Ideas & insight for creating value and growth through online communities and human networks
Author: Bill Johnston
Bill Johnston - Founder, Structure3C. Former Head of Community at Dell & Autodesk.
Mobile: (415) 233-6914
In a sentence: Seasoned online community and social media executive and advisor with over 15 years experience developing large scale online communities, social media initiatives and successful online product strategies.
To say current conversations about influencer marketing are heated would be an understatement. With estimates of influencer marketing industry size ranging well into the billions of dollars, “influencers” certainly seem to be on the minds (and in the budgets) of marketers.
Let’s be honest – influencer marketing currently seems to be a bit of a mess. Issues with performance, lack of disclosure, authenticity, analytics, ethics, and even debate on what constitutes an “influencer”.
I’ll admit I’ve personally struggled with the concept of influencer marketing programs. I’ve focused on developing customer communities throughout my career, and it was always galling to see budgets dedicated to what I perceived as shallow and short term investments with influencers and opinion leaders competing for budget with community programs.
Now I see an opportunity to align influencer marketing programs with community development – or, said another way, I see an opportunity to identify and develop an evolved form of “influencer” from your community ecosystem. Specifically, I see an opportunity for many brands to see “influencer” development through the lens of community ecosystem development, and to align influencer investment with community-based champion and mvp programs. To take advantage of this opportunity, three key transformations are needed:
Community Ecosystem Development: A shift from community development, slio’d by business function and digital touchpoint, to a comprehensive approach that includes all customer-facing programs, (on and offline) brand-hosted communities, social media touchpoints and partner / industry communities.
Community Advocacy Programs: Evolving community advocacy (MVP) programs (rooted in the dated Microsoft MVP model) to a model that identifies, celebrates and enables exceptional community stakeholders of all types (customers, prospects, fans, experts, employees and partners). This evolution would also involve an equitable value exchange between the community hosts and advocates.
Community Leadership Models: Evolve community leadership models to: 1) involve (enlist) more brand-side participants, 2) account for a broader range of community & ecosystem leadership activities (on and offline), and 3) ground community activity in purposeful transformation for all community members (a.k.a. ongoing personal improvement)
In short: most current “influencer” strategies are essentially paid media masquerading as social media. Grow influence through, and for, your customer community.
The last few years have seen big brands make extraordinary investments in developing massive “digital transformation” and social media programs. On one hand, these programs have yielded moments of customer connection, advocacy and insight. Unfortunately, for the majority of programs reliant on mass social platforms like Facebook and Twitter, organic reach has dropped effectively to 0 and companies are now forced to pay to engage sporadically with the “audiences” they worked so hard to build. Companies now realize they have been renting their customer communities on social platforms.
The alternative to social media campaigns and digital transformation theatrics? Developing Customer communities. Specifically, online Customer communities that companies build, host and manage. Customer communities hold the key to Customer acquisition, retention and growth. Further, communities can be a catalyst for development and innovation, and will be critical to future business models. Below I explore the opportunity for Customer community in three key Corporate areas: Brand, Product and Innovation.
Community is the Fabric of Brand
What is the nature and value of brand in a hyper-connected world? A recent HBR article asserts that the collective value of Customer relationships is outstripping the value of “brand. The authors of the article nail the point that Customer relationships are incredibly valuable, but may have missed an opportunity to explore the effect of the customer community as a brand asset & catalyst — the line between brand and relationship isn’t as crisp as the authors imply. Further, I would assert that the “network” of relationships represented by the collective customer base of a company is a manifestation of brand, every bit as important and as valuable as the components of brand identity. My primary research and experience has shown connected customers (via community and social) are more valuable than those that aren’t. Third party research by Deloitte has shown that Networked companies (“Network Operators”) perform better, live longer, and are more valuable. All of these points are are vectoring towards a new opportunity and a new frontier in business: Community-Centric Customer Experience — an approach to customer experience design and business strategy that not only strengthens the Company to Customer relationship (1:1), but also strengthens and develops the Customer to Customers & Company relationship (1:Many, a.k.a. the “Community”). and considers development of the Community the primary .
Communities Will Infuse & Enhance Product Experience
Customer communities are an essential part of most technology products now. At the very least, online support forums are expected as part of the offering (more on that in a bit). Many companies are experimenting with customer communities as a means to raise product awareness, convert trial customers and retain existing customers. A radical new business opportunity is emerging where the community (both the people and the platform) are the actual product. Purchases are artifacts or a gateway into the community experience, and the real “product” is the collective experience, knowledge, content and means of collaboration with the community. There are many early examples in the gaming world, from MMOG’s like World of Warcraft to the new “build and explore” virtual worlds like Roblox. Software companies are attempting to build communities that address the “whole customer”, and focus on experiences well outside of product support. Adobe (Behance), Autodesk (Instructables, Fusion360, AREA), Salesforce (Trailblazer Community), and Sephora (Beauty Talk) are actively investing in the community space.
