“ARE THEY LIKE ME?” “WILL THEY LIKE ME?”

These are the two universal (and often unconscious) questions people ask when deciding whether to join a community. They’re the two fundamental social needs that should be met if you’re going to successfully recruit potential members.

ARE THEY LIKE ME?”

At Meetup, we found that Member Profiles were one of the most highly trafficked places on the site. Once someone has decided that they want to join a Beagle-lovers Meetup or practice their Spanish, their first concern is “am I going to get along with the others?” Or, as some people would put it: “I want to check there’s no weirdos there”. A community is predicated on sharing. Getting a fix on whether the others are enough like you to make that possible is important.

What’s even more important is to enable a feeling of belonging. Without this, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to build a strong and sustained community. Finding ‘like-others’ is, of course, critical to enabling belonging.

I first discovered this when I interviewed members of cults and cult-like organizations while trying to deconstruct why and how people commit to things. This may be a surprise, but people join cults not to conform, but to become more individual (‘The Great Cult Paradox’). Like all of us, they are looking for others with whom they can be themselves. We will change companies, join a clique of jocks or geeks in High School or change churches because we want to find a place where we feel at home. We’re all looking for a place where the others are enough like us that we don’t have to compromise who we are, we feel safe enough from criticism to express our true selves and thus self-actualize.

Harley riders admitted to me that it’s only when they’re riding out with their brothers can be themselves. They may be dentists or management consultants by day, but when they slap on their tattoos, don their leathers and ride out with the others, that’s when they become their true selves. It may be taboo not to feel like your beautiful home, your lovely family and your career is who you really are. But whether they were someone on the lam, an architect or a cop, they all admitted that when they’re with others who recognize that deep down they’re a rebel do they feel who they really are. They become themselves. They feel more individual.

 

So what does this mean if you’re designing a Community Platform or if you’re a Community Manager or Leader? Do as much as you can to clearly show what the membership is like…and equally, not like. It will hurt the community if people join who are not like the others.

1. Showcase the existing members.

Have rich member profiles and mini-profiles. Make your Member Page attractive and enable potential members to examine rich profiles in detail and skim mini-profiles to check that they share interests, goals, values or…they get their kicks from similar things.

2. Showcase what they do.

Enable potential members to see not only what members are like, but also what they do. Showcase photos and videos of recent activities or key posts that enable them to get an idea of how they’ll be interacting with each other.

3. Highlight pre-existing relationships.

There’s a high chance that if a potential member already knows someone within the group, they are likely to fit in. Meetup has social connections feature that shows how you’re linked to existing members of a Meetup Group. If you have joined the site by Facebook Connect or already attend other Meetups, friends and fellow members will be highlighted and rank ordered on the member’s page. And they rank those members on the Member Page accordingly.

4. Have an explicit Purpose/Mission/Goal statement

Being very clear not only about the benefits of joining but being explicit about who should and who not should not join is one of the fastest and best ways a prospect can assess whether the community is for them. It should enable them to answer for themselves whether they share the same goals, want the same things, share the same values, and are the same kinds of people as the other members.

WILL THEY LIKE ME?

Once the first social need has been answered: “Yes, these are people are like me”, the next natural question we tend to ask sounds slightly neurotic…but it’s a type of social anxiety we all feel: “Yes, but, will the like me, will they accept me or am I going to be left dangling, awkwardly nursing a drink alone or having my posts and questions unanswered?

The first few days or weeks after someone joins is critical. They’re effectively ‘in the airlock’, neither truly in or out of the community. They will quietly and quickly make an exit if they’re not made to feel welcome or can’t connect happily with anyone else.

Welcoming a new member with a personal message works wonders. Moonies had a term for this that I find helpful: ‘Lovebombing’. They would bed new members into their organization by pouring enormous resource into ensuring the vulnerable new member felt they truly belonged by celebrating everything they did and appointing buddies to help with every new task.

Lovebombing the Moonie way may be overkill. But it’s a good way to think about how you should treat new members:

1. Welcome new members personally

An auto-generated welcome email is never enough. If you’re the leader of a new community, welcome them personally. If the community has grown this won’t scale so appoint a member of the leadership team as the ‘welcomer’. Or highlight new members on the site so that existing members will feel compelled to drop them a line.

2. Highlight pre-existing relationships

The same feature mentioned above serves two purposes. It can reassure new members that they’re already known and liked because there are people they already know. Joining a community is a bit like showing up at a party alone where you will probably know no one. Technology now enables us to show that that may not be true and that in fact you already know quite a few people at the party (remember the joy when you spot someone across the room you already know). What’s more, encourage those members to reach out and welcome the new member.

3. Ask them to do something.

Asking a new member to do an easy task (such as introducing themselves to the group, uploading a photo etc.) pushes the member into engaging with others. It also gets them to make an investment (albeit small) in the community, predisposing them to do it again if they get a good response.

Asking them to do something also acquaints them quickly with the intrinsic…but not necessarily apparent…benefit belonging: engaging with others. It’s too easy for new members to make the leap and join, but never experience the real benefit of the group because they’ve not engaged with it.

 

It goes without saying that a community won’t grow without new members. But it probably is worth saying that it will grow strongly as long as you get the right new members: ones that share goals, values and needs with the rest of the group.

So having these two questions in mind as you design a community platform or lead your group is critical for effective community growth:

1. “Are they like me?”

2. “Will they like me?”

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR COMMUNITY GROWS UP?

What happens between the moment of birth and spawning (when the community is mature-the subject of the last post)? Communities go through recognizable life-stages as they grow. You should be aware of them because you can anticipate and meet the community’s needs by both providing the right tools at the right time and tasking yourself with the right leadership actions appropriate to each stage. And if you’re building a community platform, it’s smart to be aware of what stage needs what tools, when…crowding a new community with tools it doesn’t need can confuse the user experience.

Above is a simplified diagram of the stages and what they need.

Below is a bit more of a description.

