April 20, 2022

How We centric online communities create energized, loyal customers

Tod Nelson’s Introduction 

My “origin story” as a community professional and what it’s got to do with Rush’s Spirit of Radio

Thank you so much to UUKI and the team for inviting me to speak about a topic that is dear to my heart. Well, I've been on a journey into blockchain and web3 for about the past year, and like all of us, you know, we're educating ourselves along the way to understand what's possible. But today, to introduce myself briefly, I run a consultancy called Clock Tower Advisors. I'm based in Wisconsin, in the United States. I work with organizations and brands worldwide that are thinking of running an online community or maybe having one, and it could perform differently than they would like it to. I've worked with organizations from tiny startups up to Fortune 100 types of companies. 

And I enjoy the conversations involved with community building because it's much more powerful than straight marketing or advertising as a way to engage with customers. It takes the power of the big social media platforms but personalizes and privatizes those experiences in some important ways. And so my own story, when I started working in this space, was, uh, well, even before I started working in space, it was in the online gaming world, and I joined some online multiplayer games. There were discussion forums in those spaces, and I fell in love with the ability to collaborate and have deep, meaningful, connecting discussions with others, so much so that that stuck in my mind as the world of social media started coming online and starting to get adopted.

I was a very early proponent of talking about using those tools and platforms for businesses and organizations to collaborate and grow, and I've appreciated how our space of building communities online has grown up and formalized and developed all kinds of really great resources and materials around it for people to think and grow. I was a child in the 80s, so that dates me a little bit, but one of my favorite bands is Rush, and the song The Spirit of Radio is always something that sticks in my head. The lyrics of all this machinery making modern music can still be open-hearted. So, what we're trying to do with the internet technologies that we have today is to be open-hearted in our connections with each other.

We're trying to break down the barriers that have prevented us from having deeper, more meaningful online connections, which are possible, and some of the advances we've made in direct video discussions and ways for us to be connected across the world in a live video conversation, we shouldn't take those things for granted. We live in a science fiction reality right now that is amazing, connecting, and empowering for all of us, and that ability to create spaces where we can connect is empowering. 

Questions for our discussion:

1. How do you define online community? 

  • Communities must be led by purpose, preserve knowledge, and create a sense of belonging for members.
  • Communities are not about “us” (the business) and “them” (members) but about “we.” The community must serve both, be transparent, trustworthy and safe.
  • Communities should clearly define who is “in” and who is “out”
  • Your social media account is not a community (but it is the front door)
  • Communities are about people not platforms, about conversations not advertisements, about members not audiences.

So, I believe that any of us who have worked in the community space for a while have realized that some purpose or mission must lead communities. They must have the quality of preserving knowledge, meaning that it can't just be a chat that goes by and disappears forever. There has to be some way to re-discover great content. Save it somewhere you can easily access in the future. Communities work best if work gets curated into frequently asked questions or other kinds of documentation. When we talk about online communities, I know you also need to create a sense of belonging for members. So when we talk about online communities, I know you; when I sit down with a group of leaders or founders of an organization, one of the first things I do is ask them what their definition of a community is. 

What made you decide that you wanted to build a community? and then what is what are your ideas about what's going to come out of that because

Sometimes they'll have in their minds that it is a social media platform, and it is, but I would argue that your social media account is not a community. It is, in fact, something. It's the front door to your community. It's a place to have some interaction, but your community is, if you think of it, not just the platform on which you're building. It's not just UUKI, but it's all of the entry points where somebody starts to encounter your brand and starts to talk about who you are, what you do, or what the purpose is for that place of belonging. Then they can join from those social media outposts to this more central place where they can have private, safe conversations with others who share the same interests or values. Those thriving communities need to be we-centric, and that's the title of the talk today.

We-Centric means it's not about us, the business starting the community. It's not about the members who join the community but about us. It's about the need to serve the members and meet the organization's goals. If you've ever done Venn diagrams, you know we've got two worlds that overlap when we're building any community model, and one of those worlds is what we need as an organization. What are the things we're trying to achieve? And the other world is what members want to join us. What are they going to get out of it? And the overlap is that area where there are mutually beneficial goals and outcomes. 

I don't know if there's anybody in the conversation here today who is a member of Rotary International, but it's part of the four-way test. What is the best thing for all these concerns? Is it beneficial to all concerns? So that's one of the key questions that I'm always trying to bring back with it, so I would say that we need to make sure that those places we create are transparent, and I'll say more about that today, um, trustworthy and safe, from the same level of the platform itself? In other words, is this a well-designed user experience? Does the signup process not ask me for odd details about my background? Is it a secure site or a secure app?

