Update: Thanks to George for correcting one of the comments!
Despite being really busy with some very cool projects (that I’ll talk about later) I managed to swing by Mesh ’08 for the afternoon and caught some of their excellent presentations. Here are some notes from the Building Communities Panel.
Note: These are not transcripts, I just followed the flow of the conversation and tried to pick out people’s ideas.
Communities are powerful things, and online communities that form around a company, product or service can use their power in a positive or a negative way. How do online communities form, and what can companies do to try and ensure that their effects are mainly positive? Is it possible to build or create a community, or do they emerge organically and resist cultivation? What are some of the successful strategies companies have used? Join a discussion with George Tsiolis of Agoracom, an online investment community for small cap companies, Derek Szeto of RedFlagDeals, ‘Canada’s Bargain Hunting Community’, and Christopher Jackson of Epitome Pictures, which runs an online community for fans of the TV show Degrassi – The Next Generation, moderated by Jen Evans.
On Moderating Community Content:
Jen Evans: [to George] How would you say that Agora com had escaped the “tyranny of the vocal?”
George: Two tier. First we understood that in the short term you have to allow all of that to happen to get the benefit of page views and selling ads. But in the long term you’re running into diminishing return because the end user is becoming unhappy. Since you have a limited amount of time to interact with a community, and you don’t want to do that. We also got a way from the ad model by building a community for business instead of you guys, the end user. But the way we’re able to provide the great content is that we have 90 communities who pay us to host micro communities.
Jen: In terms of how you attract that niche audience, how did you attract the right people from the outset?
George: What we did at the outset, was we built a community that was a better model and then we reached out to weaker competitiors and we poached the best members. We told them we would give them a better community, without spam and filters, and hopefully they’ll tell all their followers to follow them. You attract one person they bring a hundred people with them. Business is business and community is community.
Jen: It’s the law of attraction, if you get the right mix of content and community the right people will come.
Derek, how did you deal with the governance issue?
Derek: We use community moderator, we use really active members of community who have a consistent view with what we try to do, and we’re really open, we like accepting feedback from anyone who has an opinion, so we can spot the issues that are bubbling up and we catch them before they explode. They’re part of the community. They don’t get paid, but we’ll give them a Christmas gift. If there’s too much to handle internally then we’ll hand pick community members. We’ve tried asking them to apply but that didn’t work as well. A lot of people really love doing that. They get the reputation and recognition for that so they’re happy for us.
Jen: Chris, how do you deal with moderating comments. You need to have a safe community.
Chris: No community can be 100% safe, but we make our best effort to come close, of the 210,000 registrants [on the Degrassi.tv], an overwhelming, 85% are females aged 10-18 so we have to make sure that our environment isn’t a fertile poaching ground for dirty old men. We have a team of five moderators, there is a three minute delay in posting, our mods (even if on the road) are able to see and judge the quality of the post. We call our environment semi –moderated, we depend on the community to police themselves. We have a show that pushes a good set of social value without being preachy, we have kids to take great pride that ti’s a safe and happy community and we differ from a lot of other bigger social communities. So we’re very fortunate that we have a user base that takes pride on how they conduct themselves at degrassi.tv. We don’t evangelize super-user, andy user can flag content if it’s passed by our mods.
On Developing Moderating Policies:
Jen: [to all] How to you develop those rules, are they created top down or co-created within the community?
Derek: Originally we weren’t that concered about rules, we just wanted people to participate. As we drove more traffic, issues came up we had to go back and draft more rules. It’s a bit different for us because we’re about shopping but also about other things. So because we’re focused on a lot of things so we don’t want to have too many rules but we have to address problems.
George: Two levels. Firstly, on the front line we made up six rules of use, but what’s really important are not the rules but the enforcement that matters. If you want to run a successful community, whatever the rules are you should stick to them. If you’re not consistent you creat confusion and then that leads anarachy.
Chris: It was very much top down for us, the community went live in 2001 before the rise of many communities that were speaking to teens at that time. So we couldn’t really leave it to use. We have a Degrassi code of conduct and rather then hard and fast rules they are more philosphies. For example, don’t make someone make someone feel small. It was dictated from the top down. It’s a challenge, because other siets that go after our demographic permit all types of conduct that we don’t allow. With a huge influx of 400 users a week they come in from those sites, already knowing and acting in away that they are used to, they get flagged and that causes issues.
