The distinction between these two kinds of loyalty came home to me last summer when I was participating in a brainstorming on behalf of a major Big Box retailer. They wanted to develop a loyalty scheme for their customers.

The context they gave us was limited, but even from the perspective of a fairly frequent customer of the category (as I am) they had a big issue. Actually, it was embarrassing. For the couple of hours when we were focusing on that company none of us could remember its name and kept confusing it with their main competitor. (Embarrassing because they were watching us via a live video feed.) Clearly they operated in a commodity market. We all agreed they needed to create some affinity in a market where little existed.

And a loyalty card was unlikely to be the answer.

In any event, the jury is out on the ROI of these schemes, as many have noted (this review ‘Do customer loyalty programs really work?’ is especially good at weighing the pros and cons). But even if reward schemes were undoubtedly a good thing I would argue (and did during this event) that transactional loyalty…loyalty based on a fairly rational trade of your commitment to a store/airline/publication in exchange for miles, points, access, information or whatever…should never replace emotional loyalty. Ideally you should have both. But emotional loyalty trumps the transactional kind every time.

What is emotional loyalty and how do you get it?

There are many sources and kinds of emotional loyalty. For brands, political parties, sports teams, religions…actually most everything…close identification between the person and the organization, especially at the level of shared values, is often a fundamental requirement. You may self-identify as a non-conformist and creative person and align yourself with Apple and so never consider another brand. Or you see yourself as a rebel deep down despite being a dentist or management consultant by day, and slap on your tattoos and slip on your leathers at the weekend to hang out with your Harley Brothers. Getting a ‘rice-burner’ (their term, not mine) would literally be an anathema. Identification between individuals and a political party or religion is even clearer to see.

What I’m interested in is the loyalty that comes from membership of some kind of community or social structure. I’m interested in this because I’ve come to see that community is the engine of loyalty. The kind of loyalty that effective social structures create trumps all others. Things like identification at the level of shared values between members and the organization, be it the Tea Party, Apple or Wicca, is normally just one of the outcomes alongside the fundamental drivers of commitment that community creates: a sense of belonging, a shared worldview, mutual support, a common goal and many, many more. But more of that later in this this blog.

One quick example of the power emotional loyalty vs. transactional loyalty.

At Meetup we undertook a big quantitative and qualitative research exercise to identify the pain and stimulus points in the Meetup experience that we could either fix or develop. We wanted to increase joining, participation and commitment to Meetup Groups. How can we get more people not just to sign up, but to show up at a Meetup? How do we get them to attend more than once? What is the trigger to becoming an active contributor to the group? What prompts someone to become an Organizer and how can we make it easier?

One of the key findings is that real commitment to a group kicks in when the emotional drivers do. Most people say they join a Meetup for the ‘transactional’ benefit: “I want to practice my Spanish.” “I want to learn to knit.” “I’m going crazy staying at home with my two year old and need to meet other mothers for play dates.” These transactional benefits never go away but the real loyalty occurs when they attend an event for the fourth or fifth time. And the reason they want to return is not just to learn how to pearl one, drop one, but to see Jake again, or catch up with Jessica or Ahmed. And that’s when the benefits of these social ties start to develop into the real sticky glue of a community: things like the mutual support of “others like me”. We would frequently see comments such as: “About half of the moms in the group are military spouses and understand what I am going through. It’s a great support group and whenever a group member has needed anything, I am proud to say, my members have come through.”

To leave that community would be very tough. As it is to leave the Harley brotherhood, or perhaps your local church. The emotional bonds to the organization are sourced in social bonds. And leaving would be like saying goodbye to your friends and family. And letting go of your shared values and experiences. A greater cost, I would argue, than not accruing a few hundred more purchase points on your card.

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.

Conversation with Scott Heiferman: Part 1

This is the first part my conversation with Scott Heiferman about what makes Communities work (or not work.) In this part we focus on the role of membership in making sticky communities.

Scott is Founder and CEO of Meetup: the world’s largest network of local groups. I worked with Scott as Chief Community Officer and Partner for almost two years.

Douglas: So what does it take to have a high functioning community?

Scott: It takes glue.

Douglas: Very funny. Can you be more specific?

A real community has real members

Scott: Yes.  I think that if you’re in a community you have a sense that you’re not amongst fellow audience members or fellow consumers. In a community you shouldn’t feel like you’re amongst passengers but rather you’re amongst co-organizers of something. It’s more that we’re in something together.  That’s when I think something emerges as a community.

Douglas: I’ve asked that same question to community leaders and a lot have had the same response. They say a really high functioning community is where people are participating and contributing equally. There aren’t passengers, there aren’t flakes. Everyone feels a sense of mutuality and responsibility.

