Many businesses outside the Internet-focused world are scoffing at social networking and online community development. They’re calling Facebook and Twitter and social media applications a waste. Some companies are forcing their community teams to demonstrate a ROI for their efforts, while others are miscasting community as either marketing or business development. When shifts come along in culture, in the way things are done, they aren’t obvious.
The Marketplace is Shifting
Gone are the days of simple demographics and targets. There are rough edges to all this, but there are too many outlying statistics, too much “noise” that can no longer be just deleted from the graphs. People are choosing to spend money and commit their time along lines of preference, trust, and perceived value in ways different than what companies might normally have predicted. We aren’t buying something because we saw an ad. At least not right away. I believe the ad now moves us into a conversation mode that wasn’t there in the past. As companies seek to find a way into that conversation, they need to tread carefully.
Cluetrain is Alive
The Cluetrain Manifesto was published in 1999(*updated twice: thanks, Dan York!), and probably the first thing anyone remembers from the book without doing much recalling is “Markets are conversations.” It’s the first of the 95 Theses. I recognize that this book has been widely accepted by the Internet circle for a while. When I’m at Gnomedex tomorrow, if I say, “Hey! The Cluetrain Manifesto is NOW!,” people are going to laugh and wonder if this is Scoble’s secret Facebook prank.
But I believe that NOW, more so than the first wave of the Net, the notion that markets are conversations, that social sculptures and networked people are better able to represent products than the paid representation. I think that everything being done in the name of community (at least the online type with evangelist roles and manager roles, or whatever you want to call us) is the embodiment of this premise.
But We’re Probably Doing it Wrong
First off, the premise that companies can hire someone to make their product more loved by a group of people is kind of silly. It’s somewhere between the promise of advertising and the Kool-Aid of social media.
Instead, I think this: I think that the BEST use of assets on a community manager/evangelist/developer is to have a way to EQUIP the lovers of your product and service to do great things with them. Go out and scour the landscape for the users of your software, the consumers of your media, the appreciators of your favorite flavor of chip, and MAKE IT REALLY COOL and easy to share your love for X,Y,Z product.
How much money was spent hyping the Transformers movie? I saw the side of Optimus Prime’s head EVERYWHERE. You mean to tell me that it wouldn’t have cost less to let people mash up their own commercials, or interview people who grew up with the Transformers, or whatever. Just something OTHER than your typical promotions?
Why not make the role of community types to go out and find the community, equip it to do cool things, and expand your universe that way?
It’s Who You Know
This is more true than ever. But in a stranger way. We need to manage and nurture our networks and relationships because jobs aren’t sticky any more. We’re not working 10 years in the same place. Two or three seems good. And you never know where the next business opportunity will land. Make colleagues and partners everywhere. Build potential networks all the time, to be helpful, to know the pulse of things, to better understand where it’s going.
Traditional hierarchies in companies are fading. People have learned to move laterally instead of up, out and over instead of within the same walls. My next role, your role, most people’s role, will be with another organization, and very likely with a wholly different job function. Keep your networks close, and make those YOUR networks, not your company’s network. Share with them. But keep the keys.
It IS Business Development
Spreading the seeds of relationships and face-to-face interaction are just like planting in a garden. You don’t eat the seeds; you nurture the plants and harvest the results. There is business inherent in community work. There is marketing insofar as we both agree that markets are conversations. There is a financial bottom line to all this effort, but it’s not the leading position. It’s not a quick return. It is not SEO and SEM. It’s messy, slow, and unpredictable. And yet, I maintain that it’s a core aspect of a growth engine for future development of most organizations.
My Amanda Chapel / Andrew Keen “I’m Not Just Singing Kumbaya” Card
I want to further state that there is a place for professionals, that marketing isn’t dead, and that brevity and clarity are arts that require relentless pursuit and application. I don’t think friendly conversations sell everything. I don’t think blogging replaces journalism. I think it’s much more messy than that. There’s how things are probably “supposed to work” and how things will likely work.
I believe community developers will be another player in the landscape, alongside and around these other roles. I think that professional marketers, professional salespeople, and professional editors of content will have jobs in perpetuity, but that perhaps the percentage of spend on these shifts. Is that not likely? How important are steam engineers, until New York City has a steam pipe explosion? How many telegraph repair people are there?
Your Community, Your Way
We’re in a world of self-identification. We move where the action is. As Eric Rice says often, it’s not about the platform. I’m over here with my friends. Community is at once a stored value pool waiting to spend intelligently on products and services that they find valuable, as well as a scattering and reorganizing arrangement of somewhat fickle consumers, seeking what’s hot, what’s useful, what’s interesting, and what has everyone’s attention.
As a community developer seeking to build relationships with a scattered and loosely joined “Internet video” community, not to mention my role in the new media / social media community, and the other places where I claim a stake, this is a crazy and potential-filled time. How will we seek to derive value from our communities, both as members and as potential guides? What services and offerings will be worth exchanging money? When will relationship currency be transformed for companies into bottom-line revenue? I can’t answer for Wall Street. I’m still working on this.