This was originally posted on Farland Group’s blog Voice of the Customer on May 10, 2010.

There have been many blog posts written on the value of content in building and managing successful communities. Often times, people say that “content is king”. In our experience, context is often more important than content because the content follows the context of any successful community.

Without context in a community, members will not know where content belongs, or even what type of content they should share. They won’t know where to find content others have shared and the momentum of the community will be disrupted. Context provides the threads that weave together a set of ideas and thought pieces to help define the purpose of the community and offer meaning to content and interrelationships.

There are three areas to focus on to create context for your community:

  • Theme: Organizations rarely think of the word “theme” as they are building their community, but while your organization is building the community strategy, theme should be sister to purpose. For example. if your organization is building a product development community, you will need to think about how you want members to contribute to product development and then how the language, style and design of the community will communicate those ideas to the community members. This all leads back to establishing a community theme. Built from the community mission, goal and purpose, your organization will need to create a theme so that you are able to clearly articulate the characteristics of the community to your membership.
  • Tone: Your community tone should be a direct representation of your organization and the type of customer, or member you want to attract. If you are building a community for professionals like Sermo, focused on engaging doctors to post clinical observations and discuss clinical issues with their peers, you are going to want to set a very professional tone for your community. On the other hand, if you are building a hobby community, like Ravelry, you will want to make sure the community tone is light and fun.
  • Moderation: Moderation is the act of reviewing content for context, appropriateness and content. In most communities, a good moderator is not the enforcer, but rather the guide, helping members understand what to discuss and at what time or in which location those member interactions, conversations and content belong. Community moderators play a critical role by determining the right topics for discussion, and organizing content that has been created so it resides in the appropriate places. A successful moderator is also responsible for making sure questions get answered in a timely manner and that the theme and tone are adhered to as the community matures.

There is certainly no denying that content plays a critical role in community. Without content, there is no community, but if you have provided your community with clear context, the community purpose is clear to members. They can be sure of what they are supposed to be discussing, what they are learning and why they are members. Community members – like most people – want to contribute and participate effectively, and seek the focus and the framework to help them be “right on target.” Ensuring your community has a clearly defined context will not only allow you to gain more value from your investment in content; you will find increased engagement from your members as well.


I promise you that I haven’t abandoned this blog.  I have, however, been posting on my company, Farland Group’s blog, Voice of the Customer.  I will continue to post original content here as well.

This was originally posted on Voice of the Customer on March 31, 2010.

When I started in the field of community building in 2006, social media and community building was a bit of the Wild West. Companies building online communities were few and far between, and experimentation and patience were key. To be fair, online communities have been around since before LISTSERV was created in 1986. They were not called online communities, but the principle was the same, getting a group of people together to talk about topics relevant to them. Many of these eventually evolved into online forums and extended into online communities, including member profiles, wiki documentation pages and blogs.

Small groups were forming in the 1990s and early 2000s but the fuse was lit in about 2006-2007 when companies like Shared Insights (now Mzinga), Jive, Leverage software, Awareness, Inc. Communispace and a handful of others started gaining traction in the community space. Social Networking, Social Media and Online Communities were starting to get buzz. At that time, online community building was so new, there were few best practices. The good news for me was that most of the companies I was working with as a Community Strategist at Shared Insights were ready to hear that solid strategy, not tools, is what’s required to build a successful online community.

In the past year, those whose job it is to build or manage social media/social marketing/online communities have struggled with defining the purpose of each. I think we have finally started to round the corner on that issue. For example, note how one expert, Rachel Happe, has evolved her thinking and her ability to define roles in this industry. Read the post she wrote almost two years ago, and and compare that to the one she wrote just a few days ago. Notice the evolution. In her first post, she begins to explain what community is in context of why it’s not social media. Her thoughts on the subject seem less concise than they are in her recent post. Having read her post then, it really represented where we were as an industry, only emergent in our thoughts on the difference between the two concepts. The comments on that post allude to this as well. In her second post, her language is more concise, she is able to define both community and social media, and how each might apply to business. You will also note, her examples of when to use each are more concrete. She’s even able to define responsibilities required for the two different roles. Her ability to delineate between the two roles of social media and community management is representative of how the industry has matured over the past year.

