Enterprise communities: build or join?

Determining how a company should engage with or create an online community is a critical process. Aaron Strout, VP of social media for Mzinga authored this primer on what steps enterprises must take while evaluating their community engagement strategies.
Written by Jennifer Leggio on
build or join?
Determining how a company should engage with or create an online community is a critical process that reaches across the entire organization. There are many questions that a management team should ask itself before engaging this process as well. Aaron Strout, VP of social media for Mzinga, a provider of online communities and social networks for businesses, authored this primer on what steps enterprises must take while evaluating their community engagement strategies. Benefits of “Build“ vs. “Join”

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance your company is in the process of formulating an online community strategy. Somewhere during that process, the question of whether to “build” vs. “join” is sure to come up. While both strategies make sense, there are definite benefits that come with each:

  • Building or creating a “branded” environment by either using open source technology like Drupal OR it can employ the services of a white label community provider like Awareness, Jive Software or Mzinga (the company I work for). This approach provides companies with benefits like:
    • Full control of the user experience including the branded elements of the site, data ownership and business intelligence.
    • Single sign on if a login is required for either the site or the community.
    • Flexibility to migrate the community to different providers/hosts if necessary e.g. many times, growth of an online community may dictate the evolution from an open source solution to a white label provider.

  • Joining or establishing a presence on already existing communities or social networks like Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn or Yahoo Groups. This approach also has numerous benefits including:
    • Ability to “fish where the fish are” i.e. there are 80 million plus users of Facebook. Depending on the customers you serve, there is a good chance that a number of them are already signed up, have created profiles and are already creating relevant content.
    • Little to no technical support and/or separate infrastructure.
    • Low to no cost depending on the site and the branding requirements/number of community members involved.

Next: Why not build and join? -->

Why Not Build AND Join?

Have you ever heard the expression, “you can please all the people some of the time, some of the people all the time but you can’t please all the people all the time?” That saying has never been truer than in the case of online communities. While it seems logical to want to focus on picking one of the approaches above, my recommendation -- one that several other social media experts like Forrester senior analyst, Jeremiah Owyang, also endorse – is to do both.

To be clear, both approaches (build and buy) require internal resources to effectively manage a company’s online community activities. This can sometimes be the same resource depending on the size of the community and the level of engagement a company seeks (more is better as one might imagine) but over time, these activities require two similar but different skill sets.

Although I am recommending building an online community along with joining pre-existing third party communities, it is wise to pick one to get started with and then phase in the second approach at a later date. In many cases, creating one’s one branded online community first often makes the most sense. After all, having a destination to drive traffic beyond just your company’s website is a great way to get your key constituents to engage with you. However, if as a company you are looking to “dip a toe in the water,” the fastest way to do so is likely via creating a presence on a third party community. So what makes “build” AND “join” complementary activities? Here are a few reasons to consider this approach:

  • Some of your customers have likely joined other online communities. Many may have no interest in joining yet another online community. Conversely, some of your key constituents may have no desire to join a third party online community but if you’ve created a trusted environment, they may welcome the opportunity to become part of your company’s community.
  • If you create a community presence on a community where your customers already spend their time, the barriers to getting them to join your “group” is much lower. They don’t need to sign up for anything, request new “connections” or build out new profiles.
  • One of the keys to creating successful online communities is through content generation (think blogs, videos, podcasts, webinar archives, white papers ratings and reviews). If your company is making the investment in time, resources and dollars to create this content, why limit it to just your site?

Next:Third-Party communities to consider -->

Third Party Online Communities/Social Networks You Should Consider:

