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.

MyMistake – MySpace Does the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

E-Commerce Times reports that:

In response to advertising industry concerns over security, has removed 200,000 “objectionable” profiles from its social network. The site erased profiles containing risque or hate speech content.

I’m quoted in the article, and I won’t repeat it all here, but let me expand on it…

This action by MySpace is a reaction to comments like this one (from Major Marketers Avoid MySpace):

Of six panelists representing major advertisers and ad agencies, not a single one advertised with MySpace or other social networking sites. Reasons for avoiding MySpace include concern about its potential for criminal use, especially given recent well-publicized reports about sexual predators searching for victims on the site, as well as fears that user-generated content–including pictures and text with sexual overtones–will be offensive.

“I wouldn’t be caught dead in that kind of environment,” said David Cohen, executive vice president for Universal McCann Interactive, with a client roster including Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Lowe’s Home Improvement, Wendy’s International, and Sony Electronics. “You only have to look around for five or 10 minutes to find something offensive.”

They make a big deal of the fact that they found six people representing major brands that don’t advertise on MySpace. So what?!? I bet you could easily find six that don’t advertise in Playboy. or even Maxim for that matter. Or Sports Illustrated. Or, or or…

How about all the major brands that DO advertise there? Ironically, some of the companies mentioned above do advertise on MySpace as a result of syndicated ad networks.
– Microsoft (should’ve grabbed a screenshot – can’t seem to get it now, but I did before)
– Sony (Sony/BMG/Columbia artists are all over MySpace)
– Nike
– Panasonic
– Radio Shack
– Sprint
– AT&T
– E-Trade
– Verizon
– Cingular
– Nextel
– Energizer batteries
– Practically every pop/rock music label on the planet

It doesn’t seem that MySpace is having a hard time filling their ad inventory with major brands!

I agree that it’s pretty astounding that all six panelists don’t advertise there. But I think it’s astounding because they actually managed to find six advertising “experts” who feel that way. They’re obviously (see above) not representative of what major brands are actually doing. You want to see what’s really going on, “follow the money”. Just how “wholesome” do you need your cell phone provider to be, anyway?

I have no doubt that there were 200,000+ profiles on MySpace that violated their Terms of Use, which among other things, prohibit any content that:

1. is patently offensive and promotes racism, bigotry, hatred or physical harm of any kind against any group or individual;

4. contains nudity, violence, or offensive subject matter;

MySpace is well within their rights to delete these profiles. In fact, they should have been deleted a long time ago. It should have been no big deal – part of their ongoing business practices – rather than a reaction to advertiser concerns. Then they could have just quietly told advertisers that they were being more aggressive about enforcing their existing policies. Instead, by making a big deal of it, they have prompted negative reaction from users and even from industry analysts.

I don’t expect to see MySpace users leaving in droves (yet), but it just adds to the us-vs.-them mentality that has been growing ever since MySpace was bought by News Corp. And it was totally unnecessary. This shouldn’t have been a big deal – making it one was a big mistake.

Social Networking Tools and Knowledge Management

As usual, Dave Pollard posts a well-thought-out, thorough piece on “Social Networking Tools & Knowledge Management: What You Can Do Now“. This was presented at the KMWorld and Intranets 2005 Conference. It includes an overview what was wrong with the traditional siloed social network model (Friendster, etc.), and what you can do within the context of a large corporation to take advantage of these technologies for better Knowledge Management.

Social Implications of Social Software


In this blog, we typically write about the practical use of social software. This month, I’d like to step back and look at the broader cultural implications of social software. Also, the points below are a draft of the speech I’ll be delivering Friday at the Virtual Handshake conference. (We hope to see you there!)

We define social software in The Virtual Handshake as ‘Web sites and software tools which allow you to discover, extend, manage, enable communication in, and/or leverage your social network.’ We include blogs, social network sites, virtual communities, relationship capital management software, contact management software, instant messaging, and other online business networks. More succinctly, Clay Shirky defines social software as ‘stuff worth spamming.’ The reason it’s worth spamming is that social software is where people live.