You hear about b2c communities regularly in the news, but there are many very vibrant b2b communities that warrant attention. Why don’t you know about these communities? These tend to have a niche audience so there’s not such a big effort to get these into mainstream news. Here are a few examples:

  • commonground from EDR– the global social network for environmental and commercial real estate due diligence professionals.
  • The Center for CIO Leadership – a global community to advance the CIO profession. (managed by Farland Group)
  • MarketingProfs know-how exchange – the most vibrant marketing forum on the web.

While there are successful b2b communities, there are still many opportunities for companies in the b2b arena to take advantage of an online community strategy to understand, communicate with, and reach out to their customer. In the next 3-5 years, we’ll see an explosion of b2b communities, communities and social media built into the fabric of many organizations, and a better understanding of what social media and online communities mean for business.

I refuse to do it. I refuse to be another SXSWi naysayer. While I can see that it might have been overwhelming for some, and the panels can be woefully disappointing to others, if you didn’t get anything out of SXSWi, you weren’t trying hard enough.

I have been to SXSWi for three years and I recognize that because it’s such a big conference with such a diverse group of attendees, you may need to work a little harder to find the right panels, get into the right parties and find where the folks you interact with are congregating, but, no matter what you’re looking for, it’s there.

There are lots of blog posts and tweets that provide advice on how to prepare for SXSWi. The best post I read on prepping for SXSWi was Kyle Flaherty’s post, Will SXSWi Rock for a B2B Marketer? My favorite piece of advice was, “If you leave SXSWi and say that the best conversations you had were in the hallway you did a poor job planning your schedule…” While I had many valuable hallway conversations, this year I focused on making sure I made a must-see list of panels, and I made most of them. (I made it to all of them but some were too full for me to attend.)


People generally say the panels at SXSWi are the least valuable part of SXSWi. While I agree that there are many useless panels, there are also many valuable panels. Some panelists mail it in because they don’t mind being one of many bad panels at SXSWi. I think as attendees, we need to hold panelists accountable.

One thing I learned at SXSWi my first year is that some of the panels were more 101, while others are more advanced learning. It was kind of a bummer to sit in panels where I knew more about the subject than the speaker. Then I learned that the title isn’t enough, spend just a minute or two reading the description and looking at who the speakers are. These provide a lot of information. While it was more difficult to do this year because many of the sessions were full before they started, panel hopping is always an option, as is walking out and starting the ever-so-valuable hallway conversation, but more on that below.

Despite what you may have heard about SXSWi, there were some really good panels, even for those of us who are considered long-timers in this space, who eat, sleep and breathe Community Management/Social Media. I went to some great, well thought out, well put together panels and I learned something from them. Here are just a few:

  • Crime Scene: Digital Identity Theft – I have to be honest, I wasn’t that interested in attending this panel. I went to support my brother, Aaron Strout. It turned out to be an energetic informative conversation that made me realize that I am responsible for digital security both as an individual and as a community consultant and manager.
  • Keynote: Opening Remarks: Privacy and Publicity – This seemed to be a bit of a theme at SXSWi. The message I came away with was that just because someone’s content is public, it does not mean they want it to be publicized.
  • Lost In Translation: The Nuances of European Social Media – A great panel that was true to its name. It covered a large number of social media angles. It scratched the surface but was a great intro to what to think about regarding approaching a Social Media strategy in Europe
  • Evan Williams Keynote Interview – I described this to a friend as an MBA case study, valuable but boring. That said, there were some great takeaways from the conversation. Read the interviewer, Umair Haque’s takeaways. It could have been better but I’m happy I went.

There were other great panels as well, like the best ever Sports Metaphor core conversation led by Tim Walker, who made sure we left SXSWi on a high note.

Lunches, dinners and other get-togethers

There were too many great ones to name here but conversations over dinner tend to be very different from those that happen at a party or in the hallways. Lunch or dinner conversations at SXSWi allow you to catch up with old friends and learn from new ones. They also allow a debrief and download of what you’ve learned at the conference with those who are just as involved in the conference as you are.

