Cisco Live 2019 – Rededicating Community

The 2019 Cisco Live Sign Photo

Another Cisco Live is in the books for me. I was a bit shocked to realize this was my 14th event in a row. I’ve been going to Cisco Live half of the time it’s been around! This year was back in San Diego, which has good and bad points. I’d like to discuss a few of them there and get the thoughts of the community.

Good: The Social Media Hub Has Been Freed! – After last year’s issues with the Social Media Hub being locked behind the World of Solutions, someone at Cisco woke up and realized that social people don’t keep the same hours as the show floor people. So, the Hub was located in a breezeway between the Sails Pavilion and the rest of the convention center. And it was great. People congregated. Couches were used. Discussions were had. And the community was able to come together again. Not during the hours when it was convenient. But a long time. This picture of the big meeting on Thursday just solidifies in my mind why the Social Media Hub has to be in a common area:

You don’t get this kind of interaction anywhere else!

Good: Community Leaders Step Forward – Not gonna lie. I feel disconnected sometimes. My job at Tech Field Day takes me away from the action. I spend more time in special sessions than I do in the social media hub. For any other place that could spell disaster. But not for Cisco Live. When the community needs a leader, someone steps forward to fill the role. This year, I was happy to see my good friend Denise Fishburne filling that role. The session above was filled with people paying rapt attention to Fish’s stories and her bringing people into the community. She’s a master at this kind of interaction. I was even proud to sit on the edge and watch her work her craft.

Fish is the d’Artagnan of the group. She may be part of the Musketeers of Social Media but Fish is undoubtedly the leader. A community should hope to have a leader that is as passionate and involved as she is, especially given her prominent role in Cisco. I feel like she can be the director of what the people in the Social Media Hub need. And I’m happy to call her my friend.

Bad: Passes Still Suck – You don’t have to do the math to figure out that $700 is bigger than $200. And that $600/night is worse than $200/night. And yet, for some reason we find ourselves in San Diego, where the Gaslamp hotels are beyond insane, wondering what exactly we’re getting with our $700 event pass. Sessions? Nope. Lunch? Well, sort of. Access to the show floor? Only when it’s open for the random times during the week. Compelling content? That’s the most subjective piece of all. And yet Cisco is still trying to tell us that the idea of a $200 social-only pass doesn’t make sense.

Fine. I get it. Cisco wants to keep the budgets for Cisco Live high. They got the Foo Fighters after all, right? They also don’t have to worry about policing the snacks and food everywhere. Or at least not ordering the lowest line items on the menu. Which means less fussing about piddly things inside the convention center. And for the next two years it’s going to work out just great in Las Vegas. Because Vegas is affordable with the right setup. People are already booking rooms at the surrounding hotels. You can stay at the Luxor or the Excalibur for nothing. But if the pass situation is still $700 (or more) in a couple of years you’re going to see a lot of people dropping out. Because….

Bad: WTF?!? San Francisco?!? – I’ve covered this before. My distaste for Moscone is documented. I thought we were going to avoid it this time around. And yet, I found out we’re going back to SF in 2022.

WHY?!?!?!?

Moscone isn’t any bigger. We didn’t magically find seating for 10,000 extra people. More importantly, the hotel situation in San Fran is worse than ever before. You seriously can’t find a good room this year for VMworld. People are paying upwards of $500/night for a non-air conditioned shoe box! And why would you do this to yourself Cisco?

Sure, it’s cheap. Your employees don’t need hotel rooms. You can truck everything up. But your costs savings are being passed along to the customer. Because you would rather them pay through the nose instead of footing the bill yourself. And Moscone still won’t hold the whole conference. We’ll be spilled over into 8 different hotels and walking from who knows where to get to the slightly nicer shack of a convention center.

I’m not saying that Cisco Live needs to be in Vegas every year. But it’s time for Cisco to start understanding that their conference needs a real convention center. And Moscone ain’t it.

Better: Going Back to Orlando – As you can see above, I’ve edited this post to include new information about Cisco Live 2022. I have been informed by multiple people, including internal Cisco folks, that Live 2022 is going to Orlando and not SF. My original discussion about Cisco Live in SF came from other sources with no hard confirmation. I believe now it was floated as a trial balloon to see how the community would respond. Which means all my statements above still stand regarding SF. Now it just means that there’s a different date attached to it.