  • LinkedIn – I think almost everyone in the business world has heard of LinkedIn. What you may not know is that they are rapidly adopting a number of Facebook-like features (newsfeed, status updates, blogs) to increase the interactivity of the site.
  • Plaxo – This site started out as a way to virtualize your Oulook “contacts” list. It’s now a full blown social network. And like LinkedIn, they’ve also adopted a number of Facebook like features to make the site more useful and interactive.
  • Facebook – It’s not just for college kids anymore. In fact, Facebook is growing at a rate of 250,000 new registered users/day. It may be a better place for consumer package goods companies like Crest to engage their customers but B2B companies like Ernst and Young are also finding that it’s a great place to recruit top talent out of college.
  • MySpace – What started off as a music lovers site has now grown into an enormous social network. This might be the least “business-friendly” site out of all the online communities/social networks but it’s also the biggest with over 200 million users. Avoid at your own risk.
  • Twitter (also consider checking out FriendFeed, Plurk, Jaiku, Pownce and Identi.ca) – Microblogging sites have become all the rage in the world of social media. The main reason is that they are fantastic places to engage friends, colleagues and customers in conversation. Just ask companies like Dell and Comcast.
  • YouTube – You may think that this is just a place to watch funny consumer generated videos. It’s not. With literally 100 million plus videos served up per day, businesses like Unilever are realizing this is a much more viral and considerably less expensive alternative to advertising on network television.
  • Digg – Maybe not as powerful or pervasive as some of the sites listed above, getting your content or website “dugg” or given the “thumbs up” can reap huge benefits in terms of driving traffic back to your site.
  • Del.icio.us – The most popular “social bookmarking” site may be a sutble choice if you choose to create your own company page. The greatest value of this site is its ability to let your customers which third party sites, videos, podcasts and blogs you think are important.

Next: Who's doing a good job of both? -->

Who’s Doing a Great Job with “Build” AND “Join?”

If you’ve paid any attention to the current presidential race, you’ve probably heard about Democratic-elect candidate, Barack Obama’s, clever use of social media and online community to drive support, awareness and most importantly, funding. Obama campaign is anchored around his site “my.barackobama.com.” This is where Barack’s team create and house a majority of the campaigns blogs, videos and interviews are housed. If one Googles “Obama,” this the first link that comes up. It doesn’t stop there though. With 200 million plus users on MySpace, 80 million plus members on Facebook, 100 million visitors served up daily on YouTube and a million plus active members on Twitter (many of whom are A-list bloggers and reporters from mainstream media), Obama and his staff are also “fishing where the fish are.”

Companies like Ernst and Young [Facebook], Crest [Facebook}, Dell Computers [Twitter] and even Comcast [Twitter] are taking this approach and are finding that are not only garnering tons of positive media coverage for “thinking outside the box,” they are also engaging their customers where their customers like to hang out. This inevitably leads to things like better customer service, deeper customer loyalty, improved market research and of course increased viral marketing.

Next: Getting started -->

Getting Started

There are a few ways your company can think about getting started:

  1. If you don’t have an online community, decide whether or not you’re going to build one (or work with a white label provider to build one for you). If building is already on your radar, you should focus your company efforts there. That shouldn’t preclude you from encouraging your employees to start joining some of the online communities/social networks listed above, however. Understanding how these sites work, whether they are a fit for your customers and what types of content belong there, can be invaluable when you decide to put up a shingle there.
  2. If you’ve already got an online community, start assessing what content, widgets and online events (live chats, online roundtables, webinars) belong in each online community. For instance, MySpace is friendly toward audio and video, Facebook is a great place to include widgets and blog feeds and Twitter is bet at engaging your customers in conversation.
  3. Create a measurement plan that will help you evaluate your own third party online community efforts. While it is important to “fish where the fish are,” there is always an opportunity cost to managing all of these assets. If you don’t have the internal skills to help you do this, companies like BuzzMetrics, Radian6, and KDPaine & Partners can help you with these efforts.

Feeling overwhelmed by all these choices? Don’t be. The beauty of online community building is that it’s an iterative process. At the end of the day, what’s important is engaging your customers in conversation. Ideally you do this in as many places as possible but even more important is doing it right.

Aaron Strout is vice president of social media at Mzinga, a Burlington, Massachusetts-based provider of online communities and social networks for businesses. In his role, Aaron focuses on blogging, podcasting, webinars, blogger relations, and evangelizing the benefits of social networks for business. In addition to his knowledge of the interactive and new media landscape, Aaron has more than 15 years of online marketing and advertising experience, with a strong background in integrated and online marketing.

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