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Three Models For Online Communities And How To Tell The Difference

Online community is like world peace – everyone thinks it is a good idea but it means something different to each person.

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Online community is like world peace – everyone thinks it is a good idea but it means something different to each person. Companies frequently encounter a core problem when planning an online community; the key stakeholders each hold different views of what the community will be like and what it will accomplish once it is launched.

Because online community and social media is fairly new to business, we are still in the process of creating a language to communicate.Inherently, in the absence of well formulated definitions and shared experiences, people often draw from their personal experiences to fill in the blanks. So, when business sits around the table to talk about an online community for their company, product or service line, each person hold a different model; that is largely shaped by their relationship with one. A golf expert could evoke a community where many people share information and experiences, facts and figures about their sport. Another stakeholder who may have a medical issue and uses online channels to keep informed may think about a deeply personal exchange of information, and someone else may recall the technical help forum they recently relied upon to solve a networking problem quickly. All of these kinds of experiences are valid and valuable, but they each represent a different model for the online community.

When planning an online community it is so important that all the stakeholders are able to clearly articulate the business goals that the community will serve and understand how the members will be able to benefit from it. When stakeholder expectations are varied, it is likely (regardless of whether the community succeeds or not) that a certain percentage of stakeholders will not be pleased. Mismanaged business expectations gets in the way of community growth and development and can cause a fair degree of confusion at a critical time-period for the online community.

In order to help normalize expectations during the business justification point in an online community strategy, I find it helpful to work through the various forms of b2b communities to help wrap greater clarity around the vision. It is important to focus on the goals of the community in order to identify which model is the best fit for the business. Examples are often helpful along with a framework for thinking about the three different types of online community the company has to choose from: Information Dissemination, Shop-Talk and Professional Collaboration.

Information Dissemination Communities

The first type of online community, Information Dissemination, is where the organizing body creates content, messages, and really shapes the outcome. They’re really controlled or paternalistic environments. One great example that comes to mind is WhiteHouse.gov which offers the public an interactive space: there are feedback forms, polls, videos, and a followship of Twitter, LinkedIn and a number other social tools in order to encourage participation. I think I even saw a blog on there a couple of weeks ago. But they don’t really care what I think in that deep customer care sort of way. The site has some collaborative experience built in, but really the goal and mission is to share and disseminate information outwardly.

Another example is Method Cleaner’s community. OK, I admit I am a very clean person and have joined this community as I love to learn more about effective cleaning with environmentally sound products. This site gives me a channel for my cleaning love and serves to educate and inform me. I occasionally get to vote on a product but I am not connecting with the other members in a meaningful way – not do I want to. The community serves it purpose but there is no driving engagement among the participants. However, the information channel is strong and useful.

Shop Talk Communities

The second type of community is Shop Talk, where discussion groups focus on accomplishing a task, or exchanging transactional information, or getting help, like “How can I do this?” or “Where can I find that?” (Customer support communities would fall into this category.) Technical communities, or even WebMD or Dell, are great examples where a deep community of practice isn’t necessarily being formed. People come on a need basis, and, while they may have an ongoing relationship with these communities, it’s not in a deep, professional, and longstanding way among the majority of participants and members- although there are regular participants. They’re not really trying to deepen their practice, they’re trying to solve a burning problem or issue in the moment and only a small percentage of the visitors or the constituencies actually create a true network or community.

These Shop Talk communities are great for a business to learn about important trends and issues with their product base, gain ideas around future innovations and fixes for prevailing problems and also serve to drastically lower their customer support costs and users tend to do a pretty darn good job of helping each other- thus reducing call center burdens. (For those interested in this topic here is a great article about how to calculate and manage call center costs.)

Professional Collaboration Communities

And, the third type of community is Professional Collaboration. Those are often found in communities of business professionals. A lot of these communities are smaller by nature. They are safe and somewhat private online spaces designed to foster conversation. They tend to be more membership driven or subscription based; they tend to cost money or have sponsors; and they consist of people who meet on a longstanding basis in order to learn about and engage in a certain practice.

An example is Palladium Group’s Execution Premium Community- XPC. Here is a community of strategy professionals who are sharing information and best practice about the art and science of leading strategy. The goal of this community is to facilitate discussions and offer resources to the profession. I have covered this client’s case study in an earlier blog post. Client retention, brand management, thought leadership and deeper awareness of products and services are at the root of this community.

Another example of a professional community is Martindale-Hubbell Connected.This community of 30K+ legal professionals focuses on connecting people with each other and the LexisNexis products that serve the industry. Professional collaboration communities come in all shapes and sizes, from professional peer groups, to client communities, to those driven by news or information. But they all have a shared vision – to connect people over time to share ideas and experiences.

All three of these types of communities are very important; they all serve important roles. When people talk about online communities, they tend to think of them all rolled up into one single model driven by their personal expectations. But really there are three different types, and they serve three different purposes. And they have three different sets of metrics, goals, outcomes, and revenue models as well. So while that business community idea is still hot on the executive agenda, it is a good time to examine and refine what you really mean by online community so that your outcomes can match the goals – which is the very definition of success.

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