Meetups in the blogger lounge, hallways and other serendipity

The blogger lounge is probably one of the best things about SXSWi. SXSWi is huge, 12,000 people signed up to attend SXSWi and I believe there were closer to 15,000 attendees. As I’m focused on Social Media and Online Communities, it’s nice to have the blogger lounge to meet up with those focused on Social Media and Online Communities as well.

These same conversations start in line, in the halls and sitting next to folks in panels.  People start talking about a great panel they just went to, a thought or conversation they just had, and you find yourself in the middle of a valuable, educational conversation.

And of course the parties

Lots of companies have private, SXSWi only and public parties and this year was no exception. Unlike in years past, I didn’t have to wait in nearly as many lines.  Twitter and experience helped me know where to be to avoid most lines.  In the past, it seemed the parties were largely all the same, free food and drink in the day, free drinks at night, but not significant variety. They all seemed to be at downtown bars. Don’t get me wrong, Austin bars are awesome, especially with the amazingly beautiful weather we had, we were able to take advantage of the roof decks. I also made it to the best party I’ve attended at SXSWi, the Powered Inc. party, where comedian Brian Posehn did some standup. I also got to see The Walkmen at the Digg party and saw some amazing Karaoke at the TechKaraoke party.

Of course, I also met great people and continued lots of conversations with people I had met at the blogger lounge and other locations throughout the day.

No jerks allowed
There’s another term I’d prefer not to publish that we use a lot when talking about folks at SXSWi. It’s a term reserved for those who have big blog and/or twitter followings and act like superstars and those who only feel complete when they namedrop.

While I can say I did witness these personalities, I overwhelmingly witnessed lots of smiles, lots of handshakes, many business card exchanges, and an overwhelming warmth that the Social Media industry is known for. Even those like Chris Brogan and Jeremiah Owyang, who can’t move without someone telling them how great they are, manage, somehow, to stay humble and open through what I’m sure is five incredibly overwhelmingly busy days for them.

I realize this blog post is particularly long and I don’t feel like I even scratched the surface on the value I got out of SXSWi this year. I learned so much and met so many great people. Even more valuable to me, I had the opportunity to catch up with old friends and I look forward to doing it all again next year.

Special thanks to Kyle Flaherty for reminding me that SXSWi has value and that preparation is key and for writing a great follow-up post on this same subject. I also want to thank Aaron Strout for being a great brother and the über-connector who makes sure everyone is introduced to everyone, and to Jim Storer for letting me show him some of the best of Austin. Thanks also to Farland Group, my company, for sending me and allowing me to be a representative of a team I’m honored to represent.

It was great seeing and meeting everyone, if I tried to name you all here, this post would stretch way beyond its already extra-long length.

Originally posted in Under The Hood: Implementing Community

I believe that, although there are many commonalities between Social Media Marketing and building online communities, they are very different. First, a few of the commonalities: execution of either is almost bound to fail if there isn’t transparency and employees aren’t empowered to communicate to each other and with other stakeholders, not to mention that if there’s no strategy behind either, they’re destined to fail. The difference can seem subtle at first, but really, it takes a different skillset to manage each and generally, the purpose and goals are different. More on differences in another post.

I read a lot of blogs and a few books on both Social Media Marketing as well as Online Communities. I also follow folks on twitter so that I can learn from others and find out what the latest buzz is about. I’ve found that there are lots and lots of people writing blogs and books and tweeting about Social Media Marketing but not nearly enough on building and managing communities. Simply put, Marketers (Social Media Marketers) have a lot more to gain from blogging about their industry than do community managers. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that getting a list of community management resources together was difficult. That is one of the main reasons Dawn started [Under The Hood: Implementing Community] and why I am happy to contribute. Aside from this blog, I recommend the following resources to teach you and keep you updated on Online Communities:

The Community Roundtable blog
Bill Johnston’s Online Community Strategy
Martin Reed’s Community Spark
Richard Millington’s Fever Bee
Rachel Happe’s The Social Organization

I also read a couple that cover both online community and Social Media Marketing:
Social Media Musings by Tom Humbarger (Talks more about Social Media lately but knows about community)
Web Strategy by Jeremiah Owyang (Talks a lot about industry trends and posts Case Studies and stats)

Twitter follows:
Take a look at the folks The Community Roundtable has listed on their Social Media list

The Cluetrain Manifesto
The Wisdom of Crowds

The Community Roundtable is a private peer network for community managers and social media practitioners.