 

BIRTH

At this stage it’s unlikely that you have a real community on your hands…yet. You’re in the build phase and all you need are tools for basic interactions because relationships between members are only beginning. Your goals are to:

  • Define the purpose, goals and membership profile of the community (who should belong and who shouldn’t).
  • Focus on recruiting doers and contributors (content writers, meeting organizers, etc.) who can quickly fill the community with desirable content and make connections.
  • Make the community look attractive by showcasing that content with photos, board postings, video and activity feed
  • Promote the community
  • Make new members feel welcome
  • Encourage interaction between members
  • Avoid the ‘empty restaurant’ syndrome by encouraging activity and showcasing it on an activity feed and by showing a rising member count.

 

ADOLESCENCE

Now the community is taking off. Relationships are being formed between members so more sophisticated tools are needed. Organic growth is happening because existing members are recruiting others (provide those ‘viral loop’ tools that make this frictionless) and the content is growing and making the community look useful and active. So you need to promote less but manage the relationships more (policing and dispute management) and you’ll need member management metrics and tools.

There’s a growing sense of group identity as experiences are shared and group stories and myths emerge…so make sure they are being documented in video, photos and narrative. You probably need help running the community too so time to appoint members to roles such as ‘welcomer’, ‘event organizer’ etc.

What characterizes this stage is:

  • More sophisticated interaction tools
  • Tools for members to recruit others
  • Leadership team and roles
  • Strong sense of belonging and group identity
  • Shared memories in photos, video and story form
  • Member-management dashboard and metrics
  • Member blogs

 

EARLY MATURITY

Now you’re humming. Time to recruit a larger management team as the community grows rapidly. It’s also time to offer more sophisticated interaction and event tools as people will have formed friendships and want to interact via video and face-to-face at meetings and outings. Now is also the time to anticipate spawning: the tendency for groups to hive off from the main community to maintain a sense of intimacy and/or more narrowly satisfy their needs as the membership grows larger and more diverse. Poll the members to see if they want to form sub-groups or local groups.

This stage is characterized by:

  • Rapid organic growth
  • Strong identity
  • Strong sense of belonging
  • Sophisticated interactions
  • Talk shows, live and recorded video interactions and live events.
  • Potential for spawning into sub-groups and local groups
  • Larger management team.

 

LATE MATURITY AND SPAWNING

At this point the community may have grown large enough for you to encourage spawning to maintain cohesion and strong relationships. The original community might decline in numbers a bit as sub-groups form but no-matter. You’ve still got a growing base that’s feeling bonded and having their needs met albeit in newer, smaller groups. You may be getting tired and a little burnt out. Don’t’ worry it’s normal. Good to recognize it and time to figure out a succession plan so you can start over with a new group or retire to the pub.

Or, if your community is mission-driven (its goal is to improve the lives of others or change the world in some way) time to consider whether you want the community to become more of an activist organization: set a big goal, raise donations and sign petitions. More on this in subsequent posts where I’ll discuss Movement-Making.

What characterizes this stage is:

  • The community is large…maybe too large
  • It’s likely to spawn smaller communities that maintain a sense of intimacy and more narrowly satisfy the needs of members
  • But you will have anticipated this by identifying those needs by forming sub-groups and the potential members and leaders fill them.
  • You may be getting tired…time to think of succession or a different role.
  • Indeed, your original community may adopt a different role…that of an activist organization for example.

 

HOW TO RAMP PEOPLE UP THE COMMITMENT CURVE

The Commitment Curve is an excellent tool for modeling how to ramp up people from low-barrier-to-entry actions to increasingly difficult ones. The idea is to move your members from lower investment/lower reward actions (like completing their profile) to higher investment/higher reward ones (like attending an event) that yield higher levels of commitment. It’s a tool used by some activists to rapidly build and mobilize large numbers of people to create social change. I explain how it works here.

In short, it can also be used to ensure your user experience doesn’t ask too much, too early of the user (like being asked to run an event immediately you’ve attended your first). Instead, the idea is to ramp the user up escalating levels of commitment by making ‘asks’ of increasing-but appropriate-levels of investment of time, energy and emotion.

Here’s the List of Community Features plotted on The Commitment Curve. You can debate which ‘ask’ demands more or less investment by the user- like making a blog post vs. attending an event. But you get the general idea. The point is, if you’re going to ask people to show up to events, you might want to ask them to do things lower down on the curve first (like participating in a forum) that demand less investment before the bigger ask (but higher reward) of attending an event.

The other thing to bear in mind is that lower investment actions tend to predispose people to make higher investment actions. Because they literally become more invested in the community and are inclined to do more, especially when asked.

WHAT ARE THE BEST FEATURES FOR COMMUNITY-MAKING?

If you you’d like to be able to answer “Yes” to each of the questions in the Community Checklist, a good start would be to look for a platform that has the following features. Or, if you’re building a platform for your cause, brand, movement, magazine or blog then you should consider building or licensing this functionality.

I’ve presented it as a matrix so you can use it when building/finding a platform. You can use it as a Feature Checklist for your community. And I’ve used TuDiabetes.org, which is on the Ning platform, as an example. It’s a very high-functioning community that uses many of the available Ning features.

A brief description of the feature and why it’s important follows. And I’ve clustered them into broad groups: ‘Interaction Tools’, ‘Content Tools’, ‘Do I Belong? Tools’ and ‘Organizational Tools’. Many of these tools occupy more than one category, of course, but you’ll get the general idea.

 

              COMMUNITY TOOL TuDiabetes.org
 Do I Belong? Tools 
Purpose
Member List
Rich Member Profiles
 Content Tools 
Resource Pages
Forums
Photos/Videos
Blog/Member Blogs
 Interaction Tools 
Forums
Messaging/Friending/Following
Live/Recorded Video
Sub-Groups
Local Groups
Event tools
Organizational Tools
Leadership Structure
Rules
Member Dues
Event Fees
Activity Feed
Mobilization Tools
Member Categories
Chapters

 

Here’s a bit more detail about each feature.

‘Do I Belong?’ Tools

These are the tools or features that potential recruits can consult to see if this community is right for them. Specifically:

a) Will I fit in? Do the other members look OK or there lurking axe-murderers? Is the membership a bunch of people I could get along with? Or (even) will they reject me?

b) Why should I bother joining? Will I get something out of it? What are the benefits I can expect? What are the goals of the community?

