Types of Online Communities (and the importance of onions!) – From Our Friends at 4-Roads

onions (1)Please enjoy this post from Gina Narramore, 4 Roads Social Media & Community Manager. 

If taking steps towards becoming a social business is in your strategy, you are probably considering developing an online community.

One of the first aspects to be considered, and arguably the most important, is what type of online community will you create. This decision will largely affect how the community will shape up, and whether it will be a success.

As described in the 4 Roads ‘Social Business Cookbook’ your social presence should be a “complex menu of offerings to the audience. It is also layered like an onion.” 

Ideally, a true social business should be active in as many layers (of this onion) as possible. It will have an integrated presence in multiple layers, providing the audience a unified experience of your business.

Social networks 

The outer layers of the onion consist of social media spaces. This is the first layer of the different types of online community.

First there are ‘participating’ communities, which are formed on external social networks, such as LinkedIn, Facebook etc. usually set up by your customers, about your products or services. You can’t run these communities but you can participate, listen and monitor conversations taking place within them.

The next layer of this onion, within this social media space, is your ‘managed’ community for example, your own Facebook page or YouTube channel etc. This is where you are in control of conversations and messages, although you do not own the data being created. Social networks are great for building trust and relationships in your market, but this is only the first step in using online communities to acquire and retain customers.

Social networks and online communities do work together. Therefore, it may be wise to participate in these social networks, with an aim to attract some of that audience to engage more deeply, with your brand, on your own online community. Check out the differences between online communities and social networks.

Public online communities

The next layers of the onion are the spaces you own, create, manage, and control, and which can link to your CRM software. These ‘owned’ communities consist of public, private and internal communities.

Anyone can join a public online community and today, public, or external customer online communities are what most people think of when they think of online communities. Organisations such as Dell and Starbucks both have thriving customer communities, comprising of primarily customers that share common interests, product purchases, or support issues.

These communities refer to a company-owned online property, a branded community nestled in a company’s website or as part of the website. Within a customer community, you can talk securely with your customers and prospects and offer them a range of relevant content, products and messages to support the conversations taking place.

The focus of this type of online community is to help customers become more successful with a product and service and solve a customer or member’s most critical problems. A customer community can also address specific business challenges, such as the need for improved customer service, cutting down on service call outs, or making content more accessible.

Through a public community, the organisation is able to energise the market, position themselves as a trusted leader in its industry and reach out to brand advocates – in a way, which has never been possible before

Also within this layer is the extranet, a private space for developing your offerings and strengthening relationships with both suppliers and partners. Collaborating with these groups within an extranet, not only builds loyalty, but also strengthens relationships and increases satisfaction. Suppliers and partners are able to ‘self-serve’, which reduces sales, and support costs and creates more efficient supply chains.

Ultimately, an owned public online community increases the value of doing business with an organization.

Private online communities

In this type of community, which is at the heart of the onion, members must log in to the community to take part in most, if not all activities and social features available, which is subsequently integrated into the organisation’s CRM system or membership database. Members are either personally invited or screened in some way prior. Private online communities have a select target audience and members are often charged membership fees to join.

Often deployed by B2B or membership organisations, these ‘gated’ communities can create greater sense of trust and intimacy among members due to more in-depth profile requirements. This can lead to more open and focused engagement and collaboration between members and the organization.

This is a space where customers and companies can plan and build for the future. For instance, private online communities can be a part of an organisation’s product strategy or where trusted people gather and collaborate to steer innovation for the business. The topical agenda is highly managed and all member activity and dialogue within the community is considered confidential and protected, and not shared outside of community walls.

Internal communities

A form of private online communities are internal communities – a place where customers, employees, partners, and other stakeholders to come together to better serve customers and achieve business objectives. And because an organisation’s internal communications lies at the heart of the onion, they affect everything else the business is trying to achieve.

This is the place where employees communicate and collaborate within the business. These communities create a space for many-to-many communication and allow employees to share information, find experts within the business and collaborate on projects.

