Community—the soul of the machine

Community as a market strategy, as a channel and in some cases a business model, is the personal bias of my career.

It’s my way of understanding the world.

Truthfully, it’s always been somewhat ineffable and perplexingly inchoate. You can arrange the pieces in perfect order with invariably powerful results when it works, but it is as well, always unpredictable.

This is changing.

Community as an entity is becoming on one hand more critical for commerce, on the other, more deterministic, and more tangibly coupled to the networks they spring from.

And while the networks that wire our world become fewer, more powerful and data smart, community where human touch and collective engagement gather, becomes more critical as an after effect.

Networks today while some lament their impact on privacy and their monopolistic power, are the necessary counterpoints, in fact the subset of each community we participate in.

The dynamic between the networks we frequent and the communities we engage with define in many ways who we are as people and inevitably, whether the companies we work for and the causes we hold dear are successful.

It’s in this pairing of networks and communities where I start my work, with a handful of basic truths that regardless of the uniqueness of the community, invariably hold true.

The more I adhere to these ideas as starting points, invariably the better the results.

Networks are the strings that tie our world together, but communities are what gives them meaning.

Networks are a common factor, while horizontal communities are by definition unique and invariably-vertically focused. Maybe it’s a cause or a belief or a shared obsession, but communities are formed around common interest, not around friendships or place.

Saying that a network has an identity is a stretch; having a community without one is neigh impossible.

Network infrastructure is where technology shows itself at its best, but communities are where emotion and empathy, self organization, action and engagement happen.

Networks get continually smarter but this intelligence at its core is about driving the human connections to aggregate behaviors and beliefs than can form communities where the real work gets done.

The smarter the networks, the more extensive connections can surface. The more possibilities that in the end game communities can be formed.

Networks are the tangible things we can leverage, communities are the aspirational goals we set for them when they capture the imagination of a market.

The world’s population is already platformed on the social nets. The objective is discovering the hooks to surface and tie people together from this massive strata of humanity.

When we scratch this out on whiteboards and intersperse all these elements, leadership is something that surfaces as the key focus to channel enthusiasm into action, beliefs into organizations based on a collective drive. Discover the leaders and the language they use to tell their stories and you have a strong place to start.

Neither networks nor communities are tied to place as much as they are grounded in time.

Where people are matters of course and we need to understand the dynamics of speaking to people where they are, platform by platform.

But community, the aggregate of connection around a singular topic or belief, happens cross them all.

In time, not really in a place.

In some instances (though more rarely), communities exist at an address like your URl. On a bar stool at your neighborhood wine bar, but more and more, community is less and less like a club, more and more like an impromptu gathering regardless of location.

Platforming communities may indeed be a myth.

Community simply happens. Often in spite of the poverty of the infrastructure.

I want to believe in a platform that will enable every brand to manage its own community but I simply can’t discover it nor for all my attempts. Can’t seem to build it either. Trust me I’ve tried.

We certainly use vertical single-function solutions like Kickstarter to transact around a common community goal, but the community is not in one place, it is spread out across the web.

It lives everywhere but there.

This is a perfect wave.

Sometimes things just stack up and point to a new future.

Usually the pendulum swings in art, culture and technology, with emphasis on one extreme over another. One movement in reaction historically to what preceded it.

I believe that we are seeing a merging of opposites to a common goal.

It’s not data collection that matters, its interpretation. It’s not networks with increasing strong AI that matters, its where the smarts of the networks ends up coalescing around the human connections of the people in community groups.

A digital world driving an analog value.

There are few times where the science of data collection is at one with the needs of human expression.

It is happening right now.

Solving local connections through global solutions

Ever since my return from Europe, I’ve been musing on whether we can only solve our real-time, local information needs through global platforms at scale.

Whether local—that space outside our doorsteps—is more effectively targeted from a top-down global view than a unique bottoms-up local one?

And whether is it really possible for anyone but the largest platform players to truly accomplish this?

This came from being in a different place every day when I traveled, navigating by phone as I wandered about, in and out of WiFi spots.

The truth is that I’ve been a passionate proponent of ground up, local solutions as the key to discovery and engagement for as long as I’ve been building communities

I’m seriously questioning my prejudices after this trip.

Realizing that the idea of a global local is not a phrase, but reality.

I loaded up my phone pre the trip with local apps. Not one of them was opened.

Platforms got used constantly.

Gmaps solved navigation. Uber worked as perfectly in the middle of the night in Porto as it does in LA. Sharing was Instagram and Facebook. Calls were WhatsApp, Skype and FaceTime audio.

