A Guide To Community Building

For the last few months my colleague, Ujwal Arkalgud, and I have been researching the communities of Digg and Reddit to determine the role that culture plays in online communities. We went into the research unsure of what we would learn, and came out with some pretty amazing and useful findings. First, we found that culture absolutely plays a role in the building and proliferation of online communities. More specifically, there are specific counter-cultural elements pertaining to design, social interaction and structure that are essential for every online community.  We have seen these elements manifest themselves in older communities like the WELL and as well as the leading communities today like Digg and Reddit.

Second, we found that the further an online community moves away from these core counter-cultural characteristics, the weaker the community becomes.  As communities approach the 'break point' they begin to take the form of groups, content distribution and syndication networks.

Based on these findings, we were able to pin-point 6 key counter-cultural elements necessary for an online community to be successful, and use them to develop specific recommendations for  building or activating an online community.

Check out our research report for the full lists, findings and full research.

GroupMe, GroupYou

Ever since its official launch at SXSW this year, there's been a ton of buzz about GroupMe. In case you're a bit late to the party, GroupMe is a social app that lets you create groups with your friends to share texts, photos, locations and conference call. It's also free and works with any phone that can text. I downloaded it for my iPhone recently to use at Coachella (woot!), and I've since started adding all of my friends who are going with me, so that we can easily stay in touch when we're all off  dancing to our own beats.  There's a ton of potential from a personal perspective, but there are strong business implications too.

GroupMe has the potential to play a big role in community development and communications. They recently released Featured Groups, which helps brands connect directly with members to share information, news and promotions. So far, there are only 5 brands with this feature.  As GroupMe users create groups around one of these brands, the brands can engage with the group by sending messages, photos, answering questions or posting special promotions directly to each group.  This is a pretty cool feature, and really allows companies to interact with people who they know are passionate about their brands, building stronger ties with their biggest fans and growing awareness through Word of Mouth. I'm sure it's only a matter of time until GroupMe resolves any kinks this first group may experience and opens Featured Groups to more brands.

Another potential use for GroupMe are small closed communities.  Brands who host closed advisory panels may decide to test GroupMe to send members updates and  and  host regular conference calls. Depending on the size and preferences of the group, members can also send messages to one another,  building relationships and solidifying the community itself.

Currently, GroupMe doesn't allow groups larger than 25 people and recommends smaller groups to prevent message overload. However, if the digital prophets are correct, and group messaging is the next 'big thing', then it is only a matter of time before platforms like GroupMe expand, offering more options for brands and branded communities.

Are you currently using GroupMe? What do you think?

Community: Communications and Cadence

There are many important elements that go into building a strong digital community. One of the most essential features is the timing and cadence of communications to new members.  Like any new relationship, friendly, romantic or otherwise, the beginning few months are usually the most intense, when people involved are learning about each other and starting to build a joint trust. The launch of an online community is no different and must be coupled with a high frequency of communications. These can include everything from emails, Facebook messages, direct Twitter messages, phone calls, etc.  Once the relationship has been established and members are engaging on their own, frequency of communications can begin to level out.

Strong, well-planned communications at the launch of a program achieves the following goals:

First, they directly impact the degree of success the program is able to deliver.  The initial cadence increases uptake and participation, delivering a lift that will last the length of a program.

Second, they begin to build a solid relationship with community members, setting the tone and expectation for the community. If you join a community and then don't hear from the organizers for weeks or even months, interest and trust will nosedive.

Third, they keep your community and its purpose  top of mind with your members. This is especially important when launching a community, to make sure that members keep coming back and are interacting instead of signing up and abandoning ship.

Fourth, it provides you an opportunity to add value to members immediately. Value can be added by sending links to resources on topics members are interested in, and provide updates on new community initiatives and planning.

Are you currently launching or managing a community? Do you have any communications tips to share?

Getting to the Heart of Social Influencers

I have been watching a lot of TED Talks lately. I recently watched one by Nicholas Christakis on "How Social Networks Predict Epidemics." An epidemic can be anything which spreads throughout society: illness, gossip, ideas, technology trends, and so on. During his discussion, Nicholas defined the Friendship Paradox, which states that "for almost every person, that person's friends have more friends (and will be more influential)than them." He went on to demonstrate that if you pick 6 people from a society at random, and ask them to nominate one of their friends, that friend will be closer to the centre of the social network than they are.

