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.
The primary purpose of the Cohere Project (and podcast) is to explore the future of human networks, especially tools that increase human and group agency in a network. I believe Nilofer Merchant’s concept of “Onlyness’ is one such tool. We discuss Onlyness, and much more, in one of the most fun, informative and unfiltered conversations we’ve had on the Cohere podcast.
Nilofer Merchant is a pioneer in the use of social technologies and has written extensively about how businesses can leverage social networks and communities to shape strategy, improve performance and become more purposeful. In her new book “The Power of Onlyness”, Nilofer brings forward the idea of Onlyness as a means of claiming your distinct place in the world and using networks as a catalyst for actualizing your purpose.
Quotes From This Episode
Nilofer On Innovation “Innovation is like air. It’s in circulation, right? That everything happens. So it’s more about watching the flow of interconnections, not about containing it in one spot.”
Nilofer on Cocreation “All ideas are manifest in a social construct. I’m watching this and thinking ‘ we’re totally missing the point’, but social can actually allow us to shape every part of the value chain. I didn’t feel like anyone else was saying that. And so in fact, I wrote a piece that I got death threats over. The simple notion was, we’ve been conditioned to think about work as being the thing that happens internal to the company, that it’s our ideas. Then here’s this little dotted line of how these ideas link up. Then there’s the world out there. We create, you buy. I was like, well, actually you could have customers give you demand signals. You could have the whole interactivity of every part of the value cycle could happen from creation to demand to customer service, cocreation of work.”
NiloferOn “Onlyness“ “Each of us stands in a spot in the world. From that singular distinct spot is how you add value to the world. So it’s your source of ideas. It’s the way in which you cocreate. It’s the insight you have based on what you see as wrong or needed. It’s centering correctly on the source of ideas. Based on that history and experience, visions and hopes that only one has.
There’s a beautiful source of ideas that all of us have, but we largely ignore. Because we’re not saying that 7 billion people can contribute. We’re saying usually in any room, 30% can contribute. “
In this episode of the Cohere Podcast, Nilofer and I touch on the topics above and discuss:
The evolution of social media
Managing corporate innovation and the role of communities
The concept of Onlyness, as it relates to “you, us and together”
How your network shapes your self-image, role, and personal agency
The natural reaction of hierarchies to resist networks
In this short (~15 min) bonus episode, we speak with facilitator and community builder extraordinaire Nancy White of Full Circle Associates about creating and maintaining connections online during a crisis.
Specifically, we talk through:
Advice for taking offline events online (and if you should)
Planning for a near-term future of limited face to face gatherings
Drawing from pre-social media community building techniques to create connections
How facilitators and community builders can practice self-care and help others during this challenging time
And, Nancy’s parting advice:
“Stay happy. Do something positive. Wash your damn hands.”
It’s human nature to seek connection, meaning, and knowledge through community. Thanks to the smartphones in our pockets (and the near-global access to broadband – see our previous episode), “community” now is very much a digital construct, and the way we find and participate in such gathering places is radically changing.
As online communities and human networks have evolved, algorithms have played an increasingly prominent role in the experience, from offering rudimentary personalization to shaping and segmenting entire communities. In the future, AI and related technologies will become central to our shared digital and real-world experiences.
In this episode of the Cohere Podcast, Venessa Paech and I discuss the future role of AI in online communities – both the tremendous opportunities and potential threats AI & related technologies pose.
In this episode, Venessa and I discuss:
AI in the context of the digital community experience – 21:15
The specific ways AI can enhance community experience – 33:54
Potential risks of emerging technologies – 39:37
Machine culture – 43:30
Advice for organizations as they began to prepare for the changes that out AI will bring to community experiences – 46:59
Venessa is a co-founder of the Australian Community Managers Network, a PhD candidate studying the intersection of AI and community, and a global authority on communities and community management. She has led Community for realestate.com.au, Lonely Planet, Envato and Australia Post among others.
She founded the Australian Community Manager Roundtables (ACM) in 2009, and created Swarm in 2011 with Alison Michalk.
She also runs the annual Australian Community Manager Career Survey and with ACM, authored the first code of ethics for the region.
The Cohere Podcast is part of the Cohere Project. If you know someone that you think would be a great guest, or if you are interested in learning more about the Cohere Project, please send me a message.
Over the past 25 years, the Internet has become a central part of our everyday lives. Even so, there are still over three billion people in the world who don’t have access to broadband internet. Thanks to a combination of new technologies, this will change rapidly over the next 5 years. This change will open a wide range of potential opportunities and vulnerabilities as the Internet experiences its largest, and final, population boom. In this episode, Jim and I discuss key aspects of the Great Connecting, including ways to prepare for, and participate in, this transformative event.