The net of this is that how we define local for certain, and possibly community, has shifted.

Local is no longer a secret ensconced in the cobblestones outside a quiet corner cafe, only unlockable through friendly strangers at the bar or a savvy concierge.

Local–wherever it may be—exists under our feet but is informed by the aggregate of our extended networks, parsed by the inclinations of friends and driven by the data that smart networks surface on demand

Case in point–I wanted to know the very best local natural wine bars in Paris, accessible by subway, great to go to by myself.

I simply asked–and the answers came back.

Some from friends, many from their network connections, and invariably with personal intros to proprietors or people behind the bar. Discovery was personalized to me in most every case.

Certainly the interfaces delivering this information are crude at best, but the smarts of these large platforms to surface community on demand is the secret sauce that only networks at scale seem to be able to provide.

You have to ask what is the relationship between these platforms and the communities that provide the information.

Is it only our tech or art communities that can truly guide us to local solutions? Do we need massive verticals to make this happen?

I’m doubting this.

We need experts of course, but more, we need reach and connections. We need platforms to insure that our questions get to the right people with the answers at the right time.

Someday—possibly—someone will discover the key to platforming community as an infrastructure.

But in actuality community simply happens at a flash around points of interest built on the core human drive to share what we know, what we care about.

A year ago on this blog, a commentor stated that I get away without the need for tools and vertical apps because my networks are so well developed. Per him, I’m an exception not the rule.

Not sure this is true any longer.

That one-to-one-to-one connections of the early days of Facebook are not the strength of the platform. In fact, I bet the phrase ‘social nets’ looses ‘social’ pretty soon.

What makes these platforms at scale work is the ability to surface memes, the innate data integrity to let questions drive aggregate communities of interest around an idea. Communities that are by definition, as broad as the interest of the topic itself, not the popularity of who asks the question.

As users, this is all goodness.

We trade our personal info and our privacy, we tolerate the platforms media-based business models, and we get a global, connected and responsive platform in return. One of true reach and personal empowerment.

As entrepreneurs and market builders, my thoughts are more nuanced.

How can we build brands that stand above the networks we live on? How can we build populations of users for local services when the idea of place is no longer lodged in the coordinates of the place itself?

Can the blockchain promise of decentralization of networks, disrupt this reality?  Possibly splintering it to create near-time opportunities for new community structures that are viable at smaller scale?

And, the most telling to me, whether what we do wherever we are is in many ways more germane to the identity of a place rather than the uniqueness of where it is.

That the idea of local, is what we bring to wherever we, is based on the sum total of our networks definition of it.

What a great trip this truly was.

Thinking beyond supply and demand

The more complex and horizontal markets become, the more capturing a core consumer impulse seems a prerequisite to success.

I can’t get away from this thought.

And I can’t stop wondering whether our traditional way of viewing supply and demand as market determinants really matters any longer.

This hit home in a series of conversations with entrepreneurs after my Community as the marketplace post.

Really top notch entrepreneurs who drew passionate pictures of a world populated by communities that were using their marketplace as core to how they lived their lives.

Their decks made it easy to imagine that magical market moment when network effects took hold and it just all worked for them. Where the synergy between buyer and seller got better the more of them there were.

But here’s the rub.

There is no market we can’t justify by its size, and without much imagination visualize a strong demand.

Supply, especially in a consumer marketplace model, is in most every instance I can imagine over abundant.

Is there really a question of whether there are enough people who want home delivery of groceries?

Or have stuff in their basement that they don’t know how to sell easily? Or pine for companionship? Or want healthier food? Or vacations that are built around a common good?

Since Uber made the impossible crowd logistics possible, I can’t think of a single paradigm where aggregating supply is a barrier to entry.

On the flip side, the question of how big is the addressable market is simply less relevant as niches become less distinct, as markets themselves move horizontally cross demographic and groupings.

I am not saying the core economics of supply and demand have vanished certainly.

And I’m very much aware that on the vertical b2b side, there are markets for goods  like non-gmo wheat, or (so strangely) watermelons grown on their own root stocks not pumpkin stalks. Where scarcity on the supply side is real and key.

But on the consumer front, it seems marginalized.

Two asides that add some color to this.

My buddy Jeff Carter’s post on Due Diligence for investments is a list of all the right stuff—market size, frictionless supply chain, understanding competition, the quality of the founders. The usual suspects.

But in the end of the checklist, it’s simply his gut that tips the scale to say yes to investments.

In Semil Shaw’s exceptional post this week, where he carefully constructs an investment ecosystem for his new fund yet at the end acknowledges that in actuality he is looking for undiscovered sources of kinetic energy in segments and solutions.

