Thursday, June 28

Controlling Community: John Sumser

John Sumser has taken on a mission impossible because there seems to be a desire to transform, which is currently defined as blog community portal, into a niche social network that will be managed like an online magazine with Sumser as editor.

It cannot be done.

Sumser is not alone in making the mistake of combining what are opposing objectives. Many companies are struggling with the same self-created issue, which is what often gives rise to community members screaming unfair criticism, blatant censorship, and/or totalitarian fascist rule. Eventually, it leads to protest, exodus, or even negative public outcry beyond the niche it serves.

You can see it all over the net. It ranges from alleged censorship of The Black Donnellys fans at NBC online and Jericho fans during the cancellation protest at CBS online to the broadest brush strokes and ample examples being advocated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. All of it, big and small, stems from the same problem: a lack of strategic oversight on the part of the site moderators that often leads to gross confusion over whether or not the First Amendment might apply on the part of the participants (mostly, it doesn't), which I'm inclined to write about another time.

Today, I'll stick to the misconception being applied by some companies: they think "if we build it (a framework for an online community of sorts, whether it be a blog, portal, forum, social network, or some combination), they will come." And, as soon as the "open" sign goes up, sometimes they do come — participants who quickly take up residence and build their community.

Did you catch that? I said "their community" because it's the most important part of the equation. Companies that create online gathering places only own the framework; it's the participants who own the community. Because without them, there is no community.

And that brings us back to Whereas Jason Davis (former management at moderated with a guiding hand, Sumser seems to use the rule of law. After all, as editor, Sumser claims it's his job to ensure the content is worthwhile by some subjective standards only he knows.

While I understand this thinking from someone who often considers social media and blogging as, more or less, immature and brutish (although, mysteriously and magically, not so in many, many places), it represents the direct opposition to developing an online community. You see, the model for editorial control, beyond the loosest guidelines, (eg. no pornography, etc.) is much better suited to running an online magazine or news source like, well, Electronic Recruiting News.

For a blog portal, like, any sense of community can only be accomplished by applying the simplest of concepts: "it's easier to pull a chain than to push one." That means "editors" must abandon their propensity to manage and attempt to lead.

Real leadership does not work under the rule of law. It requires something else all together. So instead of "editing" and reserving the right to make even the best intended critiques, the moderator who hopes to build a community will see better results if they focus more on making people feel welcome, praising those who provide the best examples, and adding unique value for the residents.

No, it doesn't have to be this way. could just as easily operate as an online content provider or magazine (in which case, it needs more exclusive content) and a blog portal, giving up on the idea that it is somehow a community (it's not). While this means it will rarely be considered home, the model can work just as well while affording the owners control, which they seem to want.

From a more general perspective, any time a company, organization, or group launches a product, service, or online "something" (or applies sweeping changes to such things), it's always best to develop a strategy first. And, if these things already exist, it's never a good idea to remove previous tactics without knowing what you need to replace them with. Ergo, if you blow little things all up without a plan, you might be surprised to find out some of those little things made the big thing work.

Ideally, developing a strategy can be largely accomplished by understanding the environment in which you hope to operate and your true competitors. Then, you offer added values to your product/service/offering or, at minimum, positive communication contrasts between yourself and your competitors.

Apple and AT&T's positioning of the iPhone is a pretty good example. Verizon's new message, which they think will keep customers from switching to an iPhone, is not.

The bottom line. You cannot be all things to all people, especially when you aren't all things.



Sweet Tea on 6/28/07, 11:52 AM said...

Another insightful article. Thank you.
"Companies that create online gathering places only own the framework; it's the participants who own the community. Because without them, there is no community."
Again, CBS and NBC provide perfect examples. They built the message boards which became communities. Instead of working with those communities they tried to shut down what they saw as a liability. Turns out that CBS finally appeared to recognize that Jericho fans were actually their assets. We do their advertising for free now don't we?
NBC could have embraced the Donnelly fans but they were not going to allow that voice of opposition to grow. Seems it would have been more fruitful to try to work with the " enemy."

Rich on 6/28/07, 12:40 PM said...

Hey JS. Thanks.

I did notice a shift at CBS in their approach in monitoring the fans, which is why I stayed away from the whole censorship story (because they do have the right to enforce stated guidelines).