Also, they’re the kind of tools where existing members can use to double-check that it’s still the right place for them. And to help keep the community on track with it’s goals and purpose.

1.    Purpose

A good, clear and succinct Purpose should have several ingredients (covered in more detail here):

  • Declare the goals of the community
  • Describe the benefits of belonging
  • Be clear about who should join and who shouldn’t
  • Be clear about its values.
  • Be clear about what’s expected of the members.

 

A Purpose has at least two ‘purposes’:

  • For recruits, it tells them why they should join, what benefits they’ll get, and whether they are a good ‘fit’.
  • For existing members it is the lodestone that keeps the organization on track. It keeps the focus on the goals, makes decisions easier about who should join/stay, reminds members of the values, and describes what’s expected of them.

I favor making the Purpose of the community fairly obvious so potential recruits can find it easily. Many relegate it to the ‘About’ section of their site.

2.    Rich Member Profiles

These should walk the line between being burdensome to complete, and give enough of a clue about what this person is like so that:

a) A potential member can see what kind of people populate this community and whether they’re likely to get on with them, learn something from them, have fun with them etc.

b) Existing members can check whether this is a person they can have a relationship with, providing a gut check before they send them a message, friend them, follow them etc.

3.    Member List

A list of members that potential and existing members can scan and find people they want to connect to, or dive and ‘sample’ what the membership is like. A one sentence ‘headline bio’ of the person a la Twitter and Quora is helpful too.

Content Tools

People join communities for a reason…often to “Do something, learn something, share something or change something” as Meetup claims on its homepage. Make sure you have as many ways to post content as are needed by your members and to provide rich and varied forms of consumption. Ideally, much of this content will be posted by your members, thereby relieving you of the burden and, of course, creating a sense of ownership by members.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

1.    Resource Pages

This is the bare minimum. There should be a place where people can find useful links, download informational pdfs etc.

2.    Forums

Both a source of content and a means of interaction, Forums are the classic place that people can glean tips, useful member experiences and advice.

3.    Blog

Whomever is running the community should probably have a blog. It can be a way of bringing alive the Purpose of the community beyond a simple mission statement. It helps develop a voice and personality for the group. And it is a useful tool to impart critical information to the members in a much less invasive way than the ‘all-member’ email blasts that are sometimes necessary.

4.    Member Blogs

These do much of the same job, but of course vastly increase the amount of content plus involve the membership in a way that creates a real sense of ownership of the community.

5.    Photos/Video

These are of course a rich form of content that enable members to share experiences, record in a vivid format group events, and document what the community is up to. It’s often what potential recruits will consult first to get a fast read on what the community is about and whether it’s for them. Pictures and video also just make a community’s home page look interesting, vital and engaging.

 

Interaction Tools

As I’ve said many times on this blog, without interaction there is no community. Getting people to engage with each other is critical. Without it there will be no stickiness. They need to have venues and tools in which they can learn from each other, hang out with each other, offer advice, give tips, mobilize or simply have fun. And there needs to be a way for people to find, connect, message and form deeper relationships with each other.

The bottom line is that when people form relationships, loyalty is created. Relationships are the glue that binds the community together beyond the utility that a community may offer (learning Spanish, practicing belly dancing etc.).

Forms of interaction should be made available that range from low investment to high investment. More on this in the next post when I’ll plot them on the Commitment Curve.

1.    Forums

They really can’t be beaten. There are more sophisticated tools now available (see below), but the sheer simplicity, familiarity and low barrier-to-entry of a chat room/forum means that anyone, no matter how tech literate they are, can read, comment and participate, feel like they’ve contributed, maybe learn something and certainly felt the presence of other members of the group.

2.    Messaging/Friending/Following

If the community is working well, people will inevitably want to reach out and connect with specific members and form a deeper relationship because of a shared interest or need. Messaging allows a ‘no commitment’ way to introduce oneself (and of course is an ongoing useful communication tool). Following is a low investment/low commitment way of keeping in touch with someone’s activities without necessarily having forming a two-way relationship. Friending can actually mean something and enable a two-way relationship if you choose to build the right tools.

3.    Live/Recorded Video

This is really the next-big-thing in terms of member interaction.

Being able to see body language, facial expressions, hear voice intonation…especially when it’s live…is the richest form of communication bar meeting up face-to-face. It’s how we’re wired to communicate after all (writing and especially typing came very late in human development!)

Google Hangouts is just one of many ways these tools are being used. Yackit (full disclosure…I’m a co-founder) enables 4+ people to have a live topic-based conversation that can be watched by millions if you so wish. Asynchronous video conversations (such as on the VYou platform) are another way to go. All are probably further up the commitment curve (see the next post) than traditional forums and blogs/commenting but I predict are going to take off very rapidly given the opportunity for rich and vital interaction.

4.    Sub-Groups

As a community grows, inevitably offshoot communities will spawn that more narrowly satisfy people’s needs and shared interests. For instance, the original NYTech Meetup (now 24,000 members strong) has spawned hundreds of Meetups that cater to those who have a particular interest in video tech, tech for Brands etc. If you can, enable your membership to satisfy more narrow needs whilst staying within your larger community. Tudiabetes.org has 467 sub-groups that cater to Women with Diabetes, those suffering from Neuropathy and so on.

5.    Local Groups

Similarly, as a community grows, people who live within the same geography my want to come together, meet and run events. This is to be encouraged! Face-to-face contact is rich and can be the basis of strong enduring communities. There are now Tech Meetups all over the world (NY Tech Meetup was the first and is the largest). Smart Car lovers have a lively community at the heart of which are 247 sub-groups, most of which are local chapters of enthusiasts who get together and organize local events.

6.    Event Tools

Getting people together face to face to share in an event is an important engine of enduring relationships and a long term, sustainable community. Meetup is the platform for anyone starting a community predicated on, well, meeting up. Its event and membership tools cant’ be beaten (more full disclosure…I used to work there and am a ‘Meetup Fellow’.) But other platforms have rudimentary event-organizing tools that can be sufficient.

