Notes on BRITE Workshop on Online Communities, at Columbia Business School

Following are my notes on the BRITE Workshop on Online Communities, at Columbia Business School

Community as Part of Your Site Offering: Strategy from 50,000 Feet and Tactics from the Trenches
Sylvia Marino, Executive Director, Community Operations,

3 person staff running this. I’m the Executive Director of Community Operations. I have my own P&L. We get profitable quite early in the year. I have a community manager, who deals with moderators and members. Senior Product Manager who makes sure community is integrated throughout the site.

We sit in the media group, separate from editorial, but equal to them

Our membership agreement is one of the most copied on the Web

We’ve banned a user and sued him to do that

Consumers engage with others, editors, industry experts, manufacturers, experts

General rule: no soliciting

A: Why do you have both Forums and Social Q&A?

A: Q&A is for quick response.

Forums is for longer-term dialogue

Our customers engage in Edmunds, Carspace, and also elsewhere: YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, widgets, mashups, RSS

Our community tools (e.g., Twitter) have empowered editors.

We have lots of moderators, most of whom are part-time

Consideration Marketing strategic placement based on what the contest is.

Advertisers used to worry about seeing their ad next to negative conversation but that’s now rarely true. Most advertisers are doing packages.

We’re #3 automotive info site, after General Motors (whole network) and eBay motors . So we’re the only neutral information site.

We use NetworkedInsights, which measures your ROI on your community activity.

Every page and every product is a community opportunity

Read by Patricia Seybold. First figure out the customers’ needs, and then see if you really need Twitter, blogs, podcasts, Facebook, etc.

We’re a private family-owned company (Steinlauf family)

Dealers tried to co-opt our service to promote themselves. Customers didn’t like having them in forums, but wanted to know about good dealers. So we added dealer ratings/reviews, and now local auto repair service ratings /reviews.

We decided that thinking that our users could spell was a really radical assumption.

Interactive: Creating Experiences For Online Communities
Bernd H. Schmitt, Professor, Columbia Business School, best-selling author, “Big Think Strategy”, with Aliza Freud (CEO Shespeaks), Sylvia Marino, and Olivier Toubia

Q: Who participates in these communities?

Marino: it’s people with needs. Although I often wonder if these people have jobs. For support , to give & receive information, and entertainment. I have a federal court judge, to a woman with 9 kids. I have people who are in every day, and people who come in once every 3 years when their lease is up.

Freud: People of all ages are online, but their purposes vary widely. Moms often go online to monitor what kids over age 13 are doing.

Q: Comment on manufacturer-owned sites.

Marino: User will always have suspicion that negative comments are edited out. When we get complaints from car manufacturers about what is written on our site, our response is always, ‘make better cars. Treat your customers better.’

Marino: some years ago L’Eggs launched an online community for pantyhose members. Real women said, ‘women don’t want to talk about pantyhose’. But it turns out, there were people who wanted to talk about pantyhose: duck-hunters and cross-dressers.


Integrating Online Communities: From service and product forums to a holistic approach to customer communities
Richard Binhammer, Conversations, Communities and Communications, Dell, Inc.

“Dell has been a leader in using social media to engage its customer community in tech support, product development, and public relations. Initiatives have included corporate blogs, customer-to-customer support (C2C) forums, IdeaStorm for idea generation, online videos, and ratings & reviews. Richard Binhammer will discuss Dell’s current community initiatives and future plans to integrate these diverse programs into a holistic approach throughout the company.”

Launched online communities since 1996.

There are 4000+ conversations about us every day.
We decided to listen, learn & participate.
We estimate we have 2b interactions with clients evey day. IdeaStorm has 9800 customer ideas so far.

Main channels now:
– resolve dissatisfiaction
– Join conversation
– Share content & collect ideas: StudioDell, IdeaStorm, Blog roundtables, Second Life, Digital Nomads (powered by Dell but not officially a Dell site), (powered by Dell but not officially a Dell site)
– Tell our story: Direct2Dell blog

We’ve done $0.5m in revenues on twitter (from

Our premise: we are a listening company.

When there’s a dispute, we try to take it offline, because of our privacy policies. To solve your problem, I need your Dell ID and other information. We then cross our fingers that the customer will acknowledge that we solved the problem. 90% of the time they will do so.

We are evolving to a model where we don’t treat online as a special type of media. Core group of 40 people in conversations with community team.

Social media is a phenomenal early warning system.
I can name 3 issues (e.g., laptop batteries) where social media warned us 3.5 weeks before anything else of a major issue.

I’ve probably covered half my salary in computer sales.


From to AT&T: Using online communities to engage, energize and mobilize constituents
Thomas Gensemer, Managing Partner, Blue State Digital

“With nearly a million members, the social network has helped to win a presidential primary, raise enormous funds online, and reshape the role of the Internet in political organizing. The company behind the social network, Blue State Digital, has worked with more than 100 clients in politics and business, to develop new media strategies to grow relationships with customers and advocates. Managing partner Thomas Gensemer will discuss how they have worked with the Obama campaign and clients such as Stonyfield Farms and AT&T to energize and mobilize constituents on their behalf.”

Our tools & programs: the basics. Easy signup. Email broadcast. Fundraising. Event management. Surveys, quizzes, polls. Petitions, tell a friend.

1.6m active profiles.
Over 50K groups & circles
Over 250K user-organized events

List power:
Active users (about 5% of active signups)
One-time users
Profile owners
Low-level actions
Basic signup (deadbeats >35%)

93% of Americans expect companies to have a presence in social media.

Why network?

– self expression & ego
– utility
– Exhibitionism/voyeurism
– Reputation (Linkedin)
– Altruism (actblue,, angie’s list)

If you had 10 of your most loyal customers in a room, what would you have them do?

I don’t believe that everyone should have a social network.

1/10 of Best Buy employees have created a profile on

BMW’s site on Facebook makes sense. It doesn’t require people to join a new network.

Al Gore’s “We” social network hasn’t taken off, because it’s not tied to face-to-face local events. What can people organize around?

Analysis: why doesn’t Whole Foods have a real social network? There’s real affinity, real physical presence.

Key Lessons

Not all networks utilitarian; in fact, most won’t offer utility.
Need shared affinity
Need low barrier ‘ask’
Need ongoing engagement tactic (e.g., local meetings)

If you’re a ‘deadbeat’, you get a ‘thank and spank’ message saying, ‘0.5m people have signed the petition; why not you?’. We work with an organization called Wal-mart Watch.

If we had done what Kerrey did, focusing on MySpace / Facebook, we would be very limited in our ability to message people. We wouldn’t own the data.

110 people now work in new media for MyBO, including people in all 50 states.