Building Communities Around Content #TOC

Today kicked off the Tools of Change for Publishing Conference here in NY, and while I wasn’t able to attend, I was following it throughout the day on Twitter (#TOC), particularly via the Tweets of @annmichael, @RonHogan and @thewritermama, the latter of whom practically transcribed what appeared to be the highlight of the day: Building Communities Around Content.

It’s a topic that’s become Priority #1 for many publishers, books and magazines alike, as well as more marketing-savvy writers, and it’s one I have both a personal and professional interest in, too.

Touching on everything from defining one’s community, to determining ROI, to leveraging the natural inclination to form tribes, this session alone was probably worth the cost of admission for most attendees, and it would have been a great opportunity for someone from Portfolio to be standing outside selling copies of Seth Godin’s Tribes!

There were two particularly interesting points raised that piqued my interest enough to retweet, the first of which was right out of Tribes:

@annmichael the social infrastructure of the community is much more important than the technology infrastructure #TOC

@RonHogan #toc what kind of Return On Attention are you offering readers?

It’s all about the people and the content!

Too many publishers (and people) get caught up in the underlying technology, investing hundreds and thousands — and in some cases, hundreds of thousands — of dollars into websites and content management systems and ill-conceived e-media departments, taking the “if you build it, they will come” route that invariably leads to, if not failure, a few years of one-step-forward/two-steps-back development.  Free and low-cost platforms like WordPress, Joomla, vBulletin and Ning almost always make more sense than an expensive custom job, and usually offer much better SEO and social networking functionality.

Technology for the sake of technology also often leads to difficult-to-navigate sites or sites whose primary purpose gets lost underneath all of the unnecessary bells and whistles. (Are you building a community or an ecommerce site? A portal or a blog?) One of the reasons blogs have proven so popular is that they put their primary reason for existence, the content, front and center, and the best blog platforms make it as easy as possible to get that content in front of its potential audience. It’s also why organic communities that developed on free message boards (and prior to that, listservs) often prove so difficult to monetize after the fact.

Technology is merely the tool tribes use to communicate with each other, and that communication took place long before the internet came along.

The second point was one that made me gag when it popped up:

@annmichael Does anyone else think that “Chief Community Officer” is the most anti-social anti-community title you’ve ever heard??? #TOC

This is akin to the Chief Diversity Officer. It’s a token position that usually means you’re completely missing the point. The community mindset needs to be something that’s embraced by everyone in the company, from the CEO to the mailclerk, not pushed off on a single person to manage. A community can (and should) have many leaders, and the strongest communities leverage that sensibility into a collaborative model where everyone has a vested interest in the community’s growth and prosperity.

If your CEO comes out of TOC suggesting appointing a CCO as answer to the community riddle, update your resume and contact your competition before it’s too late!

For more on the session, check out @thewritermama; she totally outdid herself with detailed coverage of and offered up a number of great takeaways, including these favorites:

Experiment: Volunteers did more than those who were paid. (Makes sense, right?) #TOC

The better content you have and the more content, the more members you’ll have. You have to have professional content on there. #TOC

Bring value to the user. Align your goals to the user. They will bring others to you. Not about your business needs. #TOC

ROI is extraordinarily difficult. The vast majority will be lurkers. Have the right goals not unrealistic expectations. #TOC

Looking for momentum: activity, sentiment, growth, impact on sales. #TOC

Customizable interface, personalized content, personalized recs, extensive content selection from all sources… #TOC

Learning about our audience and not just a marketing effort. Mine that community for ideas, demographics, development… #TOC

Return on attention? Social investment. What do they get back? Give them more of that! #TOC

Also, if you haven’t already, get yourself a copy of Tribes and devour it. It’s not a how-to manual, but a rousing call-to-action to stop waiting for someone else to tell you what to do.

UPDATE (2/10/09): Day Two, and I’m particularly enjoying @KatMeyer‘s running commentary:

disagree w/ DG leaving “reading community” out of the business of the publishing ecosystem. think that’s a big reason pub is in trouble #TOC

reader should be at the center of the publishing ecosystem – not website, author or book. #TOC

no change is possible until someone stakes reputation on doing something different to make change happen – it’s about power. #TOC

hell’s yeah! management is not set up to make change happen. Mgrs need to set things up so individuals can make change happen. #TOC

A good friend of mine noted that this is all stuff we were talking about a couple of years ago, and Kat’s last two comments I highlighted are reflective of that. Interestingly, a number of publishers restructured their businesses last year from silos into communities (including my employer), and while it’s an ongoing evolution, the late-adopters and holdouts are risking extinction.

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