As the ‘Social Business Cookbook’ states “Unlike the layers above, which may be ‘new,’ every organisation naturally has some kind of channels for internal communication and places for storing and retrieving data and information – without them it would be impossible to function. Yet few organisations have truly effective platforms for internal communication even though these are particularly valuable if they want and expect to be using ‘social tools’ to engage with their audiences.”

Internal communities are more easily created after deploying internal collaboration tools and should involve all employees, from entry-level staff to CEO’s. Adoption of a social platform is often a challenge, as employees may be resistant to changing the way they work. Read more about the importance of business culture when starting any type of online community.


It is important to note that an online community doesn’t necessarily reside in a single location, it can exist in more than one place on the Web. For instance, it can start in a social network such as Facebook, and spread into others, such as your owned private community.

Accordingly, social media has been instrumental in the way online communities have evolved – it has provided a foundation on which to communicate, and a platform for organisations to have two-way conversations with their customers. However, the true sense of an online community takes social media to the next level, and opens up a world known as social business.

Becoming a social business, and choosing the right type of online community for your organisation is important, however, the key to success is to start small and think holistically. Each type of online community should be considered when starting a social community project. Every layer should integrate with each other: your main objective should be to gain membership and engagement in your owned (public and private) community, and both your participating and managed (social networks) communities should be used as channels to facilitate that.

As the Social Business Cookbook states “The most effective social businesses allow each layer of the onion to flavour the others.”

The Social Business Cookbook has been written to help businesses integrate social at the core of their activities – request your copy.

Don’t Ask Community Managers To Be Strategists by Vanessa DiMauro, Leader Networks

jack_of_all_tradesThe enterprise community manager position is sometimes termed a “jack of all trades” role. I know — I’ve said it myself. But I think we’re starting to take it a bit too far.

[In the past] I have participated in a suite of webinars and talks about online communities and their growing role in functional areas such as customer care. I have listened to, and debated with, countless community management specialists about community management best practices. I’ve heard a lot about keeping business strategy and community management aligned. There’s no question this is a critical success factor for social business — but the issue is whether or not this responsibility is part of the charter for the online community manager role.

Pity the poor community manager who has been handed a whole range of new and complex tasks, responsibilities, and accountability measures related to managing and monitoring business strategy — in addition to the normal work of running a community! It won’t work. Placing responsibility for business strategy on the community manager will ruin many a promising online community, with lasting negative consequences for the business, the brand and, most of all, community members and customers. Online strategy and online community management are emerging as two distinct roles in the rapidly evolving world of online communities.

Let’s look at the role of online community strategy. It starts at the highest level, based on the organization’s mission and vision, and then proceeds to the business goals and business processes for the community itself. It is a line-of-business function led by an executive stakeholder responsible for strategic alignment based on the goals, metrics, measures and ROI.

This means the leadership from customer care, the office of strategy management or even product development — depending on the mission of the online community — have the charter to ensure that the online community is tracking in support of their organization’s strategy.

The second role is that of online community management. The crucial task for this role is delivering value to the community participants – the members. Full stop. If the community serves member needs and builds high-value customer/supplier/prospect relationships, it can achieve the strategic goals established by the business organization.

Adding business strategy leadership to the community manager’s role renders them ineffective, unable to succeed at either task. Keep in mind the community manager is the voice of the members back into the organization, and is charged with serving member needs. Asking the community manager to view her community through the lenses of both the business and the members is a prescription for blurred insights, mixed messages and reduced trust on both sides. Community managers can and should take into account the firm’s business goals in the programs and engagement models they develop and produce. But determination of which best fit with the overall strategy is best left to those in charge of business leadership.

The reasons for this separation of roles is primarily around skill sets. A seasoned community manager typically grew up through the ranks of communication specialties, and has the unique and invaluable ability to facilitate ideas, grow thought leadership content and listen well. What they do, and the ways they have honed their methodologies and insights, constitute hard-to-find skills based on extensive hands-on experience. In contrast, the skilled strategist has a keen appreciation for the nuances of goal-setting, planning, and measuring results, involving technical, financial and organizational design skills.

