Before I walk into a client briefing, I have a mental bet with myself (I’m not stupid enough to talk aloud -people already question my sanity). Which of these questions (below) will come up first? Why am I so sure they will ask them? Probably because every time I’ve sat in front of company in oh, the last 10 -15 years and talked about setting up a customer community, they do:

  • How do we monetise by charging the member? (let’s forget about the ROI on technical and customer support, brand recall and stickiness shall we?). Tiered Premium Contracts are popular. Flickr’s works, most do not.
  • How do we monetise by providing access to our database? ‘database’ is marketing speak for members of communities. ie. people. Advertising is popular. Banner ads in particular.
  • How do we trap content (ours and theirs) in the social network, maintaining copyright and IP issues, and charge for churn? Think YouTube – brilliant, you can upload but you can’t download but you CAN embed. Sheer fecking business brilliance if you’ll pardon my French. MySpace had a “all your content now belongs to us in the ToS” and so on.

Other questions such as how to deal with paedophiles, lawsuits, and so on come later. These main three go straight to heart of business purpose. I’m not naive – they are important questions to traditional corporates and I’ve worked out approaches over time that ensure a win-win for all concerned. I hope so anyway. Scarily often, they go ahead and develop solutions to these questions without involving me – I get called in later when the community is absconding in droves. I’m sometimes scared that I’ll be blamed – that they say it’s something I set up caused the mass exodus when I know it’s cos they’ve been dicking around with changing rules about content and advertising. So far it hasn’t happened but it does worry me.

Occasionally I work with people that don’t ask those 3 questions. I love love love those companies. They say things like, “Oh, we sell products and services to our customers by providing them resources and tools they can use. Now we can do it so they can help each other and we’re confident that in turn will increase our sales”. But I used to worry about them – how will their company survive, with such wholesome values in a big bad dark world? Now I don’t. Now the world is ready to do business their way.

We really do need to move away from the traditional media model which companies identify with and which prompts those three questions. Its the model which says aggregrate information and then sell it to readers (members) and advertisers, whilst protecting copyright and I.P. So you see, the best online communities are non-media. Think about a software company whose Chief Engineer offers a forum for customers’ IT staff to post error messages and possible workarounds, helping each other. He’s not thinking of how to advertise to the members or charge them for the forum, or protect his content. He’s thinking “cool, they help each other, cutting my customer service and technical support costs, they are loyal to the product, they give me tips on how to improve, I find staff and it’s costing me about $160 per year“. Why best? Because if there are two community hosts providing the same service – let’s say, a technical forum – the one who builds it with advertising in mind and not focussing on the members’ varied purposes will simply not be as successful as the one who builds it to enable communication and support. Spam-artistes who developed MySpace notwithstanding…

Ps monetise = monetize. For English/American speakers. šŸ™‚