Orlando is a better town for conventions than SF. It’s on-par with San Diego with the benefit that hotels are way cheaper for people because of the large amount of tourism. I think it’s time that Cisco did some serious soul searching to find a new venue that isn’t in California or Florida for Cisco Live. Because if all we’re going to do is bounce back and forth between San Diego and Orlando and Vegas over and over again, maybe it’s time to just move Cisco Live to Vegas and be done with the moving.


Tom’s Take

Cisco Live is something important to me. It has been for years, especially with the community that’s been created. There’s nothing like it anywhere else. Sure, there have been some questionable decisions and changes here and there. But the community survives because it rededicates itself every year to being about the people. I wasn’t kidding when I tweeted this:

Because the real heart of the community is each and every one of the people that get on a plane and make the choice time and again to be a part of something special. That kind of dedication makes us all better in every possible way.

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You Don’t Want To Be A Rock Star

When I say “rock star”, you probably have all kinds of images that pop up in your head. Private planes, penthouse suites, grand stages, and wheelbarrows full of money are probably on that list somewhere. Maybe you’re a purist and you think of someone dedicated to the craft of entertaining the masses and trying to claw their way to fame one note at a time. But I’m also sure in both of those cases you also think about the negative aspects of being a rock star. Like ego. And lack of humility. I want to touch on some of that as it pertains to our jobs and our involvement in the community.

Great Like Elvis. Without The Tassels.

The rock star mentality at work is easy to come by. Perhaps you’re very good at what you do. You may even be the best at your company or even at the collection of companies that are your competitors. You’re the best senior architect there is. You know the products and the protocols and you can implement a complex project with your eyes closed. That’s how people start looking at you. Larger than life. The best. One of a kind.

And that should be the end of it, right? That person is the best and that’s that. Unless you start believing their words more than you should. Unless you think that you really are the best and that there is no one better than you. It’s a mentality I see all the time, especially in sports or in places with small sample sizes. A kid that knows how to pitch a baseball well in the 8th grade thinks he’s the king of the baseball diamond. Until he sees someone that pitches way better than he does or he gets to high school and realizes he’s just the average of everyone else around him.

IT creates rock stars because we have knowledge that no one else does. We also fix issues for users, which creates visibility. No one talks about how accountants or HR reps are rock stars. Even though they have knowledge or solve problems for their users. It’s because IT is so practical. Anyone can do math, right? Or fill out a form? IT is hard. You have to know computer stuff. You have to learn acronyms. It’s like being a doctor or a lawyer. And both of those groups produce their own rock stars. So too does IT. And it causes the exact same issues that it does in the medical or legal fields.

Rock stars know it all. They don’t want to listen because they’ve got this. They can figure this out and they don’t need you telling them what to do. Why call support? I’ll just look up the problem. Go do something else and stop bothering them because they’re not going to fail here. This is what they do. Any of that sound familiar? If you’re on the team with a rock star it probably does.

Trade This Life For Fortune And Fame

The rock star mentality extends into the wider community too. People get vaulted into high esteem for their contributions. They get recognized for what they do and held up as an example for others. For most that are thrust into that rarified air of community fame that’s the end of it. But some take it as an invitation to take more.

You’ve seen them. The prima donnas. The people that take the inch of fame they’ve been given and stretch it into a mile. The people who try to manipulate and cajole the rest of their fellows into outlandish things for no other reason than they can do it. Again, if you’ve ever been around people like this in a community you know how toxic and terrible it can be.

So how do you combat that? How can you keep rock stars from getting an ego the size of Alaska? How do you prevent someone from getting an attitude and poisoning a community? How do you keep things together and on-track?

Sadly, the answer doesn’t lie much in preventing the rock star behavior in the first place. Because it’s going to happen no matter what you do. People that do good things are going to be held above others. It’s the nature of recognition to want to reward people’s outstanding behavior and showcase the attributes and traits that they want to see in others. And that can often cause people to take those traits and run with them or assume that you want to showcase all of their traits, even the bad ones.

