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.
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.
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
Nevertheless, we now realize that no whole, be it a family, a business, a community, or a nation, can be managed without looking inward to the lesser wholes that combine to form it, and outward to the greater wholes of which it is a member.”
Allan Savory, from “Holistic Management”
Need a Community? You Have (at least) One
After 15 years of designing and activating online communities, I’m still surprised when I hear from a potential client that they “need to create” an online community. Wether you realize it or not, you have and belong to many communities. Further, you intentionally or unintentionally play many roles within those communities – host, member, participant, advocate, creator, and at times, possibly even destroyer. You may be asking yourself “so, what is a community? How do I know where my community is? How do I define community?” Though typical, those are the wrong questions to start with.
Context is King
The word “community” is problematic. It can have as many meanings as there are people in an organization to make meaning, ranging from the local geographical community, to a peer to peer technical support community, a social media page or a working group focused on solving a specific problem. I’ve held conferences where the question of a canonical definition of community was debated by some of the smartest people I know in the industry, and the question was left unanswered. Why? Two reasons: 1.) a helpful answer must be developed in the strategic context of the host organization and their extended network and 2.) community as a metaphor is often too specific and limiting – why we often see communities as a solution looking for a problem.
To expand on the Savory quote at the beginning of this post, to fully understand the potential for communities in your organization, you have to understand the actual smaller and discrete communities that make up your organization (employees, partners, alumni) , and the larger communities that your organization is a part of (industries, markets, causes, etc.). The “whole”, if you will, is really a network. Increasingly, I find starting a strategy conversation with “community” can be burdensome, and that “network” is a more helpful (and neutral) place to start.
Network as a Rubric
Why “Network”? Network, defined as “a group or system of interconnected people or things” describes a set of connected entities but does not imply or assign activities, relationships or outcomes the way “community” seems to. Using network as a blank canvas allows you to create strategy from drawing from the largest possible pool of value. Thinking “Network” means you are considering the full set of relationships among stakeholders, assets, and increasingly, artificial intelligence actors that could potentially be developed. From the baseline of network, a more holistic strategy can be created that is inclusive of community, social, and digital innovation.
As an example of Network Thinking, I developed the graph below as part of an exercises to inventory and explore opportunities for stakeholder groups allowing access to assets in an online marketplace.
The Future of Networks
“What is true for the machines all around us now is true for us too: We are what we are connected to. And mastery of that connection turns out to be the modern version of Napoleon’s coup d’oeil, the essential skill of the age.”
One of the best books I’ve read recently is The Seventh Sense” by Joshua Cooper Ramos. In the book, Ramos describes the role of networks in the age of massive disruption that we are beginning to live through – on par with the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment. Ramos goes on to evangelize the need to develop a “Seventh Sense”, the ability “to look at any object and see the way in which it is changed by connection” in order to survive and thrive amidst the change. Ramos, along with recentbooks by Reid Hoffman and great thinking by the team at a16z represent some of the most helpful and cogent thinking on networks and network effects.
I believe we need a new and more holistic approach to develop modern communities – communities that are a significant evolution of the current support and Q&A-based silos. In my own practice I’ve begun to refer to the skills and methodologies for designing modern social networks and communities as “Network Thinking”, and I’ve begun to tag related research and writing as #FoN, or “Future of Networks”. To stay up to date, subscribe to my newsletter here.
I’m currently working with a select list of clients to build modern community and network strategies. If you would like to schedule some time to talk about how I can help, email@example.com.
File under: blog posts I never thought I would be writing – but excited that I am.
It’s been an interesting journey to get here (and I’m certain it will continue to be), but I’m very pleased to announce that we will hosting the Online Community Unconference in Mountain View, CA on May 21ist.
The Unconference planning team is rooted in the #OCTribe meetup and is made up of me, Kaliya Hamlin, Randy Farmer, Scott Moore, Susan Tenby, Gail Williams, Rachel Luxemburg and Maria Ogneva. Our plan is to closely follow the successful format of the Online Community Unconferences that ran from 2007 – 2010 in the Bay Area and New York that I produced when I was at Forum One – specifically:
Personally inviting key professionals in the industry to ensure a knowledgeable and experienced group
Adhering to the principles of Open Space Technology to ensure a quality event experience & maximum content – no filler / no talking head keynotes and no recycled presentations that you’ve seen from “noted experts” at other conferences. This is about real professionals having real conversations
A great location in the Computer History Museum
A commitment to document the proceedings – see an example of the Book of Proceedings from the OCU 2009.
A fun and collegial environment
I’ll have more details as we get closer to the date, but the key things for now are:
This post is targeted at folks just getting started with online community activities at their respective organizations. It is written with the brand or product-specific corporate communities in mind, but is somewhat applicable to independent communities and non profit organizations.A few key points to begin with:First, the working assumption here is that most of you reading are engaged in some sort of initial community building activity, but do not have a comprehensive community strategy guiding your efforts.
Second, keep in mind one of the key decisions you will need to make is the mix of attention, energy and dollars you spend hosting a community, vs participating in external community sites like Facebook and MySpace.
Third, (particularly for marketers) engaging and building relationships with your community is a bit of a mind-shift from thinking “quarterly-driven campaigns”. We have heard this as a recurring theme in our research and the conference we host on Marketing & Online communities. You won’t have the same criteria for success with community building efforts as you do with a print campaign. You won’t retain control of messaging. You have to be willing to invest the time to build relationships with members (yes, even one on one). This isn’t a quick in and out.
