Your Questions Answered About Online Communities: Part 1

A few weeks ago, I participated in a webcast title of “Using Online Conversations to Turbo-Charge Your Business!” and sponsored by social network provider Lithium. We got quite a few questions that I wasn’t able to answer in the allotted hour. Because of travel and other commitments I have been unable to get to them until now.  Over the next couple of weeks, I hope to answer most as blog entries.  Here are the first 10 responses.  Please feel free to comment, disagree or build upon my answers.

Q: Do you know how forums have helped “turbo-charge” organizations that provide psychological help (advice, life-coach-esque, etc.) as opposed to tangible products?

Medical advice, including psychological self-help, is one of the most popular topics on social networks.  Nearly every lifestyle network has one or more areas devoted to peer support regarding medical conditions, depression, weight loss, life changes and other intensely personal issues.  It’s possible to set up your own network, but it may work better to become involved in one of the existing networks as a domain expert. Many network operators are happy to accept people who can provide sound advice.

Q: How have employee moderators benefited online communities?

Employee moderators can be very effective at keeping forms on topic, enforcing appropriate behaviors and dealing with unruly visitors.  Because employees know the subject matter of the community, they are well-qualified to serve as sources of authority.  It’s important to choose wisely, however.  You need people who aren’t easily rattled, have excellent domain knowledge and strong interpersonal skills.  Not everyone combines all those attributes.

Q: Isn’t a lot of audience information actually “misinformation”?

Because online communities have few arbiters to validate content, the likelihood of misinformation is certainly higher.  Generally accepted standards are emerging that enable communities to police themselves.  For example, active members who have a large number of friends and positive comments and/or peer ratings about their contributions are generally considered reliable sources.  Mainstream media and other trusted sources also serve a vital function in linking to the sources of information that they trust.  It’s true that there is more onus on the reader to filter good information from bad, however it is unlikely that bad information will stand for long without being corrected by others. Communities have been proven remarkably effective at that winnowing out process.

Q: How can we not edit /censor certain members when they are clearly offensive to other members?

I don’t mean to imply that you shouldn’t censor people whose behavior is offensive.  As a rule of thumb, give unruly members two chances to mend their ways and then cut them off.  Be careful, however, that you don’t censor people for disagreeing with you.  Differences of opinion should be tolerated, but offensive behavior should not.

Q: Are communities a B2C phenomenon? Or is a B2B community viable? If so, how are B2B communities different from B2C communities?

Most communities at the moment are B2C., but there are some notable examples of B2B success. In the information technology sector, sites like IT Knowledge Exchange, ITToolbox and SlashDot provide expert advice between peers.  Many technology vendors also host active forums and employee blogs. Outside of technology, LinkedIn has become the social network for business professionals. Sermo serves physicians. Sphinn is a social networking site for marketing professionals. There are many others.  In general, B2B communities tend to be more technical, because the participants assume as higher-level of domain knowledge. They also tend to be more focused on buying and deployment advice.

Q: What are your thoughts on policing who joins your community? My concern is with competitors joining to do covert intelligence missions.

The level of policing depends upon the propriety of the content.  If you are planning to start a small and highly focused community for the purpose of market research, members should probably be required to submit business cards, consent to a phone interview and/or sign a nondisclosure agreement.  However, many social networks are simply set up for the purpose of gathering general information about customer preferences and needs. In those cases, it’s easier to provide open access and simply limit the domain of topics you discuss.

Q: Please help reconcile the 300 – 400 group size that Paul said should be split with the fact that only 2% of users are active posters

The 2% rule applies to unstructured and unmoderated networks.  In cases where the members are invited into an exclusive group and expected to actively contribute to a discussion, it is entirely appropriate to prompt lurkers to speak up and, if necessary, to “fire” unresponsive members. A single moderator should be able to manage a group of 300 members by prompting reluctant participants to contribute.

Q: Do you have an idea of how much super users of a website use the products? Is there a correlation or can this vocal minority actually not be big users of the product?

There is actually evidence that super users are less likely to be active buyers, in large part because they have already bought into the company’s product and are enthusiastic about it.  The value of these people is that they have knowledge and credibility with their peers.  In other words, their word-of-mouth value exceeds their monetary value.  While they may not be big spenders, they can influence others in significant ways

Q: Is the process for granting permissions and privileges for super-users automated?

You can automate the process in the same way that airlines automatically upgrade passengers who have flown a certain number of miles.  For example, community members who contribute a defined number of comments or reach a certain rating level may be automatically “promoted” to a higher status.  It is often helpful, though, to have a human being involved in the process to provide that all-important human touch, ensure consistency and prevent scams.

