By Richard Brasser
There are two very interesting trends that will have a dramatic effect on your organization.
1. Social networking is growing at an astounding rate. (not surprising)
2. People are starting to organize themselves into themed niche communities. (big opportunity)
Let’s take a quick look at why these are important and what steps you can take to maximize the impact for your organization.
Social Networking is growing at an astounding rate. We all know this and the media loves to point out how feverish the growth has been. However, there are very strong forces starting to change the social networking landscape and you need to be aware and prepared for these changes. The first premise is that people (humans) need “meaning” in their lives, we all need to feel significant, we need to feel like we are making a difference and we need to be connected. When social networking first came along, it provided those things in a way that was easy for you to access. You were connected to lots of people. You found meaning in the conversations that were going on. You could be involved with things even though you were sitting at your desk or on your couch. However, as communities like Facebook have grown to unimaginable sizes, and the amount of “friends” that we all have has grown so big, it all starts to lose its meaning again. Compare the difference between living in an 800 person town and living in the middle of New York City. The bigger the crowd, the more anonymous the environment becomes. The fact is that Facebook is starting to become a vast city and it is starting to lose its meaning for many of us.
People are starting to organize themselves into themed niche communities. This is a natural phenomenon. When the world around you becomes so big, you start to define yourself as part of a much smaller group. For example, think of the Italian community in the boroughs of New York…they even defined themselves by what street they lived on. It is not surprising that in the social media world, people are starting to lose a bit of interest in the super large worlds like Facebook and LinkedIn and gravitating towards more meaningful and personally relevant communities. For example, there is a thriving online community for high-level marketing professionals that I am a part of…and a great community of .NET developers that my CTO is a member of. These niche online communities are dialed into our exact needs, perspectives and audience. Because of this, they inherently bring much more of the “human” stuff that we all want and need (meaning, significance and connections).
Nice trends but why should I care about them?
Knowing what is happening and what drivers are causing the changes in behavior is important. However, it is much more valuable to understand how it will affect your own organization and how you can leverage these trends to bring value to your audience. If you think that your organization is capable of resonating with a particular group of people or becoming a leader in a certain specific topic, a custom online community just might be an incredible opportunity. Here are a few steps to quickly sort out whether a custom online community is right for you.
5 Questions to ask when creating your online community
1. Differentiation – What is your niche? You are probably well aware of this but it helps to clearly understand it in the context of an online community. What skills, perspectives, knowledge or interests do your members share with each other that differentiate them from other people?
2. Competition – What other communities online offer a place for people like your members to interact? Do the research! You might be surprised that someone already owns your audience. Here is a quick example – a luxury German car company dragged their feet (for two years) while trying to decide whether or not to build their own online community. In the meantime, a community emerged that offered almost everything that these passionate car enthusiasts wanted. When the company finally decided to launch their own community, their audience yawned and found no need to leave the already thriving world they had come to love. If the company would have known about the other community, they could have taken a totally different approach and participated in that community instead of building their own.
3. Value Proposition – What are the top 3 things that a member of your community could gain from joining? Is it unique knowledge that your internal team can provide? Is it access to the other members in a much more efficient way? Is it the ability to participate and help without having to be in person? Whatever it is, you have to clearly understand WHY people will want to join your community and what will keep them coming back.
4. Business Objectives – What are you hoping to accomplish? Imagine that you have already created a community with lots of members…what value does YOUR organization get out of it? Is it the “living” database? Is it the ability to sell sponsorships or advertising around the discussions? Is it a “value-add” for the membership fees that you charge? It is CRITICAL that you answer these questions because the technologies might not cost a lot, but this will take money, time and resources. You have to know why you are doing it and what value you wish to gain from it.
5. Resource Planning – Don’t underestimate the work effort this will take! If you answered number four, you will already know the value and what resources are available based on the expected results. Make sure to challenge your assumptions, test market ideas with members and make sure to overestimate how much time and effort it will take. Bad things start to happen when this kind of initiative is tossed in the lap of an administrator who is already maxed out or an intern that is helping for the summer. Make sure you have enough time and people to manage the community, analyze the data and metrics and constantly refine the strategy.
*Quick story about #5 – I recently worked with a very large association and met the person in charge of social media. She explained that she didn’t track any posts, use hashtags or any analytics because she didn’t have any time. She was communicating constantly but gaining NO value as a result. My suggestion? Pretty simple, post 50% less and spend that time on reporting, analytics and metrics. Don’t fall into the time trap and lose out on the biggest value.
What is the gist? At the end of the day, there is a huge opportunity brewing for you to expand your audience, increase revenue and create a long lasting connection with your members through the use of a well-designed online community. Take the necessary steps to design it right, leverage people and resources that know how to put these together and you could create a legacy of value for your organization.
The storm is brewing…are you going to be ready to take advantage or is someone else going to own your audience?