Communities Drive Innovation & Long-Term Value
There is an unfortunate tendency to view Customer communities as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This thinking leads to strategies and outcomes that fail to realize the full value of customer communities, and is rooted in a long standing dependence by some companies on customer support communities. In extreme examples, this sort of strategy breeds resentment with valuable customers and leads to a dangerous dependence on an unsustainable resource. When the Corporate mindset shifts to “value producing”, the aperture of community strategy widens to a rich set of possibilities: community advocacy programs, open innovation, peer to peer mentoring, complex content sharing, customer co-design and much more.
Moving forward, Customer communities will be the medium by which value is co-created and exchanged between Companies and customers. To have any chance of long term success with Customer communities, mindsets have to evolve beyond a fixation on cost savings to a more enlightened view of communities as a valuable catalyst for innovation and growth.
The Bottom Line:
Customer communities are the “fabric of brand”, the medium in which the network of customer & company relationships develops and thrives. Companies that create modern communities with their customers will be more innovative, realize more value and have more resilient businesses than their competitors who don’t.
Use these three contexts to help create long-term value with your company’s community.
When developing or refining a community strategy, it is critical to understand the larger market and business contexts the community will exist in. This sounds obvious and straightforward, right? Yet the needed research, discussion and development of shared understanding of these contexts rarely happens. As a side note, this concept was literally hammered into my brain by a former boss at Autodesk, Moonhie Chin, who was the SVP of Digital Platform and Experience. She always had a simple question for any data she saw: “What is the denominator?” – meaning, what is the whole, or what is the largest meaningful context.
I’ve been primarily focused on developing Business to Business communities during my career, and I’ve come up with three key contexts that I think are critical to understand the opportunity for community development.
1. Customer Career Journey
Understanding your customer’s career journey, the number of distinct journeys, and how your product / service plays a role can help determine where in the journey community may play a valuable role.
Number of distinct Customer Profiles (~Personas)
Stages in Career Journey
Centrality of products / services to productivity & advancement at each stage
Is product or service critical throughout career, or only at certain points?
How does / could the community support development and transition?
Can your organization support the full Customer Career Journey, or does it make sense to partner with complimentary organizations?
2. Criticality of Product / Service
Understanding the criticality of your product / service engagement by customer profile, can give insight into the level of effort, the specific motivations, and the needed resources customers need to master your product, and by extension, advance in their career. This understanding can guide what community experiences your offer (and what community investments you make).
Complexity of product / services
Effort required to attain skills / mastery
Amount of time spent using product / service
Amount of time spent in surrounding ecosystem – courses, conferences, meetups, online content, expert communities, etc.
How much time will the customer spend mastering product / services and necessary skills?
How much time will the customer use the product in their work?
How much time is it reasonable to expect a Customer to spend participating in your community weekly?
What form factor and level of effort is required for quality participation?
3. Total Addressable Community & Crowd
Taking insights uncovered from the discussions in the customer career journeys and the depth of engagement categories, what do the opportunities and required investments look like at scale?
Overall Market Size
Current Customer Base
Projected growth (ideally segmented by Customer Profile)
Target vs Current Community Membership (again, segmented by Customer Profile)
How big is the total addressable market?
What % of active customers are targeted for community engagement?
What business value can be realized at scale?
How can the community business case be optimized by extrapolating investment vs return at scale? At what point does the investment vs return reach equilibrium? Go negative?
How does the Customer value proposition change at scale? Is there a true Network benefit, or flat / diminishing return at a certain point in the growth arc?
In the simplest terms, the three contexts give you:
Customer career journeys: Where in the journey is community valuable?
Depth of product / service engagement: What community experiences are valuable?
Total addressable community & crowd: How many people can you expect to participate in your communities?
These contexts are for considering an Enterprise strategy, and you can imagine similar contexts for Medium & Small Business and Consumer. This approach doesn’t replace a comprehensive strategy development exercise, but is intended to sketch out a future state and give relative sizing for future planning or assessing current efforts.
If you would like to discuss this sizing approach, or other advanced ideas for creating a bigger and better future for you community, please reach out.
I’ve worked with some form of community my entire career. In 1999 I took a job with TechRepublic.com as “UX Program Manager” and spent 9 months helping design, build, launch and grow what would become one of the largest online communities of global IT Professionals. Community platforms, as we know them now, didn’t exist. We had to build everything from the ground up. A design for threaded discussions went from whiteboard to production over a weekend. Content editors played the roles of community manager and moderator – “community management” wasn’t a term of art yet. It seems quaint that for the first two years of TechRepublic we only cared about two numbers: uptime and membership.