 

Organizational Tools

These are the tools that enable the creation of a successful organization. Once you get beyond five or six members, you’re likely to want these things.

1.    Leadership Structure

This can be as simple has having one person organizing or running the community or as sophisticated as having assigned roles for a leadership team. As a community grows it’s highly likely you’ll need a Membership Director, an Event organizer, a financial person, a Greeter of new members. Whatever the roles, look for a platform that enables you to create a leadership organization.

2.    Rules

Every functional community has rules of some kind that set the norms of behavior of its members. You could try and get by without them for a time, or evolve them over time but at some point you’re likely to need them.

3.    Membership dues tool

This is optional. But some communities benefit from having membership dues not just because they provide an income for the community to finance activities, staff etc. but because can be a useful ‘gate’ into the community that accepts those that are likely to be contributors and committed enough to part with even a token amount of cash.

4.    Event fees tool

Not unlike membership dues, charging an event fee up front can increase the chance that people actually show up. Many communities make these fees refundable when you do show up which lessens the headache for the organizer who’s gone to the trouble to organize a venue, transport etc.

5.    Activity Feed

This is often used to give a sense of vitality and action within the community plus give a sense to members of ‘the others out there’ who also belong.

6.    Mobilization tools

If your community is a non-profit that’s fighting for some cause, then tools that enable petitions to be signed, donations collected, house-parties organized and so on is a useful option.

7.    Member Categories

Categorizing members into groups with badges and status can be done for many reasons, at least one of which is to create a hierarchy. If your egalitarian soul shrieks at such an idea, remember that people often love the idea of earning status within a group. The whole trend towards gamification is predicated on this. The truth is that smart community leaders have always known the power of belonging to ever-more exclusive inner-circles based on merit.

8.    Chapters

If you’re community grows to the point where smaller local groups become necessary that ‘chapterization’ can be an option. Using a platform with local group functionality can be a way to do this.

 

 

THE COMMUNITY CHECKLIST

I’ve taken the Community Checklist I wrote about earlier on this blog when making a distinction between fans/followers and real community members and turned it into a feature list. It’s a list of features that you should look for when starting a community and are looking for a good platform or are, in fact, building a community platform for your cause, blog, magazine, TV property, brand, movement or whatever. The Feature List is in the next post.

In the meantime, here’s the Checklist again.

 

The Community checklist

If you can answer “Yes” to these questions, you’ve got a good community on your hands.

  • Does it satisfy a real need? Do its members learn more, have more fun, get more done or get support?
  • Does it have a clearly articulated purpose?
  • Is it clear about who belongs and who doesn’t?
  • Is there interaction between members?
  • Are there enduring relationships formed between members that go beyond the original reason for connecting?
  • Do they contribute, do they participate, do they work together to achieve the common purpose? Being an audience is not a community.
  • Do they feel responsibility for each other and the community at large?
  • Are there roles, responsibilities and jobs performed by the membership?
  • Is it self-policing? Do people censure or eject unruly or unreasonable members?
  • Are there guidelines, rules, or norms of behavior?

To be really sure that you’ve enabled a real community ask the following questions of your members.

  • Do they identify with the community? Does it reflect, in part, who they are as an individual?
  • Do they have a sense of belonging?
  • Can they be who they really are without fearing rejection?
  • Do they have a sense of confidence, safety, even protection?
  • Do they feel part of something bigger than themselves?
  • Do they have a sense of purpose and meaning?

 

Conversation with Scott Heiferman: Part 2

Here is the second part of my conversation with Scott Heiferman, Founder and CEO of Meetup. In this part we talk about the roles of different social platforms (such as Facebook, Twitter etc), and the kinds of relationships that bind people to communities.

Douglas: So what do you thinks makes for a stronger kind of community: one based solely on pre-existing personal relationships. Like the majority of Facebook connections, or one based on passions and interests and causes, like Meetup or Ning? In Meetup Groups, people have bothered to get out of their homes and meet people around a shared need or cause, like being a military wife or just enjoying playing chess. It’s a more palpable reason for coming together, if you like.

So which is stronger, or is that a daft question?

Scott: I think life calls for different kind of relationships, different kind of communities and that, ultimately, you’re friends and the family networks are the strongest. It’s like saying is your circulatory system or your nervous system more important?  Well, it’s all part of a functioning ecosystem of life.

For example, I have a friend who’s part of a book club for some years. She has that monthly ritual, she devotes many hours to it, dozens of hours of reading every month and she looks forward to it.

But she doesn’t hang out with the people from book club outside of book club. I asked, “Don’t you consider them friends?” And she says, “Well yeah, but no, they’re my book club.” And this book club is focused on a topic. She’s got her friends, but then her    book club is something different and she considers the book club something very important, but it’s not friends exactly.

Douglas: So you can have segmented communities?

Scott: Yeah.

Douglas: There are communities which may or may not overlap within your life, some of which are based on a passion, interest, need, or cause, and some are just accidental, like you met these friends at college and you developed relationships with them, or you have this family you certainly didn’t elect to have.

Scott: Sure.  And I can’t say what’s more important.

Douglas: Maybe there’s another way of cutting it. There are communities that you elect to join and co-create within. Are they stronger communities than the ones you just happen to find yourself in?

Say you grow up in a small town or suburb. What’s your affinity to that town, really?  You didn’t elect to be there.  But you elected to be part of this co-creating local community around saving the environment or whatever. Which one do you really identify with and which one is strongest?

Scott: Well, I mean you gotta be a really cold person to not have warm, warm feelings for that town you grew up in.  I mean I’m sure when you head back to where you grew up, but there’s a part of your heart which is still there.

I see what you’re asking: do the things that you choose make you more committed to them?

Douglas: Yeah.

Scott: I don’t know. I do know that there’s a sense of relief when people find ‘the others’, as Douglas Rushkoff quotes Timothy Leary.

Douglas: In the research I did on cult-like organizations, I found that the root of it all was that everyone is trying to find the like-others. Somewhere where you can relax, create a safe space and become yourself.

Scott: Yeah.

