Not so long ago, just about everyone in the internet industry was talking about the value of purpose built online communities for online brands.
Just in time for the dot-com crash, books like Cluetrain Manifesto taught us (and our venture capitalists) that "markets are conversations" and enthused about the importance of building communities around brands. Cliff Figallo and Amy Jo Kim, whose Community Building on the Web remains, IMHO, the best how-to book for online community builders, introduced us to the tools and techniques we’d need to create compelling propositions using various online discussion platforms.
We thought that if we built it, and built it right, they would come. Of course, they often did – in droves. And that’s when the headaches of building and supporting expensive registration systems, content management systems, discussion platforms, exponentially growing bandwidth needs, the cost of moderation and hands on discussion hosting, etc etc all began to cause people to question the validity of the theory that all good web businesses – all business everywhere if you were a follower of the ClueTrain – needed a healthy community of users.
So did it work? I’ve been thinking about this for some time and I actually have a difficult time thinking of any large online community that functions as a single, identifiable community.
The "other users who bought that also bought this…" recommendation features on Amazon or the iTunes store isn’t community. It’s data on user preferences being used to make it easier for other users to navigate the online store. Reviews about products aren’t community either, they’re reviews.
There are, of course, dozens and dozens of successful "social networking" sites: myspace, bebo, blogger, classmates.com, friendsreunited, match.com, etc etc. A few years ago, the big buzz was around other social networking sites, like Orkut, Ryze, linked-in and meet-up. Remember them?
Those of us who work in what was the online community industry used to talk about the need for empowering the user communities to take on some of the important decisions and management issues. But, when we did, it often led to the community taking on a life of it’s own and this often times made the existence of the community worth less, or nothing at all, to the company behind setting it up. Users visiting became parasites, sucking up bandwidth, moderation costs, technical time and potentially even legal resources – and gave little, if anything, back.
Part of that, of course, was down to the industry not being clear enough about what the purpose of these communities was. If we wanted users to help us improve products and services we should have told them this up-front, and made it easy for them to provide feedback on products on services. If we simply wanted them to visit more often so we could sell them more stuff, then we should have, and some sites did, build in powerful features that used the community to help it’s members find the products they want. [I think Last.fm is an interesting current model for this – songs a user is listening to automatically appear in their profile, other users can visit, they can become friends, and in the meantime they might end up suggesting music for the other user to buy.]
Part of the problem was also that, in trying to build up big communities, we were trying to be something for everyone which we all know isn’t a very successful formula for just about anything other than Walmart. In trying to attract anyone and everyone, we failed to create a strong editorial proposition and ignored the small niche communities that developed in the shadows to focus upon the masses. It sort of reminds me of one of these chain bars like Wetherspoons or Yate’s which appeal to the masses but often fail to gain a group of regular customers (don’t just take my word on this).
Little neighbourhood pubs tend to have the opposite problem where they have a small core of often ageing customers and have a difficult time getting new visitors. But they do build a strong community, even if it is one that’s limited in size, and although they aren’t likely to bring in hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, the owner and/or landlord can carve out a decent living from their takings.
I’ve spent a lot of time in bars and pubs of both types over the years. In that time, I’ve often seen scuffles or even full-on brawls in chain bars but have yet to see one in a neighbourhood pub. Part of that is down to sheer numbers, but it’s undeniable that, by appealing to a wide cross section of society yet failing to create any sense of community or group or regulars, chain bars give their visitors little incentive to behave themselves after a few too many drinks. Most people don’t, however, mis-behave in their neighbourhood local because they know they’ll have to face the landlord, barstaff and other pub-goers again and that they’re antics could be the talk of the pub community for some time.
So what does all this have to do with social networking sites? Neighbourhood pubs have a strong sense of community because they are rooted at the heart of the community, both physically and socially. Vast chain bars, most often found in anonymous cookie cutter city centres, often find that after a short period in which they are the flavour of the month, the in place to be, the crowd moves on and with that so does it’s fortunes. The same is true of social networking sites – crowds come and go, often actually using the old tool to move their communities to the next tool. Thus Friendster was the place to be before myspace, now apparently the new myspace is faceparty.
So who creates the neighbourhood pubs of the social networking world? Users do. And that’s my point. No longer does it make sense for big brands to try to build big online social spaces where hundreds or thousands of users engage in conversation. Instead, they should be trying to create the tools that allow niche communities to create their own social spaces using those tools.
Myspace, blogger, flickr and other popular services are exactly that – they aren’t a community, as such, but they are services that help individual users to create and manage their own communities. This approach does, however, suffer from the downside that in order to keep their audience (or more correctly audiences) brands online have to stay at the forefront of technological developments, as Yahoo has tried to do with it’s various acquisitions in the last year or so. Their model is:
- create compelling, easy to use tools that are useful
- getting those tools to talk to other tools (eg. via open APIs)
- build a user base
- keep improving or buying in new tools
But this strategy, keeping up with the googles, is likely to be financially disasterous for many. It also reminds me of the "get big quick strategy" of the first dot com boom.
So how to navigate these stormy waters, particularly if you’re not a website or brand in the web 2.0 technology business?
- learn to engage with your users wherever they are (whatever services they are using)
- become platform independent
- be nimble and move with your audience(s) as it (they) move from service to service, platform to platform
- extract value by helping your audience find third party audiences you’ve allied with and by learning from those third party audiences
Most of this second strategy can currently be achieved through blogging: either through setting up organisational blogs (that embrace blogging as a tool AND a technique) or by simply engaging with the blogs that already exist out there. Online community can, these days, more often then not manifest itself as a group of users who cluster around a blog or a few blogs. This is our new target audience.
Online community, at least as we once knew it, is dead and most social networking technologies will inevitably follow it there. No longer does it make sense to try to build the next big thing, nor to buy it or even figure out what it might look like. The real successes of web 2.0 will be those who put most of their effort into building relationships with user communities and who don’t worry too much about, or invest too heavily in, whatever platform(s) those users happen to be using at the time.
The old "build it, manage it and they will come" approach was all about feeding parasites* whilst trying to keep up with the competition. The approach explored above is one that – I think – has the potential to build real, lasting value with relatively low costs and dangers.
[The post above, like all posts here, contains my own opinion and not those of my employer.]
* I realise that calling online community users parasites is contentious. The first time I heard someone use this term for internet users was when a client I was providing online community consulting for in around 2001 showed me a spreadsheet showing costs per sale transaction for community members vs non-community members. The community members bought less per visit, cost more per sale, and in this case actually bought significantly less over than other visitors who didn’t use the community areas of the site. The latter was probably an anomoly but, anyway, the client’s terminology is similar to sentiments I’ve heard expressed several times since by brands/websites with online communities. The point of using the term is that it puts across the point, quite strongly, that many brands/websites get little, if anything, out of the communities that they host. Part of this is, admittedly, because they don’t know how to extract value from what they’ve helped make possible – a sort of "we’ll build it, they’ll come, then we’ll forget all about it but keeping paying the bills" approach.