Online Communities: Surviving & Thriving – Part 3

Cross-posted from the Online Community Report.

This post is the third in a series of blog posts exploring our recent research into the effect of the down economy on Online Community and social media programs. In this post, I’d like to focus on the advice that the research respondents gave for thriving during the downturn, and what key resources they are relying on for advice and support. Keep in mind, this advice comes from community managers, executives and social media strategists (not analysts or observers) who are currently in the trenches dealing with issues firsthand.

First, A Bit of Background
We’ve been tracking the economies effect on community and social media programs since late fall of 2008. For background, I would recommend reading (or re-reading) the first two posts in the series:

Online Communities: Surviving and Thriving in a Downturn (Part 1)
My initial thoughts, from October of 2008, about the mounting pressure from the economy on community and social media programs, and suggestions for social media strategists and community managers on how to best navigate the issues.

Online Communities: Thriving in the Downturn (Part 2)
A post the highlighted several key findings from our Online Community Research Network project conducted late November and early December of 2008 . The intention of the study was to get a broad look at how online community programs are fairing within organizations in light of the recent economic changes. As noted in the previous post, we saw plenty to be concerned about. We saw layoffs, budget freezes and cuts, and in some cases program abandonment. But, we also saw a lot of data to be optimistic about including the fact that the majority of respondents reported continued support of their community activities, and in some cases, increased support.

Advice & Support
One key piece of information we were seeking in the study was what advice would the practitioners we interviewed give other peers? In the research survey we asked: “What advice would you give to your peers in regards to thriving during a slow economic period?”

Respondents gave varied advice to peers in regards to thriving during the down economy. The most common responses were related to streamlining their resources / costs and focusing on bottom line objectives.

The top pieces of advice that respondents wanted to offer to their peers in helping them thrive during an economy downturn are to:

  • Focus on Bottom line Objectives (15),
  • Be Creative (9) and
  • Offer Value / Uniqueness (8) and
  • Don’t Give Up / Stay the Course (8)


Graph: Categorized responses to the question: “What advice would you give to your peers in regards to thriving during a slow economic period?”

I’ve included some of the key respondent quotes, categorized below.

1. Stay Focused on Bottom Line Objectives:
“Focus on objectives that impact the bottom line…and on those easiest to quantify (e.g., self-serve support via community reduces our support Cost Per Incident by >50%)”

2. Be Creative – Work With the Constraints, Not Against
“With a reduced headcount in your organization, your (external) community power users become a critical resource, and more so than before, in helping other users. Recognize and reward the behavior of helping other users.”
“You have to be creative. Now is the time that truly inventive things can come about.”
“Embrace change and make yourself an asset to all departments, not soley content creation and UGC.”

3. Offer Value / Uniqueness
“Community professionals have the most valuable resource of all — we know our members/customers/users the best. Emphasize that knowledge whenever you can.”
“Make sure what you offer provides value to the customer. Encouraging peer-to-peer support in the community will reduce the need for extensive staffing – Remind decision makers what a bargain online communities are when compared to similar in-person activity.”
“Do the math and show your Management Team the ROI regarding community staff. Build a volunteer program (which should happen regardless of economic times). Keep in mind that people turn to each other, their communities, and entertainment in tough economic times.”
“Feature community content that pertains to the economy; ask for personal stories and conversation and offer community a place to share and solve financial challenges (e.g., online coupons, budgeting, creating handmade gifts; portfolio info), with contextual links to community message boards, blogs, polls, etc.”

4. Don’t Give Up / Stay the Course
“Continue to make decisions based upon your overall strategy, even within economic constraints, rather than just based upon economics. It’s possible to get clever and get more ‘bang’ for your buck. So focus on the long term.”
“Stick to your core. Analyze what you do best that differentiates yourself from competitors and focus on improving community features that tie into that”

The Most Important Resources
As part of the research project, we also asked respondents to rank a series of resources based on their personal sense of the value of the resource. Data below is from the question “How important are the following resources to you personally in ensuring the survival of your online community during a slow economy?”


Graph: Ranked responses to the question: “How important are the following resources to you personally in ensuring the survival of your online community during a slow economy?”

It is no surprise that access to support from other peers (read: other practitioners) and relationships with other Community Managers and Strategists ranked the highest.

The final report has been published to our Online Community Research Network members and research participants.

The full report (~45 pages) includes all collected data, charts from the date, and all write in responses. The full report expands on the content above, as well covering specific budget items that will likely be affected in 2009, tactics that community executives are employing in the downturn, and peer advice on thriving in the downturn.

The full report is also available for purchase here.