Just as HR executives typically aren’t tapped to run adjacent lines of business like finance, the community manager may not be best at driving the business of community. While there should be a dotted line between the business and the community operations, asking online community managers to manage functions that are out of their realm of expertise jeopardizes both the community and the business. The corollary is that for your online community to succeed and deliver business returns, the roles of online community strategy and community management should be treated with the business respect they deserve.

[This work was originally published on Vanessa’s blog, Leader Networks and is reposted here with her permission.]

Page Load Speeds and Your Online Community – by Gina Narramore, 4-Roads

Please enjoy this first post from new Guest Blogger, Gina Narramore of 4-Roads! #Follr Gina & 4-Roads on Twitter and check out more about Online Community Strategy Org 4-Roads here

There is no denying – the way the Internet is presented is constantly changing. In today’s hyper-connected world, web pages are much richer and contain more functionality, which results in increased amounts of page data and external resources to power them.

As technology advances, web users have become to expect a visually appealing community sites, and fast page loading times. The speed at which a browser loads your community content, means the difference between engagement or abandonment – a problem which could be detrimental to your online community.

Often, efforts to optimize web code, including the reduction of overall site density to improve download performance, are not enough to ensure a healthy and successful online community.

Page load speeds have to be considered. This post shows how a decrease in page load and rendering times benefit an online community.

Reduce Bounce rate

A web user may be searching for a particular type of online community to satisfy a certain motivation they may have. Your community may appear in their results due to keywords you’ve selected or ads you’re displaying on search engines. But, when this user lands on your community site, they immediately see that you don’t have what they’re looking for and they click away.

If your messaging is correct and your keywords accurate, it is important to take a closer look at website download speeds as a contributing factor to higher bounce rates within your online community.

A key factor contributing to high bounce rates is slow download speeds, especially for mobile site downloads. A user may initiate a visit to your online community and because the page takes too long to load, they abandon the community almost right away.

Enhance SEO

Since 2010, Google announced that the speed at which a web page loads would impact search rankings. Additionally, at SMX Advanced, Google’s Matt Cutts said that mobile sites, which are slow in performance, would be penalised.

Research, carried out by Zoompf, concluded that both front and back-end performance factors do correlate to increased rankings. They also state on the Moz Blog:

“We do know that fast loading websites gain more visitors, who visit more pages, for longer period of times, who come back more often, and are more likely to purchase products or click ads. In short, faster websites make users happy, and happy users promote your website through linking and sharing. All of these things contribute to improving search engine rankings.”

This statement is also valid with regards to online communities – if members are happy, they return, engage, become brand advocates and promote the community to gain new memberships.

Increase customer satisfaction

According to Kissmetrics, a one second delay in page loading time will decrease customer satisfaction by about 16% and 44% will people will tell their friends if they have a bad online experience.

This is supported in a study by the Aberdeen Group, which estimates that this one-second delay in page load time also results in a 7% loss in conversions and 11% fewer page views. This successfully provides evidence that optimising how quickly your community site loads, can have a significant impact engagement, response, conversions, and sales.

Higher engagement

If a user can’t find the information quickly on your community site homepage or their search is hindered by slow download performance, they will go elsewhere – likely to be a competitive site that can provide the expected content and download speeds – resulting in loss of online community engagement.

The order of how community content is delivered through the browser has an impact on whether someone engages quickly with your community or not.  Ultimately, it matters more how quickly a user is engaged than it does how fast an entire page loads.

Increase conversions

As page-load time increases, likely conversion rates will drop. This is confirmed by Kissmetrics, which shows 47% of consumers expect a page to load in 2 seconds or less. After this peak the rate drops by 6.7% for each additional second.

A conversion is when a visitor takes any type of action on your site. Within an online community, a conversion could be a membership sign-up or when a member submits a post within the community. As these are obvious benefits – which could ensure the health of your online community – taking steps to increase conversions should be considered.

An online community may already be seeing an adequate number of visitors, but there is failure to convert them in to members. Other than providing engaging and relevant content, download speed could be a factor that is impacting conversion rates.

