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.
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.
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.