Archive for May 2009

3. Growth of a healthy online community

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Sun CatcherImage by ecstaticist via Flickr

What constitutes a healthy community?

This is a big question. A really big question.

In short (although we’ll deal with the long version too), it depends on what you (or your client) wants the online community to be doing, how the community feel about that, how much churn and spam there is, how the numbers reflect the KPIs set and how ‘happy’ the membership is.

When we say ‘happy’, it’s important to say that we mean happy as members of the community (happy that they are safe, respected and encouraged) rather than happy as people, even the best community manager in the world can’t enforce that!

Perhaps it’s easier to look at what constitutes an ‘unhealthy’ community? Here’s what my vision of an ill, ailing community looks like:

  • Members’ questions and opening posts go unanswered, by both other members and the community manager
  • There is a visibly high amount thinly veiled spam (a loosely connect reply to a post that is stuffed with links) and a splattering of out-and-out ‘buy these diet pills now’ spamola
  • Feuds and fights have escalated, crowding out genuine discussion; with even mild-mannered members turning decidedly Lord of the Flies
  • People are leaving, loudly
  • The original purpose, theme or appeal is unclear, or lost, and the community is in the throes of a panic-stricken identity crisis
  • OR worst of all, it’s totally and utterly barren

Notice at no point did I mention quantities, traffic or ratios of active users.

Sure, your online community should have KPIs but one person’s page view target is another’s irrelevant number. The number of members a broad-interest lifestyle community has will - and should - differ from a special-interest, academic knowledge-sharing community.

That’s why it’s very important to work out - right at the very beginning of the planning stage, ideally before - why you want to launch a community and how you hope people will use it.

There is solid value in having numerical targets and understanding how many members need to be engaging to keep momentum, but there is no definitive ideal traffic goal any more than there is one topic area for all communities to be built around.

Tara Hunt, author of The Whuffie Factor, has a lovely bite-sized definition:

The health of a community is the gauge of where various qualitative and quantitative metrics lie in relation to the goals you set.

How to encourage engagement

It’s all very well promoting the community in all the right places and sweet-talking potential members into joining, but the real challenge (and the real trick) is making sure that they engage once they’re there.

Think open questions, talking points

If you want to get a conversation flowing, don’t ask “do you wish you were 21 again?” because the answers are all likely to be “yes!”.

Instead, ask, “if you could talk to your 21-year-old self, what advice would you give?” or “If you were 21 again, what would you do differently?”. The answers will be varied; they’ll contain talking points that will lead to more questions and more talking points.

Keep it simple

You don’t need to think up dazzling forum talking points that will show everyone how clever and well-read you are. In fact, the chances are this would frighten off all but the biggest show-offs. Keep it simple. Ask questions or start conversations that you would ask your friends over a drink, or like to know people’s thoughts on at a dinner party.

There’s more to engagement than posts

Don’t be led down the path of thinking posts are all that count. Sure, having a healthy number of bloggers and posters is fantastic, but there’s more to engagement than this. Have members rate each others’ posts, upload photos, comment on blogs or even respond to images with images.

Trust your own interests

Unless you know it’s a complete diversion from the interests of your community, start conversations and write blogs about topics that interest you. You won’t be the only one interested and because you’re speaking from your own experience, it will come across as far more authentic. Community managers are allowed to be real people too, your members will appreciate it.

Careful with current affairs

Legal matters are a whole other guide and there are many books on media law available if you want to brush up. But remember these top level rules:

  • Don’t play with fire. Reporting restrictions of current court cases or investigations includes message boards, blogs and forums. Do not encourage debate around ongoing court cases, except with extreme care, because once you have pulled the tiger’s tail, it’s very hard to get it to stop the tiger typing when it crosses a legal line.
  • Defamation laws still apply to community platforms. If a newspaper prints a story saying a named known celebrity is a love rat, and it’s untrue, they are subject to the same laws as if a blogger on your site claims that their named neighbour is cheating on his wife.
  • Naming and shaming. It is not acceptable for any community members to talk about a named person (that they know or do not know) and tell untruths, or give away that person’s private information.
  • Clamp down on risky behaviour. You are giving your members a platform to communicate, to chat and to engage. They do not need (and should not want) to give out their personal email addresses and mobile phone numbers. Perhaps they just don’t realise how open communities are, perhaps it’s a testament to how safe and friendly you have made your community feel. Either way, you need to give gentle but firm guidance on personal safety and personal information. Eventually your community champions will take on the baton themselves and report unsafe behaviour, and set examples of good behaviour, all by themselves.

