community we find that the 90:9:1 rule is quite a fair description of activity - for every 100 people on the community, 90 will just read, 9 will reply to other people’s posts and 1 will start a conversation. Of course the 90 people are critical for the others to take part and so must be there, but good community management can help to shift these balances and in private communities we see very different participation rates. That’s why we hate the word ‘lurker’ that some people often use to describe people like this; they’re participants in the community too, just less overt ones.

In this environment, understanding why those who will overtly contribute do so is critical. Great content and an empathetic community manager are critical, but the real reasons people particpate include:

  1. The expectation that they will get something back that will be useful to them
  2. The desire for increased personal recognition in a peer group
  3. A sense of community and the willingness to solve something together
  4. Building connections and networking
  5. The sense of belonging to a group of peers
  6. The desire to help others

This list is not necessarily complete but includes the main reasons that people will participate. When setting up a community it’s critical to evaluate how important these are and then to design your approach in a way that capitalises upon these desires.

Even with the best community manager and most impressive and interesting content, it is getting these member dynamics right that will really ensure success.

Social media metrics

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Next week I’m speaking at the SocialMediaInfluence conference in London on Measuring Influence and Audience online. It’s a tricky subject and looking around today I have been unable to find any examples of an approach which has been successfully and repeatedly applied.

The problem appears to be that whilst there are a whole range of metrics that we can measure in social media (see The Social Organisation blog for a fairly comprehensive list) but none of these truly gets to the crux of the problem. What we want to do is know is to measure the influence that a single blogger, commenter or video upload has. What is the value of a blog post praising Coca-Cola in terms that Coca-Cola could understand and measure. As many of our clients ask us, what’s the ROI of encouraging this kind of activity.

The answer is that it’s difficult to measure, not because we don’t have a range of metrics (we do) but because at the moment our understanding of what causes a particular post or a particular individual to be influential is limited. We can measure proxies, such as trackbacks, links to the site from other sites (and the number of links to the sites that link there). But these really only reflect an inherent influence that we still haven’t measured.

What we really want to know is how influential is everybody that is exposed to an piece of content, and how influential are all the people they influence. Of course calculating this number would be difficult if not impossible. And the information you need to gather would be huge. It really wouldn’t be worthwhile.

Which is why some more basic measure is needed. Take the sites like Dell’s Ideastorm and MyStarbucksIdea. These get peers to vote posts up or down depending how relevant they think they are. You can then migrate only the more popular posts to the front page or the top of the list. This kind of rough approach might be a crowd-sourced way of measuring influence. We know that the most popular posts are those that people in the community think the brand needs to listen to most. Perhaps this is the only measure of influence we need.

Clay Shirky at the RSA

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The RSA has just launched a new website and one of the new features are videos online of the great lectures they run in London. Earlier this year I went to see Clay Shirky talking about his book Here Comes Everybody, that was launched a few months ago. It’s great to see a video of this talk online here.

If you haven’t read Shirky’s new book I really recommend reading it. It takes a look at how groups are using the internet, from students and graduates in the UK forcing HSBC to reinstate their interest-free overdraft, to flash-mobs combating the secret police in Belarus, or businesses in Pisa taking on the Mafia together.

If you’d ever thought that twitter or flash mobs or Facebook groups had now purpose and no power then Shirky shows you how they do. How groups can organise each other online in a way that they couldn’t previously and how this can be used by them to further their aims.

In all of his examples, he shows how the Internet has meant that the imbalance of power between a small, well-organised core and a large dispersed society has been changed. A group of students could take on HSBC, businesses and customers in Pisa could take on the Mafia.

The book’s a good read, and thanks the the RSA’s new site you can see Shirky’s lecture earlier this year in London.

Radiohead: social media innovators

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With a little extra time on my hands this bank-holiday weekend, I thought I’d check out what’s new on YouTube. Wading past a fantastic dance-off video’s by ACDC and the Levi backflip guys I stumbled upon one of Radiohead‘s many digital marketing activities.

In case you don’t know them, Radiohead are one of the best bands to come out of the UK in the last 20 years. And they have embraced the internet with real vigour. Their last album, In Rainbows, was released online on a “pay-what-you-like” basis and in addition to selling 1.2 million copies this way, the album recently won a prestigious Best Album award in the UK.

To go with the album, they created a video-making competition. They asked for people to pick a track from the album and then create their own video to go with it. There are some cash rewards, but given the quality of the videos produced (and the time it must have taken to produce them) it’s clear that people are entering for the prestige and the desire to create and show their skills. To share their creations with other fans, or merely to show their support for their favourite band.

This is a fantastic way to increase engagement with and loyalty to the band. If you create a film, you know it’s going to be seen and voted on by other fans, but more importantly by the band. It’s also a way of allowing the fans to put their own stamp on a song (Radiohead’s music is particularly suited to this as each song can be interpreted in thousands of ways).

But what I really love about this marketing activity is that by generating loads of UGC videos it’s getting the songs out there and listened to by more and more people. I have just listened to one song three times - with a different video interpretation each time.

Measuring the ROI and value of social media activities is difficult and still in its infancy, but just the saving of the advertising costs needed to create this kind of exposure is huge.

Some examples

To see the quality and value of the amateur videos produced just look at the three below, all made by amateur fans as part of the online video-making competition.

Social Media Beginners: Lesson 4 - Principles of engaging people online

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It’s been a while since the last installment, so apologies for that. This time we’re going to look at a few principles for engaging people online.

  1. Understand who you want to engage. The first stage is critical - know who you want to engage. This may be a certain type of consumer, your most loyal customers or maybe people you are targeting in the future. Do some work to understand these people, what makes them tick and what inspires them. What do they do online at the moment and where do they hang out? Get a real and full understanding of the people you want to engage so that you know how to approach them, what content and discussions are relevant to them, and where to find them.
  2. Explore what’s in it for them. You’re engaging people and they’re engaging with you - it’s a two-way process. To make sure that you get the most out of people you need to make sure there is something in it for them. They may not be as enthusiastic to learn about your latest product as you think (or maybe just hope) they should be. Whatever you’re engaging them with, and however you’re doing it, make sure there really is something in it for them.
  3. Create a space people feel comfortable in. Think of hosting a party or inviting friend over for a chat. You know that the party wouldn’t be good if the venue and atmosphere wasn’t right; or that the chat would be abrupt if the chairs were uncomfortable. Online it’s critical that you create a space that people feel comfortable in. If you are to truly engage with them you need to make sure you create a space they want to visit and then want to return to. Work on the previous two stages to get this right.
  4. Be open and honest in the way you engage. Honesty is critical online. You need people to trust you and to do this in the online space it’s best to be clear and frank about who you are and what you’re doing. Don’t pretend to be something you’re not and don’t pretend you’re looking to do something you’re not. People will trust you more if you’re honest with them, and if you want this engagement to be most successful then you want them to be honest back.
  5. Reward participation. Don’t reward with payment or free products, but reward by letting people know you care. They want to engage with you and will be even more motivated if you show them how this engagement is impacting you. Feedback to them any changes you make on the back of this engagement, let them inside the firm and make them a real part of the organisation. People want to help and want to feel a stronger link to a brand they love and so make the most of these feelings and use them to your advantage.

Whether you are engaging people through blogs, email newsletters, their social networks or your own online communities, these principles are critical. The online space is different to traditional means of engaging with or marketing too customers and so it’s critical that you take a new approach. Honesty really is the best policy.

Next time we’ll be looking at how you can make use of video and photos online as part of a social media strategy.