For more of Gina’s expertise stay tuned to the #FollrBlog as she’ll be guest-posting on a bimonthly basis! 

Secrets of Great Communities And Community Managers by Vanessa DiMauro, Leader Networks

honeypotSecret #1:  Great online communities are strategic.

Superior online communities, those that achieve breakthrough results for their organizations, all share a common trait.  Namely, they are treated as strategic initiatives and not campaigns, marketing programs, or skunk works efforts.  Great communities are holistic, integrated initiatives that support an important business need, accelerate a business process, or make something possible that couldn’t be done without an online collaborative environment.

Great community managers are the orchestrators of the strategies that are fueled by the lines of business. They reach out to business leaders to learn what they need and shape the responses by connecting the dots and maintain the tenor of collaboration.

Secret #2:  Great online communities develop a 90 day plan, every 90 days. 

The real work begins the day you launch the online community, and not the day you select or launch a tool. Too many organizations launch their communities without a 90 day plan which includes member acquisition, beta group participation, ongoing content and conversation programs, member outreach plans.  Great communities have a thoughtful program and revise it every few months to accommodate for the cadence of the community and business needs. As online communities have a doubling factor of 6 months, swift growth and participation is a bell-weather for future success.

Great community managers are great planners, know how to shepherd people to share in the initiatives, and are able to display urgent patience. Urgent patience means having a keen eye on tomorrow while being completely immersed in the needs of the day.

Secret #3People come for content and stay for community.

Creating meaningful content for an online community is a tricky business. Few online communities survive solely on member discussions. However, if online community management shares too much content of marginal value, members can be overwhelmed and distracted. And of course, too little content usually results in an empty community. So great content is the honeypot for great online communities. And not just any content will do!  It need to be largely derivative of the insights shared in the online community – of the members, about the members, but *not* entirely by the members. Highly curated and representative of the community members’ collective experience is the most sought after community content because it is that which cannot be gotten elsewhere.

Great community managers are great researchers.  They are able to create high quality content from the unstructured and structured data shared in the online community but bring an overlay of sense-making to the ideas so that the output is useful, useable and engaging for all.

Secret #4: When online communities become great, the members take control. 

The greatest fear many organizations have is that people will say bad things online about your company. While online communities (and any online activity) can certainly expose problems with products and services, social responsibility and customer care weaknesses, there are plenty of channels where customers can disparage your company. If you have failed them, it is most likely that customers are already “out there” spreading their message. And if they are delighted (as in most cases for solid organizations) you want to help them share their experiences. Great communities invite in the supporters and detractors and offer them a proverbial cup of tea. By engaging around hot topics, the company has a chance to learn more about key issues and resolve problems before they boil over.  In many cases, the most vocal outlier can become your strongest champion when treated with respect, and the brand supporters appreciate a vetted platform.

Great online community managers know how to share the reins of control, empower others, develop volunteer cadres, and support member-member interactions without losing control. They know how to lead and create balance in human power relationship.

Secret #5: Great online communities demonstrate tangible value over time. 

Great communities adhere to clear metrics and measures that align with the business (see Secret #1). Their value is firmly rooted in a business case that goes well beyond cost-reduction.  The metrics are focused on measuring the right things and not just that which is countable, regardless of whether the metric matters to anyone.

Great online community managers collaborate with business leaders (i.e. PSO, marketing, R&D, customer support) to develop meaningful business measures,  report outcomes (both leading and lagging indicators) on a regular basis, showcase progress against standard practice and serve the executive in communicating online community value in terms that matter to the business.

[This work was originally published on Vanessa’s blog, Leader Networks and is reposted here with her permission.]

Online Community Decision: Public, Private or Hybrid? by Vanessa DiMauro, Leader Networks

Public vs Private FollrYour organization has decided to develop an online community to serve your customers. Congratulations! This is an important step towards building a social business. As the team gathers in the conference room with whiteboards, markers and lots of coffee, you start by talking about other online community examples the organization might want to emulate, or those that have caught your fancy. Features, content, look and feel are usually a major part of this discussion.

