Community and engagement have been the big conversations this week.
My weekend post, Filtering the web for connections through conversations, struck a chord. The comment string (some 70 plus) was an education in itself. Announcing the Disqus numbers that over 500,000 comments are posted per day on their platform was a big aha for many. A strong nod of affirmation that community really matters.
For communities and commenters, we heard loud and clear that we were not alone. Communities may be isolated on the web but commentors are a mainstream crossover category.
Engag.io’s commenting survey came out at Blog World.
Fred Wilson, Jeff Minch (JLM), William Mougayar and I presented the results. A great discussion, but the survey was less revelatory and more a confirmation of what the Disqus numbers told us. People are talking. A lot. And using conversations to find information, broaden their networks and make purchasing decisions.
Most revealing (and fun) was a Disqus-sponsored roundtable. Fred Wilson introduced the session and Ro Gupta from Disqus was the MC for the room of 50 bloggers, entrepreneurs, VCs and web thinkers. An engaged exercise in group thinking, a wish list of likes and wants about community commenting platforms.
This was obviously a partisan crowd at the tip of the commenting market. The discussion was less about looking for market proof and more about the gap between the needs of the community space and the offerings of the commenting platforms.
And gaps there are.
As powerful as these global conversations are for impacting change and as great as commenting systems like Disqus are in hosting them, comment search on one side and discovery on the other are broken. And badly.
There is a massive online population adding millions of pieces of rich conversational data daily with sophisticated platforms to encourage and organize threaded conversations.
But good luck finding, collating, editing and republishing these libraries of great content. Some bright stars like Kevin Marshall’s gawk.it are just starting to tackle this. Keep your eye on Gawk.it. It’s a garage band today, a potential rock star tomorrow.
Engag.io is breaking future ground, putting you in the middle of your conversations across the fragmented social nets. And touching on something special around conversational discovery with thoughtful tidbits from commenters you follow as discovery ring tones.
But discovery around communities generally is broken. Feels like it is being ignored for the most part by the big commenting platforms.
Following people to conversations to discover context is interesting. But it’s not the game changer.
For huge portals, discovering threads within the post’s conversational string is useful but not that exciting for the mass market of niche communities. Cross community connections is the sharp edge of the spear for the broader conversational market.
People are always searching for new connections. Whether you are in sales, marketing or a developer, your network is never big nor deep enough. The answer is not just blog rolls. Most communities have blogs but a very small percentage of blogs are truly communities.
We don’t need blog search, we need community discovery. This was echoed loud and clear this week from everywhere
The tens of millions of commenters on communities across the web want to wake up every morning and discover new conversations and communities. That’s the definition of breaking news today.
If you are interested in education, nutrition, community design or sports…you don’t want just facts or blog rolls, you want to discover the most dynamic conversations going on in communities that intersect with your interests.
We want to follow our interests where the conversations are happening sorted by the most dynamic and by topic. If you want to discover the thought leaders to engage with, follow the most active conversations.
The problem is of course, you just can’t find these conversations.
Communities are hidden under the fabric of the comments themselves. Actually communities are isolated and very laborious to find.
Imagine this, a better world.
Tomorrow morning after you clean your inbox and check in with your normal communities, you are presented with a list of trending topics by the dynamics of the conversations. The top 50 community conversations across a variety of topics you’ve opted in to follow.
Or better, with thousands of bits of information from your comments, you’ve created a map of your interests and connections. An atomic chart that defines what serendipity means to you and, like a recommendation on Amazon, you get suggestions on cool and interesting conversations that you didn’t even know you were looking for.
We are defining our interest footprint with each comment and gesture we make on Disqus and Word Press, Facebook and Twitter. It’s all there. Discovery both implicit and explicit is possible.
The fact that no one is taking this market need seriously is seriously wacko.
My friends at Disqus will be annoyed with me as I’ve been talking about this for years. @danielha knows that this is my version of tough love. I just want this. So does the market.
