Shaping the Community frame: Platform – Part 1

large__3045809413Deciding on the best community platform type for a non-profit  is another important step. It is the part that I got the most different opinions about. I first like to make clear that there is a difference between online communities and social media platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter etc.). Deborah Weinstein, president of Strategic Objectives, illustrates social media strikingly as: “the new Wild, Wild West of Marketing, with brands, businesses, and organizations jostling with individuals to make news, friends, connections and build communities in the virtual space”. Social media offer a space for brands to build their community or create a “community feeling” among their fans. It is important to recognize that there are a variety of options available to build a brand community upon. As I described in an earlier post, company-initiated external communities can be classified as:

  • Managed communities: Brand communities that are started and managed by organization but run on social media platforms, like Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter. “Examples here include WNF’s online communities, Starbucks’ Flickr group pool, or Dell’s presence on Twitter. The organization is responsible for running and managing the community, but does not necessarily benefit from the rich data and user profiles created within such community. Typically, the facilitator of the community (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) benefits the most from the underlying data” (Howard 2011).
  • Participating communities: Brand communities started and managed by individuals or groups of users who have an interest in the brand. “An example here would be a fan site for Microsoft’s Xbox or an independent Porsche enthusiast group. Typically the organization whose products or services are the topic of discussion can participate, but has no authority or access to the data created within the community” (Howard 2011).
  • Direct communities: Brand communities that are started and managed by an organization. They often “run on proprietary community and enterprise collaboration software solutions” (Howard 2011). Examples include Starbuck’s MyStarbucksIdea, Dell’s Ideastorm or the one from the Asthma Foundation. “The organization is responsible for running and managing the community and benefits from rich data and user profiles created within that community” (Howard 2011).

For the purpose of this research and the intention of UNICEF, I will not consider a participating type of community as an option, since it is not started/managed by an organization, but more by outsiders. Therefore, I will just compare the direct and the managed community as possible and realistic options for UNICEF. I made a list of several platform possibilities that UNICEF can choose from. Subsequently, the community experts and managers were asked the following question:

If you were UNICEF, which of the three options would you choose for creating long-term engagement and increased awareness (of child-related development issues and UNICEF’s work) among the young generation (18-30 years) is your goal? Why?

Option 1: Build an entirely new platform in your own space on which you start an online community (direct community);

Option 2: Fish were the fish are.Do not invest in building a complete new platform, but run your community on existing social media platforms (managed community);

Option 3: Integrate your community with your corporate website, as a micro-website.

I got such a large amount of different opinions on this question, that I decided to classify them based on similar underlying arguments.

Classifying the views on choosing the best UNICEF platform

Basically, the answers can be classified into five sections:

  1. Classification 1. Choose option 1: UNICEF should build an entire new platform that they own by themselves.
  2. Classification 2. Choose option 2: use existing social media platforms to build your community on.
  3. Classification 3. Integrate option 1 and 2: build your own platform and use existing social media platforms.
  4. Classification 4. Choose option three: integrate your community with your corporate website.
  5. Classification 5. Choose none of the options above.

In this post, I will discuss classification one and two.

Classification 1. Choose option 1: UNICEF should build an entire new platform that they own by themselves.

Main arguments that experts/managers gave:

  • Your own platform will allow you to get very valuable insights about your community members. It will also allow you to get very specific data and statistics about your target group.
  • An own platform will allow you to have control of what happens. You won’t rely on what social media platforms (Facebook etc.) decide to do.
  • On an own platform you will have more influence on the atmosphere, culture and content in your community.
  • An own platform will allow you to get more depth with your community members.
  • In the end, people will leave their social media platforms and go to a specific online community dedicated to a topic of their interest/needs. They want a focused concentration – having your own platform will allow you to give them what they need and really engage them.

 Examples of answers:

“I strongly believe that UNICEF would benefit more from building a community on an own platform, a direct community. It is the only way to have a real influence on the atmosphere, culture, and content of your community. Besides, an own platform will allow you to get very interesting insights of your community members. This will allow you to manage the community more efficiently, get higher levels of engagement, and be overall more successful. Though, I recommend UNICEF to also pay attention to the social media platforms. Make sure you add content on there as well. You can use these platforms to find your target group and persuade them to visit your online community” (Kirsten Wagenaar, community consultant).

“I normally always say “fish where the fish are”. However, I believe that UNICEF is a large enough organization, a recognized enough brand, and an initiative with enough calls to action and opportunities to support sustained engagement that it may be worth investing in building a public dedicated community space” (Amy Sample Ward, community development manager).

“Don’t build your core on someone else’s toy. UNICEF should understand that people don’t hang out on a social media platform. There is no platform loyalty. You hang out for your social stuff where your friends hang out. But when you are interested in movies, you go to the cinema. The cinema doesn’t try to be a social platform. Community is like cinema, or a club – it will attract people interested in it, and at that point you need your own place because it’s the only way you can actually give them what they need” (Ian Dickson, business coach).