But chances are you haven’t considered a fundamental but critical question: will the online community be public, gated or a hybrid (largely public with a private, members-only area)? This is one of the most important decisions you will have to make, one that shapes virtually every aspect of how your community will operate and, in most cases, determine its success.

The decision to make the community public, private or hybrid depends in large part on the characteristics of the audience you are trying to serve. At Leader Networks, we call this “The Engagement Model.” It states that “The who and why of your community will dictate the what and the how.” For example, if your organization seeks to reach a wide audience, such as a technical support community — chances are a public community is the right format. If your audience is small and focused, such as prospective customers of an airplane manufacturing company, a private, gated community is probably a better fit. Serving multiple audience types or needs may require a hybrid format. So what are the benefits, drawbacks, revenue models and other distinguishing factors for each type?

Public Online Communities

Public communities are open to anyone on the web who would like to join the community. While the community may — and probably should — require password-protected member registration to join or post a message, anyone with an email address and a web browser can have access. Organizations trying to engage a large audience of consumers or customers (B2C or B2B) with content and conversation online will usually choose a public community.


  • Anyone who is interested in the community, company or topics addressed


  • Ultimate size is determined by the potential audience universe
  • Usually (much) larger than private online communities
  • Need to scale quickly due to (typically) lower participation rates – more readers than posters


  • Goals are to educate and inform members about a product, service or issue
  • Activities includes content creation & distribution, discussions and member sharing
  • Topics include marketing info, education, product/service support

Common Features

  • Forums, blogs with comments, simple reviews (“like”), downloadable content, polls, webinars and multimedia

Revenue Models

  • Advertising, content sponsorships, lead generation, a la carte paid offerings such as webinars or reports, overall cost reductions for support communities, self-service sales


  • Broad reach, enables company to show market penetration, marketing, product or service evangelism

Sample Measures

  • Member acquisition growth over time, views or likes, content contributions, SEO page rank, PR value
  • With tech support communities, reduction in support costs (community vs. call center) is a primary measure.

Private Online Communities

Private online communities are gated, often invitation-only communities serving a highly targeted audience. Many B2B professional organizations have private communities. There are membership standards, which can include subscription fees, in-depth profiles, vetting or current member recommendations prior to member acceptance. A gated community can create greater sense of trust and intimacy among members with more information about individual members and shared acceptance criteria. This can lead to more open and substantive engagement and collaboration between members and the sponsoring organization. Content and member contributions are considered privileged and not shared outside the community.


  • Highly selective audience based on a clear criteria, including verification of credentials such as title, practice area, certifications and other attributes.


  • Absolute size of private communities is less important than achieving high levels of member satisfaction in conjunction with business objectives
  • Audience selection criteria are crucial to member acquisition, participation and collaboration
  • Achieving a critical mass of members is necessary to grow collaboration. Can be successful with hundreds to thousands of members.


  • Goals are to share knowledge and expertise on mission- and career-critical issues; collaboration for professional advantage
  • Activities include co-creation, idea-sharing, high-level consultation, expertise development, collaboration and thought leadership.
  • High level of service and benefits to members

Common Features

  • Member directory, member-generated content, research and in-depth polling, forums, thought leadership and expertise presentation

Revenue Model

  • Member subscriptions (may include additional benefits such as special access to content and experts), sponsorships, commissioned research, discount purchasing programs, events (online and offline), thought leadership access


  • Increase customer loyalty, increase in client penetration of product and service purchases, improve R&D and speed to market, gain high-level expertise from members, market foresight.


  • Private community members expect high levels of member service, poor execution risks alienating powerful customers and prospects
  • Audience selection criteria limits ultimate size, high quality content required, active community management.

Sample Measures

  • Membership revenue & renewals, NPS scores, customer retention, customer purchase increases, new audience targets acquired, PR, actionable expertise and ideas created within community

Hybrid Online Communities

Hybrid online communities have both a public and a gated or private area within the overall community infrastructure. They provide the features of both options at a single destination. Access is determined by the member’s role. For example, a hybrid community might have an open, public area for consumer visitors with private, gated areas for suppliers or executives.

