An “Unconference” for Online Communities

In February, I attended the “Online Community Unconference East” in New York City, presented by Forum One Networks. The goal was to attract those active in the online community to share experiences, and to strategize on how best to grow and develop online communities. There was the requisite talk about software and technology. Yet, just as much discussion was geared to creating new forms of engagement and messaging, along with philosophical discourse on the “new paradigms” that have been wrought by the Internet and new media

Bill Johnston, the Chief Community Officer for Forum One Network, gave me a brief overview of what to expect. He explained the unconference format, which has been around for twenty years. “In an open space methodology,” Johnston said, “the participants set the agenda.” He walked me over to what had started out as a large, empty grid – that was now filled with a wide variety of topics. There were six to eight time slots for breakouts in different rooms. “It’s very democratic and participatory,” Johnston told me. “Also responsibility based,” he added. “If you don’t see a topic, propose it!”

We conversed briefly about the “Obama effect” on the online community. Johnston mentioned that members of Obama’s campaign team have been spotted attending “these types of events.” Johnston spoke of the new administration’s commitment to the use of web tools, referencing the site and its innovative features, proposals, and citizen briefing book.

With some time to spare before the start of the next session, I checked out the information on the four event sponsors: Hive Live, Amplify, Athena East, and Leverage Software.  The media sponsor was Mashable.

HiveLive‘s materials featured a reprinted Q & A with CEO John Kembel, who posited a now entrenched POV that “social networking is changing the rules of marketing.” Kembel emphasized the shift away form the “traditional one-way message to a two-way dialogue.” He opined, “Every community is unique…so it’s absolutely necessary to find a solution that can support the specific activities of your community.”

Amplify characterized the top challenges for community managers as “moderation, monetization, and measurement.” Athena East was offering strategic methods to “develop, moderate, and maintain online communities.” Leverage Software was touting tools that could be “customized, and integrated into existing systems” with ease, as well as an “eventconnect” platform.

I sat in on the “Monetizing the Web” session, a topic Johnston had told me earlier “has been a challenge since day one of the web.” The “conflict between print and the web” was brought up. The question was raised, “Is it worthwhile trying to sell content anymore? A reply came suggesting, “Content is the sizzle that sells something else.” The exchange kept circling back to how the distribution model was changing — and the fixation on how to impact old media concepts.

Michael T. Petit, Co-Founder of Amplify, referenced one of the tenants of his company…”Keeping advertisers secure that you won’t serve ads where users are trashing their products (i.e. A Toyota car ad adjacent to a blog about how “Toyoto sucks.”). Petit, who comes out of advertising, commented that one of the durable trends of the Internet was, “We don’t control content.”

The theory that there was “a lot to be learned from looking at the past,” was put forth by Donald Schwartz , Technology Coordinator for Fast He was interested in social communities going back to the bulletin board systems, because the forms worked so well due to “easy to follow threads.” A vigorous debate on the “tyranny of the clicks” took place, with statements ranging from “CPV became the metric because that was all that was available” to “It’s not about how often people click, but about face time.” A man in his mid-twenties inferred that there was a generational disparity, as “Millennials don’t even see the ads.”

“The whole advertising model is broken,” insisted one participant. “It’s about engagement! The cornerstone to community content is to know where you resonate.” Relationship was another word that came up frequently, particularly in deconstructing the ad agency model which was “campaign based as opposed to relationship based.” At this point, a man chimed in, “The old model didn’t work. Why bother?”

Thinking about the ramifications of that question, I caught up with him to learn more about his perspective. His name was Vidar Brekke, CEO and Co-Founder of SocialIntent, a four-month-old company. Working in the industry for ten years, Brekke came from Norway to pursue a PhD in Communications. After getting a Master’s degree, became involved with start-ups and product development in the late 1990’s. He even did a stint as Vice-President of Marketing at JP Morgan Chase (“The one thing my mother’s proud of,” he confides.)

Brekke’s opinion is that brands need to be personal. “How do brands insert themselves into that personal space?” he asked. Then answering his own question he replied, “You have to give them the tools.” He emphasized, “Social media is a product extension.”

The problem, as Brekke sees it, is that those in charge are not yet ready to let go of the “agency model.” They are “risk averse” and “fail to see new capacities.” He points to what he terms “corporate vigilantes…tied in to the status quo.” Brekke related that he is “called in for all the wrong reasons.” A client may contact him, not because they are theoretically ready to integrate new media into their approach, but because of their anxiety that their “competition did
something.” In speaking of his company’s role Brekke said, “We’re a specialized unit. We figure out what’s wrong, and try to fix it.” But he still keeps crashing against the resistance to the fact that social media “doesn’t fit into the advertising/pr model.”

“Facebook is a tactic, not a strategy,” Brekke said, echoing a similar exchange that I had recently with Stan Magniant of linkfluence.

Talking about a current client, a book author who has written about finances,” Brekke elucidated how he would be “webalizing the book” through pulling it apart, creating tools, placing an application on Facebook and “bringing the book’s promise to life – because when your friends engage, there is reinforcement in the social group.” All this would “be on top of the traditional public relations campaign.”

The conference ended with an open forum where participants offered the most important things they had learned that day. There were numerous sound bites of advice. “If you get five to ten posts a day per forum on a community site, you’re doing well.” “It’s not the numbers in a community. It’s who the people are and what they are doing.” “Despite a down economy, there is a lot of innovation.” “Let your community grow organically. Don’t impose your thoughts on them.”

The group exemplified a true willingness to share. There is a conference wiki that is still being updated. Before leaving, I spoke with Scott Moore, who does strategy, design and consulting, gave me a brief primer on “computation linguistics.” Gadi Ben-Yehuda, a government 2.0 specialist, spoke about his work for the District of Columbia. “I came to the event to learn about how other people are managing their online communities, and activating them in the physical world.”

I saw Johnston again on my way out, and asked him how he thought the day had gone. “A lot of really good energy,” he replied. ” A lot of very specific information about what didn’t work, how to create engagement…and it spanned all sectors.” Reflecting on the “myriad set of experiences” that had been shared he remarked, “It was almost like group therapy.”

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