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The New Online Community Manifesto

I read the normally excellent Warrillow newsletter but took issue with a recent issue titled “Small business online communities are a waste of time and money”. In the newsletter, the writer argues that launching a small business community via a company’s website is not a good idea.

I believe this attitude is part of the problem with how we currently approach ‘community’ online and why so many organizations are missing the opportunity to really effectively engage audiences online and improve their businesses. Our tools have improved so much, but we are still looking at community as if it’s 1999. The audience is huge now. With the right approach and the right ingredients and circumstances, you can build community around anything – especially online. There’s a huge, robust community for people with long hair, for goodness sake.

I disagree with the conclusion of this piece as well as the analysis. I argue that you cannot possibly know whether or not your organization has the potential to form community unless you ask. (And I would argue that if your organization cannot have community formed around it, the strength of your offering could be improved.) We are about to enter the golden age of online communities, though we will have to change the way we look at them. Instead of closed communities, we are about to enter an era of communities and companies meshing together. When I say golden age, I mean that communities are going to start to provide tremendous value to both consumers/members and companies who engage consumers alike through an information exchange that provides real benefit to both parties.

An example of community at its finest is Dell Idea Storm, (thanks to Rob Hyndman for sending this over today) – where the line between the company and its customers blurs and knowledge is, well, open source. The value is huge. Communities can and do produce content, market research, ideas, and evangelism on behalf of organizations they have relationships with.

So is it fair (or simply provocative) to say unilaterally that small business communities online a waste of time and money? No, the strokes are too broad. Applying the old “build it and they will come” mentality won’t work, to be sure. So can community be formed around small business people? Of course. But like any community that is going to be successful, there has to be value. No one is going to spend any time in a community where they can’t learn and get value – so much value that it compels them to return. I write both as someone who heads up an agency that helps companies engage through community and as a small business owner.

If you’re going to create a community, understand from your target constituency what they would need to experience to keep coming back. In other words, give me a reason! I have reason to visit regularly (and not just because they are a client) – because I know that I am going to save money or learn something when I go to the site – it’s rare that I don’t find a deal or something of interest. (recent thought: “Wow, those flatscreen prices are really in free fall”). Redflagdeals has great value not just because of the deals, but because the size of its audience means that it is a virtual map of consumer trends across several retail industries. And that’s a value as well.

If you are targeting small business owners, I agree with the newsletter writer’s hypothesis that broad-based communities likely don’t work. But if I am trying to figure out how to get Quickbooks to do what I want it to do, I’d tarry long in an online community of small business owners grappling with accounting issues and they don’t all need to have agencies. Or legal issues. Or hr. Or financing. You just need to talk to your audience and build an offering the way that they want to see it that provides real value.

A few things I would stress to anyone looking to build community and a few for this specialized crowd of crazy entrepreneurs and small business owners:

  • Ask your audience what they want and give it to them, objectively. That includes how you communicate with them, about what and how frequently. Go places where your target audience will go and ask them what they want.
  • If your community is small business focused, make participation anonymous. For small business people, reputation can be really critical and if you want to foster any kind of discussion, you’ll need to create an environment where tough questions can be asked and answered with anonymity preserved.
  • Be irregular. Too often communications and newsletters are scheduled in order to make sure that they happen on schedule. Vary things up. Or … stick to a very rigid schedule so people can expect when to hear from you.

The first set of advice might be good for a group of artistic entrepreneurs, the latter for a group of engineering consultants. Can I stress it enough? Know your audience. How? Talk to them via surveys, online chats, in person discussions, research. Find out what they’re after. Engage them in the design process. That way you will know you’re giving them what they need and building trust – and trust is the most critical first step in community. Run opt-in surveys to your customer base or through Google AdWords promotions. Offer incentives to participate. If you’re a bank and you offer me a half point off prime to participate in a small business community where we talk about finances and financial management and managing money in an objective environment, I am there!

  • Solve problems or provide tangible concrete benefit. For small business people, that’s easy: all of them want the same things. You have to either save them time, money or resources in a way that is so compelling that they will continue to come back to do it. Hmmm, maybe not so easy after all. But possible. Offer business improvement tools, columns from experts, savings and discounts. Send out a once a day email in the morning that contains something of real value – a reminder of something that needs to be done, for example, or a tax tip, or a great piece of software or website for small business owners – the of the business world. Someone’s going to have that set up by the time you’re finished reading this column.
  • No fluff. I love the Profit eXchange newsletter because it is really well written and provides great tips on managing everything from finance to people, concise and to the point and informative.
  • Be prepared for engagement. That means responses, people, dialogue, discussion, and possible change. This ain’t advertising. It’s public relations at its most essential – direct. The dynamic changes when there’s no go-between and managing that dialogue can be the biggest challenge for organizations who are looking to foster community. Understand the dynamics of online dialogue and how to both manage it and benefit from it.

I am working with AIMS to put together a one-day conference on how companies can develop online communities to build trust and loyalty (and ROI) in the spring; watch this space for updates!

One Comment

  1. Bill Johnston
    Bill Johnston February 21, 2007

    Hey Jen,
    Excellent points all around (as usual). The real trick is to know (or get to know) you audience.
    A really great example of a small business with a large community dimension is Threadless, The community actually designs and rates the product, which happens to be ultra-hip tshirts. And, these guys are actually making money!

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