There’s a sense of a fair trade. And if it’s not in balance then it can get ugly. People will say things like: “Well, I’m doing this for the benefit of all, and if you’re not going to pull you’re weight, why should I bother?”

Is that what you mean?

Scott: Yes. But I think that there can be plenty of dysfunction and it’s still a community.  I think the reason why community intrigues people and it touches some nerve is that it in a sort of over-industrialized, de-personalized, over-corporatized, over-anonymized existence, you can just become or live as the target market of something.

Community and Identity

I think we have a deep need. I’m quoting you here. You talk about how we have a deep need to ‘believe and belong’. You really dig into that.

It’s about wanting acknowledgement that you exist.

You could exist in an industrialized, consumerized world and have your friends or have family, but not really exist outside of that.

I’ve been trying to explore that lately. You have your friends and family and work life. But there’s a role for community which is outside of that and touches on whatever interests you or intrigues you or what’s important to you. The stuff that’s often not fulfilled by friends, family or a work network.

Douglas: We were talking about how the strongest communities are those where the members feel that a part of their identity is defined by the community. You can see that phenomenon really clearly if it’s a religious community or a political community or even a cult brand community. I think it’s absolutely vital. It’s why communities need a really clear ideology or world-view, because that’s what people are buying into. They’re sharing that world-view with others, so it’s also a shared identity. That makes the community very, very sticky.

Scott: Yes.  Absolutely.  But I think there’s a false sense of community in things like the Apple Fan Boys. Because there’s definitely an identity there, but they’re not co-creating anything, they’re not making something together, or they’re not really interacting and relating to each other, and building something up with each other.

It’s not just about shared identity

So I would argue that the identity itself is not enough, that there has to be an identity tied to a shared goal, and it might not be an explicit goal, it may be a very implicit goal.  I mean if you look at gay pride parades…I’m sure there’s an identity and there’s a celebration and a pride. But I think we have this implicit vision of a world that’s more equal or better for us, and that’s what brings the warmth of the community.

Douglas: So, what you’re saying is for a high functioning community, people don’t just have to have a shared identity, but they must also be co-creators, that they’re makers?  They’re making something to achieve an implicit or explicit goal together?

Scott: Yes. That’s why I started the New York Tech Meetup, which people herald as a great success, but I don’t consider it a success because it’s just a monthly event with a giant audience.

I’m interested in reviving the lost art of membership.

What does it mean to be a member of something? I’m not talking about reviving some old model completely. I’m saying what’s the 21st Century version of membership in a community?  And there’s going to be a lot new for the 21st Century, but I think it borrows from what’s always been true.

Mutual responsibility

I think implied in membership is a responsibility.

Or a role.

And a role is not necessarily the overt explicit stuff, but the role is “are you pulling your weight, are you doing your part?”  The balance of rights and responsibilities, the Aristotle stuff: I’ll get the right of celebrating and having this pride and doing all that, but there’s a responsibility too. I mean there’s gotta be norms in the gay community about what would have people turn against you.  When you take on responsibility then you can benefit from the rights of having a celebration.

Discrimination is good

Douglas: I couldn’t agree with you more.  Something I’ve been thinking about recently is whether all communities should be gated. Whether some members should be culled. There’s many criteria for whether someone should be accepted, but one of the key ones is if they are prepared to sign up for joint responsibility in the outcomes of the community. Strong communities have to have a sense of mutualism.

Scott: Right.

Douglas: There almost needs to be a barrier to entry where you have to agree to play, to be a real participant, or you get thrown out. Which makes me remember a time when we sent something around to the Advisory Board of Meetup to get their input. It included something about being exclusionary. It provoked a whole thread about whether one could be or not. I found it surprising that that would be an issue. There is a kind of political correctness in the Tech world, a trope about how everyone’s welcome, everyone can be part of it, and I’m not sure that’s true.

Caterina Fake and Linda Stone were talking about this when we spoke. The pendulum is swinging back. Until recently, people would join almost anything. And they would be welcome. I think of it as CJS-Compulsive Joiner Syndrome. People had wide arms and said anyone can be a member. Now we’re detecting that people are un-joining things, are thinking carefully who they’re friending. And organizations are getting more savvy about approving membership, and less tortured about chucking people out if they don’t’ behave according to the rules.

Scott: Yeah. Absolutely.  On of the things I’ve noticed as I’ve gone around meeting Meetup Organizers in 25 cities-and I was shocked at this in the beginning, and it still is a little bit shocking-but I hear organizers being so vigilant about pruning their base.

