Discussion with Jenny Ambrozek and Mitch Weisburgh
This PILOTed is discussion with Jenny Ambrozek on communities. Jenny is lead consultant, SageNet LLC and blogs at 21st Century Organization. She is co-author of the Online Communities Business 2004 Report. With colleagues, Jenny is testing using a wiki to collaboratively write an article on “Learning Through Connected Intelligence” and encourages your participation. Jenny has been involved in online communities since the early days of Prodigy (the early 1980s).
MW: We have three clients where a key element of their strategy is to create web-based communities. You’ve mentioned to me that the term “create a community” is an oxymoron. One does not create a community, a community is emergent. Emergent systems arise out of a cascade of simple interactions; they are decentralized, there is no guiding hand.
On the other hand, no one can deny the power of what some call the network effect or Metcalfe’s rule: the value of a network increases exponentially with size. So, there is a tremendous incentive if someone can figure out a way to create a community and then tap into its value.
Are there certain ingredients or precursors that would indicate that an issue is ripe for a network to form around it?
Are there things that a company could do to help seed a network?
JA: Yes on all counts Mitch but before we proceed, may I please ask you a question:
What are their business drivers?
A seminal moment for my thinking about doing business online came in 1997 hearing pioneering venture capitalist Anne Winblad speaking to Women in New Media in New York say
“Community was a comfort word of 1996”.
MW: Each client is coming from a very different space. Each client has identified a problem faced by a fairly large constituency. The problems are primarily solved by information, and they intend to create communities as a forum for people to share that information. In one sense, their customers will be the members of the community. These customers may or may not end up paying our clients. But it’s become clear, since 1996, that if you get a critical mass of people regularly frequenting a web site, you can then figure out how to make a business, or at least a living.
What they would love is a checklist: if they do the following ten things, it will maximize their chances of getting a sticky community.
Do you have any advice for them?
JA: Mitch, my advice begins with your observation that:
“… since 1996, if you get a critical mass of people regularly frequenting a web site, you can then figure out how to make a business, or at least a living.”
It’s my experience working with failed start-ups during the late 90’s Web boom that you understate how easy it is to make a business out of frequent site visitors. I’d already watched AOL overtake the PRODIGY service where I worked and in 2003 see that brand disappear in the U.S. when the fourth owner, SBC closed the PRODIGY bulletin boards to focus on its ISP deal with Yahoo.
Consider both why Amazon, eBay and Yahoo are the three successful consumer brands and businesses to emerge from the Internet boom then bust, and the challenges they confront to keep innovating as new competitors emerge. Think about why other Internet boom darlings like iVillage are now part of NBC; or post-2000 high fliers MySpace and YouTube were acquired by Newscorp and Google respectively.
MW: My assumptions are
- While you never know what is going to attract a crowd, there are some things you can do, or avoid doing, that will maximize the chances that you will.
- That if you have enough users, you can come up with a way to monetize that, and make a good living through things like eCommerce, advertising, fees, or selling the company.
Your point is that number 2 shouldn’t just be assumed.
First, you may not be able to monetize, and second, the usage numbers might be
evanescent. So you may have to spend more time up-front considering how you
want to profit. I hope that’s an accurate portrayal, and that’s great advice.
For assumption number 1, is that totally wrong?
JA: Couple of points. Of course we have learned a LOT
since McKinsey consultants Hagel and Armstrong published Net
Gain in 1997 and inspired an army of Web entrepreneurs to create
business plans with “ambitious” financial projections based on their model of
how the “dynamics of increasing returns drive revenue growth”. Interestingly a decade on, a lot of what
we’ve learned is encompassed in the new McKinsey book, Mobilizing
Minds that I’ve just reviewed for World Business Magazine.
The book opens:
“We believe that the centerpiece of corporate
strategy for most large companies should become the redesign of their
organizations.” Lowell Bryan & Claudia Joyce 2006 p1
The message for your clients, whether large or small, is that engaging customers to share knowledge absolutely may provide a business opportunity if it solves their problems. However, you wrote:
“So you may have to spend more time up-front
how you want to profit.”
