Some (more) thoughts on online communities for business

I’ve been asked on several occasions over the past year to see if it’s possible to build a “facebook-in-a-box” for an organisation or association, so I’ve put some thoughts together here. It’s still a work in progress.

This is a follow up from a previous post, The Community Goldrush.

Implementing a Niche Business Network

The success of business-oriented online communities depends more on implementation and mobilization of its members than any inherent design. In the context of many business associations, two motivators are evident. The first is an organizational commitment to create the online community and act on the community’s input. This would be the high level perspective in order to advance the goals of the association. An example objective of this community could be to identify solutions to common problems faced by members. The second motivator would be incentives on an individual level so that there are rewards for members who contribute meaningfully to the goal of the community.

According to Jay Deragon some aspects of an online community that would be attractive to adult members of an online community include:

  • The Learning Factor: With all the hype, craze and media coverage of social networking platforms, i.e. Facebook and Linkedin, many adults are drawn to the medium to learn what the hype is all about.
  • The Connection Factor: Once adults enter networks and learn the tools of the trade many are amazed to find the presence of other adults they know and many they don’t already engaged with the medium.
  • The Affinity Factor: Adults begin to find association with groups, causes, forums, media and other affinities which relate to their interest both personally and professionally.
  • The Business Factor: The predominant business segment using social networks today is employment recruiters. However, as the medium and adult participation has grown there is an exponential growth of business opportunities that adults are learning to facilitate using social networks as the medium.
  • The Creative Factor: Adults, and their businesses, are applying creative ways to use the technology behind social computing to extend its value to both personal and professional needs.
  • The Expectation Factor: When you consider the creative possibilities of social networks adults expect to the formation of some economic and social value to be derived from their participation whether currently or in the future.

The business models behind online communities are varied. Large sites, like Facebook and MySpace generate advertising revenue and the founders may be looking at selling the community to a larger media company. However, for smaller, niche communities, others may be willing to pay for access. According to Ross Dawson, the Sermo site, which only allows access to registered medical doctors, attracts physicians with a need to confidentially discuss cases amongst their peers.

The business models can become far more pointed with a clear target audience. For example, Sermo charges $100,000+ for financial institutions and others to access the medical discussions, so they can assess doctor’s responses to new drugs or medical advances.

Implementation Factors

Fist we have to have a good idea that many members of the association/organisation would be interested in the concept. This can come from market research, informal interviews, anecdotal evidence or previous experience. A suggested action plan could be:

  1. Have initial discussions with the association’s executives in order that they understand the concepts around the development of online communities.
  2. Align with at least one of the association’s longer term goals.
  3. Determine who will be the initial Mavens, Connectors & Salespeople (see graphic below) for this community.
  4. Design the initial technology and support structure.
  5. Start with a very soft launch and no announcements and work with the early members to grow the community.
  6. Once the community reaches a determined size, start looking for targeted sponsors.
  7. Continue to support the community with good conversations, technical support and whatever else motivates members.
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5 Responses to “Some (more) thoughts on online communities for business”

  1. Lisa

    Great post Harold. Lots of good points. You’re absolutely right about needing organizational and individual motivators. This will help create sustainability. Maintaining sustainability in groups like these is always a challenge. Too often it falls to a few and when burnout occurs and needs aren’t being met, the group tapers off. There are several niche community sites out there, including ones in Ning that start out with lots of energy but are now virtual ghost cities. The communities that I’ve seen that are successful constantly evolve to meet the group’s needs.

    Reply
  2. Lisa Neal

    How are business-oriented online communities any different from the knowledge management initiatives of previous decades?

    Lisa Neal, Editor-in-Chief, eLearn Magazine

    p.s. is everyone who comments named “Lisa”?

    Reply
  3. Harold

    The main difference I see, Lisa N, is that these communities are more bottom-up than top-down, just like many other Web 2.0 initiatives.

    Reply

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