What makes it so fascinating is that they have this strong incentive to want to have a large member base because having a large number of members makes you more attractive, makes you listed higher. There are a lot of advantages to having a lot of members, and there’s the ego of course. It’s like having a lot of followers or fans or something like that.  So that makes it even more shocking when they’re angry at the inactive members and they’re prepared to prune them.

There is a big campaign going on about wanting people to pledge that they’re gonna stand up against genocide and it’s organized by the Anti-Genocide Coalition, which is a bunch of 20-something’s and the U.S. Holocaust Museum and a few different organizations. They’re really well organized; they’ve got this really great thing going on.
If you look at their website, it says “Pledge and add your name to this list of people who are pledging to stand up against genocide,” and all you have to do is send your email address and do your thing.

And I was so bothered by it because it’s using this word ‘pledge’. I’m like, “Great, this is interesting.  Wonderful,” and then I’m looking for “what am I pledging?”

There needs to be a cost to membership

Douglas: Yes, exactly. There’s no real cost.

Scott: There’s no cost, exactly, there’s no cost.  What am I giving up?  What am I committing to?  And it’s really nothing more than signing up for a mailing list or maybe a petition. I met someone who’s involved, and they say, “Well, we’re out for big numbers.”

And I actually think they do such a detriment to the whole idea of people with good intentions wanting to do something. At the very least say, “By pledging, you are agreeing you’re going to do something once a year,” – they’re just bastardizing the word.

And is there even the loosest from of a community emerging out of that?  No.  It’s just yet another mailing list you’re on.

Douglas: I agree.  It’s a low-investment decision, and therefore how much is it worth?

I know what they’re doing. They’re starting with a low investment commitment (basically a mouse-click), which gives the organization a large list. Then they’ll ramp a fair chunk of them up the commitment curve. They’ll get them to make increasingly higher investment commitments.
The danger, of course, is there’s going to be ‘signing-up’ fatigue. I think people are very quickly going to have ‘joining-burnout’ because the act becomes meaningless.

The importance of provenance

Scott: Right. I think generally we’ve become so disconnected from so much around us. We’re so disconnected from our food and disconnected from our bank, and disconnected from our insurance, and disconnected from everything that is our life around us.

It’s rare I get addicted to a TV show, but I’ve been addicted to this obscure show…I’ve been recording them:  How It’s Made. There’s just endless episodes of things like how plantains are made, how bowling balls are made.

And I never in a million years thought I’d be so interested in this, but you know, I think there’s this deep human need to be connected to the origin of things.

I think people are going to gravitate towards the real – gravitate toward people, especially when they’re living more and more off the screens.

And so the version of the highly scalable movement that is about networks of cells is really the model for maximum sort of movement making.

Douglas: Well, that’s one of the reasons I was so interested in the Mormons. They structure themselves like a collection of cells. Each member within each cell is intimately known to each other. Each cell is replicable in the sense that they have the same structures, the same positions, the same responsibilities and everything else.

Scott: Oh, and that’s the woven strength of Facebook, I mean Facebook is not made up of a community of 300 million people.  It’s made up of a web of people who have deep relationships, at least some of them do.

I’ll be posting the second part of this conversation in about a week. It covers the roles of the different social networks (Facebook, Ning, Twitter etc) and what it is that binds people together.

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?

Are they communities…really?

Today, Forbes.com published an article I wrote about the current status of brand communities. I wrote it because I think it’s time for a review of how well or how badly they were being built, and how well or badly they’re using the new technologies that can now enable community-creation.

I wrote a book about cults and cult-like brands (Apple, Harley etc) a few years ago, in which I suggested the next big thing in business was going to be community. Little did I know how big and how fast that would happen. Nor did I foresee Facebook, Twitter and all the other social platforms that are now being used by business to create and enable communities.

Since I left the world of brands and have spent time at Meetup, talked to some of the founders of social networking technologies, and to hundreds of community leaders, I thought it would be especially interesting to calibrate brands’ attempts against the timeless and universal standards of real, successful community-making.

The article is relatively short, and the subject is large. So I can only give it an overview. And I suggest some community-building strategies that brands can take in this new world. But I’ll be coming back to cover this subject in more depth on this blog.

Here’s some of the key issues I take a look at in the article (and that demand more examination):

  1. There’s confusion in the brand world about
  • a) What a community is.
  • b) What the goals are.
  • c) how to measure a community’s strength.
  • d) Whether it translates to sales.

2.   Some people think they’re creating community, when in fact they’re enabling fandom and   followers (not the same thing).

3.  There are some interesting things being done, especially by those brands for which cult-followings are tough to create because their products are utilitarian (a pen, a mutual fund, a car part for example).

