In digitally mature organisations we are used to seeing strong communities of engaged, self-selecting members gathered around a shared purpose beyond that of their day to day jobs. Organisational communities thrive because they add an extra dimension to the organisational structure, and can increase the number of connections each individual has across the organisation’s network.
Facebook repeats the pattern of USENET, this time as farce. As a no-holds-barred Wild West sort of social network, USENET was filled with everything we rightly complain about today.
I had a good time presenting a webinar this morning about managing online communities.
As always, I recorded the whole thing for your infotainment:
Apologies for the light blogging of late. I’ve just been super busy and – if I am honest – a bit lacking in inspiration.
I’m starting a new online community based around people like you: folk who read this blog, get my newsletter and take part in my webinars.
I’m guessing that we all have quite a lot in common – problems, solutions, stories, knowledge – and that it makes sense to share what we have as a group.
Also I will be creating special content to go into this community that won’t be on my blog or other online spaces – all of which will be created based on what you, the community, ask for.
Right now for example, there’s a video tutorial explaining how digital capability is being approached at the Department of Health, where I am working at the moment.
I’m not building something huge here. My aim is to have a nice, small, manageable group of people who all contribute and help each other out. I’ll leave the empire building to others 🙂
If this sounds like something you would like to be a part of, just head over to the community where you can sign up for an account.
I look forward to chatting with you!
I couldn’t agree more with Mozilla’s Laura Hilliger:
We can’t force people to participate, and if we really care about educating people, we shouldn’t try. We should build and design for the people who are participating, and we should be careful to ensure that the lurkers feel welcome. We should create safe spaces of learning and mentorship where even those who don’t complete the call to action still start to develop trust in us, in our products. The fact is you are always a lurker before you participate, so we should be careful not to push people away by implying that they don’t count if they aren’t like us. If we work to love our lurkers, maybe some of them will find their reason to participate.
There are lots of guides out there on using Yammer, the internal social networking tool – how to set up a network, build your profile and so on.
However, that’s not all there is to Yammer and a key skill is community building, particularly if you are running a group.
Now, Yammer is a pretty easy to use bit of software. Many of the ways of making your group work as an effective community however, are nothing to do with software and everything to do with human behaviour.
Here are five tips to designing a Yammer group to succeed. A lot of the advice can be applied to any online community, too, so even if you don’t use Yammer, it ought to help.
- Make it look fun
This is key. If you want people to join your Yammer group and get engaged with it, you want to make it an attractive looking thing to do.
Things to consider:
- The name of your group – make it sound nice and welcoming and don’t be tempted to make it sound all corporate and dull
- The image you use as the group’s icon – again, avoid the dull corporate approach. Is there a fun joke you can make with the image? Pop culture and retro TV references are always a winner
- Your short description – you only have a few words to make your Yammer group sound like the sort of thing a normal person would want to join. Use them wisely!
- The longer information text you can add to the sidebar – this is where you can go into more detail, and perhaps add in some of the more serious work stuff that your group is about
- Start small and grow organically
It’s very tempting when starting something new to be excited and enthusiastic about it – quite right too! However, with any online community, it’s a good idea not to shout too loudly, particularly in the early days.
After all, when it has just started, your community is likely to be a bit short of content and activity. You don’t really want hundreds of visitors to stop by and perhaps be disappointed by what is on offer.
The way to get around this is to start small when it comes to inviting people in. Don’t do a big launch but gradually get more people involved, so that the levels of content and activity in your group are in sync with the number of people visiting.
- Engage the engaged
As part of the start small approach, who should you get involved first? You might be tempted to reach out to new people, to instantly get a return on your new group by being able to point to new audiences being engaged with your work.
However, it’s far better to get people involved early who you can rely on to make a strong contribution. Much of the culture of an online community is set by early members, so make sure the people you encourage to join will exhibit the sort of behaviour you want to encourage in your group.
- Give people a reason to join
If you are at a stage where you want to give your membership a boost, how do you get people to sign up?
One way is to make it so people have to be a member to get something they want.
As an example, say you run some training and want to share the slides and other resources with those that attended. Rather than emailing them around, why not upload them to the Yammer group, so that people need to be there to be able to access them?
- Keep up the flow
As a community manager, it’s vital to keep up a flow of activity. How quick that flow is, and how much of it you need will depend on the topic of your group and the personalities of those involved.
You will be in the best position to decided what the best flow for your group is – how often new discussions ought to be seeded, for example, or how many times documents ought to be shared for comment.
You don’t want the flow to dry up – people will lost interest – but then you also don’t want it to become a flood because people will be scared off.
I found LocalGovCamp a really refreshing and cheering event this year. I’m going to spend a few quick posts writing up my thoughts.
Communities always come up a lot, in terms of engagement and also new methods of service delivery.
The trouble is that organisations such as local authorities like scalable, repeatable processes – and communities fit neither of those things.
Communities are messy, unique things. Even ones that sound the same are usually very different, depending on the history, the personalities. In one area, a service that could be delivered by one parish council couldn’t be delivered by another, say. One neighbourhood watch group is likely to be unlike any other.
What’s more – communities, whether formal ones of the type I just mentioned or more informal social groups, are pretty much all facing exactly the same problems that councils are – lacking money, lacking volunteers, facing the sudden need to make dramatic changes to everything they do.