My first taste of what might be possible with communities of practice was volunteering to be one of the first Fast Company Company of Friends organizers in Louisville KY in 2000. The FastCo mothership gave me a list of local subscribers, a discussion guide, some facilitation guidelines and an organizer’s button. We held the first meeting in a local business conference room, and frankly, I was amazed that anyone showed up (we had 15 people at the first meeting) and impressed that we all had so much to discuss. The central topic was about how technology was changing business – especially the Internet.
In 2001 I was offered the chance to move to California and work on an in-product community with Autodesk. The focus of the community was to support customer onboarding and product usage. Autodesk was the beginning of a personal journey to study the implicit and explicit value of communities (in their various manifestations) to companies. That journey continued with Forum One, where we developed the first conference series for community executives and developed the first practitioner research on analytics, strategy and practice. Dell allowed me to learn and experiment at a global scale, and incorporate community analytics into marketing mix models and enterprise-wide reporting. My journey now continues with Structure3C. Along the way I’ve studied and helped develop different methods and measurements for community value: the impact of forums on the support burden, the effect of community on NPS and LTV, the effect of community on purchase frequency and size, understanding how a community ecosystem develops, and much more.
Historically, measuring the value of knowledge generated in online communities has been the focus for community analytics, particularly in the context of customer support. Over the years different approaches have been fielded for measuring this value in support communities, including the cost savings of customer labor vs staff, the value of a call deflection, the long-term value of a qualified or accepted answer, and possible causal effects of participation on customer behavior. Several thoughtful methods have been formalized and documented by platform vendors and industry experts. This “ground zero” problem seems to have been solved, and cyclically re-solved and re-quantified to the point of diminishing returns, like a community version of the Bill Murray film Groundhog Day – and we still have executives pushing back on the validity of the calculus, and the corresponding results. This is perplexing to me.
Keep in mind, the customer support scenario I describe above is arguably the most tested, proven and accepted (by community professionals) example of community value. Yet organizations continue to regularly debate this. When the conversation moves towards the value of community across customer lifecycle, and the potential value across business units our current methods, measurements and metaphors fail us.
What Got Us Here Isn’t What We Need To Move Forward
It seems we missed something along the way in developing best practices for communities. Admittedly, it’s not a simple problem to solve, but the key problem areas seem fairly clear:
“Community”, as a term, is largely subjective;
Community as a concept is still largely misunderstood by the extended organization;
Investments in social media activities have claimed large portions of budgets and resources and have been mistakenly viewed as the primary focus for community, as opposed to a component of the community ecosystem;
Community strategies are often independent of, and so therefore misaligned with, corporate strategy and have no clear connection to corporate goals;
Community as a function is separated from other customer-facing functions;
Community analytics and activities often don’t communicate value in the context and language of the business;
Because the community function is separated from the business, it is often viewed as a cost center, as extra overhead for extended teams, and is asked to quantify value and impact in unusual or extraordinary ways – often in an ongoing, and sometimes ad hoc fashion;
Hampered by the aforementioned factors, the final straw is that community analytics and data aren’t integrated technically or programmatically into enterprise analytics, data and reporting – a critical dimension of individual customer profiles and the ability to gain insight into entire market segments is wholly missing.
Integrate Community Into The Fabric of the Organization
When most Executives think about customer communities, there is an unfortunate tendency to view them as “cost saving” vs “value producing”. This thinking leads to strategies and outcomes that fail to realize the full value of customer communities. This typically manifests in the form of a myopic focus on customer support communities and an overburdening of customers taking on the role of customer support agent. In extreme examples, this sort of strategy breeds resentment with valuable customers and leads to a dangerous dependence on an unsustainable resource. When the Executive mindset shifts to “value producing”, the aperture of community strategy widens to a rich set of possibilities: community advocacy programs, open innovation, peer to peer mentoring, complex content sharing, co-design of products and much more.
As we enter into an increasingly digital & connected era, future-state communities will be key locations where tangible value is co-created and exchanged between companies and customers. To have any chance of long term success with customer communities, mindsets have to evolve beyond a fixation on cost savings to a more enlightened view of communities as a valuable catalyst for growth.
Moving forward: in order for businesses to begin defining a future state community model, they should:
View community building as a capability and view their extended community ecosystem as a strategic asset;
Explore and define what “community” means in the context of their customer’s and employee’s collective experience;
Develop a community strategy that aligns with, and complements (in some cases, shapes), corporate strategy;
Don’t “build a community” – develop a community ecosystem;
Understand how the community ecosystem creates value for all external stakeholders and all business functions;
Develop community programs, goals and KPIs that tie to Business Unit goals and objectives and are translated into team, manager and individual performance goals;
Integrate community ecosystem data, analytics and insights into enterprise analytics, communications and annual & quarterly business reviews.
