Context Is Everything: Online Communities | Beth's Blog

Context Is Everything: Online Communities

Digital Strategy

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Note from Beth: Mitch Arnowitz and I recently participated in an online discussion atVenture Philanthropy Partners/Leap of Reason about creating a community of practice for continuous improvement and high performance in the nonprofit sector.  We were part of an email thread with a small group of individuals offered input on community management systems and facilitator recruiting resources.  After I wrote up this summary on my blog, How To Get Started Thinking About Online Peer Learning Communities for Nonprofit Professionals, Mitch offered to write a guest post reflecting on peer learning online and online communities.

Mitch has a long-time history with online communities – having been involved with online communities for over a decade and so he has context.    In an age of fast-paced technology changes, we can often forget just how valuable having a context is.    I was delighted when he offered to write up some reflections.

Online Communities:  Are Best Practices Still Best Practices?

The discussion thread reminded me of an AdMarketing conversation we had a long time ago. The Netpreneur AdMarketing list, one of the longest running Internet marketing lists and still active, is an adventure of the Morino Institute. Over the last decade, the fundamentals of community and relationship building haven’t really changed. What was important then is even more important now!

I thought it might be fun (and useful) to take a look back at this AdMarketing conversation. At the time, we invited Internet thought-leaders to participate in an email list discussion, focusing on interactive tools. What transpired was a conversation among pioneers of early day Internet community building that produced way interesting insights. Below are several takeaways and pointers from that conversation. Looking back, its amazing how little has changed, how relevant these lessons are today and how important it is to do things the right way.

Highlights: April, 2002 Netpreneur AdMarketing discussion

* Customer service is really important. Craig Newmark, of Craigslist fame, talks about culture, customer service and doing things the right way. He also offers up a short list of how to ‘do’ customer service better.

* Communities, trust and The Tipping Point. Diane Hessan, of Communispace (now part of Omnicom), talks about credibility and private labeled communities. Diane’s company was involved in one of the early Internet focus group efforts with its Hallmark Moms Club

* Project management and successCliff Figallo has done a ton of stuff for some great companies including Cisco, the WELL, Electric Minds (Howard Rheingold), Social Media Today, AOL/GNN and Salon. Cliff built one of Cisco’s first online communities and reminds us that project management will always be a key ingredient for successful communities. He also had a hand in designing early days of the leader board effect’ where recognition was the reward. As an added bonus, Cliff also talked about his involvement in the WELL one of the Internet’s oldest communities and watering holes.

* It always begins with strategy– Nancy White, of Full Circle Associates , reminds us how important strategy will always be. I know, I know- its easier to talk tactics but questions like those that Nancy poses help ensure a successful community. In her spare time, Nancy also moderates online facilitation, another long running Internet discussion list and maintains an excellent wiki, chock full of invaluable resources.

* Dealing with good and bad buzz– Pete Snyder, formally of New Media Stratedgies (now part of Meredith Corporation) and most recently a run for Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor talks aboutthe need to track good & bad online buzz for clients. He also says that the Internet is the worlds largest focus group and talks about why companies should care- great stuff!

* Infrastructure is really importantHoward Rheingold, star of futuristic Super Bowl commercials, has long been considered the father of virtual reality and online community building. He authored The Virtual Community and was an original founder of the WELL. Here, he discusses the importance of social infrastructure and facilitation while building online communities.

What did we miss a dozen years ago? What are some of the the other ‘mission critical’ elements to online community and relationship building?

Mitch Arnowitz is the managing director Tuvel Communications, LLC

18 Responses

  1. Thank you for this helpful discussion! It is good to be reminded that in dealing with the topic of continuous improvement, we need to be concerned about both the good and bad publicity and comments. That there is a remedy to a negative comment or situation shows that you have a strong emphasis on your commitment to customer service.

  2. Thanks for both reading & your comment Nicole!

    I think one of the tougher aspects of communities & interaction is knowing how to deal with negative comments. Its tough because… you never know how people will react. The upside’s tremendous and its certainly exciting 😉 but, I hold my breathe a lot when reacting to negativity. In the end, we’re always honest and tell people if if we don’t have an answer.

    Do you have a formula or process for dealing with negative situations?

  3. Hi Mitch!

    When negative comments or situations need to be dealt with, its really important to respond to them quickly. This acknowledges that there’s an issue and lets the unhappy party know that you do indeed care. You should clarify if the negative comment is in regards to a misunderstanding or a business error, or a failed product or service, or if the other person simply doesn’t like your opinion and what you are saying. Always apologize and be polite in your response to the comment, and listen carefully to what the other individual is saying because they do own their opinions and feelings. Offer to fix any problems with products or services promptly. Understand that there are going to be different points of view, and sometimes with negative responders there is a need to “agree to disagree.” All of this can turn an unpleasant comment into a positive experience for both parties.

  4. […] See original article at […]

  5. Michael says:

    Even though the ideas are eleven years old, they’re still applicable today. Something that seems to be missing from a lot of the best practices conversation is the disclaimer that your mileage may vary.

    Best practices are a great place to start building your own strategy, but there should be an additional step of testing your actions to make sure you’re getting the most out of them for yourself and your community.

    Enjoyed the discussion in the comments about negative feedback, too!

  6. I’ll offer a quick comment but really want to hear what others think!

    You bring up a *great* point about value all the way around, differentiators and managing expectations. We test other disciplines (i.e.: direct response). Why should community building be any different?

    Agree or disagree?

  7. Rob S says:

    You might want to change your credit on the blogosphere. The flickr image is just a screenshot of

  8. Beth says:

    Thanks – have changed the credit.

  9. Pretty amazing how relevant these best practices still are a dozen years later, despite how much the landscape has changed since then. Thanks for this post and discussion!

    I would also agree with Michael that it’s more important than ever these days to continually test and evaluate your actions to make sure your community strategy is working.

  10. Hi Karl, thanks for joining in!

    I’m curious as to how do you test & evaluate? Are there ‘metrics for success’ you have (threads, topics, traction…)? And if so, what r you comparing them against. I’m thinking this is easier to do if you’re group’s been around for awhile. Also curious about ‘testing’ and what that means to you all.

    Want to make sure that we’re not missing anything- this part of the conversation is way interesting to me.

  11. Historically the primary metrics we’ve focused on are low hanging fruit numbers like # of Groups, # of Group Members, and # of Discussion Posts, and then just monitoring the trends in those numbers to see how we’re doing (up is good, down is bad).

    However we’re also beginning to explore ways of digging a bit deeper to start tracking those more interesting but harder to gather metrics, like the topic and quality of conversations, how and why users proceed up the engagement ladder (i.e. from lurker, to contributor, to leader), and finally connecting all this community data back to other actions a user makes with our organization outside the community platform.

    I’d also be curious to hear what other folks are doing here, and especially if there are better comparison benchmarks we could be using rather than just looking at our own past performance.

  12. Rachel Happe says:

    So interesting to look back – these fundamentals are still relevant but I’ll add one major thing that I’ve come to understand as I’ve worked with online communities over the last decade or so, which is this:

    To achieve value or impact, communities need to change behavior. In addition, it turns on that the ONLY way to create sustainable behavior change is to have a community.

    Everyone is very focused on engagement and scale, and those are needed, but often miss the more important core requirement which is changing behavior.

    Thanks for posting Beth!

  13. Great point about changing behavior Rachel!

    Do you have any insights on metrics referenced above? Not so much on engagement or scale but more about judging success and benchmarks your clients r using?

    btw, I’m not worthy- *great client list! Thanks, Mitch

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