Crammed into a recent short volume by Richard Millington titled The Indispensable Community is insight from 100-plus interviews. It is a fast read, told not just through facts, but also memorable stories.
It tracks the rise and fall of a range of online communities, and sets out actionable frameworks that you can pick up and run with.
Some of the perhaps counterintuitive insights are:
- You’re probably measuring your communities in all the wrong ways.
- Communities can be great, but they may not be the right tool.
- Yes, there is a case for killing off communities rather than just letting them linger.
Because defunct (or dysfunctional) communities detract from your organization’s brand.
That said, ultimately the book is about building things up rather than tearing them down. Practical ideas that can help you build brand value—and get buy-in in the boardroom. And while that is not an easy endeavor, it is easier to learn from others than to make all the mistakes yourself.
The author’s key argument is that “Indispensable communities—the kind both organizations and their members would struggle to live without—don’t just appear through serendipitous luck. They are cultivated through a deliberate set of choices, a big vision, and a huge amount of persistence.”
Why this, why now?
My interest in this topic goes back to the days when I was one of the many people who found solutions to a range of technical challenges on various Usenet groups. That platform was first thought up in 1979, almost 40 years ago, and survived well into the ‘90s. It was eventually superseded, and while Millington draws on more recent communities, the conclusions he draws appear to be timeless:
“The real value of a community isn’t what tiny percentage of members contribute, it’s what the majority of the members learn. It’s one thing for members to get a solution to a problem. It’s another thing to have hundreds of others also benefit from that solution.”
Millington goes on to suggests that good communities “require mental strength to not settle for an appearance of activity, but to push members to meaningful contributions.”
A core organizing idea is that a lack of clarity on what makes a community indispensable makes it vulnerable. Indeed, that is the Achilles’ heel. If the community activities don’t align with the strategy of the long-term vision of the organization, then it is likely to be lots of work for little return.
Through sharing the stories of real-life community managers, the author captures how some have turned what is often considered a tactical effort into one that is aligned to (and delivering on) organizational strategy.
He calls it the purist versus the realist: “Building an indispensable community requires a change in mindset from ‘hands off my community’ purist to a ‘what would you like to see from the community’’realist.”
So how might you go about achieving this? Clarity of intent is the first hurdle, and once that has been established through deep involvement of the relevant stakeholders. “The secret,” Millington writes, “isn’t to ask members for less, but to ask members for more. It’s to get members to make their best possible contribution to the community.”
As opposed to, say, throwing cash at technology. “Perhaps the great mistake for brand communities in the past decade,” he writes, “has been a whopping over-investment in technology and underinvestment in the people to manage the community.”
So, if you’ve put your hopes on algorithms, games and gamification, you might be in for disappointment.
Indeed, as the kernel of a good community is powered by goodwill, curiosity—and generosity—Millington makes a strong case for focusing the bulk of the investment on the talent at the center of the effort: the community manager. And making sure they’re a good fit, and well-resourced: “The success of every brand community hinges upon how well a community manager can operate at the one-to-one level…. Can they make members feel something that matters?”
One more time, with feeling
Which brings to mind Stacy Horn, who I first heard about through a talk by another author, Claire L Evans. Here’s a section from the transcript kindly provided by the organizers of that presentation—where she talks about one of the pioneers in community management:
“She was a telecommunications analyst at Mobile Oil, the gas company, in the ’80s. She was obsessed with the early internet, as a lot of people were. She would always dial into this bulletin board system on the West Coast called The Well. Is anyone here familiar with The Well? It’s kind of an iconic Internet thing. OK. Yes.”
OK, so the ‘80s seems like a long time ago—but it turns out, maybe it wasn’t:
“In those days, they didn’t call that social media. They called it computer-mediated communication. It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it—CMC. Stacy was really into CMC, and she thought that it would really work well in her workplace, so she went to her boss, and she tried to pitch this idea that Mobile Oil should have a CMC system, that people working in satellite offices could stay on the same page and communicate more easily if they could do so in real time via their computers.
“She was in this boardroom. She told me this story. She was in this boardroom surrounded by men, and they all looked at her like she was insane because this is, like, 1987. They were all like, ‘You’re nuts. No one is going to want to do this.’”
What did Stacy do next? She left the company and set up a community—and it turned out people very much wanted to take part. And what was the secret ingredient? The same as identified by Millington: one-to-one work by people who made members feel something that matters. An effort that then had a self-reinforcing ripple effect.
As Yogi Berra supposedly said, “it is déjà vu all over again.” And that’s exactly the reason why you should pick up a copy of The Indispensable Community. And while you’re at it, a copy of Claire L Evans’s Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet. Between those two volumes, you’ll have the essential advice you need on how you can ensure your community is both diverse and welcoming. Timeless advice in an age of algorithms.
Because you, too, can help build communities that are indispensable. Communities that matter.
And it is a lot cheaper to learn from others than to make all the mistakes yourself. Because that too can be a sort of déjà vu. But a very different kind.
[First published in Communication World]