The technologies that will allow the parts of the world who don’t have internet currently to have it in the next two to three years – 5:59
What potential benefits and vulnerabilities the internet will bring to areas that previously didn’t have it – 10:33
Why the benefits of the internet and social platforms outweigh the negatives – 20:53
How companies can prepare for and participate in this great connection – 25:01
What roles AI will play in this future state of connectivity – 30:02
Jim Cashel is the co-founder and chairman of Forum One Communications. As Forum One’s Chairman, he works with the senior management team on strategic and leadership issues, helping to support a continuing mission of applying new and promising technologies to address societal problems of importance. He has a bachelor’s degree in human biology from Stanford, a master’s degree from Harvard’s Kennedy School, and a medical degree from Harvard Medical. In 2018-2019 Jim was a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. He also recently published the book The Great Connecting: The Emergence of Global Broadband and How That Changes Everything.
Welcome to the inaugural episode of the Cohere Podcast! I’m very excited to bring you this discussion about the effects of exponential technologies with my good friend Kent Langley, CSO of OpenExO.
Broadband and wireless Internet connectivity are now commonplace in the developed world, but this wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of the 21st century, just over 300 million people (roughly 5% of the globe )had Internet access. The number of participants, and the type of participation has evolved rapidly over the last 20 years.
In today’s episode, OpenExO’s Chief Science Officer Kent Langley and I discuss this evolution in three eras: 1. The Dawn of the Internet & PCs, 2. The Introduction of the Web 2.0 & Mobile, 3. The Rise of Exponential Technologies – the Exponential Now.
We explore what each of previous eras looked like, and what we can expect from the global human network as we move forward.
Overview In this episode, Kent Langley and I discuss:
When the commercial internet gained mass adoption- 7:00
Evolution of web technology and community platforms – 14:52
Understanding exponential technologies and the concept of exponential organizations – 18:53
The role AI (and related technologies) will play in the global human network – 26:19
Guest Bio Kent Langley is a leader and technology visionary with a background in Technology Operations, Cloud Computing, AI, Exponential Organizations, Data Science, and Blockchain. He works on projects that educate, feed, clothe, and empower people as the co-founder of OpenExO Inc., and as a six-year faculty member at Singularity University.
I’m excited to announce the second round of Structure3C’s AI & Communities research.This research builds on our foundational project in 2018 (more on this below) and comes at a critical time when global internet connectivity races towards 100% coverage, and algorithms and non-human actors play an increasingly central role in this global human network.
If your role involves developing communities or networks for your organization, I’d like to invite you to participate (if you haven’t) in a short survey focused on the intersection of AI and Community.
Your ideas and expert opinions are critically important in shaping a human response to the impact of exponential technologies. The survey will take approximately 15 minutes, will only involve participants on the enterprise & brand side (no agencies or consultants), and all participants will get a copy of the final report and receive an invite to one of our mastermind-style debrief sessions in early 2020.
We ask that you complete the survey on, or before January 10.
Results From Wave 1 – 2018 Our 2020 project builds on the first round of research we conducted on AI, Automation and Agents in 2018. The respondents from the first wave generally considered 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.
You can find the summary deck with findings from the 2018 research here:
Why AI & Communities is a critically important topic for 2020 When we (Structure3C) did the first primary research on AI and Communities, it was clear that AI, as a topic, had was being discussed but there weren’t many practice examples in the field beyond rudimentary personalization and early experiments with RPA (robotic process automation). We expect the results from this wave of research to yield a broad swath of new ideas and case examples of actual programs and technology deployments.
We hope to wrap up the online survey by the second week of January and then begin interviews with technology providers (including community platform companies) and practitioners that have deployed AI, Automation and Agent technologies in their communities.
Open 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 just soliciting customer ideas.
In my community practice, I’ve seen 4 stages that are typical in the maturation of an Open Innovation Community.
The Social Suggestion Box – Launch an open space for customers to give feedback or make suggestions
Overwhelming Backlog – Period where the company can no longer process the backlog and may abandon the community
Managed Sprints – Develop a strategy to shape feedback and ideas by introducing a more formal process and constraining topics & time
Collaborative Innovation – A significant evolution of programs and platforms that layer ongoing ideation into all design and decision making
The Four Stages of Open Innovation Communities
Stage 1. The Social Suggestion Box
Most companies start their Open Innovation Community with an open-ended call for ideas and feedback. Community members are welcome to submit any idea, and the broader community (hopefully) comments on the idea and rates the idea using a simple scale or upvote. Community managers take the most highly rated ideas to the product team for discussion, and eventually some ideas are chosen for production.