A sobering example: In 2008, a record payout was made to a social housing firm in Sunderland after seriously defamatory comments were repeatedly posted and published on an ‘anonymous’ news and discussion site, called DadsPlace (sic). Eventually, the owners and administrators of the site were revealed through detailed investigation and they were found to be responsible and made to pay £100,000 to the victim of the defamation.

Online communities aren’t places to allow dubious behaviour to claim sanctuary.

More on this next week in the ‘Moderation and safety’ section of our Community Management series

Read all our posts on Promoting Community Management

Where could Facebook’s value come from?

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FACEBOOK IllustrationsImage by escapedtowisconsin via Flickr

By paying $200m a 1.96% stake in Facebook, Russian investors Digital Sky Technology put a $10bn price tag on the social networking site. There has been much discussion today about whether Facebook is actually worth this amount of money. Whether the social networking site can realise enough revenue to make this a viable valuation. In essence they are asking why would somebody pay $10bn for Facebook.

Of course, this is, to some extent, a fallacious question. Investors in Facebook are unlikely to be basing their decisions on what Facebook currently is, but on what it will become. They are taking a gamble, as any investor does, on the future development and position of social networks online (and of the role of Facebook in this space).

So, where could the value come from Facebook? Rather than debate the opportunities for realising advertising revenue, I suspect the real value comes from looking at the way the internet is developing. We’ve seen a constant increase in the amount of time that people spend in social networks - we know that they are spending more time in social networks than in email. The role of social networks is changing, and it is in this change that investors may be seeing the potential return from the likes of Facebook.

Social networks have developed in the last few years from being sites that people visited when they wanted to find and connect with old school friends (for example), to sites through which people begin to manage and co-ordinate their social lives. And as these sites become ever more important in this role, they take on a greater importance in the online mix. We find and keep in touch with our friends through sites like Facebook. We plan events and record our lives. They have moved from being sites that we visit irregularly to places where we spend an ever increasing amount of our time online.

Social networks are developing to become the critical destination online for many people. Their share of time online has increased and will continue to increase. And alongside this will increase another measure - the share of ideas. It is the value of both of these that investors are considering.

The internet and online services are central to our lives and social networks are playing an increasingly pivotal role in this. The value in sites like Facebook is not potential revenue from advertising or even from the data they hold on members. The value is to be poised to capitalise upon the growing importance and central role that these sites will play in our online lives (and indeed the continuing growth of importance that online plays in our lives overall).

So people are investing in the future. But they are also investing in the potential future development and role of social networks. Sites like Facebook are to become an even more central part of our entire online experience and of our offline lives too. This is a powerful role that investors want to be part of.

  • Is Facebook Really Worth $10 Billion? (blogs.wsj.com)
  • Facebook Raises $200M; Now Valued at $10 Billion (mashable.com)
  • From Russia with Cash - Facebook Gets $200 Million (marketingpilgrim.com)
  • Facebook too confusing for older folks? (vator.tv)

Customer service is the new marketing

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HelpImage by LiminalMike via Flickr

We wrote last month about the Zappos story, about how they have used customer service to extend and enhance the customer experience and how this has had a positive impact on sales, satisfaction and growth. This example highlights the power of customer service - of listening to and then rewarding customers.

We know the real benefit that a brand can experience from engaging with its customer directly through online communities. Both in terms of the insights and ideas you can get from them, and also the way you can amplify word-of-mouth and build loyalty with them by listening to what they say and responding.

But even more than that. Customer service - listening to customers and having a direct dialogue with them - is a form of marketing. And an effective form of marketing at that.