On scaling moderation efforts:
Jen: How did you scale the moderation?
Chris: From the outset we’ve only had five moderators. And they acquire knowledge as as uer base.
Derek: We’ve had to scale our moderators as users. Chris, how do you deal with gray area?
Chris: Our mods don’t really have a problem determining what is inappropriate. It’s like real life, a lot of stuff that goes on is like hair pulling, and we gently suggest to them that there is an alternative space to have their argument. Our biggest problem is context, since our mods see posts one at a time, but if we have one user who is hammering away at someone, action needs to be taken, always. We err on the side of caution.
George: we started off with moderators, but the communities started growing so fast that we introduced a reputation system, there are two things; what other members think of you and the amount of activity you have on the site. We have hundred of community monitors that are determined by a reputation score. It’s successful because they get to know the context of the conversations. Some communities are looser and more informal, so we want people who know the lay of the land who can figure out if something is offside or not . You have to have good developers.
On Community Interaction:
Jen: How does the community interact?
Chris: Primarily, it’s been an html discussion board has been the main component, we have alittle bit of a different focus because the show is “the thing”, so we revolve around the show. We created a strategy on the fly, so we know because of resource constraints, sometimes it is better for us to partner with other orgs who are like minded who have different technologies in play that can extend our communitiy activity.
Derek: we’ve used b-bolt, we use tools that other people know how to use and integrated into our own sites’ CMS. We like to bring it to other venues, like summer bbq, taking the online world and bringing it into real life. We actually had members create their own meetups that we weren’t involved in.
On Sustaining Interest
Jen: How do you continue to sustain interest?
George: First make sure that you are fully immersed in your community. Don’t just hover around the edges, immerse yourself into conversations with your community. It might have nothing to do with site operations, and what happens is that your communithy starts to see you as a real person, they’re just likeyou and me. I have a full profile on my site, so anytime I post people can see my fun facts, etc. That’s important.
Jen: Have you structured thew ay that you immerse yourself in your community?
George: our involvement isn’t structured, we jump in when it’s interesting. But we also have four our highest level karma pints, we actually have a separate forum just for them, so daily they’re posting ideas, suggestions, etc. And we always have an internal response to that who is reviewing ideas, etc. It’s a two tiered approach.
Jen: Content or functionality?
Derek: Content. We’re about shopping, and we want to help you do more of it while saving you money. The message is pretty easy, so the content piece is very powerful.
Community Business Models
Jen: Business models, how do you measure ROI, etc.
Derek: We monetize, one via the advertising of graphic and text ads. And second is the affiliate links in the discussions. We see it as content and ads are almost one thing, so the best ads on the ite are actually the best content.
Jen: George, you have a subscription model.
George: How do we build a community that is valuable to someone so that will pay to be a part of it. So if we eliminate garbage who will benefit from it? Yes the end consumer but they’re not likely to pay, so we said that public companies will have several investors, and right off the bat we had a b to b subscription. Think about how you can leverage your business. It’s still unfettered ground.
The Future of Community
Jen: future is hyper localized?
George: I think it is niche. I don’t necessarily agree with geography niche, but it’s idea niche. People are interested in specific things.
Derek: I think I agree, we are niche. You can’t get too niche but then you won’t have a model to support it.
Chris: I think the show is the unifying force, so because it touches about so many issues that it’s all about being a teen. Even we grow out of it we never forget it. It is a niche and our play is to stay a niche and I hope that the niche remains big.
On attracting new members
Question: once you had a better site you could lure visitors from other sites?
George: We reached out personally, but first we created a powerpoint video and presentation and we asked them to watch it. We found that they would take that video and send it out. We were catalysts and then we let it take off. We got push back from our competitor’s site, to the point they banned the term “agoracom” from the site because hundreds of people started posting links to us and joining the community. The individual members didn’t mind receiving the presentation because it wasn’t spam. Eventually, they started sending it around to other influencers. If you’re going to convince people to join your community, then you have to give them a reason.