Community discovery is a big evolutionary step on the social web. The easier it is, the more connections will happen. The more connections that happen, the more it will drive discovery of communities that you are comfortable participating in. This is a circle of conversational goodness for all involved.
This is the link that tips the scale.
This is also the link that moves commenting platforms from smart plumbing to part of the community fabric itself. Today we thrive on the power of threaded conversations and are annoyed when alerts are broken. It’s a road that we want the potholes fixed but will keep on driving on.
Give us community search. Make it obvious that the more we communicate, the better the network gets and the more it connects us to other conversations. When commenting platforms do this, they are no longer plumbing. They become part of the pulse of the community itself.
Somebody needs to just bring this.
It’s not often that market tells us what they need to do to succeed. This is one of those times.
Conversations are fast becoming my tool for discovering information and connections on the web.
Most every morning, post sorting through emails, I check continuing conversations from the day before, jump onto friends’ blogs and, if lucky, discover interesting comment threads to weigh in on.
This idea that we lean on our networks for information is not new. I’ve blogged on it before before. But the push towards a more conversational and engaged poise as discovery certainly is.
Maybe this realization is driven by the evolution of my information needs, which are less today about searching for facts and more about discovering direction and people.
Or maybe with the majority of the world’s population comfortably online and the Internet fast enough to support real-time social discourse, we no longer need to lean on technology to capitalize on the web’s human potential.
I don’t know…but it’s certainly true that the web has become more and more about people and less about technology and platforms. People are advanced social animals. We talk a lot. About everything.
Socialization is how we learn and work and play. Conversations have become– for me at least–the measure of online value. They replace links, clicks and likes. Beyond a faceless click and a knee jerk social gesture.
I’m not alone.
Ro Gupta from Disqus, my favorite web commenting system, shared some off the cuff data on the state of commenting today.
Ro estimated that people interact with the Disqus platform of over 1 million blogs over a 100 million minutes everyday. On an average day, some 500,000 comments are posted. Figuring a minute or two to write a comment, commenters are spending some 17,000 hours a day posting across the Disqus platform.
This is just Disqus of course. Add Facebook comments, native Word Press, the smaller players and this non-scientific stab at scale speaks to a decent swatch of the social web that is talking and engaging daily.
The idea of a conversational web feels real to me. I use Google for details like what time it is in Kenya or how to change a battery on my camera, but for basically everything else asking my networks and clarifying with conversations is proving more and more the answer.
The time in value out equation is out of whack.
Conversations of course are both chatter and work, informational and personal. A blurry line that will get even larger as more and more join in.
The basic rule of network efficiency and relationships plays here as well. If you want a network or community to know, listen and support you, then you need to put in the time to know them. Lots of time.
The results can be spectacular. With friendships, new customers and great ideas as the offshoot. In fact, a whole new way of doing business and building community starts from this.
But it’s also messy and a time sink. In fact, a variant of ADD seems inherent in the approach itself.
Companies like Engag.io are making strides to ameliorate this. They have a vision to defrag attention, refocus time, and connect people through an engagement bridge. It’s adding efficiencies but also hints at the big gotcha, discovery, where the key to this paradigm lies.
I’m torn whether efficiency is really the answer though.
Once you put people front and center, the dues you pay is time and engagement. The value of these connections and relationships simply may outweigh it all and change the value equation.
Discovery is still more aspirational than reality.
The Disqus numbers comfort me and let me know that I’m not alone.
But they frustrate me more, like a Ray Bradbury sci-fi nightmare, where there are waves of people talking about what interests you, but you just can’t find them.
Something is out of whack.
I tracked my top 20 conversational contacts through engag.io to see where they were hanging out. I was searching to discover a new group of communities to broaden my networks.
The breadth of my friends reach was actually very small. My networks grow more by pulling in others through social gravity to where I am, than discovering new communities to engage with.