This week’s Required Reading at FreshNetworks is a presentation Lane Becker from Get Satisfaction, delivered at Next09 that looks at exactly this issue. For Becker, customer service is marketing, and for brands who get this right, it is characterised in three ways:

  1. You put conversations at the centre of your business - focus on exchange of ideas and information, in your business and with your customers
  2. You get better at a smaller range of things - you can’t solve everything so you focus on the things that make a real difference to customers (which you identify by having a real dialogue with them)
  3. You break down silos - customers don’t see a business the way many businesses are structured, so when they want to interact with you silos can get in the way
Customer Service is the New Marketing (Next09, Hamburg)
View more PDF documents from Lane Becker.
  • Customer service is such an important job, perhaps we should spread it around (myventurepad.com)
  • Follow-up on “Get Satisfaction, Or Else…” (37signals.com)
  • Customer Service Is Defined By Customers (staygolinks.com)
  • next09: The Seven Rules of the Chief Meaning Officer (designmind.frogdesign.com)

A masterclass in public speaking

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Jim Collins is out promoting his new book. I have no idea whether the book is any good, but his promotion is first rate.

This morning, as I cycled to work, I caught him talking about the book in a BusinessWeek podcast. He’s clearly a phenomenal public speaker and I urge you to download the podcast for a masterclass in public speaking. I almost ran into the back of a bus listening to it.

Listen here

Key things to listen out for

  • The pause - he uses pauses in his speech with great effect. Sometimes long, sometimes short, but always attention grabbing. I particularly liked that he paused at seemingly odd occasions, in the middle of a sentence as well as between points.
  • Stories - his speaking is litered with stories to bring concepts to life; personal stories, real-life and make-believe: “imagine if…” the stories were often illuminating or reinforcing and always engaging
  • Signposting - some excellent signposting of content he’s about to talk about, is talking about or has just been through. There is a lot of content, so signposting is essential
  • Changing speed, tone & volume - there are many changes to the way he speaks that help keep the momentum and interest.

I hope you enjoy it. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts and whether you’ve seen him live.

FYI, his book is called How the Mighty Fall

Not everybody likes using words

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1413 I wrote you a message:Image by Simmy. via Flickr

It can be tempting, sometimes, to thing that online communities and social networks are about words. About people writing their current status, discussing in forums or sharing ideas. It can be tempting to think that text is king. And this just isn’t so.

There are many reasons for the over-dominance of text in some online communities, but two important ones are

  1. the original message boards and forums were predominantly for text communications
  2. until relatively recently text was the easiest way for users to get content onto the internet

But with a rise of both social media rich sites and of webcams and broadband connections this is no longer the case. People can now communicate their ideas easily in text, image, video or voice. As long as we let them, that is.

The truth is that not everybody likes using words, and even for those who do, sometimes an image or a video can convey things that words just can’t. If we want people to communicate their ideas and interests in our online communities we should then allow them to use whatever medium suits them best for the message they want to convey. We should allow images to alternate with text and video to be posted in response to written questions. If you make it easy for people to do this and to breakdown the barriers for communicating then you will find that you get both more and more creative ideas.

Images do foster creativity and they allow a different kind of conversation and exchange of ideas to take place. Just take a look at sites like Dailybooth to see this in action. The premise of the site is simple - members are encouraged to upload a photo of themselves everyday. But where it gets really interesting is to look at the comments. Photos beget photos - people respond to the photos with photo comments of their own. This leads to a level of creativity, ideas exchange and insight that just isn’t possible with text. Whether it’s people showing the latest item of clothing they bought, part of their home or just exchanging wishes by photo, this is the kind of insight that any brand or organisation could benefit from.

So not everybody likes words and, perhaps more importantly, words are constrictive.They don’t allow us to exchange many ideas that are or interest and of value. So no online community (and especially no online research community) should restrict its users to text-only conversation. The reverse should be true. They should encourage people to share ideas in whatever medium makes sense to them. Technology should not limit them and should be invisible. It’s the ideas that count, after all.