Friday, December 9

Reconditioning Engagement: Not What You Think

During my class last weekend, I said it plainly enough. If you want to create a true online community, you need to look beyond "being on" a social network. You or your organization need to build one.

It doesn't have to be the next Facebook. It might even be tied to the functionality of your site, with differing degrees of community, as not all communities are created equal. And that's all right. Not everyone needs a strong community. Weak communities can produce equally powerful outcomes.

An oversimplified observation between strong and weak communities. 

BlogCatalog, for example, has a reasonably strong community. It used to be more robust than it is today, but there is no mistaking it as anything less than a community. People identify with it, invest time in it, connect with other members, develop friendships, and sometimes take action on its behalf. There are others too. As clunky as it can be, Ragan has built a community. So has Recruiting Blogs.

Kickstarter, on the other hand, has a weak community. It's one of my favorite sites, but the structure of the site doesn't necessarily create relationships between members as much as it creates them between backers and creators. People do identify with it and invest time, but connecting with other members is relatively rare and members take action on behalf of the creators more than the site. The same can be said about DonorsChoose, another favorite of mine.

Google+, as it exists today (tomorrow may be different), and Twitter aren't really communities. You can build connections, followings, events, lists, and loosely aligned links. But it doesn't necessarily build a community. And then there is Facebook, which can be used to create some semblance of a community. However, most organizations do not.

The difference is largely in how we define, view, and establish engagement. And today, most organizations define online engagement in terms of likes, clicks, shares, comments, etc. as Richard Millington reminded me the other day on Feverbee.* His argument is both right and wrong. And here's why...

Actions indicate activity, but not engagement or community. 

The cornerstone of Millington's argument is that people who "like" a Facebook page aren't active enough. That is a fair and valid point. However, I know people who live in my city that aren't very active either. Does that make them a non-member of the community? Or our community any less than a community? I don't think so.

That is not to say that Millington is wrong. He is right that Facebook pages aren't the best places to create a community. And he provides several alternatives.

However, that doesn't mean it cannot be done. I manage some pages that have all the elements of a community, even if the actions are not always evident. I also belong to a couple of Facebook groups. One in particular, which is private, is truly a small and vibrant community. Although it lacks the scale of something like BlogCatalog or Ragan, we all contribute and interconnect, from time to time, and have conversations. Some more than others. And that's okay too.

But more importantly, it seems to me, organizations don't necessarily have to build a community to create engagement (unless they want to encourage members to engage with each other). And that leads to another observation. Engagement is not measured by actions (outcomes maybe, but not actions).

This was a direction I moving in when I wrote an article about how word of mouth happens offline more often than online. When I pulled in the Keller Fay study, which looked at online activity as opposed to offline activity, it was to dispel the notion that the number of "likes" somehow means that the page is engaged. The study proves that many users are not even active, let alone engaged.

But there's more. If the same brand enjoys 880 million offline conversations during an average month, including 442 million active recommendations to buy or try it, it is obviously a highly engaged brand despite those people existing independent of any community. Likewise, looking at those numbers again, nobody discounts the half that have nothing to do with a purchase like social media skeptics always want to do with social media (e.g., they think unless it results in a sale, it's a waste).

Beyond that, nobody can really track all those silent conversations and conversions that manifest when we least expect it. I was reminded of one the other day.

I was speaking with my aunt over the holidays and we were talking about education. Before I could tell her what I thought about a specific issue, she told me what she thought, which I recognized as my own thought.

"That's uncanny," I said. "I was just going to offer that up."

"Really?" she said. "I just read an article about it."

"Really?!?" I just wrote an article about it. Where did you read the article you saw?"

"Oh, you know, come to think of it, I think it was on your blog."

We laughed, and my mind whirled at the same time. She is not a member of "my" community. She does not make any measurable "actions" online. And yet, she was obviously engaged by the article when she was reading it, and based upon her response, possibly influenced by it.

Sometimes I think the communication industry is so busy attempting to measure social media that we forget how real engagement works. Ergo, if you read this post (or at least some of it), you were engaged for a period of time. What happens after that — whether you click, comment, or share — has nothing much to do with it, unless you want it to.

*If you read the Feverbee post, which is a good one, please ignore my comment there. I misread his post, which cited repurposed content from my blog, and then made a statement that "this" was misleading. He meant how people define activity is misleading. It happens.
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