Makes you wonder where the 500,00 daily Disqus comments are? In deep community pockets like avc.com just beyond my view or spread like air across the social web?
How many communities of engaged people around niches of interest are? How do I find them efficiently or take the right position for serendipity to happen?
Discovery is the big nut to crack.
Disqus could do it. Engag.io could. Lots of creative minds are circling around this. It is the key to the next iteration of the social if not the conversational web.
Engagement is the new currency of the web but it’s still very scarce.
While most communities are blog-based, very few blogs are communities. This is not semantics.
Community requires leadership but is defined by the people who are engaged not by the personality of the blogger that leads. It’s a dance but the rhythm comes from the community.
The disconnect is that while the value of a community model grows, the number of new communities of substance seems disproportionately small. Or maybe I just haven’t figured out how to find them.
This is a topic with more questions than answers. Please do share your thoughts and where you find engagement and value on the web.
engag.io is conducting a research survey on the State of Online Conversations that closes tomorrow. If you have a few moments, do help out. The survey is here.
I am presenting the results of the survey on a Blog World panel next week in New York with Fred Wilson, Jeffrey Minch and William Mougayar.
Social commerce was premised on the idea that if you have a community of engaged users on a dynamic enough platform, somehow commerce will happen.
That’s the promise inherent in F Commerce and the culprit behind the ill-conceived notion that somehow every social act is measurable as a pipeline for a sale.
Having a business model that works economically for large engaged communities is one thing. Think Facebook and targeted ads. Old school media with deep social hooks. As these numbers from Ad Age show, it certainly works.
Having an environment where goods and services change hands is another thing altogether.
Facebook, with 800+ million connected people, has remarkably little commerce, if any. Funnels of influence and lead flow, brand building and reputation peddling but seemingly transactionless. I keep asking my networks for examples of commerce on Facebook and keep coming up empty.
The why of this is not obvious.
The social twins, community and commerce, should by nature work together. They certainly do in real life on the street level. Shopping is social by design. Malls as a concept do work.
But the logic of replicating what happens in the real world invariably fails on the social web. We need to think beyond the behavior to commerce itself, and whether a store and a discrete location are still a relevant definition of retail.
Facebook imagined that the pedestrian mall existed at the intersection of personal and fan pages on the social graph. This is the old retail crowd formula that location is everything and if you put up a store where there is qualified foot traffic and brand recognition, sales just happen.
Or so was the thinking.
Community designers know innately that you can’t bolt social loops onto commerce sites and expect them to be reborn as community. Most every legacy business and many start-ups have tried with little success.
It’s clear as well that you can’t bolt commerce onto community and expect a marketplace to materialize. The human dynamic that bonds offline around a sense of place and socialization is misapplied. Thinking about online as a virtual mirror of offline never works.
This doesn’t imply that social and transactions, commerce and community are disconnected. Not at all. Just ill-imagined.
We need to move past this narrow idea of social commerce and think of the web as one economy with funnels of community and commerce around niches of interests and intent.
My friend, Mark Essel and I, have long debated the community commerce dilemma. Communities of interest, no matter how dynamic, reject overt commerce as foreign even though off community commerce between members happens frequently.
With communities of interest, the intent is engagement in a many-to-many model. The open mike, town hall idea with handshakes and deals struck in the parking lot. With marketplaces, commerce is the intent, with a one-to-one model, where socialization and referrals happen outside of the community.
Think about the social design aspect of virtual worlds. It was all about place. We moved from place to place like wanderers through a desert, knocking on niche doors. This was community as a virtual world before a social web inhabited by real people.
Facebook, and AOL before it, define themselves as virtual places. As intact platforms. Gesture and engagement, socialization and commerce, referrals and transactions are all-inclusive.
That’s the wrong turn.
The only platform on the web is the web itself. Not Facebook nor even Disqus as the connector.
There are deep communities of engagement and interest like avc.com. Deep marketplaces like Kickstarter. But the commerce around communities happens elsewhere as does the community around marketplaces.