Social software is a subset of the broader set of technologies often called "Web 2.0". Traditionally, the Web (1.0) was simple HTML pages. Web 2.0 is a read AND a write medium. Because Internet literacy is now so widespread; because so many people have become comfortable with virtual interactions; and because of the penetration of broadband, the Web has become a social medium. Web 2.0 applications take advantage of that evolution. Quoting danah boyd, "The advances of social software are neither cleanly social nor technological, but a product of both."

We see 10 major cultural implications of the growth in popularity of social software, or more loosely, the fact that more and more of your social interactions are moving online.

I. Implications for Individuals

+ Basic computer skills really matter…and fortunately the next generation is much more technologically skilled than the current generation. It is harder and harder for blue-collar professionals, let alone white-collar professionals, to do their job without basic computer literacy. Think how often people of all socioeconomic backgrounds email one another, participate in web-based training, or apply for a job via an internet portal. Just to get a job in the first place, you need to know how to type and how to learn new software programs reasonably rapidly. The good news: given that 33 percent of online teens share content (artwork, photos, stories and videos) on the Internet, the next generation will have an even higher comfort level with this technology than the current generation working in corporate America. Scott Lichtman pointed out that at least daily access to a networked device – a computer or cell phone with email – is important for full functioning in the modern workplace. The interactive nature of social software means that fast responsiveness is important.

+ Communication skills really matter…but they’re not improving as fast as we would like. Half of all companies take writing into account when making promotion decisions. A poorly-thought-through email (or blog post) can get you fired. And yet, one third of employees in the nation’s blue-chip companies write poorly, and businesses are spending as much as $3.1 billion annually on remedial training. Approximately 1/5 of Americans are functionally illiterate. The job options for people who cannot communicate in writing shrink every day. If our education system does not address this problem, the disenfranchised will become even more disenfranchised. These days, less-than-perfect grammar has (unfortunately) become more acceptable in writing an email, blog or IM. What has become more important is getting an idea across succinctly and compellingly. This requires better training in critical thinking and understanding other people�s viewpoints.

+ Your professional competence will be more and more visible. As a result, the successful will get more successful, and the unsuccessful will have fewer second chances. Potential clients and recruiters are finding it easier to evaluate your visibility and knowledge in your industry, by reviewing your blog or using a biography analysis tool like ZoomInfo. 10% of all online searches are for proper names. David Teten’s securities research firm, Nitron Circle of Experts, benefit from this trend by developing processes to access quickly the virtual profiles of thousands of independent industry experts.

+ Your personal life will also be more and more visible. Potential employers and business partners will correlate your name with photos, perhaps even using technologies like Riya to identify you in photos that someone else took. This is excellent motivation to be careful as to what activities you engage in. If you want to be a club leader of the local branch of the Flat Earth Society, go ahead, but be aware that you may not be hired for a job some day because someone thinks you’re foolish for participating in the Society.

+ People will become more effective and more thoughtful in building their personal networks. Job applicants are already showing off the number of people they’re linked to on LinkedIn, and whom they’re linked to. ("Hire me and I’ll get you in the door at ______.") Who do you link to on your blog? Which people does Visible Path show that you have emailed? The answers impact your professional success. There exists an ongoing, cursory debate about the productivity of online social networks: is it easy to reach new business prospects and partners through multiple degrees of relationship-connections? What does seem to happen is that those people who practice building and strengthening relationships gain momentum and increasing benefits over time. That is, social networking technology is serving as just a tool towards the more sophisticated art of building personal relationships.

II. Implications for Businesses

+ Businesses can’t control the dialogue, but business will attempt to "own the frame", to quote Lee Bryant. Although businesses cannot control what consumers say about their products, at the very least they can make the conversation more visible. For example, you can seed Technorati and tags with some tags for your products, and hope that other people will tag their output similarly. Yo
u can review the entries for your products and services on Wikipedia for accuracy. And you can blog to make sure that your point of view is represented in the blogosphere.

