Monetizing the In-Crowd

I am not a joiner. Never have been. In high school, I was the introspective AV dweeb who brought in the 16mm projector to the jeers of "geek," brainiac," and "Poindexter" from a room of cheerleaders and cool kids. Hey, I am not resentful. I still am that AV dweeb, but Poindexter has bigger, badder AV gear nowadays than most of them dream about, and a narrower waist too. Revenge maybe shallow, but it is sweet.

However, my arrested social development does put me at a disadvantage in grasping the allure of social media. Every day someone else in the industry invites me to get "LinkedIn" or become a FaceBook "friend" or join this or that exclusive insider message board. And almost every publisher I consult wants to know how to "get some of that community." Hell if I know. I am still picking spitballs out of my hair from tenth grade.

Vendors are coming out of the woodwork with all of these hosted and plug-in solutions that promise to build community on a site. Bosh. Community is not a commodity that can be manufactured, and it is not a technical issue in need of a solution. I have seen some whacky ideas lately that regard community as just another feature. A few trade publishers have even put MySpace pages up. Huh? One tech vendor showed me a system that actually scours the registration data from a site and creates profile pages for everyone as a kind of encouragement to join in and lower the bar for participation. Speaking as a non-joiner, I would resent the heck out of being involuntarily signed up for a community.

The best online communities I have seen emerge (nay, "grow") from business information providers real understanding that websites don’t invite people to join their community. Successful sites ask to become part of a pre-existing community of professionals.

When Penton's line of contracting titles did its research, the company found that a robust circle of professionals already thrived online at HVAC-Talk, where there are tens of thousands of posts about the heating and AC trade. Why try to lure these guys away when you can just annex the communal exchange they have already formed by themselves? So Penton bought the site. Better still: They didn't screw it up. Penton simply cross-links to HVAC-Talk and lets the organically grown village do what it does best. In fact, other sites might take a page from this book. Don't try to attract people to your community to trap them in your own garden walls. Instead, seek out the exiting blogs and databases and find a way to become part of their eco-system. You don't make communities. You join them.

Which is not to say that editors can't play an important function in cultivating or directing social interaction. For instance, InfoWorld, columnist/blogger Ed Foster lets IT guys do what they do best, complain. In his excellent Gripe Line, users vent their frustration with industry vendors, and this is the best trigger for exchanges they otherwise might not initiate. Multi-title B2B publishers working across different business segments often find very different habits of conversation at work in various business cultures. You can't expect a lot of chatter from defense contractors and construction workers no matter what you do, but toss a question into a message board for PR executives and watch the torrent begin. Publishers need to gauge the kind of cultures they are trying to engage with community services and find ways to bring these existing rituals to the surface.

The best instance of this I know is at Meredith's Farmers have centuries' old traditions of exchanging tips and market information across the back fence and at countless social gatherings. For a decade now brought that fence online in a thriving message base. Some sites ask select members to become forum leaders or monitors, but AgOnline took the next step and recruited some farmers to become beat columnists and reporters. They have featured section in the site that cover regions of the country and certain segments of agri-business. By elevating some members of the community as reporters, the site creates seamlessness between editorial and community.

Ultimately publishers can't fabricate communities. They not only need to know what the audience wants but also how it behaves, how it traditionally communicates, and even what unseen cells of activity are already taking root online. In other words, you can't be the AV geek who rolls in the projector and shows a movie. To succeed in this game, you actually have to join in.