Should AEC organisations build online communities?

As noted in a previous post, I have been reviewing my own experiences and thinking about why architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) organisations might want to build an online community. (And having written three previous posts each suggesting 13 things to think about before AEC organisations invest time and effort in blogging, Twitter, and Facebook, I have stuck to the same approach regarding business-to-business (B2B) online communities.)

13 things to think about

  1. Why do we need an online community? – Even if it was true (it isn’t), “Everybody’s doing it” is not a valid reason for starting a community project. As with other social media, doing some research can be useful in determining whether existing online communities or other social media channels (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, blogs, etc) might be harnessed to achieve the same goal(s). Assuming there aren’t, then you need a clear strategic reason for your organisation to create and build an online community: a rationale that supports your mission and objectives (eg: getting market insights, harvesting customer ideas/feedback, fostering employee innovation, building customer loyalty, supporting dealers/distributors/suppliers, researching and sharing best practice, etc). Integrated with overall corporate communications objectives (see point 4), this rationale will help you keep sight of the key business benefits or motivations as you start building it. It should also help you think about what the community could be called, how it is branded, how it should be funded and how you measure the results.
  2. How will users benefit from our online community? – The collective purpose and the benefits of the community must also be clearly and openly stated to its members. Brand or product-centric sites created mainly to disseminate advertising or marketing messages tend to flop, while customer-centric networks that meet explicitly stated members needs (eg: “I want to network with like-minded people”, “I want to focus on [hot topic]”, “I want to learn more about [subject]”, etc), and more tacit needs (eg: for enhanced status, recognition or career advancement) tend to be more successful. In the end, it’s all about people and content.
  3. Who will run it? – Online communities do not run themselves. From the outset, you will need a community manager (maybe more than one to cover for absence) who will have a clear brief to support, stimulate, monitor and moderate online activity.  Over time, some of these tasks may be taken on voluntarily by enthusiastic users, but in the early stages community manager(s) are needed to welcome new members, weed-out inappropriate content and behaviours, to expand and retain the membership, and to cultivate new discussion topics and the creation of other content. This is a critical appointment. Effective community managers must know how to use the available web tools and be comfortable socialising online. They also need to appreciate how the online community fits into the organisation’s wider communications (PR, marketing, HR, product development, customer service, etc) – which can create some interesting tensions. Community managers often straddle an awkward dividing line between the organisation and its community – do they protect the sponsoring organisation at all costs, censoring out critical comment? Or do they champion the interests of the community, even if these occasionally conflict with the organisation? (To me, the latter is a more honest and ethical approach that should, in the long run, enhance an organisation’s reputation.)
  4. What about integration with other PR and marketing communications? – Honesty and consistency of messages across all communications is vital. While opportunity to push corporate messages in a community may be more limited than on a conventional website, employees active in the network nonetheless need to be aware of how it fits into the overall corporate communication strategy. This fit can be exemplified by promoting the online community on corporate blogs and on the website, and by creating gateways to and  from other Web 2.0 resources (Facebook pages, LinkedIn groups, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, etc) used by the organisation, as well as using offline media (company magazines, posters, etc). Remember that users may value some community content and want to share it, so consider  widgets that allow such ‘brand ambassadors’ to virally spread implicit ‘word-of-mouse’ recommendations in their own blogs, website or social networks. It is also worth pointing out that an online community can be a useful sounding board for new marketing messages, and an early warning system of problems or negative publicity.
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  6. What rules will we have? – To make life easier for everyone (including the afore-mentioned community managers), draft some clear, simple guidelines, written in friendly, simple language, on what is and what isn’t acceptable in your community (perhaps allow users to suggest new guidelines or amend existing ones). Most communities I’m involved with are related to business or professional purposes, and so respect common business courtesies: they expect contributors to stay on-topic; they outlaw threatening, obscene or abusive language or images; they ban spamming or other inappropriate selling (people don’t join a community to be marketed to); and they reserve the write to ban members who repeatedly contravene those rules. As with other online environments, it can take time for users to discover the ‘netiquette’ of a community, so a consistent but ‘light touch’ application of the rules normally works best.
  7. How will we work out what our community wants? – Point 1 highlighted the value of research; reviewing other sites can also give valuable insights into potential content, features and functionality for your online community. One tactic is to personalise the challenge: create a mental picture of your ideal community member, complete with a set of possible motivations to visit your site (see point 2). This will, first, help in promoting the community to potential members and, second, guide what they find once they get there. However, research can also refine your initial site design. Use beta testers to explore your site’s features and functionality, and to give honest feedback on likes and dislikes, good content and poor, what works and what doesn’t. Listen to what they say and you can then expose your site to its first tranche of invited users.