Douglas: ‘Like-others’ can be defined in many ways. But I found that if you share the same values, that lent itself to the greatest stickiness. Because, generally, an individual defines themselves to themselves and others by describing their values: “I believe in this.  I think this is important.”  So if you find others who define themselves in the same way, that’s a profoundly strong tie.

Scott: Yes.  But you know, where it breaks down and where you see organizations like communes and collectives and intentional communities falling apart is when there’s a presumption, there’s an expectation, that all the values are going to be the same. But inevitably it’s going to translate to, “Well, you’re not exactly like me.” And I think that’s where, perhaps, more explicitness about the goal comes in.

Douglas: Yes, because you can unify around a goal but accept each other’s differences outside of the goal.

Scott: Right.  Right.  Like when the community says more explicitly that “here’s why we exist as a community and here’s where we’re not necessarily gonna agree.” It’s like saying, “Here’s why we exist and anything outside of this is – we have a tolerance for,” I think that’s really important.  Because when you have that degree of explicitness, all the things in a contract, it’s more likely to work.

History says it breaks down when there’s an intolerance for anything outside of it, as opposed to saying, well, this is the most important thing and other things are less important.

Douglas: So here’s a question I’m asking visionary founders like you of social platforms. Facebook, Ning, Twitter, Meetup. In five year’s time, what are the three or four left standing and why? Do they satisfy different needs or overlap? Is there a need that isn’t being satisfied?

Scott: Well, I think very strongly that some version of each of those is going to sustain – some version of each of those is going to be needed and become more and more and more important in the world. Like, I have my family and friends, I love what Facebook does for that.  And whether it’s Facebook or something else, that’s going to be a part of things.

Scott: That and that what Ning does is absolutely vital, and going to be part of the world forever. Which is that not-geographically specific common interest.

The idea of how do you spark real dynamism in that kind of geographically spread community is still to be figured out.

And then the role of Twitter, which I think is more about broadcasting, it’s about following, but is not about relationships. But that’s needed too.

I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t say that I think that Meetup or something like it is going to be the surprise strong player. For one reason. I’ll put it this way, that which elicits a community with roles and responsibilities, and interdependencies and relationships is just going to be a big winner.

Douglas: Right.

Scott: That’s what’s happening with Meetup period – because it pushes you. The Meetup is just a means to an end, which is to get the relationships and interdependences going. And the roles and responsibilities going within something that is not an audience, but rather is a true community.

Then from there, watch out.  You hear in the technology world the word platform a lot, and that the masters of the platform are the developers.  Developers are iPhone app makers, and Windows app makers.

Well, the platform that enables real people, not engineers, but real people to make applications, to be developers, is the formula for a big winner. When people are building a Meetup Group they’re being developers on a platform.  They are making something, like you make an iPhone app.  It needs to be a lot of people making it together.

And what we’re seeing is the more Assistant Organizers you have, the more successful the Meetup group is.  What is that saying?  It’s saying these people are taking roles and contributing.

Douglas: When I was at Meetup HQ we talked about how the investment it takes to participate in a Meetup Group is extremely high. It’s not just about a mouse click or posting a photo. It’s about showing up and more. That’s good and bad.

It means the barrier to entry is really high, but if they do show up, then there’s a strong possibility that the sense of reward could be equally high.

So, because Meetup is local and face-to-face, and if you’re co-creators and co-makers then the investment and reward is at a much higher level than if you’re simply in front of your computer.

Scott: Yeah.  I mean you could argue – and I’d be lying if I thought of this ahead of time, – but it’s like local isn’t even the point.  The point is co-creation and collaboration, and codependency, interdependencies and roles, and that that’s just more likely to happen locally, and face-to-face.

Are Twitter, Facebook et al just another media?

My recent conversations with marketing people brought this home to me. They tend to refer to Facebook, Twitter, Myspace et al as social media.

The people who build these things call them social platforms or utilities. The people who work at Ning, Meetup, Facebook etc see them as new social infrastructure where the Internet can remove the friction that impeded social interaction and community-building in the analog world.

You might think I’m parsing this too fine, but I believe that what they’re called is indicative of how they’re used.

For many marketers, these tools are simply media. They’re another way to reach a target audience. Not only that, they use them akin to the old broadcast media. Twitter and Facebook Fan pages are there to blast ‘messaging’ to their audience. (Not all marketers…the smartest brands use them as part of sophisticated community-building or customer service strategies).

The builders of Meetup, Ning, Facebook, Twitter etc see them as platforms on which people self-organize to form relationships and communities, often in ways they never envisaged.

They’re not ‘channels.’ They’re the new town halls, or social mixers, or forums or village squares.

Or are they? I could also argue that Fan pages are like the old media. They have an audience that receives updates and can respond in a limited fashion. But the degree of interaction between others on the Fan page is rudimentary at best. It’s not a real community.

Likewise with Twitter. Each person or organization or brand is broadcasting a point of view or an interesting link. Again, there’s limited functionality for interaction. And that’s just fine. It’s there as a personal radio station if you like with limited ‘call-in’ ability.

What do you think? Do you call them media or platforms, and why?

Conversation with Gina Bianchini Part 2

In this part we cover tips for community leaders on Ning, how the Ning platform has evolved, the importance of customization and Gina’s views on which social platforms will survive.

Top tips for successful Network leaders

Douglas: What are the top five things that Network Creators [the founders and leaders of Ning Networks] should know when they start out?

Gina: I wrote a blog post when we first launched Ning Networks about what a Network Creator needed to know when starting out: http://blog.ning.com/2007/03/eight_steps_to_creating_a_grea.html. I came up with eight steps then – and they remain the same success factors two plus years in – so don’t make me choose five :-)

What I think is fascinating is that a different combination of features and design are important when you’re first launching a Ning Network. For example, photos, videos and blogging are the best features to use to get a new social network off the ground. Later, discussion forums or events may make a ton of sense, but keeping it simple upfront and investing in only a few features and great design is the greatest indicator of success.

Once you have that, launching with a small, initial set of members and a focused answer to “what should I do first?” by your new members should get you on your way.