MW: I think I understand
the concern with a business model. There is a huge risk when it costs 10s of
millions of dollars to set up a social network. But, it’s entirely different
when it costs less than $100,000. Guy Kawasaki
says he set up a social networking site for less than $50,000, and that
included legal and incorporation fees. Even a small business can afford that, if
there is a chance of gaining customer loyalty or learning more about customers.
Let’s say you’ve identified some needs for the potential members of the community: 1) there is a need for some information, and 2) there is interest in becoming part of a group of individuals with similar needs or interests, as long as it’s easy and doesn’t cost anything. You’ve talked to potential members, and they are interested. They say there is nothing out there that offers them this information and the opportunity to interact with others.
You’ve picked your business model; and it is dependent on you getting 100,000 people coming to your site and interacting on a somewhat regular basis. Part of the model is that you will not charge to be part of the group.
· Are there any guidelines for setting up the software or seeding content? Do we know anything about software systems that make things more attractive for groups?
· Are there any known ways of encouraging involvement?
· Are there ways of attracting people?
JA: Refining the scope is very helpful. Thanks, Mitch. The following is a shorthand response but hopefully offers some direction.
1. Regarding software.
Obviously there is a plethora of platforms and new tools that proliferate and surprise. For example on my list is signing up for Twitter and Dopplr that incorporate the latest trend: mobility, connecting and sharing on the move. (Twitter allows publishing minute-by-minute personal observations using cell phone text messaging, and seeing what others in your network are doing. Dopplr, in beta, allows sharing your location and focuses on travel information.)
a. Good starting questions are:
How do you want them to interact?
The answers point you in the direction of the functionality requirements that can be checked against the platform alternatives provided.
b. A wise practice is forming an Advisory Group of potential members to engage in the development process. People who will also be your core content and hosting team when the online space launches. Your advisors may tell you there is an online collaboration platform your target interest group already favors.
c. Three further considerations.
i. Looking at the software backend for both administration and reporting:
· Administration tools to satisfy your member permissioning and management requirements, and
· Reporting capabilities so you can closely track activity.
ii. Paying attention to the profiling features
A 2004 Forrester Report by Charlene Li called Profiles: The Real Value Of Social Networks describes the importance of ensuring members can create, expand and control their profiles to foster connection and retention.
iii. Take into account available level of technical support to determine choice of a packaged, supported platform versus one that needs to be customized.
a. This is an art and a topic in itself but the summary starts with paying attention to Ross Mayfield’s Power Law of Participation. (It describes a low threshold, and many participants, for activities requiring little engagement, such as reading and tagging. Likewise, there is a higher threshold and fewer participants who will actively contribute, for example in leading or facilitating conversations. )
Developing and maintaining a successful online group demands planning for that range of levels of engagement
b. Essential is finding a host, or hosts, with excellent communication skills, subject matter expertise, and time to be an active participant and facilitator.
c. Set clear
expectations and post house rules. Describing
the group’s purpose, and what is expected from participants, ensures a common
understanding for managing participation.
3. Attracting People
Activity encourages activity. The host role is all about providing reasons for people to participate, recognizing valuable contributions to encourage more, and ensuring rich content that provides reasons for people to come.
Members are your best
marketing tool so create an environment that encourages existing participants
to spread the word.
Creating a successful online space is an emergent process. Use content members contribute as fuel to encourage more content. Produce regular newsletters featuring the interesting discussions to promote the space and reach new members. A newsletter also provides a vehicle for recognizing valued contributors. The open source movement provides tremendous lessons in creating and managing successful online groups.
You’ve directed people to areas where they can find information about successful communities, to two of the latest hottest communities, possibly as models, and provided tips on software, involvement, and attracting users.
I remember hearing that
one can’t actually plan a community, it evolves on its own. Perhaps you can set
up a community-friendly environment, but then it either evolves or it does not.