In short: many organizations are missing the community opportunity because of a short sighted focus on transactional value in the context of specific use cases. Growth-minded companies are fully embracing community as a concept and integrating community ecosystem development practices into the fabric of their business with great success.
This post is the first in a series on the future state of online community ecosystems, and contains excerpts from the report out of Structure3C’s Community & Crowd Mastermind session on Community Analytics and Value. A version of this post appeared on LinkedIn in February of 2019.
To learn more about the Mastermind group, Structure3C’s offerings, or discuss how we can help you develop the community ecosystem for your brand, please reach out: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Artificial Intelligence is arguably the buzziest of buzz words these days. Yet, there is a reason for the hype: AI could support a radical transformation of online community management and experience: automation of routine tasks, real-time insight, enhanced personalization and the enhanced agency of an individual in digital ecosystems.
For business leaders shaping online community strategy, AI holds promise to help solve two of the biggest challenges with online communities: 1) Quantifying the value of community investment and delivering timely and actionable insight and 2) Managing large networks of relationships at scale.
To Start: What is AI?
In the context of Community, AI can be thought of as an agent, or set of agents that
is / are connected to real time data sources;
has / have the ability to act in the community (or admin interface); and
has / have specific goals to make progress towards.
From the Wikipedia entry on AI:
“In computer science AI research is defined as the study of “intelligent agents“: any device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of successfully achieving its goals. Colloquially, the term “artificial intelligence” is applied when a machine mimics “cognitive” functions that humans associate with other human minds, such as “learning” and “problem solving”. “
“Isn’t this just an algorithm?” is the next natural question, and the answer is “well, not really.” Algorithms are complex sets of bounded instructions, and they aren’t (typically) designed to learn from their environment and evolve.
Where are we on the map?
Clearly, interest, investment and experimentation in AI by corporations is increasing year over year. According to Harvard Business Review, which surveyed over 3,000 organizations, 20 percent of companies used AI in a core part of their business model, and 41 percent were experimenting or piloting in 2017 (a total of 61 percent).
Narrative Science partnered with the National Business Research Institute and found the same numbers: 61 percent of surveyed respondents utilized AI in their corporations in 2017 (up from the 38 percent in 2016). The study also found that 35 percent of respondents use AI for interaction with customers (a.k.a. potential community members).
A recent study by Constellation Research found that 70% of the organizations they studied were already investing in AI and that 60% were expecting to increase their investment by 50% or more this year.
Community Leaders and Community Platform Providers have been leveraging simplistic AI tools for more than a decade, primarily for automating community moderation tasks and supporting member personalization. An early example: we launched TechRepblic.com in ’99 with an overly-complex community and content personalization function and wound up pulling back on the functionality in subsequent releases because of the technical overhead.
Emerging Use Cases for AI
We (Stucture3C) are in the midst on a year-long research project, C3/A3, studying how organizations are using / planning to use AI in their online communities. In our first wave of research with 40 Community Professionals at large organizations, we asked what types of advanced technologies they are considering or implementing, including AI and related technologies. Personalization, bots / agents and analytics topped the list.
Digging deeper, we wanted to understand the most valuable use cases under consideration: We found that corporations are either piloting or planning to use AI in three key areas: Customer Experience, Community Management, and Analytics / Insights.
Customer Experience (for Community Members) Examples include:
Advanced personalization based on profile / activity
Recommendations of people and content
Conversational interfaces, including chatbots
Agents (acting on behalf of a member)
From the write in responses:
“(We are evaluating)… Machine Learning that automates personalization for content, news, interaction models.”
Community Management (for Community Managers) Examples include:
Influencer & Advocate identification
Escalation identification – ID’ing people who need help, like Facebook’s suicide threat technology
Moderation of content and member behavior
Suggested actions (what to do next in the community)
Suggested content (to produce, based on member behavior and other signals)
From the write in responses:
“(We are)…Leveraging machine learning in our peer to peer support community to predict certain kinds of moderation needs, such as suicidal escalations or harassment etc. Better sentiment/text analysis.”
“(We are piloting)…AI text analysis to draw insights from unstructured data feeds (with reduced dependency on tagging)”
Analytics / Insights (for Executive / Business Stakeholders) Examples include:
Areas of investment
Identifying customer behavior trends
Gleaning insight for product / service enhancement
From the write in responses:
“Predictive – I want to present our users with timely and relevant content, before they even know they need it in some cases. If we know what you’re doing with our products and what your behaviors are in community, we should be able to activate that data into meaningful upgrades to the experience in both places.”