Community and leader lifestages

Douglas: The community leaders I’ve interviewed have said that there are lifestages in community-making. What’s more, they grow and change as their community grows. They evolve into different types of leader, as their social network evolves.

Gina: Exactly. The other thing, especially in the early stages of a Ning Network, is it’s really important for the Network Creator and core members to be actively involved.  You can’t just throw up a Ning Network and let it run itself before it’s developed its own norms and rhythms.

It’s like being a host or hostess of a party.

For example, one of our Network Creators, Chris Anderson talks about how at the beginning of creating his Ning Network, DIY Drones [about creating your own Amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] he needed to contribute photos, videos and blog posts every single day.  As the social network grew to 150-200 people, he could take a step back. Now that it has over 1,000 people, it runs itself.

This is only one example of what we see across our 2 million Ning Networks that have been created in terms of how Ning Networks grow and evolve through a healthy ecosystem of different types of members or roles within a Ning Network.

By looking at the commonalities across what are otherwise very distinct social networks on the Ning Platform, we can build into Ning Networks smarter and better ways for Network Creators to accelerate the growth and ongoing management of thriving, rich, immersive social experiences.

Evolution of Ning

Douglas: It sounds like you’re creating the infrastructure for high functioning organizations.

Gina: That is our mission.  So, hopefully, the answer to this is a very loud, “heck, yes!”

Douglas: And the software you’re creating is enabling the leadership to identify where they need to focus. And it’s recognizing that each social network has slightly different needs at each stage of its life?

Gina: Absolutely.  We can see, for example, the portfolio of features used by active social networks versus those sets of features that are used on Ning Networks used for experimentation or never take off. We can take that small but critical insight into defaults for new Ning Networks and give the Network Creator as much help as possible to create something special and successful.

Douglas: So you’re identifying the behaviors that are predictors of success and then developing software that predisposes other social networks to do the same thing?

Gina: That’s the goal. We want to help each Ning Network be as easy and compelling as possible based on the data we have across over two million Ning Networks created.

Douglas: So what are the top things that you might see in an early stage of a community that you’d like to help optimize?  What can you can help them do?

Gina: Stay tuned.

Douglas: Fair enough!

You might have already answered this, what’s missing that you wish you had built on Ning?

Gina: That’s a tough question just because, as a perfectionist, product-oriented founder and CEO, I could probably spend the next two days telling you all the things that I can’t wait to build or that I wish we could get out next week.

Engagement vs. page views

What I would say is that the biggest thing that has evolved in social technology since we launched Ning Networks almost three years ago is the transition from thinking about success and the product in terms of feature-driven pageviews to member-driven engagement.  Member engagement is this notion of identifying who your members are, what roles they are playing on your interest-driven social network, and how you drive deeper engagement from there.

The Internet is moving from a race for eyeballs to a race for engagement and, while it is too soon to tell where this is all going, I think it’s a fantastic, dynamic trend that we love.

Douglas: So, as Ning has grown, you’ve realized what you’ve got is an enabler of a range of different relationships around a series of passions and interests?

Gina: Absolutely.

Douglas: And you want to evolve the product to enable these relationships to work better. One of the ways to do that may be identifying the different roles that the different members play and helping them play those roles more effectively.

Gina: Well, we’re already doing this. These are the things that people are starting to see pop up on their Ning Networks and will only get more pronounced from here.  That’s the thing that’s also really fun about this kind technology is that because it’s the Internet you can get things out the door quickly.

Douglas: So we talked a bit about what you want to do in the future. But how is Ning designed right now to enable high-functioning communities? What do you think you got right?

Customization

Gina: The thing that we did and continue to do differently – and better –than anybody else is develop features for extreme flexibility and uniqueness.

We think about everything in the context of how can our Network Creators and their members customize what we’re about to put out. How can our Ning Networks take a feature and put their own unique spin on it?

We are constantly looking for ways for our Network Creators to take a standard feature like photos or even virtual gifts and make it uniquely their own in a rich, immersive experience that is only limited by their creativity and the market for members joining.

It is not the kind of thing that most people wake up in the morning and think about in software development and design and yet it’s fundamental to everything we do.

Douglas: So why do you think customization is so important?

Gina: There are multiple reasons. First, because we love to see what happens when you give creative people the opportunity to take an idea and turn it into a totally new reality. Second, customization is critical to support distinct interests and identities from veterans to offbeat brides and zombies. You can’t have The Hook without customization and, as we talked about earlier, The Hook is what makes a Ning Network different from every other Ning Network or any other social platform out there.

For people to find their community and know whether or not it’s the right place for them, customization is a prerequisite.

Douglas: I’ve been talking to two big Ning Network Creators: Steve Ressler who runs Govloop and Joseph Porcelli who runs Neighbors for Neighbors. They seem to be trying to customize all the time.

Gina: Yes.  And our job as a partner and a social platform is to take the things that people like Steve and Joseph and their members are doing on our service and make it easier and faster to customize those things.

Which social platforms survive?

Douglas: Great.  So here’s another big question: if you were to imagine the world in five years what would community platforms look like?  Who survived?  Who didn’t?  How are they being used?

Gina: So on one level I think that the social technologies that are here today have staying power and are poised for continued explosive growth.  That’s because this stuff is actually quiet hard to do and network effects are alive and well. It’s why, for example, there isn’t a number two to Facebook, Linked In, Twitter, or Ning. Different social networks have carved out their area and are rapidly innovating to deepen their relationship with people for that particular area of their life.

I also think that the ways people use and connect across different social technologies will only get more sophisticated, richer and more immersive on the web while being connected everywhere via mobile experiences.

What this should mean in practice is that every person on the planet will have an opportunity for a richer life because of what they are able to access from a simple mobile phone. The political, economic and social ramifications of this are profound.

Douglas: So, coming back to today, if you had to advise anyone…ordinary people…to pick just three pieces of social software, what would they be and what needs would they satisfy?

Gina: So I think Facebook because they will continue to do the best job of connecting people that you already know and everyone went to school somewhere.

I think Ning would be the second one because I think we will continue to give people a more and more compelling way to express and connect with other people around the things they care about the most in their lives.