I’m on the board of my local Citizens Advice Bureau and we are facing the fact that our core funding is being reduced, needing to find new sources of income, and needing to help our clients to move towards self service online over face to face interactions, so we can save money and time while still delivering a service. Sound familiar?
So, “community” isn’t a panacea – but it can be part of the solution. It won’t, however, be a simple solution, but one that is based on meeting the needs of the communities you are working with as much as it is those communities meeting yours.
I find this stuff so you don’t have to:
- Tools for ideation and problem solving: Part 1
- 21st Century public service – is it a thing? « @Podnosh
- Autodesk 123D Design – free 3D printing design software
- Data, information, knowledge and power – exploring Open Knowledge’s new core purpose – from @timdavies
- All Things IC | How to write an internal communication strategy
- Code Red_: the rescue of healthcare.gov by a small team of volunteer techies
- A Brief Guide To Selecting A Community Platform
- Mixing the unconference format into a traditional conference – @lloyddavis
- Pico: No more passwords!
- Dancing Giants: Can big companies still innovate? | PandoDaily
This is a conversation I get into quite a lot, and I’ve been prompted to blog about it by a couple of emails I have recently received from the team behind the Knowledge Hub.
A bit of background, for those that need it: the Knowledge Hub is a UK government funded online collaboration platform. It has recently been spun out of the public sector and is now run by CapacityGRID, which itself is a trading arm of the outsourcing company Liberata.
Time for a disclaimer. The Knowledge Hub folks are of course free to do what they like, and they are by no means beholden to what people like me might say about the decisions they make about their platform. It’s really not much of my business, not least because, while I am a member, I’m not a very good one, and don’t get involved all that often. I’ve not been involved in any conversations about this stuff and have no idea what constraints the team are operating under. So, don’t read this as direct criticism, more my musings on commercialising online community spaces.
The Knowledge Hub is remaining free to those working in public service and what is something known still as the third sector. However, those working in private enterprises are being charged £80 a year, which equates to just over £6.50 a month – not a lot, if we’re honest. Feverbee’s CommunityGeek membership costs $35 a month, for example, and can be considered good value.
However, I don’t personally think this is a great idea, for the following reasons:
- Lumping all ‘private sector’ people into one basket is pretty unfair. It puts (for example) WorkSmart in the same bracket as Capita, or Serco, or any giant company of that ilk
- Making it a commercial transaction can legitimise commercial activity. If someone is being made to pay for something, they might decide they need to get their money’s worth out of it, which may mean more overt selling, and less willingness to share insight for free
- Most networks* thrive on having lots of members and any kind of barrier to entry – such as having to pony up eighty quid before you are able to join – can have a significant impact on growth
- Some of those people who are now being asked to pay will have invested already in the network in terms of their time, their knowledge and their ideas. Does that investment of social capital have no value? That seems to be what this decision is saying.
- It creates a “them and us” type situation, introducing a new dynamic in terms of the divisions of the community, which can’t be healthy.
- It isn’t going to make very much money. The vast majority of private sector users won’t pay and will leave. They will go to free spaces like LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs and other online forums. The actual result of this decision will probably result in a net loss to the community – a few quid in revenue wiped out by a loss of members and activity.
Fundamentally, it feels to me like a somewhat lazy decision, made due to a lack of much creative thinking about how sustainability might be achieved. “We need to make some money? Let’s charge our users!” I don’t see Facebook doing that, or Google. Friends Reunited did, of course, and we know how that ended up.
So what might be the alternatives? Here’s some ideas from the top of my head:
- Sell extra functionality – rather than charging for something that has always been free, come up with something new that could be charged for. Effectively, a freemium style model. There’s a bunch of stuff in the original roadmap for the Knowledge Hub that hasn’t been implemented yet, which would provide some instant ideas for new features.
- Sell services – CapacityGRID already has a consultancy offer, why not develop that to meet the needs of the members of the community? Running a big community ought to give plenty of insight into what sort of support is needed and how it needs to be delivered.
- Charge for non-intended use – there is a way I think of legitimately charging for the existing service, and that is where it is being used for another purpose than the original vision of cross sector knowledge sharing. One example is where groups are being used to manage projects, for example – effectively using it as an internal business tool. This sort of use could be charged for, I think, as it would otherwise be something those organisations would have to pay for from another supplier.
- Training and events – similar to selling services, a business model can be built around providing events and training opportunities. After all, with all those members and all that data, it ought to be possible to find out what people’s pain points are and what support they need. The cost can still be kept low for delegates by using commercial sponsors.
- Commercial content deals with suppliers – rather than charging the private sector for nothing new, provide some benefit in return for larger sums. Content marketing is a good option here – do a deal to produce some sponsored content on behalf of a vendor, whether a white paper, a webinar or a series of blog posts.
So there are five ideas, you can have them for free. None are guaranteed to work and I am sure big holes could be quickly poked in them all. You’d probably need to find a way of doing all of them, rather than sticking with just one revenue stream.
However, I genuinely think that any one of these would be more effective, and less divisive, than just charging a specific group of users for access.
What are your thoughts? How else might an online community be made commercially sustainable, without alienating the membership?
* there are many exceptions to this statement of course, including the aforementioned CommunityGeek. They tend to be niche networks that put a lot of value on exclusivity, though, and I am not certain that is true of the Knoweldge Hub. They also usually have the charging in place from the get-go and don’t charge people for something they had previously had for nothing