  8. If we build it, will they come? – Contact some key influencers (via email, Twitter DM) and invite them to join first.  Educate them on how the dialogue might take shape, and when the community begins buzzing, extend the invitation to all potential community members. Core functionality should include tools that make it easy for members to invite other people, perhaps via other social media such as Facebook or Twitter. Password-protected entry will limit the site’s coverage by key search engines  like Google, so providing some unrestricted content – tailored to your ideal user – will help them find the site more easily and will also give members that vital first impression of the community. An easy-to-use, intuitive user interface helps. Avoid barriers to participation: the easier you make it to join a conversation, the more your visitors will become contributors. Similarly, the more your users can be involved in planning new content, features or community events (wish lists, perhaps), the more likely they are to build a sense of ownership (though beware: this can manifest itself in negative as well as positive ways).
  9. When they come, what will people do? – You need users to have a clear reason for being there, and lots to keep them busy once they arrive.  Typically, online communities allow individuals to view content, create personal profiles, participate in discussion forums, contribute blog posts, photos or videos, send status updates or messages to other users, and to invite others to join the community (see this useful Econsultancy list). But this is unlikely to happen spontaneously – an almost empty or apparently inactive community will not stimulate involvement. A community needs to be seeded with some attractive initial content then nurtured. Community manages can help by creating engaging debates and mobilising opinions – polls, ratings and reviews are powerful ways to get users to make simple, often anonymous contributions that are instantly visible to others. Users also need tools to help them bookmark and tag content or other users they really like (or bury content they don’t!). Particularly in the early days while you are learning about your users, some of the issues and themes you initially thought important may not resonate with your users, so be proactive and responsive with new ideas and content.
  10. How will others in the organisation be involved?Building an online community that your colleagues can’t use is like building a new corporate HQ then locking them all out! Remind them of the organisation’s policy on social media, internet access and use of ICT systems, then encourage colleagues to participate in the online community; involve them in planning, development and testing of the platform, give them specific roles and responsibilities, but manage their inputs so that they facilitate rather than dominate conversation. Such involvement – by, for example, customer support/helpdesk, product development, finance – will often entail direct engagement with customers, other employees and/or other organisation stakeholders, which can have a very positive impact on internal morale.
  11. Why are some users more active and vocal than others? – Because they are. Online communities are like real life: some people are chatty extroverts, others take a more measured approach contributing occasionally, and some sit on the sidelines happy to watch. Models of community involvement vary (see my post 90-9-1 or 75-15-10?), and it normal for users to divide into a hard core of active participants and content creators, a small minority of occasional contributors who add to the content created, and the silent(ish) majority who mainly consume the content. This diversity is should be encouraged as both newbies and nerds can offer different perspectives.
  12. How big could your community be? – Online community strategies need to look beyond infrastructure issues such as server size or bandwidth. If a community eventually numbers in the 1000s, who will help moderate content? Who will administer the site, helping users sort out passwords or other technical issues?
  13. How will we measure the impact? – Look back to point 1: what were the business goals? New product ideas? Improved customer retention? Lower customer service costs? Effective measurement requires an understanding of how social media works as part of the overall communications mix, and isn’t always focused on simple quantitative measures such as the number of users, or frequency of visits. It is also worth looking at the quality of interaction: online communities can attract prolonged interaction, with individual interaction measured not in minutes but in hours or even days. Ultimately, a successful online community may be just one part of how an organisation engages with their customers and other stakeholders, presenting valuable marketing opportunities as the community flourishes and grows.
  14. How will we fund the site? – Assuming the site isn’t a voluntary project or run mainly to reduce customer churn or as a R&D project (see point 1 again), there several business models that can be used to monetise your community site. Advertising is perhaps the most obvious method; Ning, for example, runs advertisements on community pages unless you opt for a premium subscription package to remove them (perhaps by getting a single sponsor to cover the costs in return for a more discreet involvement). Other sites get a return on investment via subscription or membership-based models; this may deter potential members, so some sites offer free basic membership with subscriptions required to access premium content. Alternatively, you might consider generating income from related events (conferences, seminars, webinars, etc).

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