Something that translates to what just feels right. Has the right ‘kinetic’ energy.

There’s a meme bubbling up here.

Experienced people cross their T’s and plot out their checklists certainly but we must acknowledge two things:

-That the market has dramatically changed and embrace that with abandon.

-That at the end of it all, what changes the world the most defies logic and is driven by simple and core consumer reflexes.

In my corner of the marketing world, I’m bumping into this for the third time in as many weeks in my posts.

First, that the corralling of complexity on the data side mirrors a drive for emotional clarity and connection on the other. Post here.

Second, that communities as an emotional construct are really the structure of our markets today, moving horizontally, not vertically, connecting to pieces of peoples core beliefs and emotions. Post here.

And today’s post echoing both ideas.

That our nets are not at all flat but they are certainly horizontal and that all the possibilities of supply and demand already exist. That understanding market size is a checklist step but nary more than that.

And that today, where by dint of human habit and the real estate restrictions of our phones front screen, it is getting so much more challenging to connect with consumer intent.

Damn near impossible to crack a handhold in the collective want of a large enough population of people and have it stick.

And that on the other, when you do, it can be massively explosive as it just touches a nerve horizontally cross the consumer world.

Maybe this is simply a shifting of gravity in a marketing sense.

A reinterpretation and refocusing of what engagement means. And burying the idea of guiding ourselves by approximated scales of sentiment.

Post a dinner party at my place recently I watched the guests milling about, finishing their drinks and waiting for their Uber rides to show up before heading down 25 floors to the street and winter cold.

Impulse reaction pure and simple

Need something, tap and move on. The very pin prick top of a massive network of logistics that is simply a twitch of a finger to hail your ride.

With that you have the world. Without that not a thing.

When I look at projects I think of this as my market lens. My behavioral litmus test.

Can Instacart become that core shopping reflex? Can any one of  hundred local delivery services replace the extension of Uber cross the front screen of our phones?

I think we are iterating towards a new definition of personal market dynamics and marketing itself which has lagged far behind.

We see it in out daily lives and the intersection with our mobile habits. Actions that are just reflexes connecting our thoughts to our phones as key to navigating and personalizing our world.

This also determines in many ways how long a play list of actions can really exist on the front screens of our phones and in our conscious thoughts. And limits what can influence us to go here rather than there, do this or something else.

The more choices, the more easy options, the more complex the solutions become to capitalize on a limited number of consumer reflexes.

Starting from that impulse back, not from measurements and approximation forward, is where I think marketing is going and what the market demands.

A blank slate of opportunity just waiting. Unplumbed for the most part.

Discovering and platforming these impulses is I think marketing’s next frontier.

Community as the marketplace

Sometimes there are cultural shifts that we experience long before we become aware of their impact on how we live and work.

We wake up and realize that we are using old world tools and ideas for a vastly different new world order.

This is happening today where the idea of community meets the reality of the marketplace.

In the 90s, Geoffrey Moore nailed community and the power of interest groups as the power play of an early-wired world

His idea that you can leverage an early adopter interest group as a sling shot leap into the mass market was brilliant.

Geoff’s vision of the chasm, and Seth Godin’s idea of tribes on hilltops pounding on drums to send signals were connected.

Seth’s idea came later and went further but both defined an Alice’s Restaurant sort of market spread for both the building of brands and the anchoring of commerce around it.

The web as the amplifier and aggregator of groups with connecting individuals as their market momentum was the big aha.

That was then though and this is now.

There is a reason that marketing has fallen into such disrepair and lack of respect.

We’ve focused on approximation and virtual scales of sentiment rather than the tangible and powerful result of social grouping—community–and how that drives change in the markets that form naturally around it.

We’ve ignored the key change in how community functions in a world that is both different in how we navigate it and different in the core of our behaviors.

Today, there are no more chasms.

There are no more hilltops. No individual nodes and no gated communities.

There are only atomic connections that move horizontally across the threads of the world on social nets and in mobile communities.

The more you look to focus them narrowly the more you will miss the thread.

This dawned on me a few years ago that the communities on Kickstarter where not on their site but everywhere cross the web.

Somehow the emotional clarity of a creative project spread out across the nets and tied together people in a loose chain of support aggregated in the transaction.

The project was not the community, the emotional clarity of the idea was the connector.

Community was not a layer nor an entity nor exclusive.

Brand, while born out of belief, was less an idea and more of an emotion.

And marketing needed to be redefined as a language that connects what we believe in naturally to a market that supports it.

I don’t know what the operational manual for a world where community is the  definition of a market is going to look like.

