Disposable Camera Model for Community Growth

At the end of the second day of the Community 2.0 conference, there was an ad hoc panel of volunteers who shared thoughts, concerns, ideas, etc. with the audience. One of the volunteers asked (and I’m big time paraphrasing here):

“How can you get started easily with social software? I’ve looked around and it all starts at $300,000 USD or more!”

I thought Chris was going to bop this guy on the head with this chubby end of his microphone.

There is a metric ton of options regarding free or cheap social software. The $300,000 software can certainly be handy if you’re running community at eBay, but it’s by no means a “starting point”. In fact, I’d say if that’s your starting point, your strategy sucks.

Personally, I work with the “Phase 10 to 1” mindset. Far too often you see people start a social project (or hell, any project really) at Phase 1. They don’t think much farther out, and only when Phase 1 is accomplished or struggling, do they start to look at Phase 2 options. The better way to do this is to consider first and foremost where you want to end up. What does success look like? What is Phase 10? Then you work backwards to Phase 1, getting more and more refined in the details the closer you get to Phase 1.

Phase 10 is almost always going to change shape and form by the time you get much past the first few early Phases, but that’s OK. It’s more about understanding what you’re trying to accomplish on a high level, not what you specifically need to deliver by a certain time. Social project are tricky because they revolve around people, and people change their minds and their needs and their desires. Being flexible enough to respond to that change, yet clear enough about your end goal to actually stay headed on that course – this is the key. (Nate has more on this)

In all my years of community interaction, strategy development, and online and offline community support, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a successful Phase 1 start with technology. A Phase 2 might include some tech, but $300,000? Rarely. It’s not about money, it’s about communication. The technology should be helping you to communicate, but if you start off spending $300,000 you’re putting a massive block between you and real communication. Don’t worry – spending money can come later, if you’re just dying to write a check.

In the early phases of interacting with your consumers it’s not about trying to create a destination, it’s about forming a relationship. This means the interactions need to be smaller, faster, and easier to use once and toss away without regret. At Community 2.0, I heard a number of people say things like “We invested in an expensive platform to support our community early on, but it doesn’t meet our needs now… what do we do?”

Cullen with his finger up his nose. Don't ask.This got me thinking about disposable cameras.

Disposable cameras have an amazing dynamic to them – because anyone can pick one up and start using it immediately, many people do. Leave them sitting on the tables at a wedding and who doesn’t want to start shooting? Sell an underwater version for $15 bucks next to the snorkeling gear rental counter and who can resist?

And look at the content those cheap things are used to capture – it’s usually more fun, more personal, more human than the posed, stiff photos we feel like we have to take if we’ve invested in a traditional SLR camera, Flash, lenses, bags, and the rest of the expensive equipment. The experience of taking the photos is as fun as seeing the results post-development. And who cares if you toss out the $15 camera once it’s used? It served its purpose marvelously.

Maybe we could get similar results from a professional photographer, but who has the ability to bring a professional photographer along on a trip to Disney World? Who wants to schedule a professional to join you on an impromptu snorkeling trip? Professional photographers have their place (Presidential Inaugurations, for instance), but so do disposable cameras.

What if we thought about social software the same way we think about photography? What if our first community engagement efforts followed the disposable camera model, rather than the professional photographer model?

  • Focus – since we don’t have to justify the reuse of expensive tools and/or services that we committed to before fully understanding our needs, we’ll feel much more comfortable focusing on smaller, shorter tasks.
  • Speed – Since we’re not building nuclear-bunker style applications, we can be up and running in days or hours, not months or years.
  • Cost – Smaller projects = smaller budgets = more likelihood of internal sign off and acceptance.
  • Experimentation – when costs are lower, speed is faster and focus is tighter, nobody cares if something doesn’t work quite like expected. Try it, toss it, learn and move on.
  • Freedom – when community members aren’t scared off but the big, confusing, cold functionality they’re much more likely to actually engage with you.

Engaging with your consumers and their communities is about letting go, releasing control, listening to the people who matter. Small projects help keep the walls between outside and inside low and permeable. Experimentation and communication are vastly more important than security and stability.

(To be completely clear, this discussion is focused on early efforts – there may be a time for $300,000 projects, but it’s a long time down the road)