Online communities fail when their attributes of collaboration and co-development are in conflict with the culture and values that drive the larger organization. How do we define community success and what makes an online community successful?
We've all heard it! "I tried using social media but I can't get people to join my community." Or "Yeah we know all about online communities. We have a chat room somewhere. We don't get much value from it to warrant the staff time it takes to manage it." Yet social media has transformed the way people think and communicate and reinvented industries and business models. Think e-bay, Amazon.com, Facebook. How do we define a successful community and what does it take to create one?
Imagine being a veterinarian with a small to medium practice. You are a generalist but each week you have to diagnose or even perform surgery on areas of specialty: the heart, the brain, a rare condition. How do you access a specialist for advice at a moment's notice? You can't afford to subscribe to the multiple research data bases you would have to consult to remain current on the most recent research breakthrough and key developments in your field. And you can't afford the time or cost of multiple conferences for a chance to meet with peers, discuss difficult cases, compare notes and just network. The area of most pain in the profession you love, is the sense of isolation. In a small practice, you don't have any of the chances for interaction and information you would have in a large practice.
Now imagine that you could snap your fingers and immediately enter the largest veterinary practice in the world; your dream practice; one that would bring everything you needed together for you in one place. If you have a case that calls for specialized expertise you can access specialists for advice in a flash-the moment a question or complication occurs. At any time during the day you can run an idea by a peer, go over a tough case, collaborate or compare notes in real time. And you can access any data base through just one powerful search engine. The best part of it all is that this ideal environment is virtual. You can enter it anytime and from everywhere through your computer screen.
If you imagined all this, then you would have imagined VIN (the Veterinary Information Network)--a community "of veterinarians by veterinarians." VIN is a dynamic, subscription-based, virtual knowledge network that represents a different model for a professional membership organization. It serves 42,000 veterinarians and continuous to grow fast. Every day, more than 500 active message-board discussions are ongoing among members. Without a doubt VIN is a successful community with a profitable business model. Even though AVMA (the American Veterinary Medicine Association),the established association in the field, claims on its website that "we ARE veterinary medicine," VIN has successfully challenged its dominance within the segment of veterinaries it serves.
So why does VIN work? It is true that it has lots of great features - databases, message boards, conference rooms, online proceedings, and much more. Yet clearly it is not the collection of features that make it successful. Other associations, including AVMA, have similar features without the success VIN has achieved. I offer a three-part interpretation of VIN and definition of success for an online community:
- Alignment and integration. A successful community is not an "other" experience. Instead of being a disruption in the way you experience the world, socialize or solve problems, it is an extension of them and echoes the same patterns, rhythms and cadences. The VIN member does not have to interrupt a work day to go to a library or conference to get an answer, for example. Specialists or peers are accessible at his/her convenience and according to the way a Vet in a small or medium practice works. To increase its ability for alignment, VIN does not target all veterinaries but those with independent, small to medium practices --a large segment of veterinarians, to be sure but a cohesive and targeted group for which VIN can develop specific solutions. This focus increases its value to its members.
- The degree to which a community is or becomes indispensible to the success of an aspect of one's life-socializing, solving problems, remaining competitive The main goal driving VIN's strategy, architecture and program design is simple: to make small practices successful and competitive. To this end, the community remedies the problems its members have identified as major hurdles to their success-- isolation, limited resources and access-- by:
- Bringing together veterinarians "world-wide" as colleagues
- Bringing instant access to vast amounts of up-to-date veterinary information; and to "breaking news" that affects veterinarians
- Providing easy access to specialists
- Making CE - continuing education - available EVERY day. (Up to now it has been impossible to keep current when CE is a once or even a few times per year endeavor).
- Enabling empowerment-- "power" and "protection" --in the marketplace.
The veterinaries I interviewed have told me unequivocally that they would not be able to practice without VIN. They see it as a life saver, partner and advocate rather than just a service provider.
But how did VIN succeed in delivering so much value to its members? Beyond the features, the strategy and program design-in fact beyond the community itself-there is a fundamental organizational culture and mindset that are exclusively focused on the customer rather than the product or the interests of the provider organization.And this brings me to my third and, perhaps, most important point:
3. Alignment between community and organizational culture .
The power of online communities and social media is in their capacity for enabling collaboration. Communities, in fact, embody a different relationship between provider and customer-one of co-development of products or solutions and continuous learning about and with each other. Online communities cannot have a transformative effect on an organization simply as cool "features" or even as mere avenues for efficiency. Simply adding collaborative, community-based platforms onto organizations that are fundamentally hierarchical, non-collaborative, closed, driven by internal interests, process and procedure rather than their client is an essential contradiction. These organizations cannot possibly achieve the fine-tuned alignment with the customers needed that make community participation compelling. Conversely, they cannot benefit from such communities if they are not open enough to listen to the conversations and incorporate insights into their own design and development processes.
I once consulted with a very large and powerful association, that did not place any value on insights gained from its members' online conversations. Instead, it invested millions in formal research projects and used the invariably generic research data these generated to design programs and services. The results? Attrition and member apathy.
To succeed, online communities have to be supported by organizations that also possess and values collaborative, open, customer-focused cultures.
In a collaborative, customer-focused organization customers are viewed as assets, rather than disruptions, and are engaged in the planning and design of new products and services.
I interviewed veterinaries about the differences between VIN and AVMA. AVMA also had many of the social media features VIN had pioneered. So why VIN over AVMA? The consensus among VIN members was that for AVMA, these were simply features slapped on the surface of an organization whose main focus was no longer its members but maintaining its complex systems and processes and activities underway and growing their clout and prestige. In contrast, VIN's sole focus was to help make their practices competitive. Unlike other members of professional association, VIN members are more like converts than customers-enthusiastic, grateful and eager to enlist others in the community.
In my first interview with VIN's founder and CEO, Paul Pion, a few years ago, I asked him what the difference was between VIN and established professional associations. He thought for a minute and then, in a matter-of-factly tone, gave me a two-word answer: "We listen." Instead of relying on formal research vehicles and methodologies, the VIN team listens through continuous conversation with members and peers. Pion personally reads, and often answers, as many of the of the online exchange among members as he can. While VIN's continued growth makes impossible to keep up with everyt conversation, he reports: "I am constantly monitoring the boards for folders and discussions needing attention of any type . [Though VIN] has grown beyond my capacity to truly do so, I am very able to find those needing attention because VINners rapidly alert met to areas that need attention, whether it be technical or moderation of a discussion going in a direction that is not as "collegial."
As a result of the value placed on customer interaction, the value of the community continues to grow. Conversations are captured, organized, stored and shared. These increase the body of collective knowledge and become stepping stones to more knowledge. The more quality the conversations possess the more value the knowledge base of the community has and, hence, the more compelling community participation becomes for members. The more compelling a community is the more quality members it attracts and, as a result, the more value conversations generate. and so on. But key to this loop of endlessly renewable value is the ability of an organization to view its customers as value assets and perceive its own value as stemming from customer collaboration rather than internal competencies and products.
Check out our tips and tricks on how to grow and engage your community.