Any sign of sketchiness at the platform level is a problem. So, suppose there's any indication of distrustworthy, you know, untrustworthy behavior regarding why an organization has decided to start a community. In that case, you must lay the foundations of trust for the members. If I, as a member, join a community, I want to assume that the other people joining are equally trustworthy as me. They're there for the same reasons; they have kind of the same values or goals, and I understand that.

2. Is that definition any different for the Web3 world?

  • Web3 has suffered to some degree from a tendency to be transactional - connect to value, identity, and purpose for sustainability.
  • Focus on long-term value, not short term wins.
  • It’s time to get creative with platforms: there’s more to the world of community software than Discord, Telegram, and WhatsApp.

So I was thinking about the website community because it's a hot topic. Web3 is growing, so I want to ask our second question: Is that definition any different than the web3 work from online communities? Yeah, so I like the question because the answer is ongoing. I'm thrilled about the rise of the blockchain and decentralized autonomous organizations, the nft trading world, and all of that space. It's brought the idea of online communities to a much greater audience, a much broader audience. It has popularized the notion of setting up Discord platforms, telegrams, and WhatsApp spaces to talk about all the things that are going on in those spaces to provide an environment for people who are enthusiastic about those things that are happening, so I think there's a powerful opportunity for lessons around community building in those spaces.

Where it's suffered to some degree is the community. In some cases, concepts haven't been thoroughly thought through. One thing that stands out is that I always wonder in the back of my mind: is this more transactional than based upon some clear purpose? Um, if it's all about me collecting an nft and then financially flipping it, trading it to be able to enrich myself, that's fine, but it's not a reasonable basis for a community. What is the long-term value?

What kinds of interests, values, and purposes will help people want to stay there and make it a more sustainable experience? I think otherwise. Those communities could be seen as a fad or just passed by the wayside very quickly, so I want to be careful about that. Discord and Telegram are extremely popular for these types of social gatherings, but there are a lot of other great platforms out there like UUKI, also there are some excellent alternative platforms to consider.

Before an organization decides to jump in there, it may be a temptation for a web3 organization to say, oh well, we should go with this sort because that's where everybody goes, or that's what everybody's used to using. But just because an organization just because people are used to using something doesn't mean it's the best place. So, for example, I see many community professionals or organizations thinking about having a community will say, "Well, why don't we do a Facebook group instead of having a dedicated community platform? 

The problem is that if everybody can create a Facebook group, it's easy to get people to come in and join, but then giving them visibility among the crowd of all the other people using those platforms makes it a little bit more complicated. So I'm excited about what's happening in space, but I have many hopes for it in the near future.

3. How can communities grow quickly? Can you talk to us about your concept of “swift community?”

  • Swift community vs slow burn and being self-aware and honest enough to acknowledge where you are.
  • How to transition a slow burn community concept into a swift growth community.

In a lot of the consulting work that I've done over the years, I've found that when I sit down with a leadership team, especially larger organizations, maybe Fortune 1000s or larger, they don't necessarily have a strong idea about what that community will do. They've heard about the power of online communities to create greater engagement, you know, to improve efficiencies, to have more ideas about their products or services. 

The closer a community concept is built to survival or identity, the more likely it is to grow quickly, and so that's the Swift Community concept. So, if you're a leader in an organization, if you're in that process, I'd love to hear from you; reach out to me on LinkedIn or in the chat, but really laying out this spectrum for them on this end is the Swift community is a slow burn. That, I believe, is where many organizations struggle. 

As they're trying to come up with that community concept, how do we get closer to the heart? I'm reporting another Rush song there, so I'm dating myself again, but uh, but that whole idea of finding, what it is that's going to be an emotional pull on people who want to join, and I always kind of take it back to our ancient ancestors, and Neolithic times, communities would form because they needed to survive. They were being trampled by the local wooly mammoth or they all needed to get food, so they decided to band together to hunt the wooly mammoth. So if you think about what that driving needs that you can tie to your community concept, you're much more likely to be able to grow quickly.

4. What is a Minimally Viable Community and how can Web3 organizations plan for one?

  • Introduce the open source community canvas and the Minimally Viable Community.

I did see there were a lot of community managers who were on here. They're probably aware of the community canvas if they're not communitycanvas.org It's a community canvas dot org hyphen I think it's a great resource for fleshing out your community concept, especially the one-page document called the minimally viable Community landscape, which I found, again and again, to be helpful in driving those initial conversations about community with a leadership team and giving them something tangible that they can take back and hang over their desk or put up on the wall as an easy reference. 