But both happen. Focused intent to engage around discussions or focused intent to buy are facets of the whole, which spread out like threads between our connected lives. Between an online catalog for the Gap and the approval of our friends on what clothes we buy.
This idea has been crystallizing as I’m reading ‘The Intention Economy’ by Doc Searls. The principal theme of the book, underneath imagining a new future, is that the web is about me. And you. And each of us individually on one platform that we all inhabit.
Products like engag.io attempt to put a moving lens on all of our engagements as we move around the web. They follow us, not us them.
The rash of flash popup sales sites like Shoplocket, are tying transactions to shares, inventing Sharing 2.0 as inclusive of commerce.
This points towards an idea that each of us carries a personalized Point of Sale system as a commercial mirror image to our social or community core.
This bridges not just the community and commerce paradigm but the off and online one as well.
When I think of huge brands like Nike with massive fan bases, both on and offline, I would bet that in the near future their connection to their customers will be just one click away from a sale wherever the fan might be. The store will be wherever the fan is and sharing will carry an embedded transaction.
I’ve believed for some time that community existed in the connecting thread between URLs and web places. In the tissue of the web and society itself.
There is truth to that but the dynamics of the web itself as one ‘place’ is more about community and commerce being wherever we happen to be. Individuals as a gyroscope tilting one way or another and carrying our connected social loops with us.
Technologists think about this as an open sourced web. Community designers think about this unfettered individualism and communities without walls.
Same belief. Different words. Both right on.
Gestures are the body language of the web.
The equivalent of the power of a glance. The roll of an eye. The shrug of a shoulder. The accents to talking and the rhythm to our words.
Facebook understood this early. They built a platform that encapsulated gestures as expressions through liking and sharing. Pure utterances of ‘yes’ around objects, mostly photos. Or cheerleading causes.
Brilliant actually. But their promise was bigger.
They understood the power of gestures as a dataset of engagement itself. As a variant of language.
The act of liking across the sweep of your interests was a funnel for personal information. The data fed the implicit social inference engine that personalized your news feed, hand delivered you ads and recommended people you should meet.
I buy into this idea of an implicitly road-mapped future completely– but it’s gone very stale.
Maybe there’s just too much noise but I think the problem goes deeper. Facebook’s taxonomy of gestures were too light and the data too devoid of context to really matter. The brevity of the expression isn’t the issue, it’s the limitation and core inflexibility of the gestures themselves.
The act of being liked today, to me, feels like a generational secret handshake from the past. Facebook is showing cracks and hints of mortality as the gestures themselves are trivialized and outdated.
My friend William Mougayar (@wmougayar), CEO of Engagio wrote a post this week on gestures as the lighter end of the hierarchy of engagement syntax on the web. It’s a great read. He sees the Facebook Like and a 1000-comment thread as the opposite ends of the engagement scale.
This is true certainly, but what’s true today for gestures may well be different tomorrow. Gestures as the body language of the social web are being reinvented as a key part of language with import, not just exclamations of core emotions.
Our canvas of gestures today, mostly Likes, thumbs up and emoticons, as cute as they are, are just too simple for the complexity of emotions and thoughts we need to express. New gestures are needed.
At a basic level, Disqus’s new Beta software is a step in this direction. The removal of ‘likes’, replacing them with ‘voting up’ comments within a conversation string, addresses this head on. It brings context to the gesture and makes the individual utterance part of a community action to vote rather than simply a back slap. It seems to be working.
Broader, more strategic strokes are looming in at least three areas.
1. Sharing 2.0
Mark Slater, CEO of Getabl talks about ‘Sharing 1.0” as the commoditizing of sharing as a gesture. When it becomes ubiquitous and simply a reflex, it is trivialized. Both less viral and less data viable. This is reality today.