Cut My Hair and Change My Name

The key that I’ve found most successful in my time working with communities is to highlight those traits and refer them back to the collective to remind the person they are part of a greater whole. If you praise someone for organizing an event, tell them, “Thank you for giving the community a place to meet and talk.” You’re still holding them up for doing a good job, but you’re referencing the community. For the workplace rock stars, try something like “Thanks for working all night to ensure that the entire office had email service this morning.” It reinforces that Herculean tasks like that have a real payoff but that the work is still referenced to a greater whole and not just the ego of someone working to prove a point.

You have to positively identify the traits you like and tie them to greater success in order to select them out and prevent someone from highlighting negative traits that could be detrimental. It’s easy for some that’s good at organization to take it too far and start running everything for a community without being asked. It’s also likely that someone that has a wealth of knowledge at their fingertips could start interjecting into conversations without permission because they think they know the answer. But if you reinforce the value of those traits to the community you’ll make the members think more carefully about their contributions as they exercise them.


Tom’s Take

I’m no expert on community building. Or rock stars for that matter. I’m just a person that does what I can to help others succeed. And I think that’s the mark of a real servant leader and perfect community mentor. The rock star mentality is the polar opposite of this. Rock stars want personal fame at the expense of the group. Servant leaders want group success even if it means not being recognized. Some of the best people in the community I know prefer to hide in the background and avoid the “fame” of being recognized. We would do well to follow their examples when the time comes for us to step on stage.

It’s Not The Size of Your Conference Community

CLUS2016Tweetup

Where do you get the most enjoyment from your conference attendance? Do you like going to sessions and learning about new things? Do you enjoy more of the social aspect of meeting friends and networking with your peers? Maybe it’s something else entirely?

It’s The Big Show

When you look at shows like Cisco Live, VMworld, or Interop ITX, there’s a lot going on. There are diverse education tracks attended by thousands of people. You could go to Interop and bounce from a big data session into a security session, followed by a cloud panel. You could attend Cisco Live and never talk about networking. You could go to VMworld and only talk about networking. There are lots of opportunities to talk about a variety of things.

But these conferences are huge. Cisco and VMware both take up the entire Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. When in San Francisco, both of these events dwarf the Moscone Center and have to spread out into the surrounding hotels. That means it’s easy to get lost or be overlooked. I’ve been to Cisco Live before and never bumped into people I know from my area that said they were going, even when we were at the same party. There are tens of thousands of people roaming the halls.

That means that these conferences only work well if you can carve out your own community. Cisco Live has certainly done that over the years. There’s a community of a few hundred folks that are active on social media and have really changed the direction of the way Cisco engages with the community. VMworld has their various user groups as well as VMUnderground constantly pushing the envelope and creating more organic community engagement.

You Think You Know Me

The flip side is the smaller boutique conferences that have sprung up in recent years. These take a single aspect of a technology and build around it. You get a very laser-focused event with a smaller subset of attendees based on similar interests. It’s a great way to instantly get massive community involvement around an idea. Maybe it’s Monitorama. Or perhaps it’s OSCon. Or even GopherCon. You can see how these smaller communities are united around a singular subject and have great buy in.

However, the critical mass needed to make a boutique conference happen is much greater per person. Cisco Live and VMworld are going to happen every year. There are no less than 10,000 – 15,000 people that would come to either no matter what. Even if 50% of last year’s attendees decided to stay home this year, the conference would happen.

On the flip side, if 50% of the DockerCon or OpenStack Summit attendees stayed home next year, you’d see mass panic in the community. People would start questioning why you’re putting on a show for 2,500 – 3,000 users. It’s one thing to do it when you’re small and just getting started. But to put on a show for those numbers now would be a huge decision point and things would need to be discussed to see what happens going forward.

Cisco Live and VMworld are fun because of their communities. But boutique conferences exist because of their communities. It’s important to realize that and drastic changes in a smaller conference community have huge ripples throughout the conference. Two hundred Twitter users don’t have much impact on the message at Cisco Live. But two hundred angry users at DockerCon can make massive changes happen. Each member of the community is amplified the smaller the conference they attend.


Tom’s Take

Anyone that knows me knows that I love the community. I love seeing them grow and change and develop their own voice. It’s why I work for Tech Field Day. It’s why I go to Cisco Live every year. It’s why I’m happy to speak at VMUnderground events. But I also realize how important the community can be to smaller events. And how quickly things can fall apart when the community is fractured or divided. It’s critical for boutique conferences to harness the power of their communities to get off the ground. But you also have to recognize how important they are to you in the long run. You need to cultivate them and keep the focused on making everything better for everyone.