5. When you work with organizations, what do you see as the key success factors?

  1. Introduce the 8 success factors (in no particular order):
  • Unique community concept
  • Goals related to business objectives
  • Set expectations with key stakeholders about results
  • Value community management over tech
  • Launch small and iterate
  • Plan for growth AND engagement
  • Plan to engage over the entire member journey
  • Quantify, regularly measure and communicate success

With community building, one we've been talking about already is how unique the community concept is, whether it is valuable, and what its purpose is. Um, uniqueness needs to be tested. You need to validate whether that community exists anywhere else. Has another organization started it? Are there communities that are really closely adjacent to what you're building? Um, the second one is, have you defined goals related to your business objectives? Um, these need to be specific and measurable and something that you can quantify, but keep them tied to the business objectives because that's key to setting expectations with key stakeholders, which is number three. So, setting expectations with key stakeholders is number three. So, setting expectations with key stakeholders is number three. So, setting expectations with key stakeholders is number three. So, setting expectations with key stakeholders involves both defining what the metrics for success are. Expectations also need to be set in terms of how soon that community is going to achieve value. Communities are generally longer-term investments, so they're unlikely to yield a lot of return within the first couple of months. It might be nine months or a year or maybe longer before they really get to where they need to be, especially if it's a slower-burn community. Those are okay, by the way. It's just that we need to set that expectation.

Valuing community management over technology. I will take a community with the worst technology but good community managers any day of the week. I think that the people's side of this business is the most important. It's easily overlooked. It's very tempting to just look at the technology side of things, and more often than not, I'll find that you know, organisations that are planning to set up a community are really fixated on configuring the technology and the experience and making sure it's a very white glove, all of which is good, but if you don't have a dedicated community manager, you're going to be in trouble. Number five is, uh, launching small and iterating. The tendency is to want to open it up to everybody, but I generally find that, uh, starting with a smaller group and then progressively more people. I see the tendency to want to build a lot of different spaces for people to have a lot of different interactions, but it's like a big ghost town when it opens up, there's nobody to interact with. Start with a small number of groups or forums or discussion threads and work on building some momentum in those spaces with some good person-to-person conversations with a small group, and then as you bring more people in, uh, that's really important.

So how do we keep people engaged and what techniques do we use? There's a whole discussion about that that I could get into, but you need to do a couple of different things. One is that you need to make sure newcomers feel seen and heard. You need to find out what they're looking for and what kind of resources they need, connect them with other people who have the same or similar kinds of interests, and have regular evenings. Those are much more immersive than just straight text introductions to each other. They're less intimidating and they're a great way to build that sense of connection and engagement, so those are I'm just kind of skimming along the very top of that, but I think that that's important to maybe delve a little further into in another conversation. Number six is really planning for growth and engagement. It's great to have people working on being engaged in the platform, but you also need to make sure that you have people continuing to come in over time. What will happen is that if you just have one group come in and you don't have more growth, that participation will fall off over time. Even if you are trying to keep them engaged, having new blood will bring in people with new ideas and new needs.

So, in other words, understanding that the member who just joined your community and needs very different things than someone who's been there for a while or someone who is really, you know, a senior member of the community, may be different activities they need, they may need special or private groups for certain kinds of discussions, and so on. I saw one of the questions that just came up in the chat about what metrics define a successful community. I don't think I have any surprises there. It's time spent in the community. It's people who are, uh, you know, actively participating. Um, how do you know what their monthly average is? You know, logins tend to be daily logins. I'm definitely interested in that.

In other words, how much activity is going on there? As a community manager, those are tactically interesting things to think about, but differentiating that story for your leadership or stakeholders to talk about how the community is helping to meet business goals or key performance indicators for the business, that's a different set of metrics that you're looking at, and so it's worth some time to think about how you're going to communicate. 

6. What do startups need to do differently when it comes to building an online community? When staff and budget are very limited, what can you do?

  • Dedicate someone from the team to community
  • Focus on orienting new members, making them feel welcomed
  • Don’t succumb to the temptation of automation: conversation does not easily scale
  • Be visible, active, and transparent about the purpose
  • Recruit allies to help scale your efforts

I believe there are a couple of things to consider when you have a small staff. When you're a startup type of organization, it's possible that your founders are your initial community managers, and it's very easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole of that. I would say as soon as possible. It's not always possible to have a fully dedicated person do that in startup organizations. I'm not a huge fan of automation. I'm a bit of an image when it comes to that. I don't really feel the conversation easily scales or can easily be automated, so I'm distrustful of those things. There are no shortcuts to building a community. It is the hard work of reaching out and getting to know one person at a time, and it will build and it will eventually scale as more and more people realize what you're trying to create, and they will sense your intent for what you're trying to build and create in that space. So you need to examine your own motivations for building these spaces. You need to be visible. You need to be active. You need to be transparent about the purpose of the space.