From a digital marketing perspective, this is pretty powerful stuff. Marketers are always looking for highly influential people to help spread ideas and news in their communities. We often spend a lot of time scanning social channels looking for people of influence,asking people to raise their hands and join online communities, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and forums, or inviting people into a community based on their bios or specific attributes. The next step, if using the Friendship Paradox, is to ask these original community members to nominate one of their friends to join the community. If The Paradox holds true, these nominated members will be closer to the hub of influence. If they were to also nominate a one of their friends, the next round of nominees will be closer still.

I'm looking forward to testing this at Sequentia in the coming months. Have you done any testing on influencer outreach that you care to share?

Watch the video - it's pretty compelling stuff!

MyRagan 1, Parker 0

As a result of the overwhelming response that I've received from the post I made on MyRagan's forums last week, combined with Shel Holtz's similar appeal for pro-MyRagan stories, I'm conceding defeat in this round. (UPDATE: I find it slightly disappointing that neither my comment from Friday nor any other comments have appeared on Holtz's MyRagan blogpost. What gives, Shel?) While I had thought that MyRagan was a backwater, the number of people commenting on my blog in favor of MyRagan showed me two things. First of all, it showed that there are a number of people who are passionate about the site, passionate enough to vocalize their opinions and defend MyRagan. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the number of people connecting from my original post on the MyRagan forums and Shel Holtz's MyRagan blogpost was overwhelming, and proof that there is a very active community of communicators.

If you want to read through all the comments that I received, take a look at these two posts of mine (first one, second one). Some of the highlights:

MyRagan's managing editor Micheal Sebastian points us in the direction of this article from the New York Times website with a ton of comments in favor of niche social networks.

In one of the most valuable comments, Valarie writes "I’m not a big networking kind of gal, but myragan has been very helpful to me as a professional resource. For example, my boss is working on a report about Internal Communications for senior management. She wondered where the Int Comms dept reports into in other companies (PR, Marketing, CEO, etc). Instead of spending ages on the web trying to research the matter, I put the question to a myragan forum. I received some good responses, including one from a Ragan staffer who recently conducted an Int Comms survey and could quote me exact percentages from his research. So I was able to retrieve some good information with a minimal amount of time invested in the research."

It is her idea that we can get solid data and great ideas from MyRagan that has certainly made me think twice.

And another good argument in favor of MyRagan comes from one of their own employees, Benswetland (I don't know if I should be thinking of that name as Ben's Wetland or Ben Sweatland, but both are pretty sweet): "What I like about myragan in particular and niche social networking sites in general is that they allow me to show a different “face” or side of myself, something I couldn’t do if I was only on one site. I have a myspace site for my band, another for my friends, a facebook profile for my friends, and a myragan page for my colleagues.

In a very real sense I’m different people to each group, and it’d be silly (and bad for my career) to use the same profile for each one. I take it you’re on Facebook for professional reasons only, but you’re in a decisive minority there. Maybe someday Facebook will figure out how to show different sides of ourselves to different groups of people (a personal profile/a professional one) in some kind of intelligent way. I think it’s a major hurdle for a Facebook to solve. But they haven’t yet to my knowledge. Until they do I see social networking going the way of magazine publishing: diversified niches."

Ben assumes wrongly that I'm on Facebook for professional reasons, however I do have a number of professional contacts on there. While I am able to use the limited profile setting to prevent them from seeing content that is, uh, 'unprofessional' it would be nice to have more content control over the content I'm sharing. Separate identities on different social networks such as what Ben suggests certainly makes sense.

There was also still some encouraging objectivity in a few of the comments.

As Richard Becker* writes, "the ideas are not bad over there as much as the execution and attitude. I’ve seen a few niche social networks work well (just not one that seems to resonate with communication-related professionals). Social niche networks rely on leadership more than platforms. If there is a challenge with MyRagan, it’s in the presentation of their own material and the lack of content leadership (as opposed to content management)." He goes onto provide some examples of this, and I urge you to take a look at what he has to say in the comments section of this post.

Donna Papacosta makes a similar statement when she suggests that MyRagan should have a better way of informing users about new content on the site.

I'd still like to hear what Jeremiah Owyang has to say about MyRagan (considering his views on Facebook), but in general I'm going to make greater efforts to involve myself in MyRagan. I'm still not 100% convinced that the site will make it to a successful first birthday, but if they do I accept the invitation to the party. I'll be the guy in the corner eating a big serving of humble pie. In the meantime, add me as a friend on Facebook or MyRagan.

Thanks to everyone who commented or came over to BlogCampaigning to take a look.



UPDATE: Take a look at what Buzz Canuck has to say about Facebook

*Love that moustache, Rich