#TeamHuman vs. the Machines
Swiss Futurist Gerd Leonard characterizes the broad adoption of AI and related technologies as a battle of “Technology vs. Humanity”. The statement is hyperbolic, but the intent is spot in: we have to act now to ensure enabling human agency and purpose remains at the heart of any broadly deployed technology, including AI. Australian Online Community pioneer Venessa Paech says it best in a recent article:
“Instead of being replaced, community experts will upgrade. We’ll work to help businesses set up bots and intelligent interactions. We’ll plot behavioural frameworks for machine learning. We’ll spill into HR, marketing, IT, innovation – anywhere there’s a need to understand and optimise social intelligence. Leveraging AI for communities demands we extend our capabilities as social systems engineers. If we get it right, we can see to it that AI augments our best natures, not our worst.“
Participants in Wave 1 of the C3/A3 project are also optimistic about the possibilities of AI:
“I’m excited about the shift that AI could bring – instead of being reactive, let’s be proactive. I’d also like to use this tech to identify the things that we can flatly stop doing and redirect those efforts into more valuable activities.”
“I’m really excited to see how AI & ML augment and enhance a community member’s experience rather than replace any of the human aspects!”
Essentially, we think the value of AI is threefold for Community Professionals:
AI will allow for the automation of routine community tasks and processes so that focus can be put on more valuable activities;
AI will provide real-time analytics, insight, and specific and contextual suggestions;
AI will shape the community experience for all stakeholders, including members (onsite), prospective members (externally), Community Managers and Executive Stakeholders.
We think future communities will thrive with AI if the ultimate goal of the community is enabling member agency and purpose. Perhaps paradoxically, the future of community management will likely depend on Community Managers becoming comfortable with, and knowledgable about, intelligent agents and automation, while doubling down on the art and science of human interactions and group facilitation.
Gratitude: I wanted to give a shout out to Venessa Paech. The motivation to start the C3A3 project was inspired, in part, by conversations with her at, and following, the 2017 SWARM Community Management Conference. Be sure to read Venessa’s thought piece on AI and Community Management. I also highly recommend the SWARM conference, being held in Melbourne this year, August 30-31.
Collaborative Innovation Communities – where companies and customers collaborate on ideas for new products and services – can be one of the most valuable ways to invest in community engagement. Unfortunately, this type of community is also one of the most difficult to get right. Many companies have experimented with this type of Open Innovation – Lego Ideas, Dell’s IdeaStorm, Starbucks’ My Starbucks Idea – and each of these companies have seen value from the communities. The bad news is that most companies fail because they lack the vision and commitment to see beyond the initial tactic of soliciting customer ideas.
With the right programs, platforms, community ecosystem design and internal alignment, Collaborative Innovation communities can produce incredible value.
Intense Pressure to Innovate
In an updated version of their famous “Creative Destruction” Report, research firm Innosight predicts that the average tenure of a company in the S&P 500 index will drop from 24 years (2016) to just 12 years by 2027. In a recent survey of Corporate Innovation Executives, research firm CB Insights found that ~41% of executives said that felt their companies were “extremely” or “very” at risk of being disrupted.
Spectrum of Innovation Communities
In studying the types of innovation communities, we feel the range can be narrowed down to 3 categories:
Brand-Hosted Communities: Where a single brand hosts an innovation community focused on the brand’s products, services or business model
Project-Based Communities: Communities of experts that come together to solve problems or challenges around a particular domain.
Grand Challenges: A challenge-based community that convenes a diverse ecosystem of smaller communities to solve massively complex problems.
In practice, most corporate innovation initiatives ignore the value communities and networks can provide. The chart below is a simple illustration of how community could support different innovation types:
The full slide deck, with examples of Brand and Project-Based communities can be found here:
The companion worksheet for planning your Collaborative Innovation initiative can be found here: http://bit.ly/CICWORK
The working list of Brand-based communities, Project-based communities and host platforms can be found here:
I’ve developed a workshop to help organizations learn about, ideate on and plan their Collaborative Innovation strategy. I’m also creating a small work group (mastermind style) to help non-competitive organizations share their progress and lessons learned. If you would be interested in discussing either of these, please feel free to reach out: email@example.com
C3: Community, Crowd, Collaboration
A3: AI, Agents and Automation
Humans instinctively seek meaning, connection and resources through community. Driven by near ubiquitous access to broadband and the rapid adoption of smartphones, our new and ever-expanding digital world offers instant access to a rich tapestry of social experiences, fundamentally changing the way we seek, find and participate in community.
Currently, individuals and organizations are struggling to adapt to our evolving digital world, particularly the social technologies we use to connect and communicate with each other. Complex human networks are springing up on and across myriad social media, social network and topic-based communities, forming community ecosystems that transcend technological, geographical and organizational boundaries.
