Building an Effective Online Corporate Community

January 20th, 2011 by Matthew Rosenhaft Leave a reply »

What is the right balance between peer-to-peer engagement and corporate control in managing an online community? Are communities supposed to be democratic and open forums of communications? Will you lose participants if you try to apply structured governance of your community? Is there a formula for balancing the rights of the participant and the community owner?

Having run several communities over the last few years and then obviously providing consulting on developing communities; my 2 cents worth is that there is a standard “community” template and hard, fast rules about how to run communities.

With respect to Forrester’s Groundswell (have great respect for their analysis), they were analyzing trends across public communities from a trend perspective. It is great as an observational piece about how people interact at a macro level, but shouldn’t be the rule for how specific individuals or communities will act at a micro level.

For example, I may be a mainstream buyer, but under the right circumstances and the right influence from my personal network; I could be an early adopter. Generic market observations should not be taken as gospel (and absolute participation rates) in developing specific communities.

As another example, email marketing effectiveness rates vary not only based on industry, roles, etc,; but also days of the week, list type, and more importantly, title, content, format, etc. Email marketers have more control over their open rates than a general rule of thumb percentage. Community penetration rates and community effectiveness are built upon multiple variables. In that vein, I thought I would outline some of the top variables that we consider in crafting an online community development plan:

1. Is the community largely a small homogeneous population brought together for a specific, common purpose or interest? Or are they broad-based heterogeneous group with varying interests, passion levels, and goals?

2. Is the purpose of the community the goal or is it an adjunct to a larger purpose? For example, is it a community for connecting people or leading discussions around a topic or is it a community in support of a business, product, or event?

3. What are the expectations that the community leaders set for the community in terms of participation? Is it a democracy? Is it a dictatorship? Is it somewhere in the middle with a benevolent dictatorship?

4. Are there external rules, processes, relationships, power differences, etc. that influence the relationship dynamics in the community? Let’s be real, if your CEO says “I want us to collaborate and feel comfortable discussing in our online community”; I would contend that you probably shouldn’t “feel free to express yourself”. No matter how “open” your internal corporate community. Organizational hierarchies in companies, markets, groups, etc. still apply. Social structure is a large part of group dynamics. That is why there are many sociologists who have migrated to online community design.

5. What are the goals of the community? Do the majority of potential participants share the same goals? Is the goal the same for the community owner versus the members? Difference between a for-profit community and a not-for-profit….

6. What else is competing for the same mind-share? What is the unique value proposition of the community? Is there something that I can’t get somewhere else?

7. Does the community have momentum? Are the discussions building, is the membership growing, does it continue to be interesting? For comparison, look at “hot” restaurants. Do they have staying power? Do people become acclimated and bored with the same menu? Do they evolve? Communities work the same way.

8. Does the community satisfy their needs for interaction? Yes, features and functionality, but also content, engagement, and ease-of-use.

9. Does the community make them feel comfortable? Big one. If you are targeting experienced, technical users; then having a closed, insider like “vibe” is good. If I am a casual user, having a closed, insider like “vibe” can be a turnoff as it makes me insecure about my lack of knowledge. Setting the right culture of a community may be the single most important “make or break” for a community going viral. If your community has that naturally, then hands off and let it be. If it doesn’t, then you may have to create the right environment.

10. Does your community have the right mix of the right people? Do I know the other people here? Do I find them credible? Do I feel like this is a crowd that I like the “vibe”? People, even in business, still behave like, well, people… whether online or off, group dynamics and “feel” is an important part of their comfort.

Ok, here is a bonus variable and probably the biggest one…. Are there entry and exit barriers to membership within the community?If you are not aware of your barriers to “entry” for joining your community and especially “exit” in leaving the community, you may find that you can build it, but can’t maintain it. A good design will look at lowering your barriers to joining the community (hence using membership in other groups, websites, etc to log-in) is critical to building membership, but the user experience, unique value proposition, and good.

We will see a lot more of this happen as we see the dominance of many early communities give way to better positioned competitive communities. Communities that can markedly provide better experiences will erode the membership of other communities. Community competition will become as strong as market competition. I think that we will see a lot more discussion on these barriers as many communities in more markets mature. We have already seen this happen in the public social networks with the market dominance transition from MySpace to Facebook, etc.

If this was easy, then most communities wouldn’t fail; probably along similar failure rates of other human activities like restaurants, businesses, diets etc. Don’t have the statistics at hand, but the latest Tribalization of Business research and other reports showed a large number of communities were maturing, but I would like to see a study comparing community membership to number of customers and we would see that many organizations still don’t have significant community penetration into their own customer bases let alone markets. We are still very early in community penetration.

Matthew Rosenhaft

Matthew is a Social Marketing Executive and is co-founder of Social Gastronomy, LLC and the Social Executive Council. Prior to founding Social Gastronomy, Matthew has over 18 years’ experience as an executive in marketing, product management, and sales. Matthew has an extensive background in the SaaS Software, Social Media, Mobile, IT Services, and Telecom industries. He has prior entrepreneurial experience as a founder and executive in several early-stage venture-backed technology companies, as well as, holds several US patents for a mobile marketing technology. Matthew is a prominent blogger and regular industry speaker on social marketing and strategy topics. Matthew’s blog can be found at www.socialgastronomy.com/blog. For more information on Matthew, you can check out his LinkedIn profile at www.linkedin.com/in/rosenhaft or contact him directly at mrosenhaft@socialgastronomy.com.

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