+ The Pro-Am Revolution: more amateurs are pursuing their part-time activities to a very high, even professional standard. One of the multiple factors driving this widely-discussed trend is the ease of connecting with and learning from other serious amateurs online, creating a community of serious amateurs. Companies will learn to leverage their employees’ part-time activities. For example, if your employee is active in the local school board, perhaps she can have more influence to get the zoning changed for your new factory. Also, companies such as Nitron Advisors leverage businesspeoples’ interest in moonlighting.

+ The prosumer is always right. Inferior products are much more visible, and consumers are proactive about publicizing that fact, now that personal publishing has become so easy. For example, some bloggers recently publicized how Kryptonite locks could be opened with a bic pen, and lockpicker Barry Wels showed how you can open a Kensington laptop lock with a toilet paper tube. Kryptonite lost an enormous amount of money because they made the mistake of shipping an inferior product.

+ Companies will ship more often and fix more often. Have you ever wondered why the great majority of Google’s services are still in "beta"? One of the major reasons is that Google has found that they benefit by gathering reams of free online user feedback and incorporating it into their services before they go live with a finished product. They use the online network of the entire Google user community as their extended Quality Assurance team. Customers have been able to provide direct feedback to a vendor for years. Now, what is changing is that customers will form opinions and share them with other customers whether a company wants that or not. A business therefore needs to create a culture, and set expectations with customers, that it will deliver something compelling and improve it based on customer input of all kinds.

+ More and more value will rest in the long tail, defined loosely by Jason Foster as "the realization that the sum of many small markets is worth as much, if not more, than a few large markets." Businesses will figure out ways to make money by providing access to content in the long tail (e.g., Amazon), or by helping people to generate content in the long tail (e.g., Blogger). Chris Anderson has a book coming out about this topic in 2006. These businesses will provide the foundation for customized content and allow the many niche participants to do the actual content creation and word-of-mouth promotion. More and more people are producing content for the long tail and finding relevant content in the long tail by using social software.

These trends open the door for a wide range of new business opportunities. The emergence of the mobile telephone as a standard communication tool has significantly impacted our society (e.g., greater independence for teenagers) and that in turn has opened the door for a wide range of new businesses (e.g., the multi-billion dollar ringtone market). We look forward to seeing what social software does to us all!

(Photo: )

Leveraging the Power of RSS

Earlier this week Steve Rubel of Micro Persuasion detailed some of his best RSS tips and tricks in a post entitled Ten RSS Hacks. Steve’s post shows that RSS offers much more than simply streamlined reading of blogs and breaking news stories.

Although Steve took some of the better tips, I’ll share three of my own

  1. Track job searches using RSSIndeed, SimplyHired, and craigslist provide RSS feeds for keyword and location searches.

  2. Create a custom Google News page and subscribe to its feed – Go to Google News and create customized sections via keywords (you can also remove standard sections). Subscribe to the feed.

  3. Use Findory to create a personalized RSS feedFindory learns from your reading habits. You can subscribe to a feed that is personalized for you once it learns what you like.

Making Money with Social Software

After my post about how to get paid to blog, even without your own blog, I started thinking about other companies that are paying people to use social software, and I realized that there are actually quite a few now that will pay you to:
– provide contact information
– refer people for jobs
– refer business deals
– blog

What I find particularly interesting about this is that in the past, making money online generally meant that you had to sell a product, either your own or someone else’s. Now, people are willing to pay you for your knowledge — what you know and who you know — and you don’t have to be a great salesperson or a marketing genius to make some money at it. You might even be able to make a living at it — maybe not with just one of these opportunities, but certainly by combining them.

Another thing that struck me about these business models is that they’re paying for the value of your knowledge, not your time. All too money online business opportunies (getting paid to read e-mails, take surveys, etc.) will never work out to much more than a menial hourly wage. But these have the potential to do more than that — in fact, some of them actually have an increasing return on your time investment.

Last of all, they don’t cost you anything to get started earning money. There’s no investment other than your time.

No investment, high earnings potential, no selling, no marketing — sounds good to me!