Tied for third place is Twitter and Linked In. Twitter is an amazing service in terms of providing a real time stream of interesting news and events.  I’m finding that I can rely on Twitter for my news today in a much more compelling way than reading a news site online.

And then I do think there will be always a need for professional identity online. I think Linked In is going to continue to dominate professional identity.  They’re going to do more and more interesting things around people’s professional identities and I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes.

That would be my answer although I recognize I chose four not three.

Douglas: That’s fine.  I just wanted to see which ones you picked and what you think distinguishes them.

So here’s a personal question.  What is the most useful or satisfying community you’ve belonged to and why?

Your most satisfying community

Gina: I came from a family of teachers. I knew nothing about business when I came to college. Through the help of friends and mentors, I got a job at Goldman Sachs right out of college and drank out of the firehose of new professional experiences.

I was incredibly fortunate to start out on this adventure with 70 other 21 year-olds of varying backgrounds, degrees and personalities who became some of my best friends to this day. Fortunately for me, California has better weather than New York, so many of these colleagues have since moved out to Palo Alto, CA, so my social world came with me.

Without this set of friends and support network, I’m not sure I would have built the expertise or confidence to start a social technology company and create a service used by millions of people every day in the expression of who they are as people.  That’s the power of community and something that I hope Ning can continue to provide people across all walks of life.

Facebook, Meetup, Twitter or Ning?

Following on from the previous post that attempts to distinguish between fan, follower and community member, here’s a brief and imperfect review of the major platforms that we generally consider as suitable for community building.

Bear in mind that each of these do some of the other (and increasingly so as they develop more functionality). But this is a broad-stroke review designed to help someone who’s considering how to create an online platform for community (if they’re not custom-designing their own).

Facebook isn’t designed to create distinct communities. Its main function is to distribute information amongst people who already know each other (or are separated through a few degrees of separation if they’re friends of friends).

Its brilliance is that it removes the resistance to communication within a network of strong and weak ties that geography, time, telephone, mail or even email represent. It’s as its makers describe it: a utility, one that enables things to be shared by people who already know each other, and as such it likely makes those ties a little stronger.

But you can’t say the majority of relationships on Facebook are defined by buying into a common goal, doing things together, having complex interactions, being distinct from other communities because of their values or goals. It’s about fast and seamless information-sharing, whether video, photos, messages or status updates.

Fanpages are slightly different. They can be used to create a community of sorts around an idea, person or thing. At least, it’s a group of people distinguished from the larger Facebook population by putting up their hand up to say I’m a fan of x.

But it’s not really designed to create real community. Co-creation is very limited. There are discussion boards, if enabled, and even some offline functionality. You can receive updates from the fan-object. You can post your own updates (if the administrator enables that).

At the end of the day it’s designed for an audience, not a membership. It’s no accident it’s called a fan page. Fandom normally means a two-way relationship between the fan and the fan-object. Actually, on Facebook it’s often only one-way and used as simply another broadcast medium for distributing information from the fan-object to the fan. It’s not designed for relationship building between members, co-creation or any of the other markers of true community.

Meetup is completely different. It’s almost the reverse of Facebook. Where Facebook is about information-distribution amongst people who already know each other, wherever they are in the world, Meetup’s single-minded focus is creating local, sustainable community around interests, passions, needs and causes amongst people who were initially strangers. It creates a framework for strangers to become friends through successive Meetups, co-create and do stuff together.

Its software is designed for people to find each other and share common interests, easily organize events, appoint responsibilities, create economies within the groups (via fees and sponsorships) and recruit. It’s a reinvention of local community predicated on shared interests (not just proximity), using the Internet to get off the Internet.

Ning is like Meetup, in that it is also designed to create community around shared passions and interests amongst people who were initially strangers. But the focus is not on local, face-to-face community. Its Networks (its name for its communities) can be huge and are normally global. If you’re into zombies you can collaborate with other zombie-lovers globally and make a movie together.

If you’re into reinventing government both federally and locally, join the 24k plus members who belong to Govloop. You can create more specialized communities within the Meta-Network (say, of Federal Recruiters), and they can meet locally (although that’s not a frequent thing). Ning has a selection of tools that enable interaction and co-creation: blogs, discussion boards, groups, status updates etc.

Both Ning and Meetup are in the community business. They have software platforms that recognize the need for a strong community to define its purpose, recruit people who buy into that purpose, enable rich interactions between members and encourage co-creation and participation.

Now Twitter. Is Twitter a community-building platform? I would say not. Yes, people can have tweet-ups and spontaneously show up for an event. You can have lists that are predicated on common interests. But in essence it’s a broadcast medium to followers that you normally don’t know, and never will. They’re an audience, or sometimes a fanbase.

Twitter is really the status-update feature of Facebook without the network of pre-existing relationships. It’s being used by some people as a sort of proto-community of similar values and interests that enables peer-reviewed and distributed information. I’ll read x article because y person who I respect and follow recommends it. It’s sort of a select crowd-curated information source if used this way (versus broadcasting your teeth-flossing schedule). But basically it’s a stripped-down broadcast medium, with some direct messaging functionality.

Summary

So, if you’re not building your own custom-designed site for community creation, Meetup and Ning are really the only platforms out there that have robust functionality to enable communities of shared interest. Then you have to decide if you’re creating a local or global community.

If you’re custom-designing and want access to the crowd, you can go where the crowd is, or fish where the fish are and create an outpost on Facebook. But it really should be recognized for its limited community functionality. It’s often used as a feeder into the main community site. Twitter is a great communication device to broadcast to your community and beyond, and a great intelligence-gleaning device if you’re monitoring what people think of your fan-object or community-leading skills, or you want recommendations on what to read, see and attend from people you respect.

Conversation with Gina Bianchini (Part 1)

This is the first of two parts of a conversation I had with Gina Bianchini. Gina is CEO and Co-Founder (with Mark Andreessen) of Ning.

Ning is a social platform that enables people to form communities of interests and passions. Well, you’ll see what it is and why Gina thinks it’s different from other platforms in this conversation…

This part covers why Ning was founded, what makes it different from other social platforms and what defines a successful Network.