4.  The smartest brand community-makers are:

  • Enabling existing communities to connect more easily
  • Supporting and nurturing existing communities of interests (like entrepreneurs, Moms, dog lovers) that are aligned with the brand’s goals.
  • Being useful. Meaning they are adding value in terms of content, money, insight, infrastructure.
  • Being authentic. Not pretending there’s passionate brand lovers when there aren’t. Being realistic about the brand’s role in community-making.

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?


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.


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.

Fan, Follower or Community Member?

Over the past week I’ve been interviewing people about whether they are enabling real community. Most of them have been in the commercial arena. Many of them want to create communities around their brands to create more commitment.

There are really a few simple questions that they can ask themselves to clarify whether they are creating true community or not. Why should they bother to clarify this? Because there seems (to me) to be a bit of confusion about whether they’re creating fans, followers or community. Being a fan or follower is not the same as being a member. Membership of a community delivers a whole different degree of commitment (if done right).

It’s about the number of bonds

It’s all about the number bonds you have. With fandom, there’s essentially a simple bond between the fan and the thing or person they’re a fan of. Or between the follower and the followed. Like fans or followers, members also have a bond to the purpose or values of a community. But critically, they also have a bond with fellow members of the community who also buy-into the purpose or values of the group. They have a relationship, a commitment and sense of responsibility to the other members. They are their friends, colleagues, fellow fighters, or just Bill and Jane who you look forward to seeing again at the next meeting.

This triangulated relationship is much harder to break than a two-way commitment. To leave would not only mean saying goodbye to object of your commitment. It would also mean saying goodbye to your friends or even your brotherhood who share your commitment



So here’s a list of questions you should ask if you want a community vs. simply a fan base or followers. If you say yes to any of these things, you’re likely to enjoy the greater level of stickiness that that a true community endows.

Community checklist

  • Does it satisfy a real need? Do its members learn more, have more fun, get more done or get support?

  • Does is 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?

This interrogation of whether you have, or want, a fanbase, a following or a membership should also be applied to the platform you choose to run it. Facebook, Ning, Meetup or a custom-made solution? I’ll cover that in the next few days.

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.


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.

Ingredient: #12: Myths

…they aren’t lies, they’re core Truths!

Myths are stories, but with a critical difference. They have symbolic importance. They embody what the community is all about: its purpose, its beliefs and its actions.

Regular stories that relate things like events and achievements and that are captured in photos, videos and words are good for collective memory-making and co-creation…all great things for stickiness.

Myths are slightly different.They become elevated to a special status because they have more meaning.

For the Apple tribe…yes, there is one… the story of a very young Steve Jobs flouting convention and pitching Venture Capitalists in his shorts and sandals in the earliest days of the company perfectly symbolizes the values of the group: be different, don’t conform (Apple users all think they’re more creative and less conformist than the rest of the world. They can be insufferably smug. I confess that I’m one of them.) This story is told and retold by Apple users who weren’t even born when it happened.

The life story of Mary Kay Ash, the founder of her eponymous company, is also told and retold by thousands of Mary Kay consultants. She was passed over for promotion by her previous employer in favor of a man she had trained. Infuriated, she left and started her own business brewing cosmetics on her kitchen stove. Working from home was important at that time. She needed to support and care for her family as her husband was dying.

The empire she built was based on recognition and celebration of women’s entrepreneurial ability. The pink Cadillacs and the huge mutually supportive annual event at Dallas are all about enabling women to beat the odds and become their best (the bee is a key piece of iconography for the company…it flies despite its improbable aerodynamics).

The Mary Kay consultants I interviewed would tell this story with tears in their eyes. It perfectly embodied the values of the company. And, importantly, they felt it was a perfect expression of their own self-story.

How Myths can be Master Narratives.

Paula (not her real name) had been fired despite leading a graphics company’s sales department to impressive records. She ran the department according to her own personal values: support your staff, make them feel they can do anything, don’t use fear as a driver.

The company took a different direction that contradicted these values, and despite delivering superior results, she was let go. Faced with trying to figure out how to support herself and her two-year-old son, she accepted an invitation from her friend to go to a Mary Kay party. She recognized that the company’s values were her own, joined as a consultant and rose through the ranks.

Paula told the story of her joining as if it was ‘meant to be’. Mary Kay Ash’s story was both an inspiration to her and reinforcement of her own choices. It was almost the same story.

The founder’s story was the Master Narrative of the company. It embodied its values, and was reflected in the personal narratives of its members.

Can you make myths?

These special stories will emerge. The art is recognizing them for what they are and then celebrating and circulating them. If you think they express accurately (and inspirationally) what the community is all about, find ways for the membership to absorb and retell them. Often, if they’re really good, membership will find ways to do it on their own!