I’ve compiled a list of these on my site (how to really make money online is the single most common question my readers there ask me):

Make Money Online (Without Spending a Dime)

I’m also working on a follow-up story. If you know of any other social software companies that are paying people for referrals, contacts, or other information (not just points or credit towrds a paid subscription), please let me know.

Introductory Post: Blogs vs. Wikis

Blogs and wikis are two specific types of content management systems (CMS). While these two buzz words share many commonalities, there are also a number of very important distinctions between the two. I’ve created a visual to quickly summarize some of the differences.

I encourage you to compare the MSNBC blogs to Wikipedia to see these technologies in action. Please note that what I provide above is simply a framework to think about how blogs and wikis are used.

Questions or thoughts are most welcome.

Monitoring the Conversation

I recently wrote about how the online conversation is real. The basics of that post is that blogging fosters interaction. No surprise, to be a successful blogger, reading, writing, and responding to others within the larger community is an absolute must.

There are a growing number of ways that users can keep track of online conversations. David Teten spoke to one of them in the previous post- PubSub. PubSub is a prospective (forward looking) matching service that provides new information to users as it becomes available. So, for example, if you want news or information on social software, you would create a PubSub subscription with keywords “social software”. You can view a subscription like social software on PubSub or simply by copying the feed they provide into your favorite news aggregator.

Other ways to monitor the conversation include keeping track of “tags” that interest you. Tagging is a growing trend in the social software world and is closely related to “social bookmarking”. I’ll first speak to social bookmarking because it is similar to a word most people are familiar with – bookmarks.

Social bookmarking builds upon collaborative efforts, in that an individual’s bookmarks (or “favorites”) are no longer just their own. Rather, they are shared with the larger community. Unlike storing a bookmark under a particular folder in your browser, social bookmarks are saved online and are not categorized by folders, but are instead “tagged” by keywords. Users (and not computers) select appropriate tags for articles or sites of interest, as they come across them through their surfing of the web.

This post, for example, might be tagged with the word “socialsoftware” on any number of social bookmark sites. The most popular social bookmarking tool to this point is Take a look at the socialsoftware tag or at my social bookmarks. Each tag also has an RSS feed, so that you can keep track of them in your favorite news aggregator (I’ll provide some more info on how to actually do that in my next post).

Tags can help you stay informed and introduce to information you might not have found otherwise. For a more advanced use of tags, take a look at what I am doing with my first blogoposium.

update: a good reference on social bookmarking basics (via Jyri Engeström) by Tony Hammond, Timo Hannay, Ben Lund, and Joanna Scott; and a very academic piece by Clay Shirky entitled Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags (via David Teten’s suggestion)

What is 'CMS' (a Content Management System)?

Historically, the content and design of a website have been inseparable. In more technical terms, that means that the data (‘content’) and the presentation (‘design’) elements have typically been mixed together in one document, that document usually being a web page (such as “index.html” or “about.html”). In order to create and format the content of a page (i.e., use different positioning, font styles, colors, etc.), it was necessary to know HTML mark-up, thus limiting the ability to create a web site to a select few. The role of the webmaster was born.

Software expanded the ability to manage and design websites to a larger number of users yet still demanded a level of technical expertise. Creating and managing content on the web boiled down to two major problems – the ‘architecture’ of a web page and technical aptitude.

[Read more…]

Social Machines

For a great overview of why I’m so excited about social software, a.ka. social machines, see Wade Roush’s article, Social Machines from the MIT Technology Review. The conversation is continued at

As advanced as our PCs and our other information gadgets have grown, we never really learned to love them. We’ve used them all these years only because they have made us more productive. But now that’s changing. When computing devices are always with us, helping us to be the social beings we are, time spent “on the computer” no longer feels like time taken away from real life. And it isn’t: cell phones, laptops, and the Web are rapidly becoming the best tools we have for staying connected to the people and ideas and activities that are important to us. The underlying hardware and software will never become invisible, but they will become less obtrusive, allowing us to focus our attention on the actual information being conveyed. Eventually, living in a world of continuous computing will be like wearing eyeglasses: the rims are always visible, but the wearer forgets she has them on–even though they’re the only things making the world clear.