Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Effectiveness of Online Communities

In the year 1996 when India just started opening up internet access to its citizens, I happened to join one of the first online CIO communities. It was a small group of about 100 of us with global representation and stayed that way for a long time. The community was promoted by an IT services company who mostly stayed off from influencing any discussion or attempt to sell. The moderators were professional and provoked thought from the community who responded with mirrored passion. With the dotcom boom the community transferred ownership to an online giant with commercial interests; en mass the CIOs moved on and created own community that continued to focus on learning.

Recent times have seen an explosion of online communities that are generic, specific, niche, community, profession or domain based, and a lot of me too with hopefully intent to provide many things to their members. A few like have become hot properties with stratospheric valuations and member base larger than many countries. Corporates joined in to understand what the communities are saying about them or their competitors, some started targeted messaging with little success. Industries have mushroomed selling strategy, analytics and a lot more from the mass of posts and unstructured data.

Shakeout has begun in this space leaving the individual confused on the choices made; corporate entities are beginning to wonder how to generate revenue from all the investments made in the height of euphoria. Every intervention requires effort and resource commitment to bind the members. Whether you are an individual or an enterprise, how does one decide which community to join ?

For individuals the choice is largely made by following Connectors (Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell) within their groups or when friends invite them to join new communities with an expectation to stay in touch, share knowledge or emotions, happenings within their friends and family circle, and a lot more. As the numbers start stacking up over a period of time the activity level falls off from most. The winning communities are ones offering a bit of something to everyone, freshness, content, features, etc.

Enterprises have followed the crowd and the hype around the communities with hope of understanding their customers, stakeholders, influencers who potentially impact business outcomes even if indirectly. Crowdsourcing and networked innovation became the buzz with significant investments pouring in. The few success case studies added fuel to the fire. But the large numbers of efforts have not yielded the desired outcomes. Even though the start point for most was Marketing or other functions with no ROI or business case, the online nature of such interactions put the CIO and IT in the middle of the discussion.

CIOs have struggled to moderate expectations and make sense of the noise. Combining these with the relatively clean structured data remains a challenge though multiple service providers and consultants tout the next level of competitive differentiation. These are early days where a lot of investment is a leap of faith or hit in the dark, until the haze lifts and clarity emerges, the worry for the enterprise is not to be left behind in the race to the unknown.

As for me accepting every new invite that comes my way, I think I will pass for now at stick to the couple that offer me personal and professional connectivity. The direction for enterprise and peers remains “keep a watch on the horizon, stay invested but focused on what matters”.

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