My sense is that Sharing 2.0, will roll action and transactions into shares and links. Gestures, like shared links, will become social objects with transactions embedded. This could be the missing (transactional) link to the idea of social commerce.
It’s easy to imagine a shared commercial object, like an article of clothing from an apparel brand, being transactable wherever it is clicked. A shared gesture as commercial object redefining the idea of what channel means for retail. The store will simply be wherever the object is shared.
2. Gestures as shorthand for a language of engagement
Limited input devices, like mobile, will no longer restrict either the richness of the data captured or the value of the output.
I believe that within a few years, a natural Morse code will surface as a mobile syntax of the future. Just because the input is micro-sized doesn’t mean the conversation or engagement should be lessened.
The idea of big data pools driving implicitly driven lifestyles from a population using mobile devices feels imaginable and concrete.
3. Horizontal networks will stop masquerading as contextual communities
The old truism in marketing is that whenever you go from a general to a specific you usually fail. Those of us who have engineered brand and product line extensions know this to be true.
The dearth of context on the horizontal social graph, the thinness of gesturing as a language and the transactionless nature of Facebook specifically, have pushed the emergence of niche communities of interests and marketplaces like Etsy, Ravelry, even Wattpad. More are coming.
My belief is that as mobile-base gestures are devised, communities that are mobile first, that exist wherever you are will begin to develop.
This is all about technology catching up with human behavior.
In real life, gestures are key to communications.
Great communicators, sales people and performers are as much artists of presentation as of content. Watching a movie without sound or people on the street in a different country tells this story well.
The crux of this stems from the reality that the web is about people. Not people online in some virtual world. Just people with extended behaviors from everyday life.
The more the on and offline borders blur, the more true this becomes. And the more there is a pent up need for companies and apps to crack the gesturing code.
This is not an idea in search of a market. I think very much a market in need of an means of expression.
When all channels were brick and mortar, all communications print and even electronic media had a cardboard package, there was this marketing thing called a ‘launch’.
I spent two years of my early career on the road doing launches–over and over, city by city, by country by channel rolling out tech and computer game products across the globe.
I had online communities of enthusiasts and developers who fed a hybrid model, but offline distribution was king and set the rules and schedules.
This was the rolling ‘big bang’ theory of marketing in its heyday.
Companies today still fabricate availability, date and time scarcity models. And if you sell flowers, Valentine’s Day is still your season for roses. But for the most part, the ties to the physical channel are gone.
Consumer status quo today is all about democratized distribution and customer choice. Online is the new norm and niche marketplaces are steadily becoming ubiquitous.
Yet somehow this idea of a ‘formal launch’ trapped in time and space has a resiliency against change. It’s a misunderstood idea misapplied to today’s market realities.
Every day, smart innovative companies with amazing social pedigree or game changing products ‘launch’. They formally come out of Beta and push frantically for coverage in the handful of tech publications. They may have a product but they are missing the point mostly. It’s not just about the product. It never really has been.
Something is out of whack and most of the sense is getting lost.
My takeaway from hundreds of launches, and why I still love orchestrating them, is that they are a focused, collaborative effort between sales, marketing and product . Integrated at their core. It’s a runway for market discovery.
This was true whether the event was a folding table at the Kansas City Marriot or two double-trailers full of booth paraphernalia rolling across the country from one convention hall to the next.
Sales, marketing, distribution and product were all part of a selling effort to build brand, communicate value and pound a hole in the din of the convention hall to get heard.
And online today, with a serious consumer attention deficit syndrome running unchecked and the one-click power of buying anything most everywhere, this integration and iteration is more critical than ever.
But somehow the popular (and quite brilliant) idea of a minimum viable product usually stops at product alone. Collaboration with marketing, sales and even customers is often a second thought. Launch is a baton handoff from product to market building with seemingly little foresight.
It just doesn’t work that way.
Real world, brick and mortar analogs of doing this right.
This idea of ‘always at launch’ is not a hothouse, online, techy fabrication. I keep running into gyms, restaurants and even food trucks that seem to get this idea of iterative product and community development innately.