Even if one sets up a great environment, finds some good hosts, has the systems
in place to monitor and adjust to what members are doing, what do you think a
company’s chances are at successfully aggregating 50,000–100,000 regular
community members? What are some of the services you offer surrounding
community and network development?
JA: The attitude you’ve described, putting in place the conditions under which an online group or network will thrive but without making assumptions about it becoming a “community”, is certainly my approach. I’ve always taken the view that whether or not a “community” exists is absolutely the judgment of members. I discourage clients from using the term “Community” to label the interactive part of their sites. I’d rather they describe what site visitors can expect when they select a tab, for example, “Discussions”, “Forums”, “Blogs”, “Networking”.
Increasing Chances for Success
You asked about potential for success assuming a site owner does create a “community-friendly environment”. I look forward to seeing reader insights on this question but meantime some thoughts.
In pre-Web online
service days, at PRODIGY, we assumed a 10% level of participation. If you had 100,000 site visitors you could
hope for 10,000 participating in a bulletin board. With the Web came an explosion of
information sharing opportunities, and more recently social networking
platforms. The real challenge is getting “attention” from the people you want
to engage in your online space.
In his “Wealth of Networks”, author Yochai Benkler, includes a table showing the number of contributors to Wikipedia. I’d say this is required reading for anyone aiming to engage stakeholders in an online space. (See Chapter 3.) Today, I believe most people operate on a 1% rule for the number of readers that will become contributors. This is important because activity and fresh content is key to repeat visits, member loyalty, and growth.
The bottom line on chances of success is providing unique value. In my experience chances for success increase when you pay attention to the following:
1. Shared purpose
2. Respecting and listening to members
3. Involving thought leaders
4. Facilitating interesting, timely conversations
5. Creating a supportive environment that fosters trust among participants and enacts the house rules.
6. Ensuring a quality member experience, including seamless collaboration tools.
“We want to meet and share knowledge here because we all ….?”
“Here I have access to industry leaders and people from whom I can learn.”
“You have to belong here to know exactly what is going on in my field and especially at the edges.”
“I’m comfortable contributing here as I trust the site hosts will not share my personal information, and it is a place where people are respected and respectful of different points of view.”
“The collaboration platform has the functionality I need, is fast and
easy to use. It doesn’t get in the way of my participating.”
Recently I participated in an online conversation that included Andrew McAfee, the Harvard Business School professor credit with the term "Enterprise 2.0".
It was a rich exchange but especially interesting to me was the
discussion about executive discomfort with the “messiness” of social media. That is the final point I would like to
highlight for your clients considering hosting online groups. If you like orderliness, to plan and control
outcomes, then you might want to think twice.
Just as Mitch and I didn’t know where this conversation was going to take us when we began, the joy and challenge of hosting online groups and people networks is uncertainty and the unexpected.
You will use proven practices to facilitate the space but at the end of the day:
- Who will participate?
- Who will contribute what?
- Where will the conversations lead?
.. are all unknown. Remarkably though, it is through this emergent process and learning to see and support opportunities in unexpected chance encounters—connecting disparate pieces of information, making new connections—new ideas will emerge and value will be created.
MW: That figure of 1%
becoming active contributors is a little daunting, but 50,000 members would
still yield 500 active participants, so it’s not completely off the charts.
I loved the list of quotes. They remind me of a story of a friend of mine who worked as a shoe designer for a licensee of Ralph Lauren. He was showing Lauren his designs, and Lauren jumped up and said, “No, no, no. That’s not it. Close your eyes. Imagine you’re a Lord in your castle in the English countryside. You just woke up. You look out the window and you see the hills through the morning mist and decide to go for a walk through the woods. Your manservant comes in and you tell him your plans. He brings you your the perfect clothes for your walk through the hills and bogs of your country manor and helps you dress. The last things you put on are your shoes. Those are the shoes I want you to design.” And sure enough, those shoes were the ones that Lauren approved.
As companies create
plans for communities, they should keep in mind the comments they want from the
You mentioned that you’d be interested in seeing comments from our readers, as would I.
Jenny, thank you so much. I learned a lot.