Friday 21st August 2009 by Lawrence Clarke
A nod of the head, a shared glance, a warm smile, the soft timbre of the voice, a light touch on the arm, a hint of perfume – the subtle nuances of everyday conversation can never be replaced by a stark screen and the clatter of a keyboard. So why should I give up some of my precious time to join your ‘online community’? It’s too easy to answer this question by focussing on what is technically possible in an online environment that cannot be replicated in the physical world – specifically asynchronous communication. Online I can engage with or listen in to anyone in the world without having to dress up and arrange a specific time and venue. Communication is all at my convenience. It is an ideal way of staying-in-touch with friends (see 'What is social media?') but does that give me a good enough reason to engage with a stranger possibly thousands of miles away in preference to bumping into one in my local pub?
An online community is an artificial environment defined by interactions between those who feel they have things in common, not by the technology used to support these interactions. Unlike our everyday encounters, online we have to be much more considered about why we choose to go to a particular space, read the contributions and make a post. It takes even more consideration to decide to go back on a regular basis. That’s why at SiftGroups we describe online communities as living organisms in their own right that need conscious and systematic nurturing – just like a well kept garden. As one of the founders of The Well, the oldest ‘virtual community’ started in 1985, Howard Rheingold put it: “All online social systems are challenged by human social foibles and technological bugs that tend to split groups apart. Positive effort is required to create the conditions and garden the growth of a self-sustaining group.”
The four main types of online community
In answer to the question ‘why an online community?’, we work with our clients to identify what their target members have in common and what will motivate them to get involved. This can be varied and multi-layered, but in essence it comes down to one or more of the four main types of community.
The first is the community of purpose – a group of people who share a common set of objectives. In its most straightforward form this is a project group within a business working on a project with a defined beginning and end. In a broader context it describes a group of people who share similar issues and challenges and need collective support to address them. Charities, political parties and unions are organisations driven by purpose. In this context the online environment is ideal to support collective understanding and influence. A good example from among our clients is TreeHouse the national charity for autism education which teamed up with TalkTalk to create a community largely aimed at parents of children with autism – talkaboutautism. (Look out for blog posts such as 'The naming issue - real name or pseudonym?' from Elena Goodrum, our community manager who specialises in this type of community.)
The second is the community of practice – a group of people linked by their profession or vocation usually supported by professional trade and industrial associations. Of the many examples at SiftGroups one of the oldest is the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) for whom we have been managing their community for over six years. (Look out for blog posts such as 'Why member organisations need to adapt to succeed in the online world' from Stuart Hall, our community manager and mentor who specialises in this type of community.)
The third is the community of interest – a group of people who share a common interest or passion. Obvious examples are sports clubs and fan clubs. It also covers hobbyists and people who share the same leisure activities. A good SiftGroups example is Homebuilding & Renovating a monthly magazine both for the armchair renovator and the serious home improver.
Finally, the fourth is the community of circumstance – the group of people who share a common life experience or position. Alumni, religious and self-help organisations are based on circumstance. These bring together people for whom the biggest driver is emotion. At SiftGroups we have built and support the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in sustaining the alumni who have benefited from FCO scholarships and fellowships in the Chevening programme.
Understanding the motivations and managing expectations
It’s only by appreciating the distinct differences in types of online community that techniques for managing, measuring and sustaining can be applied successfully. Any online community can be made up of smaller sub-groups that have differing characteristics to the main group. These characteristics also need to be recognised and respected. We often refer to the rule-of-thumb – the 90-9-1 rule – that describes our theoretical behaviour. Ninety percent of us are readers or listeners and ten percent contribute (posters or talkers), of which one percent contribute regularly. This rule masks the differences that occur across the community types and can make it hard for a community manager to set the appropriate expectations (see 'Heuristic tools to help community managers').
The four types of community gradate from proportionately high public contribution to low contribution. The skill of managing such communities lies in the ability to benchmark and continuously re-assess the balance between readers and posters within the specific context. For example, a community of purpose made up of members of a project team should expect high contributions from all members and those in a community of practice made up of individual professionals, such as HR managers isolated in their respective businesses, might expect a higher proportion of posters looking for reassurance and advice. On the other hand, many communities of interest have a high proportion of ‘armchair’ readers with fewer active participants.
The community of circumstance can be the most sustainable with the least amount of effort. Often the circumstance, being an alumnus of a university for example, is a bond for life. It does not mean that such a community will attract high volumes of public contributions, however. It is not surprising that online social networking started with such groups. The first, PlanetAll in 1996, started in Harvard Business School as a means of enabling graduates to find other graduates around the world. In 2004 a similar model was replicated by students at Harvard University. They called it Facebook.