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.

5 Questions Webinar: My content, transcript and archive

I had the pleasure of participating in a webinar yesterday with George Jaquette of Intuit and Aaron Strout of Shared Insights.

Aaron just posted the webinar archive and transcript on the Wearesmarter.com site.

Additionally, I wanted to post my notes from the event, which more or less sum up what I said (or meant to say: ) ).

Question 1: How do I create a value-driven community strategy?
It is important to remember that value is relative to your organization and also to your community. As an organization, you need to do some research (and soul searching) on why you want to host a community, what value you need to get out of the activity, and most importantly, what value YOU can bring to the table.
Hint: making your customers happy is generally a path to growth.
Question 2: Which metrics should I be measuring? (Measuring value in traditional and non-traditional ways)
The short answer? It depends on your community goals. It should be a mix of quantitative and qualitative.

Traditional Web Metrics ( a few examples)
Page views, time on site, referring sites, referring search engines, referring search terms

New Community / Social Media Metrics ( a few examples)
Member engagement: activity and “investment” in community
Member Loyalty & Satisfaction
Membership Growth and Attrition
Member referrals (also a sign of engagement),
Quality of content and exchange: For instance, resolution time, days thread was active, ratio of validated responses. Support communities are leading the way on best practices and reporting.
Tracking the brand through the “Community ecosystem”: Tracking brands and community members as they travel through the larger community ecosystem that spans sites, technologies and devices.
Impact of the community on revenue: Particular attention is being paid to the value of members, both to the host communities’ revenue, and the organization’s sales or fundraising.
Mobile interactions with the community: including views and posts from mobiles.

This question is explored more thoroughly in our Online Community Metrics 2007 report, which can be downloaded for free here.
Question 3: How do I manage my community, and how can I enlist my community to help?
First, you don’t “manage” a community. You host. If your intention in engaging in community building activities is to manipulate the community in some way, don’t bother. Members will run away in droves.
With that said, there is a role in every community for a manager or moderator that ensures that the community is a “clean, well lit place”, or at least keeps to the culture and values expressed in the community policies. Policies and norms of expected behavior should be clearly articulated and easily accessible. This leaves the community moderator / manager to more interesting activities than deleting all the posts with “f@ck” in them, like actually participating in the community.

Give your community the tools to help manage the community , including the ability to rate and flag content, escalate issues to the moderator, and provide feedback on the user experience.

Find your influences and evangelists (typically, the most active (and positive) members), and put them on a pedestal. Sean O’Driscoll of MS has a lot of great things to say about the topic of engaging influencers.


Question 4: How do I grow my community without losing intimacy?

I’ll be honest, I didn’t exactly get this question. If you design a community UX poorly, event one with 100 members will feel anonymous.
My feedback was to basically grow from your base, and stick to your values and culture. Give members the ability to create subgroups, and allow members to create rich profiles.

Question 5: Within our company, who should blog and who shouldn’t?
Those with a point of view, subject matter expertise and a PERSONALITY should be blogging. I made the point that good blogging candidates in a company are likely already blogging outside of the company. Good corporate blogging often times feels like corporate “reality TV”, providing access inside the corporate membrane in an informal, interesting and (hopefully) lighthearted way.

There were great questions via the phone, and a great back channel chat happening during the call. Again, the transcript can be found here.