We are in many ways living it before we understand it.

What I do know is that we are different today as people then we were. The markets are different along with us.

If you are an entrepreneur, I can guarantee that your company is already firmly in a community and in market from day one.

You need to start right there.

If you think your community is simply the enthusiasts that you’ve gathered you are thinking too narrowly.  That was the reality in the 90s.

You are missing community in a networked world as inclusive and expansive by definition, horizontal from the beliefs that make it real.

You need to discard the idea that there is a place where community ends and market begins. That you need to approximate and measure community in order to leverage it to a market.

You can’t imagine your market into place certainly.

I’m going to get asked: Is there a new list of tactics we need to implement?

The wrong question to ask first.

You need to step back.

You need to imagine when Kickstarter realized that by the simple act of empowering people to support things that inspired them, they had touched a primal need whose community was as broad as the world.

When Airbnb or Sound Cloud realized that at their most elemental value they touched a community of common interests that opened a market that was as big as the global market itself.

Take a huge whiteboard.

Gather your team and your advisors around you. Fill the entire thing then wipe it clean.

Find the one phrase. Isolate the one emotion, the one core truth that makes you special and unstoppable.

Makes you essential to the market size you imagine.

Understand that community as marketplace is both the message and the medium in today’s world.

Companies succeed on execution but not without that core.

Start there.


‘The consumer internet is turning upside down’

I can’t shake this phase.

It came from my friend David Semeria in a comment on avc this past weekend.

On one level it’s something that has been brewing for a while and self-evident as we watch the jostling and ongoing category spread of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Uber.

On the other, it’s an aha to startups and potential game changer raising questions about how we build companies and market our innovations.

The idea is powerful in its simplicity.

We think of innovations bubbling up from the bottom.

The very promise of the web itself is about giving voice to the authentic, empowering the few and the small to change the world for the many and reshufle the global status quo.

Today we have a culture of bottoms up innovation, an economics of disruption that is spewing a cross-generation of quite brilliant entrepreneurs. Out of incubators and accelerators. Out of seed funds. Out of personal capital.

Out of a societal belief that disruption is a business model and entrepreneurship a job description.

David’s phrase speaks to this turned on its head, to where the innovations are not coming bottom up, but top down. Not from the mass of small innovators but from the advantages of the platform incumbents. The core polarity of innovation shifting its axis.

The big platforms have a soft lock on our behaviors, a hard lock on our data and as creatures of habit, a solid spot in the premium brand positions on our phones.

Trickle down innovation meeting attention deficit and market complacency on the consumer side.

People in general don’t appear to be less curious, they do appear to have a higher threshold to change.

Download numbers on apps stays high, usage and replacing the incumbents on the first and second screens on our phones, has flattened.

How often do you change your messaging, commerce, social, transportation, financial and entertainment apps on the first few screens on your phone? Mine are locked in.

The idea of platform creep or in marketing terms, leveraging your brand cross category, is of course nothing new.

What is happening today though is different as it is about data ownership as key to brand dominance. About the breadth of these brands to leverage the depth of their data sets cross the pieces of our lives that matter the most to us.

If this is idea is true (and I think it is), if the innovation pipeline has shifted its access point and the consumer their propensity to adopt new brands, we are definitely in a brand new world. Literally.

And it raises a bunch of questions.

Will it stifle innovation? It will most certainly change the odds.

Can interesting products like Door Dash really take a chunk of the on demand local delivery market when there is Uber Rush?

Can they get us to install another app tied to our credit card when everyone already has Uber installed? Can they be that much better to give them a spot on our front screen in transportation row?

How does this dynamic change the core promise of the web that it is indeed possible for an individual to change the world?

I’m just not sure.

No one is too big to fail and the market is the greatest democratiser.

We all know that human behavior invariably proves spreadsheet logic wrong. Why Amazon is failing for the third time to own the $20B direct to consumer wine market or Google invariably swallowing its foot from G+ to G TV on anything consumer oriented are cases in point.

Truth be told though while my gut knew that this was happening I hadn’t thought about it in these terms. I look at analytics all the time see downloads without requisite engagement, engagement without transactions and sweat changes to test the why of it.

I now have a new viewpoint. I was ignorant as David states (and I paraphrase) that in AI driven models more data trumps a better algorithm. I didn’t have the language to understand the entrepreneurial disadvantage.

Take a look at the thread and the discussion. It’s worth it.

Share with me whether this is impacting how you are configuring your model today.

And mostly, as you iterate your brand forward how to play in a world where the odds are stacked against you.

That’s the most important piece to wrap our marketing heads around.