Hybrid communities often evolve after an organization is successful with one of the two models (public or private) but then discovers a business need to serve a different audience or segment using the other engagement model. At Leader Networks, we discourage trying to launch both at once; the complexities of initial messaging to prospective members and operational difficulties make this choice very risky. Instead, determine the best model for launch, then evolve the community. Leverage the learning from the first successes to improve the next phase.


  • Bifurcated, with both a public (anyone) and a private (selective and targeted) membership


  • Aim for rapid growth of the public community. If the private side will be a subset of the public audience, base private audience growth estimates on public audience acquisition rates — but be prepared for significant variations.


  • The biggest challenge will be managing differing messaging and member engagement needs within a single community. Goals and activity expectations must be extremely clear and distinct for each side of a hybrid.

Common Features

  • A hybrid requires especially strong member management tools to maintain separation within the platform plus a robust, experience operations group to keep similar functions separate for each audience.

Revenue Model

  • Complex and multifaceted based on the business goals and organizational values. Which community type is the primary business driver?


  • If able to capture the value of both community types, synergies might include reaping the rewards of a private member-driven thought leadership community plus using very selective distribution of the private content to attract a larger audience to the public space.


  • Loss of focus, confusing brand identity, channel and message conflicts in audience acquisition, complex technical and operational structures

Sample Measures

  • Each aspect of the community (public or private) should be measured independently with different, contextual metrics based on the single models

[This work was originally published on Vanessa’s blog, Leader Networks, and is reposted here with her permission.]

Social Media Manager vs. Online Community Manager: Same or Different?

Source: Vanessa DiMauro

Slide1One recent morning I saw a post in one of my LinkedIN groups asking “what is the difference between a social media manager and an online community manager?” Easy, I thought, and offered a quick response on my mobile … “Social media managers bring the guests (clients, prospects) to the table and community managers welcome them in!”

Ahh, but wait. This may require more words than I can manage on that little screen. So, naturally, I turned to trusty Google to see what others have said on this topic. Among the first mentions I came across was a CMSWire which discussed the confusion between social media and online community management, and suggested the two roles have become blurred.

In my view, the confusion often begins with job descriptions, which are rarely written by actual practitioners. For larger organizations new to these rapidly evolving specialties, they strive to find and describe the commonalities rather than highlight the differences in the two roles.
Next, I sought out my trusted peers and colleagues to see and hear what they had to say. In a post by the very knowledgeable Blaise Grimes-Viort from the UK firm e-Moderation, he shared the following definitions of these two roles:

· Community Manager: Operates from deep within the company, managing customer relationships with a brand or product, and each other. Potentially she can be a fully Enterprise Community Manager, involved in facilitating efficient inter-team and staff communication and collaboration. She is focussed on the flow of information and knowledge, strengthening relationships and promoting productive collaboration, which may include moderation and hosting of both micro- and macro-events on the company’s community platform. Placement within the Organization chart is more likely to be connected to Editorial, Product development, Business development, and Marketing. In addition, I would add Customer Service/Support to the list of org chart nodes above.

· Social Media Manager: Operates from the edges of the company, managing brand recognition and reputation outside of the scope of the brand website. He is focused on listening and evaluating brand perception, planning campaigns and promotional material or initiatives to promote the company’s message, building and leveraging social networks on social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to facilitate depth of communication. He will usually be found within the Organisation chart connected to Marketing, PR, and Sales.

Another aspect of the blurring and overlap in roles is the type of organization doing the hiring — what is the business focus for the role? Business-to-business (B2B) and consumer companies have very different requirements. In consumer organizations, the community focus is individual consumers, and consumers generally frequent public social media channels with broad reach and large numbers. On the other hand, B2B organizations focus on building customer intimacy using channels such as online communities, customer councils and executive briefing centers along with offline outreach. For B2B, the desired relationship is deeper, just as the purchase cycle may be longer, revenue potential much greater and the depth of engagement (think suppliers and partners as well as customers) may be much greater and more complicated. In B2B organizations the social media manager is part of marketing and PR, facing outward for the most part. The B2B community manager has some outward responsibilities, but is connected to more core operations at the firm.