Bringing 2017 To Everyone

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It’s time once again for my traditional New Year’s Day navel gazing. As per tradition with my blog, I’m not going to make prognostications about networking or IT in general. Either I’m going to wind up totally wrong or be totally right and no one will care. I rather enjoy the ride as we go along, so trying to guess what happens is kind of pointless.

Instead, I’m going to look at what I want to accomplish in the coming year. It gives me a chance to analyze what I’m doing and what I want to be working on. And it’s a whole lot easier than predicting that SDN is going to take everyone’s job or OpenFlow being dead again.

Write Like the Wind

My biggest goal for 2016 was to write more. And that I did. I worked in writing any time I could. I wrote about ONUG, SD-WAN, and other fun topics. I even wrote a small book! Finding time to work all the extra typing in to my Bruce Wayne job at Tech Field Day was a bit challenging here and there. And more than once I was publishing a blog post at the deadline. But all that writing did help me talk about new subjects in the industry and develop great ideas at the same time.

I also encouraged more people to write. I wanted to get people putting their thoughts down in a form that didn’t require listening or watching video. Writing is still very important and I think it’s a skill that more people should develop. My list of blogs to read every day grew in 2016 and I was very happy to see it. I hope that it continues well into 2017 as well.

King Of The Hill

2017 is going to be an exciting year for me and Tech Field Day. I ran Networking Field Day 12 as the host of the event for the first time. In the coming year, Stephen and I are going to focus on our topics areas even deeper. For me, that means immersing myself in networking and wireless technologies more than ever before. I’m going to be learning as much as I can about all the new things going on. It’s a part of the role of being the host and organizer for both Networking Field Day and Mobility Field Day coming up this year.

I’m also going to be visiting lots of other conferences. Cisco Live, Interop, and even Open Networking Summit are on my list this year. We’re going to be working closely with those shows to put on even more great Tech Field Day content. I love hearing the excitement from my friends in the industry when they learn that Tech Field Day is going to be present at a show like Cisco Live. It means that we’re reaching a great audience and giving them something that they are looking for.

We’re also going to be looking at new ideas and new things to do with our growing media presence with Gestalt IT. There should be some interesting things there on the horizon as we embrace the new way that media is used to communicate with readers and fans alike. Stay tuned there for all the excitement we’ll be bringing your way in 2017!


Tom’s Take

Analyzing a year’s worth of work helps one see progress and build toward even more goals in the coming year. I’m going to keep moving forward with the projects that excite me and challenge me to be a better representative for the networking community. Along the way I hope to learn more about what makes our technology exciting and useful. And share than knowledge with everyone I know in the best way I can. Thanks for being here with me. I hope 2017 is a great year for you as well!

Ten Years of Cisco Live – Community Matters Most of All

CLUS2016SignPic

Hey! I made the sign pic this year!

I’ve had a week to get over my Cisco Live hangover this year. I’ve been going to Cisco Live for ten years and been involved in the social community for five of them. And I couldn’t be prouder of what I’ve seen. As the picture above shows, the community is growing by leaps and bounds.

People Are What Matter

TomsCornerSelfie

I was asked many, many times about Tom’s Corner. What was it? Why was it important? Did you really start it? The real answer is that I’m a bit curious. I want to meet people. I want to talk to them and learn their stories. I want to understand what drives people to learn about networking or wireless or fax machines. Talking to a person is one of the best parts of my job, whether it be my Bruce Wayne day job or my Batman night job.

Social media helps us all stay in touch when we aren’t face-to-face, but meeting people in real life is as important too. You know who likes to hug. You find out who tells good stories. Little things matter like finding out how tall someone is in real life. You don’t get that unless you find a way to meet them in person.

FishHug

Hugging Denise Fishburne

Technology changes every day. We change from hardware to software and back again. Routers give way to switches. Fabrics rise. Analytics tell all. But all this technology still has people behind it. Those people make the difference. People learn and grow and change. They figure out how to make SDN work today after learning ISDN and Frame Relay yesterday. They have the power to expand beyond their station and be truly amazing.