The Social Suggestion Box phase is valuable in the short term, as customers will likely have suggestions they have been holding on to since they began their relationship with the company – essentially a communal backlog, if you will. Companies become stuck in this phase when they are unable to process the backlog of ideas, manage the growing community and deliver quality ideas to internal teams (typically product) in a format and within a timeline that aligns with product roadmaps. This break between the promise of a constant stream of new ideas, and the lack of a process and the ability to shape ideas into a usable format is the key challenge. Stage 2. Overwhelming Backlog
The equivalent of the “trough of disillusionment” from the Gartner Hype Cycle, companies in the Overwhelming Backlog phase can often find themselves with a large pile of unread ideas, a community platform in need of a serious overhaul, an innovation program that no one really values and a community in revolt.
This situation may sound extreme, but it was exactly the one I walked in to when I joined Dell in 2010. IdeaStorm, Dell’s Open Innovation Community, had launched in 2007. After enjoying 2 years of valuable idea contributions, positive PR and internal support, year 3 found IdeaStorm as a “ghost ship” community, with no leadership, vision or community management. Things became so bad that a community member posted the idea that Dell should shut IdeaStorm down. The community quickly upvoted that idea, it caught the attention of Michael Dell and my team was given the task of “making it better, fast”. I eventually hired the community member who posted the “take it down” idea to become the new community manager for IdeaStorm.
To navigate out of the mess we were in, the team immediately began research to inform our new strategy. I wanted to know the financial impact of IdeaStorm to date, understand why ideas weren’t being responded to, and to understand what the barriers were in getting ideas from the Community into the the product teams at Dell. We found that the financial impact from IdeaStorm was really high ($100s of Millions), that we lacked an agreed upon internal process for scoring and prioritizing ideas, and that we needed to create a new type of community management role to help facilitate the new process – an Idea partner that lived on the product team. The final piece of the puzzle was implementing an archiving policy for ideas that didn’t score well in the community. Within a few months we had processed the ideas backlog, started design on a new platform (with the community), and had reengaged most internal product teams.
Stage 3. Managed Sprints
Companies come out of the Overwhelming Backlog phase with the key insight that shaping the topic, type and form of ideas they would like to receive is critical to realizing value and long term success. Many companies will implement a sprint-like approach to ideation, using phased ideation and design sessions to focus on a single topic or product.
This approach involves developing a clear business or design problem, and then breaking solution development in to smaller ideation projects that are facilitated, in sequence, over a number of weeks. The output of each sub-project helps shape the proceeding sub-project. Ideas and design concepts are generally of higher quality because the problem definition is clear, product teams participate, and community members get real-time feedback from the product team.
Stage 4. Collaborative Innovation
In many ways, moving through Stages 1-3 are a necessary process for companies to undertake in order to develop the strategy, process, alignment, platforms and business models to move beyond what are essentially sporadic innovation campaigns.
Collaborative Innovation is an ideal state where an organization and its community of customer, partners and employees are engaged in an ongoing process to perfect existing products & services and to bring new products and services to market. We’ve talked for years about the boundaries between companies and customers disappearing – in the Collaborative Innovation stage, the boundary is permeable – customers create new products & services with the companies assets, and receive value in return (use, compensation, reputation, etc.).
There are examples of large companies partially engaged in the Collaborative Innovation stage, but none that have extended this to every part of their business.
The truth is, most companies never make it beyond stage 2, “Overwhelming Backlog”. Dell, an early pioneer in the space (and my former employer) had been regressing back from Stage 3 for a few years (unfortunately) and the IdeaStorm site now appears to be offline. The other notable pioneer, Starbucks, has essentially taken My Starbucks Idea offline as well. While Communities at each stage offers some dimension of value, companies progressing through to Stages 3 & 4 will discover the most value and innovation.
The potential opportunity for the next wave of Open Innovation Communities is incredible. Why?
Customers have shown they are willing to collaborate & create
Customers are willing to buy products still in the conceptual phase (millions of examples of crowdfunding)
The tools to create & share complex designs are free and relatively easy to use – see Fusion 360 & OnShape
Innovation platform companies have an opportunity to move beyond text / pictures / video into immersive & real-time 2d & 3d collaboration. PS – Platform companies – I would LOVE to work on this and have a ton of ideas.
Many companies could realize tremendous value from Open Innovation Communities. Most don’t because they don’t experiment, or do a poor job of planning their initiatives. Companies that commit, support and evolve their Communities see value. Beyond the current practice examples of Open Innovation Communities, the next wave will feature immersive and real-time design as a key feature. Those who wish to innovate need to be evolving their platform, programs and internal process now.
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.