Last Thursday I popped along to Chinwag Psych 2014 - a one day conference to explore how different aspects of behavioural science can be applied to business.
Beyond evoking memories of 1993 and a cassette tape of PJ & Duncan’s first album, ‘Psyche’ (oh the shame) the conference really got me thinking about how new media and optimisation techniques can positively (and negatively) affect a 'sense of community'. This is something I get asked about a lot, usually in terms of whether there is a magic formula when it comes to getting it right. My answer is always different because it really depends on what your community is about, how long it's existed (if it even exists yet) and what your goals are. Saying that the one thing that usually stands out is an internal disconnect between the people who are producing the content for your community to engage with and the people who are managing your community.
Before I delve into this in more detail I'll tell you a little bit about the conference. Chinwag Psych, only in its second year, complements the fantastic PsychMatters, a journal that investigates how behavioural science is being used in business and marketing, as well as monthly PsychUps, get-togethers for anyone who is interested in these fields (I’ll be attending the next one on 9 June). For me, the really great thing about the conference was the balance of evidence-based successes (and failures), neuroscience, and the principles of marketing. Not easy to achieve. I also loved the way that the day was organised into four verbs - ‘anticipate’, ‘optimise’, ‘analyse’ and ‘persuade’.
Like I said, the main thing it got me thinking about was this ‘sense of community’. It’s a phrase that has haunted me for many years and is usually preceded with the question 'who exactly is our community'. I hate this question. I'm not saying that it's not important to understand who you want to engage, but spending hours defining who is and isn't in your community is slightly soul destroying when it comes to creating a sense of community. This is mostly because the term 'sense' by it's very nature is something that is intuitive, a presence that is felt. While you can control something like who receives your emails, you've got no hope of controlling what people feel or sense about you (that's not to say you can't influence it though).
In fact, I once started a meeting with a picture of a red herring as a way of trying to move beyond the question of who was in the community. My sense has always been that we should move on fairly quickly from this, and be attending Chinwag Psych last week gave me plenty of food for thought in terms of why exactly I feel like this. So here goes.
You can’t choose your community. You think you can, but you can’t. And this is why the question of 'who is our community' is a red herring. You might have that paywall up, or a login page that reminds people they aren’t welcome here, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a part of your community. I've been thinking about this a lot since the conference and it was triggered by the second speaker of the day, Mark Adams (@thewolfofoldst), founder of The Audience.
Mark spoke about how social networks are driven by the exchange of emotions - I thought this was an incredibly clear and compelling statement. Mark was specifically talking about how brands use social networks like Facebook and Twitter to drive engagement with their audiences. One of his points was that while the platforms we use to communicate have evolved, marketers haven't. There are some fantastic examples out there where 'engaging' content just hasn't worked despite the best intentions of a marketing team. He didn’t talk specifically about niche communities, but there’s a similar issue at hand here and I’ve seen it happen time and time again. While there are some fantastic online communities being built - with great functionality and UX - we're still filling them with content that was published for traditional broadcast channels. I expect many of us are familiar with this scenario:
A new online community website is built and everyone sits back and waits for the action to happen. Emails go out as usual, ‘engaging’ discussion topics are added to try and prompt interaction, a community manager is hired to prod users to participate. But it just doesn’t work. You might get a few good bits of content here and there, but ultimately, it’s not really happening is it?! It’s here that I think Mark’s statement about the exchange of emotions hits home. If you want to build a sense of community it also needs to run through the very veins of your marketing and advertising strategy. An online community doesn’t sit independently to how people engage with your brand. I’m fairly confident that in 90% of cases where online communities struggle or fail, there’s a disjointed approach to community management and content publishing/marketing. In my experiences, these two things have always happened in different departments, with separate budgets and strategies.
My advice? If you can bring the content publishers/marketers and the online community managers together to think about the emotions within your community that you want to fire up, nurture or get a reaction from, you’ll be in a better position to build the much desired 'sense of community'. Brian Massey (@bmassey) spoke about ‘relational triggers’ that will speak to the users you wish to engage and I’ll definitely be reading up more on this. In your community, what are the experiences that your users will relate to, and are these reflected in your online community and in your published content? If they are different - then this is likely to be a problem.
I really want to emphasise that this applies equally to charities, public sector organisations and business - the brand isn’t something that’s just relevant to those working with consumers. We’re all consumers now, whether it’s of a service, product or cause. You have to spend the time thinking about the end-to-end journey of a member of your community - and going back to the red herring - this could be as far and wide as the people that experience the emotions of your community and you should be open to engaging each and every one of them.
There was so much I took away from the fantastic speakers on the day that I can’t possibly go into everything here (there is a round-up blog here though), but my final point has to echo Craig Sullivan (@optimiseordie). Craig was pretty adamant that we all need to get out of the office more. When was the last time you sent yourself one of your bulk emails and tried to read it on your mobile on the way home? Or when was the last time you spoke to a member of your community? The phrase we all know and hate is ‘eat your own dogfood’ - just put yourself in your community’s shoes. Some great starting points are to think about what the emotive layers of your community consist of and that’s something I’ll be thinking more about, but at the end of the day, you’ll pick this up pretty easily by getting out there and just talking to them.
I think there are loads to debate here and I certainly am open to challenge - it's something I will be musing more about over the coming weeks. So get in touch if you'd like to chat more!