Here's another article I posted on Blogging Planet.
Collaboration Requires Contribution
Before your organization decides to enter the blogosphere in order to enhance its network building efforts, it has to answer this important question: What do we have to offer to the communities we want to join/build?
If your answer is only "information about our company and products" then you need to head back to the drawing board.
What are the attributes of community? There are four generally accepted psychological attributes of community source:
McMillan and Chavis (1986) have the most well-regarded and well-researched conceptualization of SOC [Sense of Community]. They define SOC as consisting of the following four characteristics:
- Feelings of membership: Feelings of belonging to, and identifying with, the community;
- Feelings of influence: Feelings of having influence on, and being influenced by, the community;
- Integration and fulfillment of needs: Feelings of being supported by others in the community while also supporting them; and
- Shared emotional connection: Feelings of relationships, shared history, and a “spirit” of community.
The article goes on to state:
Research on SOC in virtual communities has not been as prolific. However, some researchers have reported findings similar to what has been reported in FtF [Face to Face] SOC. They report the existence of:
- Membership, boundaries, belonging, and group symbols (Baym, 1995, 1997; Curtis, 1997; Greer, 2000; Herring, 1999; Kollock & Smith, 1996; Markus, Manville, & Agres, 2000; Phillips, 1996);
- Influence, in terms of enforcing and challenging norms (Baym, 1997; Kollock & Smith, 1996; Markus, 1994a, 1994b; McLaughlin, 1995; Pliskin, 1997);
- Exchange of support among members (Baym, 1995, 1997; Greer, 2000; Preece, 1999; Rheingold, 1993);
- Shared emotional connections among members (Greer, 2000; Preece, 1999; Rheingold, 1993).
"Generalized reciprocity" is one of the keys for building social capital as well. For our purposes in thinking about contribution, it is clear that we are not simply talking about contributing information. Human emotional connections are also important. This is a difficult hurdle for many corporations, as their representatives are so used to thinking in terms of formal, third-person voice when communicating to their audiences. Be it the website, brochures, press releases, canned elevator speeches, etc., all of these formal tools are not tremendously helpful when it comes to participating in a community. So, let's revisit the original question: What do we have to offer to the communities we want to join/build? Here are some general ideas, which clearly will have to be tailored to fit:
- Recognition: One of the most powerful attributes of blogs that enable comments, for example, is that it is very easy to acknowledge that someone has offered an idea. By responding with a follow-on comment or post, you have recognized that person publicly for making a contribution to your space. Even if you only follow up by email, you are still recognizing that they are a person, who has an opinion, which you have responded to. This type of action is so incredibly rare in corporate communications, that it often comes as a total shock. But the simple action of recognition brings you more tightly into the community you want to belong to, and ultimately, to influence.
- Ideas on How to Solve Problems: From tips on how to fine-tune your products to answering questions people might have about using them effectively, contributing ideas and helping to solve problems can generate respect among community members. If your customer service department doesn't have someone dedicated to monitoring blogs and answering questions, you might want to think about asking someone to volunteer to do so. If you don't have a real customer service department, one of your developers or product managers might be the appropriate person to take on this role. By actively contributing to people who are interested in and using your products, you not only seed goodwill, but you may be able to recognize and solve problems before they become big news (i.e., use the community as an early-warning system).
- Support: This ties in closely with Recognition and Solving Problems. But it moves beyond it, in that you should think about Support, not just in terms of helping solve problems, but also in terms of congratulations and emotional support. One of the most powerful attributes of blogs is human connection, that we are communicating with people, not an "audience." Expressing support for someone's endeavor, acknowledging a particularly interesting idea or post, helping by pointing someone to other resources -- all of these things help build connection, and solidify your place in a community of people. Very few blogs are completely exempt from the author's personal enthusiasms and desires, which, even in tightly focused thematic blogs, still leak through. That is what makes a blog such an interesting and powerful tool. As a contributor to a community, you should acknowledge and support these enthusiasms (when appropriate).
- Gratitude: Don't forget to thank people for the contributions they make to you. If someone has spent the time to thoughtfully comment on your blog, if they have shared something particularly valuable, let them know! It is strange how difficult it is for corporations to actually thank people or to produce a positive communication within traditional communications vehicles. For example, you issue a release about a product recall, but not about how your developers with help of the user group, solved a thorny issue. You might have your chairman's letter thank employees in a general way, but it is impossible in such communications to thank a multitude of individuals. With blogs, you can thank people as individuals, right when they do something great. It is much more genuine, and can help break down walls built by cynicism.
- Thoughtful Recommendations/Referrals: Don't hoard information. To gain respect in the blogosphere, one has to share information. One can quickly build a good reputation by providing thoughtful recommendations and referrals to sources of information. Some of this information may even reside on your competitor's websites. By acknowledging that your corporation doesn't have all the answers, you open up the possibility that others can contribute as well, and people love to contribute! Robert Scoble of Microsoft is a perfect example of this practice.
- Honesty: Don't lie. Someone always figures it out and you will lose all credibility, and credibility is the currency of the blogosphere. Err on the side of transparency. That means acknowledge in an easy-to-find way your affiliations, your opinions, your biases. Clearly, you should follow company policy as regards trade secrets, and so on. By giving the community you are trying to belong to the gift of your honesty, you will receive respect in return. Be clear, avoid spin. Treat others with respect, and you will receive respect in return.
- Clarification: Written communications is always susceptible to misunderstandings, particularly informal communications. One of the reasons we communicators spend so much time writing press releases, brochures, datasheets, annual reports and so on, is so that the language is as clear as possible to all readers. This is a rather difficult task! As bloggers, most of us write without editors, and even the best writers among us still make errors. The great thing about blogs is that if someone is confused, either by your blog posts or more formal company documents or communications, they will likely let you know one way or another, and you can quickly move to clarify.
If you want to be considered a thought leader, to help drive an industry forward, it is becoming increasingly important that you become an active player in online communities, probably via the blogosphere. You cannot expect, however, to proclaim yourself "thought leader" and expect others to believe you. It will take time, effort, and contribution. And, as I hope you now understand, by contribution, I mean more than just issuing proclamations or generating content. You have to augment your content with active participation. I hope I have given you some ideas about what form that participation can take.