On the value of online communities and social networking

I was alerted today to this blog post from ReadWriteWeb on social networking. The blog post cites some media commentary on a study that says that social networking is a waste of money. The report is based on a survey of over 100 US businesses. Despite spending millions of dollars, the companies could see little tangible benefit from their investments. Much of the disappointment reflected the fact that the numbers of community members weren’t into the tens of thousands, a metric I am not really supportive of to define success for online communities.

Without seeing the complete study, I am not aware of the specifics of the report and its conclusions. However, what I can comment on is that social networking is not about technology – it’s about people. If a corporation wants to spend $1 million on social networks without understanding what social networking is about, and how and why people should be engaged, then it will simply fail. It should come as no surprise that developing online communities without focusing on the people is a recipe for disappointment.

I am often perplexed that companies still don’t understand social networks and communities. Is it because company management employ “workers” rather than “human beings”? Does management not see that social interaction happens all around them and that much of what is work today in the West is knowledge work based on working with other people? Is the social connection not clear here?

Companies really need to understand what they are trying to achieve and how social networking will work before embarking on costly high-tech investments. These days you can have a social network pretty much at no cost.  Have a look at what you can do on Facebook or Ning, for example. There are of course more sophisticated solutions if that’s what is required by the people in the online community. I am not convinced such high-tech costly solutions are always necessary.

The ReadWriteWeb blog post also identified that technology was not the answer but added that developing a social network around a product -especially cat litter – might not be the best approach.

In terms of product communities, I am not so dismissive. I believe that it is possible to successfully run online communities around products – perhaps not all products! However, the challenge here is in making engagement with people in the online communities authentic, and not just another vehicle for digital junk advertising and marketing-speak. Phony communities promoting particular products are even worse!

There must be some thinking around why people would want to be involved in your product community and how the company will engage and interact with that community. Above all, what is the purpose of the social networking interaction for the consumer, how will the company respond, and how will the consumers in the online community and the company benefit?

Dell has an online community. IdeaStorm is part of that community. IdeaStorm allows consumers to interact with the Dell company, offer suggestions and feedback, give opinions and value ratings, and generally provide a communication channel into the company. It’s even possible to get real-time interaction these days using Twitter!

Dell has recognised the importance of engaging with people on the web. As Lionel Menchaca from Dell said in a podcast from the SXSW Interactive Conference 2008, conversations about Dell products are happening on the web and in the blogosphere anyway so it is important for companies to be involved in the conversation. Establishing a community forum is a good way of doing that.

Participating and listening to the conversation is where there is enormous value for companies. Social networking plays a positive role in engaging with consumers and using the power of the network to generate and stimulate ideas and discussion.

It really is the people who count.

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