Looking forward, it seems things are about to get even more complicated. A new set of technologies is emerging to augment human cognition (AI), enhance human agency (Agents) and shape digital experiences and outcomes by taking advantage of a rich set of tools and APIs (Automation). We see these three technological forces (AI, Agents and Automation) as the next immediate wave of disruption in digital experience, and we see Community, Crowd and Collaboration as the social contexts in which technology and humanity will interact for the betterment (or detriment) of humankind.
The C3/A3 Project Overview
Our hypothesis is that this combination of social technologies with human augmentation technologies will usher in a new age of digital community experiences. These new experiences will present unprecedented opportunities and challenges for organizations and individuals, and complex policy issues for society. The C3/A3 project will explore the technological, business and societal implications of this next wave of change and offer a helpful path forward.
Technology: The current and emerging technology landscape
Business: Corporate strategy, competence, needs and level of readiness
Individuals: Customer (a.k.a. Community member) needs, expectations and likely challenges
Key Components of the Project:
Community Executive survey – February 26th
Technology landscape analysis
AI technologies ( ex: Watson, Einstein)
Agent interfaces (ex: Cortana, Alexa, Obindo)
Executive interviews with select technology providers, early adopters and startups
Mass practitioner survey
Customer (Community End-user) survey
Reports and Mastermind
The output of the project will be a series of reports throughout 2018 that publish key findings. An executive mastermind group for brands and select startups will be formed to deeply explore relevant topics.
The first wave of research launches on Monday, February 26th with an invitation-based survey to Executives who own community and social media experiences for their respective companies. Detailed results will be shared privately amongst this group, and summary data will be shared publicly.
If you would like to participate in the research survey and subsequent Mastermind discussion, please send me a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reminder: This phase of the research is open to Executives at large organizations (5000+). No agencies or consultancies please.
I was honored to be asked to keynote the SWARM Community Managers Conference in Sydney this week, hosted by conference Co-Founders Alison Michalk and Venessa Paech. The conference featured a range of topics and an impressive group of expert practitioners sharing their views on Community building.
My keynote focused on the need for a modern approach to community building in response to the accelerating change and disruption driven by exponential technologies. I’ve summarized the talk below and included the full deck at the bottom of the post.
Exponential Technologies and the Missing Human Dimension
Exponential Technologies are defined as technologies that are on a growth curve of power and speed are doubling annually, or the cost is dropping in half annually. Further, these technologies interact in a combinatorial way to create disruptive change and opportunity. Futurists Frank Diana and Gerd Leonhard do an amazing job of unpacking this concept on this recent podcast.
Online Communities are poised to have a break through moment if we, as community builders, can blaze the trail.
There are several trends converging to support this approach:
Many organizations are experiencing a social media hangover and are actively exploring the possibilities of hosting their networks and communities;
Research is showing that network-building and platform building activities are a path for organizations towards resilience and growth;
We know online communities can generate significant and varied forms of value, and that connected customers are typically more valuable.
A New Approach to Community Building
A new and comprehensive approach to online communities can create a path forward through the change being driven by exponential technologies. The key factors, as I see them:
Leadership that prioritizes learning over labor;
Community experiences that are powered by purpose;
A move beyond destinations to community ecosystems;
Community presence across contextual interfaces;
1. Shifting Leadership Mindsets To create the environment for Communities to be successful, leaders within organizations have to shift from a primary focus on Scalable Efficiency (Fixed Mindset) to a focus on Scalable Learning (Growth Mindset). Scalable efficiency is all about defined roles, repeatable processes and limited experimentation. This works well in a static environment but works poorly in a dynamic one. A focus on experimentation, learning and evolution creates the opportunity to adapt to changing conditions and shifts the role of community from one of cost-savings to one of value-creation.
2. Purpose-powered Communities
As Community Builders, we’ve always known that we needed to define a community’s purpose as part of strategic development, but we generally haven’t paid much attention to the role of purpose for community participants. Further, an emerging body of research (including my own primary research) has shown that helping community members discover, refine and actualize their purpose can create truly extraordinary outcomes and high levels of engagement.
3. Developing Community Ecosystems
Developing a community ecosystem, to date, has typically involved bolting on a handful of social channels to a hosted community strategy. A number of new opportunities have emerged to explore in-person experiences, community partnerships and mastermind-style engagements (to name a few).
4. Interfaces into Community
Perhaps one of the most interesting opportunities is to think about the expression of your community across a range of interfaces. In-product experiences are going to be particularly valuable. As an example, Aatif Awan, VP of Growth at LinkedIn stated that “Product integrations with Microsoft are the biggest growth opportunity” for LinkedIn.