The next (to be posted in a few days) will cover the evolution of Ning, it’s next significant development, what social platforms will be around in five years time and what Network Creators need to do to ensure success.

Douglas: Gina, why did you start Ning?

Gina: We started Ning with a simple premise: what if we gave everyone the opportunity to create their own unique social experiences online?

We saw early on that the native behavior on the web – or what people wanted to do on the web differently from any other medium before it – was connect people with other people. Looking at eBay, Craigslist, chat and discussion boards, it was clear to us that people wanted to connect and engage online in a fundamentally social way that the Internet and no other media type enabled.

With this as our foundation, we sought to create a social platform for people to create rich, immersive social experiences for the things they cared about the most.

Ning vs. other Social Platforms

Douglas: So what distinguishes Ning from other social networking sites?

Gina: We are focused on enabling unique social experiences for people’s interests and passions.

The fascinating thing about how social technology platforms are evolving today is that each social platform focuses in on a specific area of the human experience. It’s a bit like the five families actually. You have Facebook for connecting you to people you already know; Twitter for news and real-time events; Linked In for your professional identity and Ning is designed for meeting new people around your interests and passions.

For example, the IAVA (The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) has created a private social network on Ning for returning veterans to be able to find and talk to other returning veterans in a safe place and share their experiences.

Or TuDiabetes (http://tudiabetes.com), which has over 10,000 members touched by diabetes who are there to dive deep and build strong relationships online with others affected via videos, blogs and discussions around topics critical to living with diabetes.

From the politically important to the emotionally critical, Ning is the broadest platform for unique social experiences on the Internet today.

Douglas: So do you think online relationships based around a passion or a need are inherently stronger than, say, those that are on Facebook?

Gina: I don’t know if they’re stronger, they are just different. There will always be a place for you to have a relationship with the people with whom you grew up or went to college. That is one of the things that makes Facebook special.

I think relationships built around interests and passions are typically about meeting new people who have a shared love or identity to you. Where you can’t control where you are born or who you went to school with, what you care about – your favorite music, your critical causes, the reason you get out of bed in the morning – is what makes you uniquely you.

Connecting people around the things they care about requires a different approach than Facebook or Twitter, which are really set up for a different purpose. Interests and passions require context for that particular topic and the ability to go deeper with a smaller set of people filtered for the truly engaged.

Douglas: I agree.  I was talking about this to Linda Stone. We discussed what needs were being satisfied by which social networks.  Twitter versus Facebook versus Ning versus Meetup and so on. The only two that lean into the passion/interest/ cause/needs area effectively are Ning and Meetup.  Except there’s a fundamental difference between the two. Ning is enabling people to cluster around these things online…not necessarily anchored by geography. Meetup is at the intersection of passions and local.

Gina: Yeah.  I think they’re very complementary actually.

Douglas: I do too.
So here’s another big question.  What is community exactly?

What is Community?

Gina: A community has historically been defined as a group of people organized around common values and social cohesion within a shared geographical location.

With the Internet, you don’t need the geographical location, so the opportunity for community has increased exponentially with the types of communities expanding in ways that have no analog in the real world. From offbeat brides to steampunk aficionados, entirely new communities can emerge in minutes around interests that may only exist or be possible in an online world.

Ingredients of a successful Network

Douglas: What constitutes a successful Ning Network?  What are the ingredients?

Gina: Our successful Ning Networks share one thing in common and that’s “The Hook.” Regardless of topic, category, or member base, when a Ning Network has a Hook you know immediately what the social network is about, who it targets, why you should be there, and whether you belong in this contextual world.

How is the Hook communicated? The Hook is communicated via the name of the social network, the brand, the visual design, the features, and the layout. From these small sets of levers, we’ve seen tremendous diversity in the rich, immersive social experiences on Ning.

For example, when you show up at the Offbeat Bride Tribe, it’s got a Goth boot – like a Doc Marten boot – under a wedding dress.  In a split second, you know this Ning Network is about brides who want a wedding that doesn’t conform to the traditional.

Or Lost Zombies, which is a Ning Network creating a crowd-sourced documentary of people who are contributing themselves as the majority of the zombie army.  You immediately know when you’re on it that it’s about zombies: the look and feel, the photos, the videos and overall design tells you immediately what it is about.

These different Ning Networks are really clear about why they exist and why you should join them. They make their case immediately when you first land on the homepage and it goes from there.

Difference

Douglas: One of the things I wrote about in the Culting book is the ‘Four D’s of Difference’. It’s about how effective communities must communicate their difference to potential recruits. Everyone is trying to find their tribe.  We have a profound human need to be amongst ‘like-others’.  The successful cult-like communities…the ones that generate enormous stickiness…are the ones that telegraph their difference to those that are the most likely ‘match’. They say: “you’re different and we’re different in the same way… so come on in.”

Gina: Exactly.

Douglas: And they can do this in a number of ways.  But they absolutely must declare their purpose very clearly.  It could be in a Manifesto. By the way the membership behaves, maybe how they dress, the design of the site, the church, the meeting place, how they talk to each other.

And what’s equally important is to communicate not just to those who could belong but also to those who shouldn’t.  It needs to say, “Hey, you’re not like us. That’s cool but you probably don’t belong here so find the place where you do and you’ll be more comfortable”.

In other words you need to be very clear about who you’re appealing to and who you are not. And be very clear about what you get, and what you don’t if you join.

Gina: Absolutely. And I think that that’s going to get more and more obvious as we move forward.

Douglas: Why?

Gina: Because people are becoming more sophisticated in how they use social technologies and, especially, how and where they define what they stand for and who they want to stand with online.

If people want to be one of many in a rigid, uniform social network, they have that option with where social networks have been, not where they are going.

As the number of options for social experiences continues to grow exponentially, social experiences must both be unique and interesting, but they also must telegraph who belongs and who doesn’t. And they need to do it quickly and effectively on the first impression or they may not get another chance.

We see this playing out everyday across hundreds of thousands of active Ning Networks and it’s absolutely critical in separating out the successful from those that merely exist.