A friend of mine opened up a new restaurant a few years ago. I got to watch this non-tech, brick and mortar example of always at launch up close and it exemplified brilliantly to me the dna of this idea.
The restaurant rolled out slowly to enthusiast groups. The first were closed, friends and family. Free meals. Limited choices. Restricted serving times. The goal was to iterate and build a community base of customers and get the menu and service right. Then expand the groups to an ever-larger public over time and test new menu assumptions.
Social media loops were opened up and expanded naturally as the fan base grew. The menu was finalized and data gathered to figure out the margin nits of whether lower mark ups on wines lists drew more revenue per plate with less turns. Lots of market data gathered and tested out a little at a time. There wasn’t so much a formula to follow but a trend to discover.
And oh…the restaurant while open and a huge success is still not officially launched.
Or rather, it is still at launch every day, changing, getting more focused and better with each iteration.
What struck me was that in the brick and mortar world it was doing such a great job of iterating product, building community groups and exemplifying the reality that great food is in the mind of the customer not just the pots of the cook.
This is a telling example of ‘always at launch’ and relevant whether you are selling ribs on the corner or job referrals or artisanal wares online.
Why does this matter to web-based businesses?
The greatest scarcity on the web is customer attention. It’s without a doubt the new currency as it is in short demand.
Success is always just a click away and failure to engage, a click to leave. You have a second to capture that attention and create value and lay the seed for customer belief and eventual loyalty.
The idea of always at launch today needs to start with this respect for the scarcity of consumer’s attention. And the understanding that getting traffic is a lot easier than getting engagement and usage. In fact, traffic with a bounce doesn’t’ matter at all.
A focused complete response to a customer’s interest is as germane to a startup slowly moving out to the public from a base of loyal enthusiasms, as to a campaign for larger companies leveraging their existing customer base.
What works for me?
I’m asked everyday to try new products and participate early in product tests. I’m a tough Beta guy as my attention span and tolerance for boring are both very low.
Certain general ideas though are just ‘Must Haves’ for me and generally, I think, for any mass market.
Launch Must Haves:
1. Make every day, launch day, for every new person who hits your site.
Engagement is an earned vote of confidence at that moment. Whenever I show up I want it to be special, interesting and all about me.
2. Connect your customers to each other, not just the company, as key to building community.
Your job is to connect me to likeminded others. Opening up a site publically until you have the kernel of a community is a certain recipe for a very slow climb, if not failure. In restaurants that may be friends and family. Online the idea still holds.
There’s nothing cosy about an empty room.
3. Inspire me.
Sell me on your promise and the excitement of the future. Your product is early and incomplete. It’s a mini version of your big vision. Get me to see and feel it.
Don’t ask me what I want. Show me what makes a difference.
4. Be there and lead.
If there is no new content. No connections. Not an intuitive next step for me. Or a blog post with an active comment stream that hasn’t been updated in a week, ask yourself, “Why should I be there?”
If you can’t answer that you don’t deserve my attention.
5. Understand why I should care and why I should share with my friends?
You don’t ask the customer what they want. You learn by making the leap, providing something and interpreting their response. You need to sell value. That’s what companies do at launch and every day onward. I posted on this a while back: “Why care? Why share?”.
This is not easy.
It’s part aspirational, part reality.
From a customer view, if you were the customer, there’s no argument. This is what they need. If you want their time, make it so.
From a company view, it means a refusal to accept putting outmoded and misconstrued modes of market building for a new market and new consumer behaviors. And an insistence that you put yourself in your customer’s shoes and understand their point of view, every day.
Everybody loves the idea of big bang. Of your logo on seat cushions at the Super Bowl. Or the wacko idea that somehow you just do this one thing and it all falls into place and starts a chain of events that ends up in success.
It’s just not so. We earn our customer’s attention, one engagement at a time.