These distinctions are especially visible in the success measures for each role – the key performance indicators. Of course, both roles may share responsibility for a number success metrics and will need to partner effectively to deliver results. Here is a short tabulation of key B2B success measures, the role involved and the organizational accountability path.

B2B Success Measure Role Accountability
Drive leads Social Media Manager Marketing
Raise awareness of products or services Social Media Manager Marketing
Visibility of company, products, services or thought leaders Social Media Manager Marketing
Increase sales Social Media Manager Sales
Event attendance Social Media Manager on public channels, Community manager on community channels Marketing
Customer questions about how to use a product or service Community Manager Customer Service
Learn from customers (e.g. feedback into product development) Community Manager Product Management/R&D
Customer retention / satisfaction Community Manager Sales
Call center reduction/ Improve customers’ ability to get help from each other Community Manager Customer Service
Increase utilization of the products Community Manager Product Management

Note that in the B2B world, where customers tend to be other organizations purchasing complex and expensive products and services, the lines between the social media manager and the community manager roles can be more clearly defined than in consumer space. B2B and consumer prospects have very different information and relationship needs, and when the sale is made the customers require very different levels of ongoing engagement and support. The overlap between the B2B social media and online community manager roles is usually much less than for those roles at a B2C firm.

In Education: Community is the Best Line of Defense

Today, for our Guest Contribution, we welcome William Jenkins. William is currently working on expanding and advocating for exploring community management and social selling in the area of Education. He hopes to implement alternative roll out methods to make it easier for great EdTech to get noticed, including the use of Follr Communities. You can visit William’s EduTechStories Blog for more, and we hope you enjoy this special piece William wrote just for Follr Communities.

During a conference, focused on marketing and communication for education, an interesting story was relayed to me.

A school had been deemed to be “failing” by the authorities in the system. The school was subject of a discussion amongst authorities of giving it the status of “Academy”. In the United Kingdom that is a downgrade and indicative of potentially serious problems.

The school community rallied to the schools defense. The initiative had been taken in the 12-18 months, before the consultation was recommended, to create an online community for all of those involved with the school to maintain contact and for parents to be more pro-actively involved with their child’s educational experience.

For more information on EdTech, visit William Jenkins blog EdTechStories.
When the news broke that stakeholders were entering into the consultation before the accusations could erupt, unity broke out.

Parents and students rallied round the staff to offer support. Pointing out all the ways in which the educators were doing some great work, how the efforts of the students were demonstrating results, how parental involvement was helping form school decisions and actions.

The proactive nature of the community, and therefore the strength, was solidly established before there was ever a need, or indication of a potential problem.

The community believed the policy makers were wrong, that the school was doing well and would continue to do so. The school supporters questioned what value changing the status of the school would have, apart from demoralizing everyone who had worked so hard to turn things around.

Any time a school is told that it’s failing this leads to division and recriminations, some examples:

Despite the fact that improvements have been made since a “change agent” principal was parachuted in recently. Perhaps the changes are being made against a terrible backdrop of poverty where a multitude of complex socio-economic factors play a role that hampers progress, regardless of the reasons. It is a thankless task: Top head teachers get only weeks to improve schools… or face the proverbial ‘axe’.

Some may question Parents attitudes about their children’s behaviour, but may not truly understand the issues. Perhaps they are single parents working multiple jobs without the benefit of time to be more actively involved. Most Parents care greatly, but don’t have additional time or resources to focus on helping support the school beyond their own child’s educational needs. They need to keep a roof over their head. Jay Mathews highlights that in his post “Bad Parents don’t make bad schools.”

Policy makers:
The political classes are distrusted by many school communities, a primary reason being they are perceived as frequently breaking pledges and commitments to a state funded educational system. Then there is an issue with social mobility. As 75% of children from the Middle Classes eventually begin working for the same company that their Parents do, or had, would indicate a certain level of complacency within the community and status quo. It’s an “I’m alright Jack” attitude, not a surprising from the self interested political classes.