“Relying on social media platforms has some serious downsides. How people are accustomed to using Facebook, for example, is limited too. On Facebook people connect with other people (generally). When people want to connect around a specific topic or passion, they go to a specific community dedicated to that topic. This is why the most engaging conversations in the social web often occur in forums and on structured online communities. When someone wants martial arts discussion, they are more likely to go to a martial arts community than to Facebook. Such people want a focused concentration of material artists. The same counts for a community dedicated to UNICEF” (Patrick O’Kofee, Ifroggy Network).

Classification 2. Choose option 2: use existing social media platforms to build your community on.

Main arguments that experts/managers gave:

  • People like to hang out where their friends hang out – on social media platforms. Go where they are.
  • It will be challenging and probably unrealistic to get people to your own platform and make them come back. You will have to compete with the popular social media platforms.
  • It’s way too expensive and a waste of resources to invest in your own platform. Social media platforms are a relatively cheap and easy way to reach your target.
  • You will get more engagement with a broader sweep of people, where the conversation is already happening: i.e. on the social media platforms.

Examples of answers:

“I would advise UNICEF to go for option 2: fish where the fish are. Definitely. If you succeed in engaging this generation on these platforms you can later on decide to build a community integrated on your current website. For now, use Facebook and Hyves. Our WNF community on Hyves currently consists of 82,450 active members. This number is only growing. Last year we managed to get an extra 20,000 community members. We have succeeded in engaging the young generation by going were they like to spend their time online: social media platforms” (Margreet Heemen, WNF).

 “Go for option two. With all will in the world, you’re never going to build a platform that attracts as many people, or keeps up with emerging communities and spaces, like Facebook etc.. Piggy back on the cutting edge that other space is providing and developing. Go where the people are. Just make sure you capture that activity, net it all together, curate the great comments and ideas and build something unique that way. I would anticipate that you will get more engagement, with a broader sweep of people, if you go to where conversation is already happening and if you stay sharp to new spaces where people are gathering, so you can go and (very openly and transparently) join conversations. I think by listening to people where people are, reflecting on those conversations, asking them to help raise awareness, will be an organic process” (Holly Seddon, editor and writer).

“For UNICEF especially I don’t see much value in trying to create your own walled garden, because you really want to get more donors and volunteers and the sharing that comes from being where they already are. Plus: with so much competition as well as scepticism about charitable donations, it’s a goldmine for spreading facts about all the great work being done” (June McDonald, consultant).

 “I think option two is the best for UNICEF to start with” (Seth Godin, entrepreneur).

“If I was UNICEF I would start simple and use existing social media and collaboration tools. Many new communities waste countless hours on debating tools and infrastructure, and my recommendation is to always get something simple up and running, get people involved and collaborating, and then you can refine the tools later” (Jono Bacon, consultant and community manager).

 “Option 2 is the option I whole-heartedly support. I was involved in the USA for UNHCR’s Blue Key campaign, and they initiated a multi-pronged approach to their blue key campaign that had a goal of both selling blue keys to raise money, but also creating a group of deeply engaged people. They tied the website into a Facebook page and group, and a Twitter profile. It was a huge success” (Debra Askanse, UNHCR manager).

 “People (especially young people) tend to hang out online where their friends are. So often it works better to start where they already hang out online (e.g. Facebook) than to create a new community from scratch (if you build it, they will not necessarily come). Many non-profits have invested in their own private online community only to have it fail, because their constituents don’t want to have to join yet another social network”  (B.J. Wishinshky, communities program manager).

I decided it would be interesting to interview somebody who had to choose between these options as well, when his organization decided to build a community. I interviewed Job de Groot, who currently works at STAR, the student association of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. In 2010, STAR decided to launch an online community. Starting a dialogue, stimulate interaction and increase engagement among the students was their goal. They decided to invest in building an entire new platform called the ‘STAR MAX community’. It was not a success at all. Students did visit the online community, but just to find some specific information. They did not use the platform to interact with other students. Instead, they used Facebook. STAR decided to change direction and built a vibrant community group on Facebook. Their Facebook group is highly active and visited on daily basis by students. Job also sees some disadvantages in STAR’s change of direction. ”First of all, we are very dependent on what the platform Facebook decides to do. If they change the design or tools, we are forced to adapt to these alterations. Facebook is also quite limited in the tools they offer for branded pages. They don’t customize tools according to your (often specific) needs. Besides, we are missing the opportunity of getting valuable data and statistics of the students. It is also challenging to deal with the information load on Facebook. The messages that we post disappear quickly in the mass of other updates. I would advise UNICEF to only build a new platform if they are convinced that you can give the young generation the right and enough incentives to visit your website. It will be an extra step for them. Maybe one step too much”.

Other experts and community managers advised UNICEF to go for a blended approach of options. This brought me to the third classification, which I will discuss in my next post, together with classification 4 and 5.

Although this post was very UNICEF-specific, I hope it is inspiring to any (non-profit) organization.

Until next time,

Anne-Sophie Gaspersz

Photo credit: jonmartin () via photopin cc

Photography: Jon Martin

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