Building Digital Communities
If you are seeking to develop deeper relationships with clients and prospects, then you will benefit from fostering a digital community. Conceptually, this is not new, as forward thinking companies have maintained high touch client advisory councils for years. What is new is that a digital community ups the game on both your ability to influence clients as well as your responsibility to learn from and react to user needs. Moreover, digital communities foster mass collaboration with participants, providing everything from ideas to functional products.
Recruit Community Members
First and foremost, people will be drawn to your digital community if you establish a concrete, shared value proposition. Moreover, the value proposition should provide a compelling need not met elsewhere. The most successful and compelling communities allow members to share information, best practices, and lessons learned in very specific domains. In a few instances, including the open source software movement, value is created by allowing participants to offer premium extensions and services. The breadth of a community like the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is more the exception than the rule. Some interesting communities with a targeted focus include Khan Academy and PerlMonks.
At Khan Academy, founder and executive director Salman Khan personally created a library of over 1,600 videos targeted at kindergarten through twelfth grade students struggling with math and science. Many of the concepts that Mr. Khan tackled were first requested by friends and family and later by a broader community. As of this writing, the Khan Academy model exemplifies a digital community with member solicited but centrally created content.
PerlMonks is a very different, and in some ways more traditional, digital community. The model in this instance is a loosely moderated discussion tread for people looking to polish their Perl (a software language) programming skills. The PerlMonks folks do a lot of clever things to nurture their community including live chat, tutorials, and yes, even Perl poetry. Super nerds that they are, the moderators explicitly state that verse can include poetry written in Perl, poetry generated by Perl scripts, and conventional poetry about Perl or PerlMonks. If you do not think the haiku “Cat please go away! Demanding my attention – does not help me code!” posted by “kitty love” is funny, then PerlMonks is not for you.
Building out a digital community, only to then wait for devotees is a sure road to disappointment. Start offline to be successful online. In the early phases, begin with a small, in-person advisory group of core enthusiasts. They will test and upgrade your value proposition and tell you what would make it worth their time to participate. This group should also take responsibility for crafting and maintaining a membership guide. Needless to say, the best enthusiasts are trusted influencers that bring their own large networks.
The live advisory board is one of several ways to confer a select status. Consider extending this feeling to the larger community by making membership in the group exclusive. The volunteers that run PerlMonks have elevated this to an art form. When a new user joins the forum, they enter the Monastery gates in probationary mode with few privileges. I once posted a question with incorrectly formatted computer code and received a thorough lashing in the form of a demotion. As people participate by asking and answering questions and by voting, they gain experience points. Over the course of time, an individual can move from Acolyte to Friar to Abbot and so on. In fact, there are twenty eight levels, culminating in Pope. In contrast to the real world, PerlMonks has three Popes as of this writing, one of whom is creator Tim Vroom.
Though the two communities profiled here have a not-for-profit educational mission, you can assemble digital communities around a for-profit product or service that rests on the same principles of sharing information, best practices, and lessons learned. When you allow your sales and marketing channel into the community, do so sparingly and make sure that any offers provide real value to members.
A final consideration around setting up a digital community is commitment. In the same way that people are wary of forming deep relationships, potential community members will be able to immediately smell whether you are in it for the long term. To demonstrate your commitment, you should provide adequate resources to build and sustain the community. At minimum, that means making a community the full time job of at least one (and preferably more) extroverted, digitally literate person.
Cultivate Community Members
If seeded properly with a concrete value proposition, a core set of influencers, and adequate infrastructure, your digital community will be off to a strong start. As the group evolves, you will need to review and enhance the value that members receive. You can approach this in the same way that you approach product development — by exploring complementary needs of participants.
In the for-profit world, such enhancements are more likely to be sourced in offline meetings rather than online interactions. You can gain intimacy and build trust from quarterly face-to-face forums with your advisory council and other engaged members.
Create a community operating model
To thrive, digital communities not only need basic care and feeding, but also need an operating framework that is adaptive. People, of course, are at the heart of the model. The advisory group, or a complementary set of trusted participants, bear the responsibility for guiding the community. In addition, this core group should be expected to handle exceptions to processes.
If you have ever read an un-moderated discussion thread in a public online forum, then you have seen some of the lowest forms of human behavior. Consequently, I strongly recommend building, at inception, mechanisms for quality control into your community. Appropriate techniques range from automated tools to remove content with objectionable language, to a fully moderated environment where information must be verified before sharing.
Communities that are expected to persist need to be self-replenishing to make up for participants that drop out. Choosing a distinct focus and serving a need not met elsewhere will go a long way to helping individuals self-select into the group. The key is to get the community large enough to benefit from positive network effects where an ever growing community is continuously adding more value.
Regardless of community size, strive to remain in constant communication with the group. This is especially important for smaller communities. Remember that communication can span across a range of engagement levels from e-mail to teleconferences to physical events.
Last but not least, build flexibility into the community infrastructure from the start. This means that systems should be modular, reconfigurable, and editable. With this capability, the core group of community leaders will be able to react rapidly to changing requirements.
It is possible to create communities where some degree of value is delivered in tangible economic form. A common approach here is to create friendly competition with real prizes. If you do award prizes, then it is best to make them relevant to your product – think branded merchandise rather than cold hard cash. A minor problem with competition is that you create some losers along the way. However, the peskier drawbackwith tangible rewards is that they create the unwelcome aura of pay-to-play. A bad practice in any era, it is especially dangerous in an age when reputation – especially digital reputation – is an infinitely valued asset.
Of course, intangible value is far more powerful and ethically safe; thus, it should be the focus of your efforts. The PerlMonks experience system provides an excellent example that plays to social and emotional needs for status and recognition.
Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become great at building digital communities:
- Recruit Community Members
- Cultivate Community Members
- Create a community operating model
- Deliver Value
1. Building Online Communities — 7 Ways to Corral the Crowd – Gary Brewer
[...] of Jeremey Donovan, Group Vice President for Research Marketing at Gartner Inc. In his post “Building Digital Communities,” Donovan states that if you are seeking to develop deeper relationships with clients and prospects, [...]