Community Builders as Architects of the Exponential Experience
The concept of engaging “the Crowd” through digital platforms has been around for some time. Howard Rheingold coined the term “Smart Mob” in 2002 to describe the phenomenon of people acting in concert “because they carry devices that possess both communication and computing capabilities”. The concept was carried forward in 2005 by the editors of Wired to coin the term “Crowdsourcing” (crowd + outsourcing) to describe production with the a digitally connected marketplace. In the 15 years since the concept of Crowdsourcing was introduced, we have seen a wide range of crowd-based business models emerge: Wikipedia (collective knowledge), Lego Ideas (design your own kit), Kickstarter (crowd funding), Local Motors (crowdsourced vehicles), and Dell’s Ideastorm (the original social suggestion box).
With the wide range of crowdsourcing experimentation, we’ve also seen the limits of what the current platforms and practices can produce, and it isn’t pretty. Consider:
On average, less than 30% of Crowdfunding campaigns reach their goals. On some platforms it can be closer to 10%.
Quirky, once the darling of crowdsourced consumer goods, filed for bankruptcy in 2015.
Dell, an early pioneer in crowdsourcing, has been able to implement only 2% of the ideas submitted on IdeaStorm.
Independent crowdsourcing research, including a recent study by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, discovered that social influence can cause “herding towards a relatively arbitrary position.”
What are the key challenges?
The most common limiting factors to Crowdsourcing initiatives are one, or a combination, of the following:
Engaging the right crowd: Perhaps the most critical challenge in crowdsourcing is finding, and then engaging, the members of the crowd with the knowledge, skill and motivation to participate. Without domain knowledge and skill crowdsourcing produces only low quality results. Without motivation, you have unrealized potential.
Creating an iterative development process: One of the early corporate adopters of crowdsourcing, Dell’s Ideastorm, learned early on that creating an experience that solicits ideas without giving the community the ability to refine and evolve the ideas is a waste of time. After collecting over 10,000 ideas in the first 2 years of IdeaStorm, Dell was left with 9,750 that couldn’t be implemented, causing frustration for the company and their crowd. By introducing multi-staged challenges dubbed “Storm Sessions”, Dell was able to source and develop products with their crowd, most notably Project Sputnik, the first Linux-based laptop for developers.
Developing short and long-term feedback loops: The process and infrastructure required to support short-term feedback loops is difficult and labor intensive, requiring personal interactions and manual data management. Longer term feedback loops that include market data are currently next to impossible.
Creating intelligence from crowd data: The amount of data a typical crowdsourcing initiative produces is overwhelming, and managing this data to create knowledge and insight, even moreso. Consider the amount of manual processing and scoring overhead associated with the 25,000+ ideas in the previously mentioned Dell IdeaStorm example.
How A New Take on Collective Intelligence Can Help
Collective Intelligence, a disciplined approach to the “wisdom of the crowd”, is defined as the “science of scaling insight from multiple knowledgeable perspectives and experiences into predictions”. We’ve traditionally thought of “The Crowd” as exclusively human, but what if we expanded the collective “we” to include the rapidly evolving domain of Artificial Intelligence? The combination of expert communities and artificial intelligence is the core of a new approach to Collective Intelligence being developed by a new startup named CrowdSmart. Specifically, CrowdSmart technology creates a means to predict startup success factors by engaging an expert community of investors to score and provide critical feedback to early stage startups. Investors save time on research and improve the quality of their deal flow, and Startups get critical and timely feedback to help increase their odds for successful outcomes.
What is uniquely valuable about the CrowdSmart approach is leveraging Artificial Intelligence to detect the statistically significant ranked comments behind any given score. These ranked comments are the “drivers” that produce a specific score. The qualitative “wisdom of the crowd” becomes quantitative intelligence that grows in value over time.
According to Tom Kehler, Chief Data Scientist at CrowdSmart, “Collective Intelligence significantly outperforms individual expert intelligence at predicting the success of a new products, services and startups.” If Tom is correct, the application of Collective Intelligence will have far-reaching effects on the future of Crowdsourcing, paving the way for a more disciplined approach and more successful outcomes.
Bastian Unterberg is the founder and CEO of Jovoto, a Berlin-based platform that enables global brands and enterprise businesses to solve design and innovation challenges – ranging from new product design to sustainable architecture – with a community of over 60,000 creative professionals. In 2013, Wiley published Bastian’s book, “Crowdstorm – The Future of Innovation, Ideas and Problem Solving”. Crowdstorm delves deep into the methodology Jovoto uses, and is an insightful read for anyone working with creative communities and crowdsourcing initiatives.
I met Bastian at Crowdsourcing Week 2015 in Brussels and was impressed with Jovoto on multiple fronts: the quality of brands that were sponsoring projects (Starbucks, Adidas, Coke), the commitment by Jovoto to engage and compensate their community, and the way that Jovoto encourages the community of creatives to lead crowdstorm projects – including solution selection and distribution of award funds.