Online Communities: Surviving and Thriving in a Downturn (Part 1)

Note: this is cross posted from the Online Community Report

Unfortunately, there has been a lot of very grim economic news of late. The purpose of this post isn’t to give an overview of the current situation, but to highlight possible implications of a slower economy on business, and by extension on online community budgets. More importantly, I want to start a discussion about Community Managers can help their community’s survive and thrive during the downturn.

We have seen this cycle before, and relatively recently. When the web 1.0 bubble burst, many “community”-based startups ceased to exist, and spending on online community development in the enterprise all but dried up. From personal experience, most of the community initiatives at Autodesk were suspended in the closing months of 2001, and we shifted focus to our discussion groups and some customer-generated content activities.

What was different with Community 2.0?
By late 2004 and early 2005, key changes in in the marketplace, in organizations attitudes and in customer (user / people online / etc) behavior led to an explosive growth of social media, use of social networking and increased online community building activities by many organizations.

Key factors were (IMHO, I won’t list all):
• Cost of platforms dramatically decreased, and in some cases fell to zero
• Consumer and workplace broadband reached ~100% penetration
• Consumers accepted less formal content, trust in “people like me” exceeded authorities
• A certain segment of the group formerly known as “the audience” decided they wanted to actively create, participate and connect
• Many companies started to accept and practice the principles outlined in the Cluetrain Manifesto, and in the many key books, blogs and conference that followed, evangelizing the metaphor of conversation

Things Were Going So Well, What Happened?
Earlier this year, we started to hear significant rumblings from wall street that things were not ok, particularly with the credit markets. Over the last two weeks, the markets have been in turmoil. Many organizations are seeing the dark shadow of a recession. Some argue we are already there. One thing is clear: most organizations have shifted to a more conservative outlook for 2009.

As organizations take a more sober look at the last quarter of 2008 and make projections for 2009, there are some likely implications for online community programs:
• Budgets will likely shrink
• Headcount will likely be frozen
• Positions may be consolidated (merging of roles)
• Layoffs may happen
• It will be harder to upgrade / make improvements to infrastructure
• Pressure will increase quickly and dramatically for some articulation of value
• Programs may be cut back
• In extreme cases, some community programs may be abandoned

Thriving in the Downturn
I want to be very clear here: I don’t think the global economic circumstances mean gloom and despair for the entire online community sector. The circumstances for Community 2.0 that I outlined above still generally hold true, and I still believe most organizations can create real value by engaging in online community activity. Signs that interest in online community is still high are all around. For instance, demand for qualified community managers and strategists is at an all time high (even though we are starting to see the first hints of staff reduction).

However, I do think that Community Managers have some work to do in order to navigate some of the potential challenges I outlined above. I’ve outlined the following tactics that can help (and I’d love to here your suggestions via the comments).

• Focus on Defining / and Reporting Value
In order for your community strategy to be sustainable, you need to be able to articulate value back to the organization. This value has to be articulated, at least in part, in the cultural language of your organization. In some organizations, it’s all about impact to customer loyalty, it some organizations, this value is growing an audience (member registrations). You will likely wind up with a report that is a mosaic of quantitative and qualitative sources. We’ve studied this issue in the Online Community Research Network, and you can see a report excerpt here:

Online Community ROI and Revenue Techniques

• Reach Out to Other Departments (CSR / Marketing / Support)
Online Communities offer value to almost every department in the organization, from HR (recruiting), to Support (call avoidance), to Marketing (awareness / reach), to the Product team (feedback, customer led innovation). Now is the time to reach out to other teams and create cross-organizations ties, and involve other teams in community building and engagement activities.

• Show the Cost of Not Participating
One way to show value back to management is to paint a picture of not having a community or community engagement strategy, and the associated costs and losses. These hypothetical costs can range from increased awareness of competitors to decreased customer satisfaction and loyalty.

• Be Honest About Your Strategy
Take a look at the community touchpoints and programs you are engaging in. Are there a few that have little or no participation? Are there features that score consistently low on your community research? Now is a good time to look at shedding these features and programs that are not creating value for your community. This is also an opportunity to involve the community in continuing to shape the experience and ongoing direction. Lastly, are there features or programs that you are struggling to maintain, that would be better served out in the community ecosystem? For instance, a particularly strong, independent Facebook group for your brand that you have been struggling with, or a user group that has a competitive feature on their site? Let it go.

• Stick Together
The worst feeling in trying times is feeling alone and isolated. If you and / or your team don’t have peers at other companies to talk to and share strategies and tactics with, start making those connections now. There are lots of meetups (like my Online Community Roundtable), conferences and organizations (like the social media club and the online community research network) to help support you.

What do you think?
I would love to hear what you think, either via comments or email. Are you seeing changing attitudes towards your online community initiatives? Have you been affected by the downturn? Do you have advice or suggestions to help other navigate these issues?