Conferences Are Still King

Cisco Live is huge. Almost 30,000 attendees this year. The Mandalay Bay Convention Center was packed to the gills. The World of Solutions took up two entire halls this year. The number of folks coming to the event keeps going up every year. The networking world has turned this show into the biggest thing going on. Just like VMworld, it’s become synonymous with the industry.

People have a desire to learn. They want to know things. They want high quality introductions to content and deep dives into things they want to know inside and out. So long as those sessions are offered at conferences like Cisco Live and Interop people will continue to flock to them. For the shows that assemble content from the community this is an easy proposition. People are going to want to talk where others are willing to listen. For single sourced talks like Cisco Live, it’s very important to identify great speakers like Denise Fishburne (@DeniseFishburne) and Peter Jones (@PeterGJones) and find ways to get them involved. It’s also crucial to listen to feedback from attendees about what did work and what they want to see more of in the coming years.

Keeping The Community Growing

CLUS2016Tweetup

One thing that I’m most proud of is seeing the community grow and grow. I love seeing new faces come in and join the group. This year had people from many different social circles taking part in the Cisco Live community. Reddit’s /r/networking group was there. Kilted Monday happened. Engineering Deathmatches happened. Everywhere you looked, communities were doing great things.

As great as it was to see so many people coming together, it’s just as important to understand that we have to keep the momentum going. Networking doesn’t keep rolling along without new ideas and new people expressing them. Four years ago I could never have guessed the impact that Matt Oswalt (@Mierdin) and Jason Edelman (@JEdelman8) could have had on the networking community. They didn’t start out on top of the world. They fought their way up with new ideas and perspectives. The community adopted what they had to say and ran with it.

We need to keep that going. Not just at Cisco Live either. We need to identify the people doing great things and shining a spotlight on them. Thankfully, my day job affords me an opportunity to do just that. But the whole community needs to be doing it as well. If you can just find one person to tell the world about it’s a win for all of us. Convince a friend to write a blog post. Make a co-worker join Twitter. In the end every new voice is a chance for us all to learn something.


Tom’s Take

As Dennis Leary said in Demolition Man,

I’m no leader. I do what I have to do. Sometimes people come with me.

That’s what Cisco Live is to me. It’s not about a corner or a table or a suite at an event. It’s about people coming together to do things. People talking about work and having a good time. The last five years of Cisco Live have been some of the happiest of my life. More than any other event, I look forward to seeing the community and catching up with old friends. I am thankful to have a job that allows me to go to the event. I’m grateful for a community full of wonderful people that are some of the best and brightest at what they do. For me, Cisco Live is about each of you. The learning and access to Cisco is a huge benefit. But I would go for the people time and time and time again. Thanks for making the fifth year of this community something special to me.

Thoughts on Cisco Live 2015

Cisco Live 2015 Twitter Pic

We’ve secretly replaced Tom with Mike Rowe. Let’s see if anyone notices…

Cisco Live 2015 is in the books. A great return to San Diego. A farewell from John Chambers. A greeting from Chuck Robbins (@ChuckRobbins). And a few other things.

The Community is Strong, But Concerned

The absolute best part of Cisco Live is the community that has grown from the social media attendees. More than once I heard during the week “I can’t believe this used to be 20-30 people!”. The social community continues to grow and change. Some people move on. Others return from absence. Still others are coming for the first time.

The Cisco Live social community is as inclusive as any I have seen. From the Sunday night Tweetup to the various interactions throughout the week, I’m proud to be a part of a community that strives to make everyone feel like they are part of a greater whole. I met so many new people this year and marveled at the way the Social Media Hub and Meetup Area were both packed at all hours of the day.

That being said, the community does have some concerns. Some of them are around institutionalized community. There was worry that bringing so many people into the Champions community threatened to marginalize the organic community that had grown up in the past six years. While some of that worry was quieted by the end of the show, I think the major concerns are still present and valid to a certain degree. I think a discussion about the direction of the Champion program and how it will interact with other organic communities is definitely in order sooner rather than later.

Gamification Continues, And I’m Not A Fan

Many of the activities at Cisco Live revovled around prizes and giveaways for interaction. As we’ve seen throughout the years, any time a prize is awarded for a game there is going to be some trying to work the system. I even mentioned it here:

I’m all for having fun. But the reward for a well-played game should be in the game itself. When things have to be modified and changed and curated to ensure no one is taking advantage, it stops being fun and starts being a competition. Competitions cause hurt feelings and bad blood. I think it’s time to look at what the result of this gamification is and whether it’s worth it.