This interview is the culmination of ongoing conversations I’ve had with Bastian since meeting him last fall in Brussels.
Q: What motivated you to start jovoto?
BU: “Towards the end of my studies at the University of Arts in Berlin I was asking myself “What’s next, how do I want to work?” Looking at various verticals across creative industries, I realized that most work environments available to me did not match my DNA and understanding about how I want to work. So much amazing talent leaves university to face a world that simply does not nurture them or help them reach their full creative potential. Hierarchy, politics, poor feedback culture – these are some of the factors in traditional creative work environments that suppress rather than nurture creativity. And this is something that I wanted to change for myself, for my graduating classmates, and for others around the world who were looking to break free from the traditional agency model.”
Q: The concept of community is core to jovoto’s business. Can you talk about the type of people who make up the community and what motivates them to participate?
BU: “We know that by embracing the concept of community, the majority of our creatives prefer to work on jovoto rather than elsewhere. To my knowledge, there are no other open innovation platforms that listens, supports, and nurtures their community to the extent that we do.
The jovoto community consists of creatives from all over the world who value their freedom to work from wherever they are, whenever they want and with whom they find interesting. They are highly independent and rely on feedback to develop and improve. They are open to collaboration and are not afraid of working with others when they see they lack certain skills to make their ideas as good as possible. They don’t rely on one skill but are rather interdisciplinary and great problem solvers in general.
What motivates them? Our community is motivated to participate on jovoto by many factors, but what might come surprising to many, is that earning money isn’t at the top of the list for most of them. For some it is the chance to work with great global brands on interesting tasks, for others it is the learning they get through collaboration and feedback, and then of course there are always those motivated by prize money.”
Q: There is an unusually high level of collaboration amongst community members. How did you go about building a strong community culture that values quality and contribution?
BU: “Open innovation naturally attracts a certain type of creative who are more likely to engage in collaboration in a different way. To nurture this even more, we reward certain behaviours that creates the culture which we want. Creatives who collaborate with and give great feedback to others, have opportunities to win special awards. We also have a team of creative guides who know the client and the community who also give feedback on ideas, as well as support and encourage the creatives. All of this contributes to the unique and supportive culture within our community.”
Q: Why is social impact important to you? Can you describe some of the global projects jovoto has hosted that have made a positive impact in the world?
BU: “One of the things you can observe on jovoto, is how creativity and mass-collaboration is an powerful tool to affect positive change. I’m pretty proud of our track record in hosting important projects that will help make the world a better place. From the $300 House challenge, crowdstorming low-cost irrigation solutions for farmers in India, and the universal logo for human rights. Last year, our most successful campaign was with Greenpeace, to put come up with campaign material to help put pressure on McDonald’s to stop their use of GM feed in poultry. The campaign was a success; McDonald’s in Germany announced in 2015 that they would stop using GM!
Corruption is another issue on the top of everyone’s list right now with the recent news about the Panama Papers. One of the ways we are engaging in the global fight to end corruption is by collaborating with Transparency International, and supporting the work that they do by helping to spread the word against grand corruption.
One of the reasons crowdstorming works in all of these cases, is that not only do projects promoting positive-impact projects tend to have a high engagement rate on the jovoto platform, but creatives participating also tend to spread the word off the platform, gaining even more visibility for important projects. It is a win-win-win situation for everyone. The creatives participating who can contribute their time and creativity to important projects, the organizations we work with who get great ideas, and for social and environmental impact.”
Q: You’ve said that you want to grow jovoto to the point that creatives could actually make a living solely from the platform. How close are you to achieving this vision and what will it take?
BU: “We aren’t far off, actually. Just this month, our top-earner took home €11,000 EUR (over $12,000 USD).
As more and more young people are looking to alternative forms of work, and more and more global business are looking to the future and to open innovation, the chances happening are already helping establish this new reality.
For jovoto, it is about supporting the best talent working on our platform, to reach new levels of greatness. We give creatives the chance to grow and learn and reward outstanding creative work. If you’re really good on jovoto, you can climb the creative ladder, with more invites to even more projects, some with guaranteed payment for participation. The more great clients we have, the more opportunities we can provide to creatives, and the securities we can offer scale.”
Q: What is your advice for those seeking to pursue a path of self employment through platforms like jovoto?
BU: “The first step is simply to participate! Submit ideas, give others feedback, and find other creatives to collaborate with.
The creatives that succeed on jovoto are usually creatives that give and listen to feedback, are genuinely helpful and supportive and engage with others. It’s an open innovation process so the more open you are, the more successful you are.”