My understanding of NBC's approach (though I have not verified this) is that they will censor/ban for public outcry, even if it did not fall within stated guidelines (which still surprises me).

Again, both problems comes from misunderstanding the online communities as you noted. When a company begins to think they own the community and participation is a privilege and subject to enforcement, then eventually, the community will die. I had a friend who hosted a gaming server who forgot this; and now all the players that use to go there have forgotten him.

Stated or unstated, you have to figure out what you want to do on the front end. Even here (and this is not a community, though I enjoy and have gotten to know some regulars, ha! :), I avoid censoring anyone except when ... it's a spam ad, links to certain adult content, overuses profanity, etc. Contrary, I discourage name calling, but have allowed people to call me names.

But ideas, concerns, and disagreements? It all lends to the discussion. :)

All my best, Rich

Rich on 6/28/07, 2:22 PM said...

For The Record:

The Recruiting Animal at RecruitingBloggers tells me that this piece is a bit inaccurate, but I disagree on some of the points he brought up.

He says nothing has changed, and although I do not visit often to know, it does seem like something has changed: if not the architecture, then in the "feel," which mirrors comments I've read in several places.

He also says, it didn't start out as a portal. It was a blog / magazine with (at various times) 3 or 4 bloggers. And while that may be, it defines itself as a "community portal" now.

The communication confusion is all the more reason to work out its strategy. It's difficult for something to be something to other people when it's unclear what it is to itself.

Unknown on 6/28/07, 9:03 PM said...

Hi Rich,

This is another great article of yours. I wanted to post a comment on the David Merriman (sp?) book review you did, but just didn't get a chance to because of the Save The Black Donnellys campaign. I think this article definitely relates to the issues that David talks about in his books, white papers and webinars.

I agree completely. When you open up any medium, whether it be electronic or actual meeting forum, you can stick to your goals and your agenda.. but with the number of individuals that participate, it is difficult to control the outcome of the discussion, or in this case of the blog community. I find that just as difficult with a "portal" situation. Put the semantics aside.

This is something we struggle at work as well. My director had just mentioned today about a conference he had attended that spoke about social media. One of the speakers used the example of Starbucks.. If you did a Google search for Starbucks.. it gives you the first results of Starbuck's web site.. but if you go down a few more results.. you'll see a IHate Whether it be a web site or forum.. It's not always about getting postive responses towards your products or your processes. Creating a "community" for bloggers, is about understanding what interests them and what engages them.. and how you as a company take that information and mold it to fit your marketing means..

(On an aside.. that's definitely something NBC could learn. :)

Rich on 6/29/07, 8:21 AM said...

Hi Ruth,

You are exactly right. The funny thing is, if you want to build a community, you don't have to "control" it. Attempting to do so only has the opposite effect.

It's not exclusive to social media either. I've seen plenty of professionals attempt to "control" professional organizations in person, only to experience the same results. Given this, I often wonder if we aren't making a mistake by thinking social media is somehow so very, very different.

The secret is not to control it at all. Unlike many social media advocates, I am a firm believer that communicators are becoming distracted by inventing new social media rules when they haven't learned proven strategic communication tools that readily apply. It all comes down to message management (not control) and, in some cases, minding behavior.

I don't believe everyone needs to develop a community, but if they do, it needs to be grounded in strategy. I do believe everyone needs a social media presence, if for no other reason than in preparation for the day social media might knock on your company's door.

You're question really deserves a separate post for me to provide a better overview. Hmmm... maybe I'll use the Starbucks example you provided (and why it has minimal impact on Starbucks). There is another example in Las Vegas that I've recently come across; and I've been thinking about tossing in the mix for some time.

All my best,

James Durbin on 7/2/07, 10:18 AM said...

I'm not one to disagree with Animal, but Jason and I always saw as a community. Our job was to nurture the recruiting blogs, both pointing out their successes as well as providing them information they could use for their betterment.

People forget we had 14 authors for, and Jason regularly connected different portions of the recruiting blogosphere together.

That we perhaps did not announce this as our purpose had more to do with we weren't thinking of it in terms of community building (which probably explained its success).

This is what Sumser is missing. An online magazine has no community.

Rich on 7/2/07, 12:47 PM said...

Hi Jim,

I tend to agree. I think the difference between being a community or online magazine or simply a portal will be exactly what you suggest: Sumser's management or leadership of it.

All my best,


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