Power Transitions And Telling The Story Right

As expected, John Chambers gave his farewell as CEO and introduced Chuck Robbins to the Cisco Live community. By all accounts, it was an orderly transfer of power and a great way to reassure the investors and press that things are going to proceed as usual. I was a bit interested in the talk from Chambers about how this transition plan has been in place for at least ten months. Given the discussion in the tech press (and more than a couple private comments), the succession wasn’t a smooth as John lets on. Maybe it’s better that the general Cisco public not know how crazy the behind-the-scenes politics really were.

Chuck finds himself in a very precarious position. He’s the person that follows the legend. Love him or hate him, Chambers has been the face of Cisco forever. He is the legend in the networking community. How do you step into his shoes? It’s better that John stepped down on his own terms instead of being forced out by the board. Chuck has also done a great job of rolling out his executive team and making some smart moves to solidify his position at the top.

The key is going to be how Chuck decides to solidify the businesses inside of Cisco. Things that were critical even two years ago are shrinking in the face of market movement. John’s speech was very pointed: there is another tranisition coming that can’t be missed. Chuck has a hard road ahead trying to stabilize Cisco’s position in the market. A cheeky example:

Cisco has missed transitions, SDN being the most recent. They need to concentrate on what’s important and remove the barriers to agile movement. A start would be cutting back on the crazy amounts of business units (BUs) competing for face time with the CEO. You could easily consolidate 50% of the organizations inside Cisco and still have more than anyone else in networking. A racecar that goes 200 mph is still unstable if it isn’t streamlined. Chuck needs to cut Cisco down to fighting weight to make the story sound right.

Cisco Finally Understands Social, But They Don’t Quite Get It (Yet)

I applaud the people inside of Cisco and Cisco Live that have fought tooth and nail for the past few years to highlight the importance of social. Turning a ship the size of Cisco can’t be easy, but it’s finally starting to sink in how powerful social media can be. I can promise you that Cisco understands it better than companies like IBM or Oracle. That’s not to say that Cisco embraces social like it should.

Cisco is still in the uncomfortable mode of using social as a broadcast platform rather than an interaction tool. There are some inside of Cisco that realize the need to focus on the audience rather than the message. But those are exceptions to the general rule of being “on message”.

Social media is a powerful tool to build visibility of personalities. The messenger is often more important than the message. Just ask Pheidippides. Allow your people the freedom to develop a voice and be themselves will win you more converts than having a force of robots parroting the same platitudes on a scheduled basis.

Cisco has some great people invovled in the community. Folks like J Metz (@DrJMetz), Rob Novak (@Gallifreyan), and Lauren Friedman (@Lauren) how how dedicated people can make a name for themselves separate from their employer. Cisco would do well to follow the example of these folks (and many others) and let the messengers make the audience they key.


Tom’s Take

Thanks to Tech Field Day, I go to a lot of industry events now. But Cisco Live is still my favorite. The people make it wonderful. The atmosphere is as electric as any I’ve been a part of. This was my tenth Cisco Live. I can’t imagine not being a part of the event.

Yes, I have concerns about some of the things going on, but it’s the kind of concern that you have for a loved one or dear friend. I want people to understand the challenges of keeping Cisco Live relevant and important to attendees and find a way to fix the issues before they become problems. What I don’t want to see is a conference devoid of personality and wonderful people going through the motions. That would not only destroy the event, but the communities that have sprung from it as well.

Cisco Live 2016 will be intensely personal for me. It’s the first return to Las Vegas since 2011. It’s also the fifth anniversary of Tom’s Corner. I want to make the next Cisco Live as important as Cisco Live 2011 was for me. I hope you will all join me there and be a part of the community that has changed my life for the better.

 

Can Community Be Institutionalized?

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As technology grows at a faster pace, companies are relying more and more on their users to help spread the word about what they are doing. Why pay exorbitant amounts for marketing when there is a group of folks that will do it for little to nothing? These communities of users develop around any product or company with significant traction in the market. But can they be organized, built, and managed in a traditional manner?

