Why a community will never work the way YOU want it to…

… unless your goal is to achieve participation inequality.

Those operating within, or for a community of any kind will understand the uphill struggle you face when trying to engage with a broader audience.

The idea of Participation Inequality can be easily illustrated using the diagram below:

Typically a community can be divided into three groups:

  • The Low Minority: the contributors “I want to be part of this”
  • The High Minority: the opportunists “Since I’m here”
  • The Majority: the Lurkers “I’ll reap the rewards”

In most communities you’ll find that these three categories can divided into a 90-9-1 distribution % ratio and in some cases you can lose the ‘Low Minority’ contribution all together.

Let me give you a few examples to illustrate this point:

1. At the time of publishing this post, the ‘Causes‘ application on Facebook had 22,481,677 users but only 400,000 had given a donation, despite the application offering users the ability to give to 390,000 different non-profit organisations*. Using the outline of the distribution ratio shown above, in this case, social networking for charity fund-raising has a skewed lurker-contributor ratio than many other participation inequalities we have seen (99.9-0-0). Whilst the data doesn’t say how many users who have donated are frequent contributors, it certainly won’t be enough to make a significant difference.

2. As a result of their recent online activity, Microsoft UK’s Small Business social media operations must form part of their community strategy and not as an alternative to what some term ‘pressing the flesh’ in order to generate new revenue streams. For example, @MicrosoftSB on Twitter has 6,169 followers with over 80% of their followers operating from outside of their target market. With over 4,750,500 SMEs (<50 seats)** and only 68 people who ‘like’ the Facebook ‘Ask the Experts’ site, it has never been more clear that a generic adoption of online social media tools is not the answer both in terms of generating revenue and/or raising general awareness.

Social media and an online presence is ideal as a front-line medium where your business (or your individual) interests can connect with other relevant people who are not yet connected to you. It acts as an ideal way to drive a community strategy further into uncharted territory but must be underpinned by same basic rules that ensure that projected targets are realistic and achievable.

Let’s face facts, no community should be a replacement to any organisations’ current business model. If we look at who are the most prolific contributors within communities, it is usually the few, and it is this few who risk creating a distorted bubble view on reality. For example, if we look at the ICT industry as a whole, most community activity takes place within the small and SOHO-sized business profile. In this case, the community acts as a surrogate peer or team for those who lack the resources to bring much of what they glean in-house. These guys typically sit at the end of ‘the tail’.

For those facilitating partner communities such as Microsoft, CompTIA, or HP, reaching out to the tail can be a cost-intensive and highly subjective operation. For most, and using the 80/20 rule, most of their income will come from the ‘head’ of their partner base (typically between 10-20%) and the way in which they engage with them needs to be focused and highly intensive in order to maintain strong relationships. When it comes to the remaining 80-90% of their market, using strategies that involve ‘community’ based projects typically receive less focus, less strategy, and unsurprisingly disappointing results.

Most SMEs looking to grow will typically be too busy to contribute to a community. That’s not to say that the content wouldn’t be relevant to them and they are not ideally suited as contributors but they have chosen to ensure that their business comes first. For smaller businesses who place greater emphasis on leveraging the community, there is a tendency to rely on charitable donations from the few. Since many share very different values and motives to their much larger counterparts, poorly-maintained communities soon become more of a social club than a driving force within the industry.

Collaborative communities are more successful when they address a problem rather than adopted as an alternative way to establish new business. It is critical for anyone using communities as part of their business strategy to not become one of the 50% of companies with online communities that fail to manage them well. Social computing is a significant customer relationship management (CRM) market trend and according to Gartner, represents a disruptive force in our market.

“Rushing into social-computing initiatives without clearly defined benefits for both the company and customer will be the biggest cause of failure.” Gartner

When undertaking any business strategy that involves any social initiative you should ensure you have the following:

  1. A defined initiative and a clear purpose
  2. The ability to cede control to encourage participation
  3. Understand and reward different kinds of participation
  4. Acquire skills to build relationships online

The glut of online and social networking tools distorts what success can look like within a community. The ability to reach out to millions offers a wealth of opportunity but a strategy behind it must generate a mutual exchange of value between users. Asking people to donate money to such projects as Causes is a stronger form of action than simply writing user-contributed content. As Jakob Nielson points out, in many cases, there is not a solid enough communications strategy in place to provide the information that users require before they’re willing to be separated from their money. A community must be facilitated appropriately and should form part of the overall communication strategy. Failure to guide communities properly risks discouraging new contributors with valuable content and encouraging others to leverage the social context as an alternative to their existing (and sometimes failing) business models .

Essentially, companies need to rethink the way they do business to prosper in the network economy. In most cases, when a community is driven by a corporate entity, we should really just deem this term as a buzzword since it is simply user-driven web business.

*35,000 causes have received at least one donation

**The Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 2009

Susanne Dansey is the Managing Director of Purple Cow Ideas Management – an organisation that facilitates a paradigm shift in the collaborative nature of the ICT Industry. You can follow her on Twitter and join the conversation on Facebook.


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