Forum One brings great Community Managers together

I am sure I’ve missed a few great reads/follows. If you have recommendations, I’d love to hear them.

This is a re-post from the MLF blog.  I want to support Mobile Loaves and Fishes so this is a re-post.  Please feel free to re-post this to your blog as well.

Mark Horvarth (@HardlyNormal) for those of us on Twitter, has been garnering national attention for his efforts to bring voices to the homeless.  His blog and his website have given him a place to explore unexplored stories, and call attention to some of our most overlooked citizens—the homeless among us. Alan Graham, President of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, (@MLFNOW)  invited him to come see Austin and go on a truck run, attend the screening of Happiness Is, and serve the homeless.  So, Mark decided to make Austin a stop on his nation-wide tour!  He’ll be here from the 29th of July through the 1st of August.

Mark, who is, as he puts it “not a solutions guy,” is embarking on his road trip to “see homelessness” and to “help people” by calling attention to their stories.  According to Mark, he has two main strengths going for him: he’s “pushy,” and he’s “loud”—not to mention compassionate.  During our conversation he was particularly upset about the stories he has heard of families “downsizing” by kicking out their eldest children.

So why is he doing this now?  Good question.  As Mark puts it, we are entering into a “perfect storm of homelessness,” with the economy in the place it is, with government out of money.  (In fact, some of his sponsors haven’t even been able to commit because of financial difficulties!)  So, what better time to call attention to this immense need?

Mark will be arriving in town just in time to take part in our social media extravaganza around the movie “Happiness Is.”  You’ll likely be able to have your OWN conversation with Mark at any of the events below:

Happiness Is DVD Signing:

  • Waterloo Records Downtown from 5-7 PM on Thursday, July 30th.
  • free BBQ from Stubbs and free beer from Shiner
  • MLF catering truck and Stubb’s BBQ World Tour trailer


(you don’t have to go to both the movie and the tweetup–stop by for a few!) [I will be at the TweetUp.  You should come too!]

  • Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar  from 7-9 PM on Thursday, July 30th
  • cash bar + free popcorn
  • Here’s a link to the twtvite (#nosuffering), spread the word and RSVP: http://twtvite.com/bn6p48/2

Happiness Is Screening

[I will be watching the documentary as well.  MLF is prominently featured in the movie. Preview here.]

  • Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar (directions) at 9:30 PM and 9:50 PM
  • Two theaters–one for the movie, and one for social media! You can tweet to your heart’s content 🙂
  • Reserve tickets by visiting their site at www.HappinessIsTheMovie.com and clicking on the email link for “tickets” on the front page.

For more information on the events visit: www.mlfnow.org/happiness

We would love your help in spreading the compassion and awareness, please help!

  • Make a micro-donation to Mobile Loaves & Fishes (www.mlfnow.org/NoSuffering)
  • Tweet and Blog the events and the movie–what did you think?
  • Follow @MLFNOW
  • Follow Happiness Is the movie @HappinessIs_tm
  • Help @MLFNOW start a conversation around homelessness and palliative care by interacting on Twitter and the MLF blog
  • Help MLF win a $25,000 social media makeover!  Retweet the following: RT to help Mobile Loaves & Fishes win a 25K social media makeover http://ow.ly/4pcs @CommuniCause #cause3324
  • Hand out water to the homeless

First Installment: Summary and Data Gathering
Second Installment: Membership, Content and Scheduling, and Tools


Rollout Plan

The most successful communities are like a great party.  You know why you’re going, there’s great food and drink when you get there and you’re not the first one there.