So the usual road to go down is one where accusation and counter-accusation as to whose fault the failing results are. However, the story continued in details of how the usual blame game and accusations were thwarted by the establish online community, which was the support structure and the unifying voice of those directly affected by the consultations determinations.

Building an online community was the best, and likely only, line of defense.

This example demonstrates the value of building an online community for education. It permits already busy educators, and equally as busy parents, to carry on conversations outside of the scheduled limitations of meetings and committees. Shifting the focus on sharing good news, seeking assistance, addressing small problems before they can grow out of control.

The point isn’t whether the school’s status was eventually changed, change happens. It is an example of the power of a supportive community, especially in educational systems, that was able to rally round the school, its teachers, staff and students, and make a profound impact on the process.

What Does Online Community Mean To Your Company?

Contributor: Vanessa DiMauro (Leader Networks)

big-vs-smallLet’s start with this: “online community” doesn’t have a clear definition.  Even before hashtags and pinterest and facebook pages, online users and cognoscenti alike have rarely agreed on what an online community really is.  Never mind the debate over “what is the difference between a social network and an online community?”, although there are distinct differences. For example, an argument can be made that LinkedIN is a social network – it’s far too large to be considered an online community. At the same time, some of the higher-functioning sub-groups within LinkedIN could fall into the online-community-lite category.

While online communities proliferate among many progressive customer- or partner-focused organizations, just what constitutes an online community is still confusing. So when an organization’s spokesperson says: “Wow, we just launched an online community for our customers. It is a big deal!”, in one case they could be talking about a 6 – 12 month strategic project that included a business case, ROI metrics, a business requirements document, software selection and deployment and beta member planning effort complete with an executive sponsor, and in another, they just spent three days creating a product page on facebook.  The same words are used, but there’s a very sizable difference between the two. Keep those differences in mind when you set out to pitch an online community to your company, seek an executive sponsor, become an executive sponsor or secure the budget for an online community. These are fundamental issues which need to be understood before diving into the project.

What are some of the key questions to ask about an online initiative to understand if it can function as an online community for business?

– Can you set the participant permissions and control all the content?
– Do you have access to all the data gathered from participant interactions?
– Does it need to be “owned” by the company? For example, can the company control the platform? Can an outside entity close the   site or make changes without your organization’s permission? Does another organization also have access to participant interaction data?
– Does it have a member directory and “real” information about the participants?
– If you invited the participants to an event, would you want them to co-mingle with your best customers?
– Is the main purpose to market and broadcast information or provide lead generation?
– Will members be connected and involved with each other over time? In other words, do the participants belong to a shared “something” or are they anonymous, largely passive spectators?
– Is there a shared purpose for convening online?  For example, are there topics or issues which are explored on an ongoing basis.
– Is there a balance between content and conversation? Can a site that is primarily about content sharing be considered a community?
– Will this online initiative be extremely large (e.g. 1 million members) or extremely small (under 100)?
– How much effort is dedicated to it? Is it a side hobby or treated as a proper project?
– Is the anticipated ROI  commensurate with the scope of the  project (planning, budget, business case, executive sponsor)?

So here’s the Leader Networks definition of an online community for business: the purpose of the online interactions and relationships is the core determinant of what makes social exchanges online into an online community. Serving the needs of the individuals who participate, who convene online, is crucial. Those needs can be to facilitate learning about a topic, product, subject, trend or to enable peer-peer dialogue.

In addition, an online community means a dedicated web-based area that utilizes a purpose-built platform which enables the exchange of ideas and content via a suite of interactive features such as discussion forums, polls, content libraries, member directories and the like. When we talk about building online communities for business, we are referring to the full-featured kind and not the “I made a facebook page – whoohooo – we have an online community” kind.  On even the most basic level, your business returns are most likely going to be directly connected with the level of effort you put it – as will all things community related – you get what you give!

How does your company describe what is considered an online community? And, how do you differentiate social media marketing from online community?

[This work was originally published on Vanessa’s blog, Leader Networks and is reposted here with her permission.]