First, the facts on communities: Gartner Group conducted an interesting research piece in 2009 where peer networking, associations and communities are the highest ranked ways that small and medium businesses learn, form opinions, and in the end, make decisions.
IDC reported the same finding when they were digging into Healthcare earlier this year. In fact, 4 of the top 5 reported resources for Electronic Medical Record (EMR) selection criteria involve associations, affiliates, colleagues, and buying groups.
The Big QuestionWith the abundance of information at our fingertips, why do people choose communities?
Business has always been transacted with some level of personal interaction. With the rise of e-commerce in the late 90’s and now with Cloud Computing growing in popularity, it will be interesting if this remains true in the future.
During this time of growing “electronic ubiquity," the need for trusted and expert sources of information has increased significantly.
The amount of competitive choices for products and services, combined with vast information on the internet and endless buzz through social media, has created a scenario where cutting through the “white noise” has become one of the most important skills as we enter the 10’s.
Communities offer a smaller group of like-minded people (perhaps even competitors), sharing similar experiences and challenges, the ability to collaborate and improve decision making. The feeling of belonging is strong, as well as the affinity of membership.
There is a feeling that communities are more democratic as they are built by the membership, and participation is encouraged and celebrated.
Who starts these communities?Tracing back some of the more popular communities to the beginning, the following sources are evident:
1. “Connectors" - The Tipping Point book does a great job in explaining the concept of connectors. These are people that you would recognize, even dating back to grade school, that seem to be the center of the universe. Another way you can recognize connectors is in a place like Facebook. You seek out this person, and they are 1 degree of separation from everyone in your school, company, neighborhood, etc. In the business world, many connectors have translated this skill into organizing and building a strong following. They have also recognized that vendors will pay top dollar to participate in these already established communities. There is also a feeling by these connectors of altruism, or “giving back” to the industry or geography where they do business. You may think that connectors are the most extroverted and charismatic people, but in reality, not always.
2. Industry verticals - Several communities start as a result of a new technology or sub-industry. An example in the IT industry is Virtualization, Cloud Computing, Electronic Health Records or Managed Services. When the needs of a group is not being met by larger or non-related peer groups, new ones form organically from members as they branch out.
3. Traditional Media - Trade magazines and event promoters have been quick to recognize the communities trend, and have formed powerful groups under their trusted brand. Having a strong subscription or attendee following, makes the transition to community a logical step for these organizations.
4. New Media – Social Media - The fastest growth of communities has occurred with the explosion of social media. Whether Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, or the dozens of other purpose built community tools, the cost and complexity to start a community is approaching zero. Many connectors started as bloggers who have built a loyal and passionate following. Many bloggers have evolved into community leaders.
5. Distributors and vendors - The fact is that some companies get it and some don’t. Several organizations now recognize communities and have built organizations around community marketing. It is not uncommon to hear Chief Community Officer in marketing circles. Organizing a community goes far beyond marketing and advertising however, with product development, pricing and programs all tightly connected.
Engaging AudiencesHow do these communities interact with their followers?
A dizzying array of new marketing vehicles have popped up in recent years. Traditional media such as magazines and events are very important in communicating to a community, but new media allows innovative ways to extend and enhance the message. From webinars, podcasts, vodcasts, blogs, tweets, Linkedin groups, to virtual trade shows, community groups are using as many as 30 different marketing vehicles to be pervasive within the group.
The challenge with these marketing vehicles is different than in the past. The main inhibitor to effectively marketing was money, today it is effective content and delivery. Many of the vehicles I mentioned above are free or cost very little compared with traditional media. Keeping content fresh, abundant and delivered daily takes resourcing beyond the marketing department.
Media savvy Executives who can keynote an event, tweet about it offstage, promote the message to the media gathered, and then write a blog about it later on is the new model for the future. Messaging that would have required triple-checking through legal a few years ago, needs to be just-in-time and delivered on a daily cadence.
I have a mantra that is “be visible everyday."
Finally, community members have very effective personal spam filters. Anything that doesn’t add value to the community will be rejected and have a negative result for the organization delivering. The old days of powerpoints and product spec slides doesn’t cut it.
Critical MassWhy are communities important?
Beyond the human requirements of personal interaction and belonging, communities provide tangible benefits to all involved. Unfiltered information based on common experience will always trump random white papers and case studies posted on the internet. The give/get relationships within a community inspire openness and, in most of the communities I have seen, a level of bluntness that is refreshing.
Some key advantages of communities:
- Cost of entry low as compared to traditional media and other marketing opportunities. Very much a “grass roots” feeling.
- Ability to communicate and receive value is high. Tons of touch points, combined with a high degree of passion.
- Trusted source – community members have likely experienced your challenges, or will shortly. The feeling you can “steal with pride” best practices and contribute your own successes.
- Ability to enter new markets or industries. Opportunities to network, build like-minded connections and potentially drive business development opportunities.
- Credibility that comes with “member of” status. Make the affiliations and partnerships that make your organization seem larger and more connected. Getting published or quoted as an expert or thought leader is invaluable for your organization and personal brands.
A Look AheadFinally, what is the future of communities? Based on the data from analysts, combined with the relentless growth of information available across the internet and the behavioral habits of people, it is difficult to predict a slowdown in the growth of communities in business.
Exponential growth, in fact.
Specialization will continue to expand as well, driving more need for these groups and subgroups. There is an upper limit to the size of a community where the point of diminishing returns kicks in. The point at where coordination of the group and the generality of messaging outweigh the benefits listed above. Smart communities will organize sub-groups before the fringe members go off and launch a competing community.
Are you the next Chief Community Officer within your organization?
Jay McBain is director of SMB for Lenovo. Guest blog entries such as this one are contributed on a monthly basis as part of The VAR Guy’s 2009 sponsorship program. Read all of McBain's guest blog entries here.