Your community needs to be seeded with both content and members when the masses join.  This means creating a rollout plan where each set of constituents knows their role and can help support the community.  Start by getting the entire organization in to join, fill out profiles and seed content. Next, invite a select group of friends and family, those colleagues who are loyal, vocal and will be able to help seed content and be a community advocate.  After the friends and family have had time to participate, a sub-group of participants can be invited in.  This allows you to continue refining the tone and content in the community.  Lastly, open the community to the public and the community can grow in a variety of ways.

Community Management

The last element in preparing for community implementation is community management.  It’s valuable to prepare and train the designated community manager on how to be the voice of the community, deal with negative or imperfect feedback and how to deal with troublemakers.  This usually comes in the form of a plan of action.  Documenting the scheduling calendar as well as a plan and script for dealing with negative(and positive) feedback helps prepare your company for implementation.


Working with either a hired design team or an internal design team, you need to designate a voice of the customer.  The designated VoC helps the designer and the technology team make sure that when the community is developed, the community follows the strategy.


There will be many things to think about in the development phase.  Most community platforms have lots of hooks and switches that can be turned on or off.  The questions about how the community should be set up should match easily to the community strategy.


Circle back with the team to confirm that the defined strategy has been successfully implemented.  This is also the point that you’re putting the final touches on your promotional material.  This could be both internal announcements and presentations and member emails and banners.


Ongoing Management

Strategy does not end on launch day.  Communities evolve and grow and must be strategically reviewed on a regular basis.  The frequency and depth of a strategic review depends on the type of community and the evolution of the community.  Generally, more frequent strategy reviews are necessary in the first 6 months to a year of a community’s existence.  Communities are always evolving so make sure to keep a pulse on your community and make sure you’re addressing the changing needs of your community as a whole and the individual members.


There are so many more elements that go into implementing a successful community.  Don’t think that because it hasn’t been listed here that it’s not valuable.  I also encourage you to read other’s blogs on the subject, such as Tom Humbarger’s blog, Social Media Musings.  He covers many valuable topics and I know, first hand, that he has a proven track record in implementing successful communities.  Here’s a great presentation on the 10 Commandments of Community Management by Amy Muller at Get Satisfaction.

toolsFirst Installment: Summary and Data Gathering

Now that you have chosen a very specific area of your business to focus on in launching your community, you want to start thinking about the people, tone and content that make up your community.  This valuable process determines how employees and other members act, interact and perceive value within the community.  A solid strategy is critical but without thinking about how to execute against that strategy, you will not find success.

Defining Membership

Now that you’ve chosen the business area and audience you want to focus on for your community, you will want to break your membership down to understand who your membership is.  Breaking membership down into the demographics of target members allows the team to begin to understand how members want to be reached, what types of information will interest them, how they want to interact and how often they’ll visit the community.

Work with your project team to define things like:

  • Member demographics
  • Member interests
  • Familiarity with technology
  • Frequency of visits

Content and Scheduling

Content and scheduling often drive the initial success of the community.  Members may not have obvious commonalities, so the company must initially expect to provide value.  There are many ways in which content can be gathered for a community:

  • You may already have significant information to share with the community.
  • You may need to acquire internal or external subject matter experts to participate in the community by contributing content and/or interacting with other community members
  • You also want to think about creating new content specifically for the community

Scheduling is just as important as content.  By setting a calendar of events for a community manager to execute, it insures that as members return to the community, there is new and fresh content to consume.  Scheduling can also be in the form of newsletters, webinars, or helping with promotion of offline events.  Scheduling can be formal, like posting a new podcast each week, or it can be informal, like starting new discussions on a regular basis.


Now that the strategy, membership and content and scheduling have been defined, the decision about what tools to use, how to use those tools and when to execute those tools can be defined.

Community best practices dictate starting small when launching a community.  This means, staying focused on a specific audience, usually even launching to a beta group of members.  This method of starting small should also be applied to the tools.  Launching a subset of the tools that will be used not only allows your company to focus energies on a specific area; it also allows the membership to focus on content and interaction in a specific area.  From that point, the community can grow both in member numbers, tools and available content.

Based on the prior decisions, many of the required tools will be obvious, but at this point, tool requirements should be documented and final decisions will be made.  You want to think about what tools will be used and how they will be used.

Final Installment: Launch and Management