Tribalism in the Online Community
[Francois Gossieaux speaking at SuperNova. From his file photos]
Back in Naked Conversations, we talked about how people were hot-wired to collaborate and that people have remained essentially unchanged since the time when we hung out in caves and collaborated for survival. Of course, we had scant evidence to back this up, just our usually strong opinions.
Now comes Francois Gossieaux, a co-founder and partner in Beeline Labs, a marketing 2.0 firm and the substantive Tribalization of Business study. Beeline, Deloitte and the Society for New Communications Research have produced the first report drilling into the early experiences of more than 140 organizations who are pioneering online communities at business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies and nonprofits. The communities range from fewer than 100, to more than 10,000 members.
Francois' interview answers should prove valuable to anyone managing, participating in or considering a business-related community.
1. What was the study's objective? Did you achieve it? There were 140 corporate officers interviewed. What were their most common titles?
We wanted to understand how companies leverage communities as part of their business processes and how they measure the progress and success of those efforts.
We quickly realized that for those companies who were doing it right we were looking at something that was transformational. We were tapping into an age-old human behavior, which we came to recognize as “tribalism.” Halfway through the project, we changed the title because of that observation.
2. Who did you speak to? What were the most common titles?
Most community efforts ended up reporting in to the CMO, even though that is not where they all originated. In the recent past, most community activities started somewhere as a skunkworks project - only to be rolled into the CMO’s turf after the program gained recognition. It is a more recent and still relatively rare phenomenon in which companies launch community activities as corporate marketing initiatives from the get-go.
3. What surprised you? What didn't?
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the scalability issue. Many reported that community initiatives, especially for large companies, did not have enough business impact to make it onto the CMO's dashboard.
When asked about the associated budgets and expenses, those same budgets and expenses did not make it onto their radar screen either. So, in effect, many CMOs keep programs deliberately small and then complain that they cannot see results that move the needle.
Another surprise was how many companies started their community initiatives as a technology platform decision - only to realize that if you build it, they may not come. Some very successful community executives suggested that if your community cannot survive in a Yahoo! Group-like discussion environment, it will probably not survive anywhere. One of the more important factors for the success of community initiatives is the content strategy for the community – not the technology strategy.
Least surprising is probably what motivates community members. They want to talk to other people, not companies, and they want to help one another.
4. What do you think makes us tribal by nature and why should a business strategist care?
People want to hang out with like-minded people and want to help and be helped by people who care. By providing a massive platform for participation, social media has allowed that tribal behavior to return to the forefront. Whether you like it or not, there is probably a good chance that your consumer tribe already hangs out in some corner of the online world. While at times a bit dense, you can find a collection on the most recent research Consumer Tribes.
5. Your survey showed the five most frequent goals of a corporate online community were close to tied: (1)insight, (2)idea generation, (3)loyalty, (4)word-of-mouth and (5)marketing. Did you find communities do better when they serve multiple purposes or a single purpose?
Communities can start out with a single purpose, but inevitably, they will end up serving multiple purposes. You need to prepare for that. If you start a customer support community, for example, people will eventually give you new product ideas. If you are not set up to execute against those product or service suggestions that the community finds important, they will lose interest and leave - it's as if you are not listening to them. They don't care what your internal goals are for the community. They care about having a better complete life-cycle experience with your product.
6. Your study seems to indicate that engagement is a more valid goal of an online community than say, revenue per customer. How would you measure either?
I am not sure that we found engagement to be a more valid goal of an online community, but it is what many companies try to measure. I assume that much of the reason why companies are looking at engagement as a success metric is because many of them are building their communities in partnership with their agencies.
What we did find is that those companies who were most satisfied with their community efforts were those who measured the effectiveness of their communities in the same way as they would measure the effectiveness of the business processes that the community was intended to support. For example, if you measure the success of your customer support call center in a certain way, then measure the impact of your online community-based support program in the same way.
The same is true for new product innovation-focused communities or co-marketing communities. Whether the original measurement framework is the right one or not, it is one that the department heads understands and which tends to be institutionalized across the company.
It was amazing to see companies, who normally measure all their marketing programs based on increased sales, all of sudden measure community efforts based on page views and time spent on the site - even when the community interactions were happening mostly through email and text messages. These are all clearly signs of an early market with lots of customer confusion.
7. Speaking of measurement, your report indicates that companies could do a better job of measuring communities. What would you suggest?
Besides measuring their community efforts the same way that they measure the underlying business process, we also found that those companies who were most satisfied with their communities effectiveness were those who were funded by the various business groups they were supported, instead of by a central community slush fund. When you have to justify results to the business units in order to get your funding, it's amazing how you automatically align the way you measure success to the way that the rest of the company measures its success.
8. You seem to think an online community should be the purview of marketing and ultimately the CMO. Why? Why not have it under a Chief Communications Officer, reporting to the president or CEO?
We believe that CMOs have an opportunity to transform their role into that of Chief Customer Officer - and represent the Voice of the Customer at the executive table. As Peter Drucker said many years ago: "Because the purpose of business is to create a customer, the business enterprise has two - and only two - basic functions: marketing and innovation."
Leveraging the power of communities and the customer insights that they provide could put CMOs back in the strategic seats where they belong. I know that we have had a long history of marketers with very bad habits, which is why many people want to do away with them. But, at the end of the day, companies will need to fix the problem--not bypass it.
I believe the CMO role will evolve--encompassing all touch points that a customer can have with the company instead of being primarily pre-sale focused.
9. In that case, will the CMO obsession with ROI go away?
ROI is not something that will go away anytime soon – although, hopefully, it will shift away from a programs-based ROI thinking to a customer life-cycle ROI mentality. You should also note that CMOs are not the ones who are so ROI focused. It’s their companies.
10. What core differences do you see in running an internal social network, v. an external one?
In many ways, the dynamics are the same. Yet there are also fundamental differences. Many companies confuse collaboration projects with community projects. You can have a core product innovation team whose mission it is to develop your company’s next big thing. If and when that team seeks participation from broader employee communities whose job is not to come up with the next big thing, then the dynamics are fundamentally different.
The core team is driven by team dynamics - clear goals, well-known project beginning and end times, and a well-understood process - it's their job.
The broader community does not behave like a team, nor does it have visibility into most of the things that drive your core team, and it's not their job - they will only do it because they feel passionate about your company’s success.
11. Do you have a good anecdote about something that happened while conducting the survey?
I like Cisco’s iPrize project story. They set out to develop a program that would lead to Cisco’s next billion-dollar business. They were not focused on developing an external product innovation community, but that is exactly what they ended up with. Not only did posses develop to self-police the rating and ranking process, but many teams formed online to compete for the iPrize.
12. What is the single most important piece of advice you have for a company starting a social network?
Use Barry Nalebuff's PARTS acronym. Start with taking an inventory of the “parts” of your game plan:
• Who are the Players?
• What’s the Added value (especially for the community members)?
• What are the rules?
• What tactics should you use?
• What’s the Scope of your effort?
Then, develop a detailed roadmap for how you will approach the project: With whom will you launch? Will you start by engaging people on other sites or will you just start by sensing what is going on so you can decide how to engage? Which business processes you will activate, etc?
Also, realize that the dynamics of small scale community efforts are very different from those of large scale efforts – so the lessons learned from small pilots may not apply to big deployments, and the reasons why small communities fail are not at all the same as to why large ones fail.
And please, don't start your community project as a technology platform selection.