Online Communities: Think Small

I was a guest speaker last night at Emmanuel College in Boston, asked by a friend to talk to her feature-writing class about B2B publishing (hey kids! consider a career writing about refrigerated transport, microprocessors or food service!). One of the things we discussed, in the context of the print-to-online overhaul of the industry, was how trade publishers are in a great position to take advantage of social networking on the Web. When you think about it, the concept of community is nothing new to trade magazines; they have been engaging with highly targeted groups of readers for decades, first through controlled-circulation print magazines or newsletters, then through their websites. 

In the print world, the cycle went like this: reporters would interview readers, distill their thoughts, pick the best quotes, and write a story reflecting their views, which then would be slotted, packaged, printed and disseminated in magazine form to the rest of the community to consume, passively. The Internet introduced the concept of instant feedback, in the form of a comments or “talkback” box at the end of a story.

Now, next-generation tools and Web 2.0 concepts such as RSS, tagging and user-generated content allow communities of like-minded individuals to connect and interact more freely, effectively flattening out the publishing model.  While that scares the bejeezus out of some editors, it also creates an amazing opportunity for trade pubs to really get to know – and interact with – those readers they’ve been serving all these years. In general, I think the community play of the future will revolve around these types of smaller, targeted groups, as opposed to the YouTubes, MySpaces and other mass-oriented social networking sites.

The benefits of smaller sites are that members will be more willing to participate, instead of just watching others. Communispace addressed this issue in newly released research in which it looked at behavior among 26,539 members of 66 private online communities. From its press release:

Results indicate that 86 percent of the people who log on to private, facilitated communities (average community size: 300-500 people) made contributions: they posted comments, initiated dialogues, participated in chats, brainstormed ideas, shared photos and more. Only 14 percent merely logged in and observed, or “lurked.” In contrast, on public social networking websites, blogs, and message boards, this ratio is typically reversed, i.e., the vast majority of site visitors do not contribute. In fact, in a typical online forum (e.g., wiki, community, message board or blog), one percent of site visitors contribute and the other 99 percent lurk. (Source: McConnell & Huba, 2007. Citizen Marketers: When People are the Message. Chicago: Kaplan Publishing). This disparity suggests that the more intimate the setting, the more people will participate and get involved in the community.

Community development holds potential not just for publishers, but for any company that wants to organize groups of individuals – customers, suppliers or employees – in order to share ideas and get feedback. Online community platform providers like Communispace and Leverage Software are gaining a lot of traction with corporate clients eager to dip their toes into the social networking waters.

Paul Dunay addresses the topic with a post and a podcast on building a B2B community. He interviewed Mukund Mohan, CEO of the Canvas Group, who cites InfoWorld as an example – an indication that trade publishers are indeed warming up to the idea of full-on community as a way to stay connected, and relevant, with readers.

7 thoughts on “Online Communities: Think Small”

  1. I think you’re right on, Rob. The more focused the community, the more likely it can facilitate rich interaction among a broader group of participants. The key, perhaps especially for B2B communities, is where do you get critical mass. Too few participants and there won’t be enough initial action to get things going. I know Communispace typically organizes somewhat larger private communities for B2B than for B2C, because the typical B2B participants doesn’t have the time to participate as often, e.g., a few posts per week vs. one or more per day in B2C communities.

  2. that’s a good point, Rob. No matter the size, you’re still going to need a few uber-contributors to keep the conversation going while drawing others in.

  3. Rob’s, I agree with you both. I’m from Communispace and oversaw the research that you’re referring to. In our experience, having less than 150 members in a community (B2B OR B2C) makes it tough to get a critical mass of member-generated content that will keep people coming back. However, when we have MORE than 500 members, we begin to see dropping participation rates as well, both because people become overwhelmed by the volume of content and because the community loses its feel of being a forum in which people actually know one another, trust one another, and have a degree of accountability.

    It’s also true that B2B members tend to contribute slightly less often, but what they lack in frequency, they make up for in volume, averaging 3-4 contributions per log-in.

  4. One of the things we discussed, in the context of the print-to-online overhaul of the industry, was how trade publishers are in a great position to take advantage of social networking on the Web.

    Hey kids, want to earn a little money, quickly?
    BE a trade show edit Ho. and let some event producer and their personal publicist be yo pimp.

    jim Forbes

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