So, how does one start to evaluate the opportunity with online communities? Research! The following 4 step framework describes my typical community strategy development exercise we use for our clients:
Step 1. Define Business Goals and Objectives
This first step establishes a baseline definition of the organization’s goals and potential objectives for engaging in community building activities. These goals and objectives will serve as guidance throughout the project to ensure that the final strategy reflects a direction that creates value back to the organization. This process varies by organization type, the number and role of stakeholders, and the maturity (or existence) of the community team. The research in this step includes identification of the stakeholders for community within an organization, interviews with the stakeholders, and an initial brainstorm with members of the stakeholder’s team to discuss objectives for community. Themes and business goals for a community strategy will emerge.
Step 2. Community Ecosystem Review
During this second phase the goal is to do an audit of the current community ecosystem, including customer, prospect, partner and competitor touch points. This information will help establish a baseline of market-oriented sites and activity, which will be important to understand the opportunities for new community activity by your (or your client’s) brand.
Using tools like BlogPulse, Technorati, Delicious, and Google Blog search, conduct searches for brand mentions in the blogosphere and on smaller niche communities. You will quickly come up a list of the communities hosting conversations about your organization, products or brand, and the members (often time bloggers) engaging in those conversations.
It’s also important to research activity on the “walled garden” communities, and larger social media sites that some times don’t surface in search results. Sites like Facebook, MySpace, YouTube,Ning, Flickr, Satisfaction, etc. In particular, look for ad-hoc groups that have sprung up around your brand, or content tagged with your brand and/or products.
Step 3. Member Needs Analysis
This phase will establish a baseline for potential community member’s needs, as well as their expectations of your organization. This critical phase will also guide decision-making on the types of activities to engage in, and the approach (offline / online, hosted / independent).
This research is ideally done in person, or on the phone, but in a pinch you can also use a web-based survey tool like surveymonkey. Recruit research candidates from the list that you made during the Ecosystem Review. Develop an interview script that really probes their needs and expectations of your brand. Ask what types of marketing and advertising the members would find acceptable, and which types they won’t. Ask if they would be willing to help shape programs and advertisements (if you choose to go that route), Themes of member need, expectation of conduct from your organization, and tolerance of advertising / marketing messages should emerge from this research.
Step 4. Community Strategy Development
This final phase will combine the inputs of business goals, user needs and the existing community audit to form a community strategy. Evaluating member need and business goals side by side should provide you with direction on the types of community opportunities to engage in. The ecosystem audit will provide direction on where to participate, and if there is an opportunity for your organization to host part of that conversation by building a destination site, hosting discussion groups, etc. Based on the content of the previous phases, the team should be able to pull together the following key areas of strategy:
Business goals: 3-5 points of value or reasons the organization is engaging in community-building activities
Member needs summary: 3-5 key needs community members have of your organization that can be fulfilled or supported via online community
Community ecosystem map: A list (or diagram) of the key communities and community members that are currently discussing your organization and/ or brand
Recommended community tactics: A list of key tactics that meet the business goals as well as member needs
Metrics / ROI strategy: Specific metrics to evaluate community-building efforts by, and an ROI model that articulates dimensions of value (loyalty, affinity, time engaged, etc)
Engagement plan / calendar: Key tactics mapped to specific dates
As with anything, your mileage may vary
I’ve also seen the “Gnome” model used by companies, with much less success.
Where does the community team belong in a commercial organization? This topic came up at our recent Online Community Roundtable and we ran out of time before we could properly discuss, so I thought I would queue up the discussion here.
The responsibility for Online Community in many organizations is distributed among several teams, including:
– Marketing, which typically owns blogging, blogging outreach and any sort of affinity community, and has some skin in the game on strategy.
– Product Support, which typically owns Discussion Groups
– Product Development, which may or may not own Discussion Groups, a Beta site, and potentially a “Labs” community, as well as potentially product development communities and user groups.
– Events, which owns “live” events like conference and any online component
– Web Team, (who’s reporting structure is usually a whole different ball of wax) which typically owns some technology and user experience
– IT, if you are REALLY lucky, your IT department is somehow involved with infrastructure.
The above is just a rough composite sketch based on my personal experience. The reality is that in most orgs, it usually more complicated, especially if you are a company involved in building customer community as part of your business, as opposed to customer community being your primary focus.
So, where does the responsibility for community ultimately reside in an org?
Marketing? At it’s best, marketing is about acting as the advocate for the customer back to the organization. At its worst, marketing is actively trying to convince customer and prospects to do something they didn’t know they wanted to do, or don’t want to do. A lot of online community activity is coming out of marketing teams today because of typically large marketing budgets, and marketing teams interested in experimenting with new technologies and trends like social networking and blogging. Still, until most marketing teams are REALLY ready to put their own agenda aside and listen to and act on feedback from their audiences, community engagement will be fairly superficial and short term.
Support? Support communities, and in particular those based in Discussion Groups have done the best job of fostering a real sense of community for most companies. Most companies have accepted the fact that the cost of funding Discussion Groups are offset by call avoidance and increased customer satisfaction. Because of this, there is generally a spirit of peer cooperation and a genuine interest in helping customers, as opposed to forwarding an agenda. Could the Support organizations role evolve in to an umbrella role of stewardship for all Online Community activity? Perhaps, but I don’t think this would happen in most companies for political reasons, and in particular, Marketing’s “Divine Right” ownership of customer touch-points.
Sales? Probably not. See the “agenda” issue with Marketing.
Product? Maybe, but I see most product teams as participants in a community, and in particular the community ecosystem around their product or service.
IT? Yeah, right.
It really surprises me that there isn’t a more formal approach emerging, and in particular a role on the executive team like “Community Czar” or “Chief Community Officer”. Maybe this is what the role of CMO wants to evolve into?