Monday, October 3

Creating Communities: More Choices, Weaker Loyalists

The saying may be cliche, but the science is real: Birds of a feather do flock together.

According to research published in Group Processes and Intergroup Relations, people prefer to make friends with others who share similar beliefs, values, and interests. But even more interesting, in the age of diversified and limitless choices online, people are even more apt to choose friends who are like them.

In fact, although the study was not conducted on Internet relationships, it found that when people have more choices, they are even more likely to seek out relationships with people like themselves. The logic point is sound: Similarity makes for smoother and more pleasant interactions.

What happens when the choices are limited?

This was one of the questions that Angela Bahns of Wellesley College and Chris Crandall and Kate Pickett of the University of Kansas sought out on college campuses. The researchers approached and surveyed pairs of students on two campuses, asking them questions about various beliefs and values.

By comparing the answers between college students at a campus with 25,000 students to another with only 5,000 enrolled, they found that students interacting on a larger campus with more choices were even more likely to be similar to their friends than a smaller campus with fewer choices.

However, that wasn't the extent of the study. It also found that the students at the smaller campus rated their friendships as closer. And researchers speculated that friendships on the larger campus may not be as tight because students felt they could more easily make new friends.

What community managers and marketing pros might learn from the study.

Social ecologies shape the way people initiate and maintain relationships. This isn't the first study to suggest it. The paper includes references to previous studies, including Kon & Losenkov (1978) that found similar differences between rural and urban schools.

The earlier study found that rural schools had fewer friendships and less "network elasticity" but more stable relationships. What makes this important for companies attempting to develop online communities, or even those developing social networks, is that as their communities grow, they change the social ecology.

And, in fact, rapid growth and diversification of a social network or a community on a social network could undermine the strength of the community as people feel less connected to the larger population. In other words, pressing for popularity — capturing more members in a shorter timeframe (the measure of success for most companies) — could lead to a more fragmented, less engaged, and more transient population. It's the difference between a trend and a fad.

It may even allude to a flaw in the tribes concept by Seth Godin. While Godin is right that community managers a.k.a. leaders ought to seek out similarly minded individuals to create a tribe (or more likely, the tribe will come together on their own within a social ecology), the tribes concept is less scalable than anyone imagined and the faster it grows, the more likely it begins to fragment.

As the group or network becomes larger and larger, it is even more likely that the "leader" or "leaders" of what seems like a strong community will alienate segments of their growing population — either because the growth was propelled by the temporary alliance of another "leader" or because "new leaders" of smaller groups begin to emerge within the larger ecology. This leads to less influence, not more, as current algorithms and marketing quotients dictate.

The importance of organic development and adaptability.

While there is certainly something to be said for rapid growth and viral attention, long-term success relies on the adaptability of any online community — there may be a need for community managers to slow down. Slowing down allows community managers to segment emerging tribes within the networks (creating many small towns within a larger network), elevate members within their network (to manage different segments) or, at minimum, revisit their content strategy to ensure topical strength over individual allure (making the connection based on interest as opposed to personality).

Failing to do so frequently leads to so-called leaders or brands abandoning large segments of their network base as similarities begin to erode and/or segments of a larger population begin to push back. There are several individuals and companies and social networks facing this now.

Once they reach a critical mass, they begin to change the ecology they create, alienating the initial attraction. And in the greater context of the Internet, their once seemingly "loyal" base quickly discovers that network elasticity means that they can replace them. It also means something else. Unlike a prospect who has no pretext of expectation, those who are disenfranchised never forget.
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