Little Pink Houses

Communities develop when users start talking to each other. They exist in numerous different forms. Whether it be forum posters or sanctioned user groups or even unofficial meetups, people want to get together to talk about things. These communities are built from the idea that knowledge should be shared. Anecdotes, guides, and cautionary tales abound when you put enough people into a room and get them talking about a product.

That’s not to say that all communities can be positive ones. Some communities are even built around the idea of a negative reaction. Look at these groups that formed around simple ideas like getting their old Facebook page back or getting their old MySpace layout returned to them. Imagine the reaction that you get when you have a enterprise product that makes changes that users don’t like. That’s how communities get started too.

Whether they are positive or negative, communites exist to give people a way to interact with other like-minded individuals. Community is a refuge that allows members to talk freely and develop the community to suit their needs.

Community Planning

What happens when the community needs more direction? Some communities are completely sanctioned and sponsored by their subjects, like the VMware User Group (VMUG). Others are independent but tend to track along with the parent, such as the Cisco User Groups that have developed over the years. These tend to be very well organized versus other more informal communities.

With the advent of social media, many ad hoc communities have formed quickly around the idea of sharing online. Social media makes meeting new members of the community quick and easy. But it’s also difficult to control social communities. They grow and change so rapidly that even monitoring is a challenge.

The wild and unpredictable nature of social communities has led to a new form of sponsored community – the influencer outreach program. These programs have different names depending on the company, but the idea is still roughly the same: reach out to influencers and social media users in the immediate community and invite them into a new community that offers incentives like insider information or activities outside of those regularly available to everyone.

Influencer outreach programs are like a recipe. You must have the right mix in the correct proportions to make everything work. If you have too much of something or not enough of another, the whole construct can fall apart. Too many members leads to a feeling of non-exclusiveness. Too few members-only briefings leads to a sense that the program doesn’t offer anything over and above “normal” community membership.

The Meringue Problem

One of the most important things that influencer outreach communities need to understand is something I call the “Meringue Problem”. If you’ve ever made meringue for a dessert, you know that you have to whip the egg whites and sugar until it forms soft peaks. That’s what makes meringue light and fluffy. It’s a lot of work but it pays off if done right. However, if you whip the mixture too hard or too long, those soft peaks fall apart into a mess that must be thrown out.

The Meringue Problem in influencer outreach communities comes when the program organizers and directors (chefs) get too involved in directing the community. They try to direct things too much or try to refocus the community away towards an end that the community may or may not support wholeheartedly. That ends up creating animosity among the members and a feeling that things would be better if everyone “would just back off for a bit”. There are a hundred different reasons why this overinvolvement happens, but the results are always the same: a fractured community and a sense of disappointment.

The First Rule

If you want a textbook method for building a community, take a page from one of my favorite movies – Fight Club. Tyler and the Narrator start a community dedicated to working out agression through physical expression. They don’t tell everyone in the bar to come outside and start fighting. They just do their thing on their own. When others want to be invovled, they are welcomed with open arms (and closed fists).

Later, the whole idea of Fight Club takes on a life of it’s own. It becomes a living, breathing thing that no one person can really direct anymore. In the movie, it is mentioned that the leader moves among the crowd, with the only important thing being the people fighting in the ring. But it’s never exclusionary. They’ll let anyone join. Just ask Lou.

Tyler finally decides that he needs something more from Fight Club. So what does he do? Does he try to refocus the community to a new end? How can you control something like that? Instead, he creates a new community from a subset of the Fight Club members. Project Mayhem is still very much a part of Fight Club, as the space monkeys are still Fight Club members. But Project Mayhem is a different community with different goals. It’s not better or worse. Just…different.


Tom’s Take

I’m a proud member of several communities. Some of them are large and distinguished. Others are small and intimate. In some, I’m a quiet member in the back. In others I help organize and direct things. But no matter who I am there or what I’m doing, I remember the importace of letting the community develop. Communities will find their way if you let them. A guiding hand sometimes does help the community accomplish great things and transcend barriers. But that hand must guide. It should never force or meddle. When that line is cross, the community ceases being a collection of great people and starts taking on attributes that make it more important thant the members. And that kind of institutionalization isn’t a community at all.

Special thanks to Jeff Fry (@FryGuy_PA) and Stephen Foskett (@SFoskett) for helping me collect my thoughts for this post.