Q: What about legal issues of supporting customer-to-customer communication?

I’m not a lawyer, but in my experience, legal exposure is not a problem as long as the appropriate disclaimers are posted and members agree to terms and conditions.  A company should never put itself in a position of vouching for information it does not know is true, no matter what the source.

Digg Setback Calls 'Wisdom of Crowds' Into Question

Journalism junkies have been closely watching the example of to see if the wisdom of crowds really is better than the judgment of editors. According to David Chen, it isn’t. Writing on Mashable, Chen offers a detailed deconstruction of Digg’s recent decision to jettison some of its top users, apparently for trying to manipulate the system.  The weeding-out process was positioned as a routine cleanup intended to eliminate abusers of the community adjudication process, but it was actually an acknowledgment that decision-making by the masses has serious flaws, Chen concludes.

It’s been common knowledge for a couple of years that the Digg model lent itself to manipulation by a small number of people. In fact, there’s evidence that up to half the stories on Digg’s enormously influential home page were contributed by just 100 users.  By taking draconian action to ban members who had, in some cases, contributed hundreds of hours of effort to building the site, Digg is admitting that it has been unable to figure out an algorithmic solution to the abuse.

The problem isn’t in programs, but in people.  Individuals can attain fame within the community by contributing stories that are ranked highly by other users.  Active members discovered early on that by forming “friend” relationships with many others, they could enhance their performance and popularity.  In other words, the more you voted for another member’s contributions, the more the other member voted for yours.  As time went on, an elite corps grew more powerful, to the point that their contributions can achieve high visibility regardless of merit.

“In the years following its creation, Digg became less a democracy and more a republic, with a select few users responsible for the majority of front page stories,” Chen writes. Digg has tinkered with its settings to try to mitigate this factor, but some members responded by writing scripts that routed around the problem.  It became a giant cat and mouse game that eventually forced Digg to insert human editors at some levels to arbitrate the process.  So much for the wisdom of crowds.

Chen contends that the blockade may irreparably damage Digg’s reputation, although the site will continue to be a huge source of traffic for publishers who are lucky enough to be listed there.  At the very least, the conundrum points out the limits of a purely democratic model of news judgment.  Even successful sites like Wikipedia rely up a small cadre of elite editors to make most of the important decisions. People with significant experience in online communities agree that a very tiny percentage of members contribute the vast majority of content.  It appears that editors, whether bubbled up from the community or appointed by management, are inevitably needed to maintain order

Should this be taken as a condemnation of the community journalism model and validation for the rule of editors?  Absolutely not.  As Wikipedia has demonstrated, armies of ordinary people can create a phenomenal information resource.  However, leaving all decision-making to a group without providing rules or oversight invariably results in the ascendance of an elite.  in the case of Wikipedia, that elite is self-regulating.  In the case of Digg’s more juvenile crown, it’s a frat party.

Be Careful About Pinning Your Hope on "Communities"

I was a guest on a webcast about social software this week (you can watch it here; it’s free) and the question came up about what publications can do to build community. I responded that they can’t do much and they shouldn’t even try because, with few exceptions, readers aren’t a community.

Then I checked my RSS reader the next morning and noticed this item from Content Ninja that makes the very same point: “You cannot build a community around content.”

“Community” is a poorly understood term (just look at the variety of definitions in online reference sources) and, like many buzzwords, it is being overused right now. Mainstream publishers trying to escape their sinking businesses are clinging to the community life raft, hoping that it offers hope for a future. For some it does, but for many general-interest publications, it’s a waste of time.

Newspapers, for example, have historically defined their communities geographically because that’s the business model that worked. While people who share a common space on the planet are technically a community, they’re the least cohesive kind of community. Outside of a shared interest in certain issues like public safety or schools, residents of a city or town have little in common. They may occasionally form strong communities around common interests like a school bond or tax increase, but those groups invariably dissolve as the issue goes away.

There are readership communities that work. Subscribers to a special interest magazine about needlepoint or scuba diving are a type of community. Those people have intense shared interests and they are much more likely to bond together in an online forum that serves those interests. Publishers of special-interest magazines have the best chance of turning their readership into self-sustaining online communities.

General-interest publishers serving broad audiences don’t. Their strength is creating content and their best chance of building community involves giving people a chance to discuss, comment upon and contribute to their content. USA Today does about the best of any major newspaper at encouraging this kind of reader participation. It encourages readers to comment upon and discuss its stories within the the limited confines of non-threaded discussion, but the readers themselves have no means to create groups, initiate their own discussions or contact each other. There’s nothing wrong with that. USA Today doesn’t have the illusion that two million readers are a community. It’s comfortable with its place in the world.