Imitation Community: Follow-up

Brainstorm Redux
Original Photo by TheImageGroup

A few weeks back, I took the “insight community” vendors (specifically Communispace) to task on their approach to the creation of “insight communities”. My beef was not with the idea of using small groups, but with the way that such small groups are being used without any type of larger community strategy.

Communispace Senior VP of Innovation and Design and co-founder, Julie Wittes Schlack was kind enough to stop by to leave a response in the comments. I’ve been chewing on her response for days now. Both Julie and some of my readers thought that I have some problem with private/small group approaches to communities. Far from it, I’m a big fan of small groups. Margaret Mead said it far better than I can:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Over the years, I’ve encouraged, supported, and implemented many small group mini-communities, from the LEGO Ambassador program to multiple client projects. Small groups offer a focus and a speed that larger group simply can’t deliver, no question about it. The issue, however, is whether the efforts of those small groups actually feed into a longer term solution or if they are simply a new and improved replacement for a focus group.

Julie said:

Communispace is in the business of helping companies listen and achieve insight into the lives and needs of their customers, engaging customers as co-innovators, brand advisors, and honest critics. To classify this pursuit exclusively as “market research” is, I think, taking a rather narrow view.

Again, I’m not “classifying the pursuit”, I’m questioning their methods. As I mentioned in the original post, I’ve heard multiple Communispace clients talking about their own Communispace program and they rarely have any take on it other than “market research”. When the head of Market Research for Hilton Hotels says that she’s built a community where 6 months after joining, the participants are no longer valid test subjects and are pushed out of the community, that’s “market research”. When the Network Solutions project lead talks only about the data he’s collected and not at all about the long term effect on the larger customer base, I think market research.

Julie also called me out for bringing up Dan from United:

So to criticize Dan Comenduley for acknowledging that it’s difficult to break through silos and help the voice of his customers truly penetrate the broad organization frankly strikes me as lacking in empathy.

Let me say very, very clearly: This is not what I said, nor is it what I meant. Kudos to Dan for trying this effort; I applaud him for getting this started. I’m not criticizing Dan in the slightest, I’m criticizing Communispace. It is my belief that based on the way Communispace sells and presents itself to potential clients, they are doing clients like Dan, newbies in this space, a disservice. Rather than generating a solid, business-wide community strategy (even if implemented in small parts over time), they are instead throwing them a tasty morsel of strategy candy. It doesn’t have much nutritional value, but upfront it sure tastes good!

I have more empathy for Dan (and anyone trying to move their company towards community engagement) and anyone else than you can possibly imagine. I cut my teeth nearly a decade ago on community at a company where colleagues wouldn’t take my meetings to discuss community anything. Trust me, I feel for Dan, which is precisely why I bring this up.

The reason Network Solutions and many of our other clients seek customer insights is precisely to learn how to be more successful in their attempts to sponsor and/or participate in others’ long-term, public communities, to be more effective in engaging their larger customer base and/or prospects.

I don’t doubt that at all. In fact, we’re both now on record with that belief, so we can get back to discussing methods of how best to make this happen.

The Hilton speaker who you heard at WOMMA was, I think, making a similar point. Her regret at having to churn and replace community members was sincere, precisely because she felt a personal connection with and gratitude towards those members who had invested their time and energy and ideas — hardly the sentiment of someone engaged in”fake community,” just the sentiment of someone facing the financial and resource constraints that everyone in business faces.

I didn’t say “fake”, I said “imitation”. I don’t doubt that she’s made connections and is truly, sincerely appreciative of the feedback she’s generated from her group’s participation. But that’s not the issue. The issue is why she didn’t have a better strategy in the first place, one that kept her from doing nothing more than creating a research tool that doesn’t last for the long-term.

Communispace sells themselves as a one stop shop, so to speak, where clients can “participate as much or as little as they want” (according to my call with Communispace some months back). In doing so, they are convincing people like the Hilton Director that it’s acceptable to create a community that, while generating great insights, creates a dangerous opportunity for unintended long-term consequences. From what I’ve seen and heard from Communispace clients, the focused revolves nearly exclusively around the short-term insight to the ill-development of the long-term gain. They have supported and propagated the old school mindset of customers as “subjects” rather than “citizens”.

And again, this isn’t an issue restricted to Communispace. It’s an industry-wide problem.

It’s easy to blow off this discussion by telling me that I don’t get the business/financial realities of today’s marketer. That’s simply bunk. I get it, I understand it, and I work with it every single day. I just don’t agree that we need to be catering to their problems rather than helping them to move past them. In a time where marketers should be reassessing and reevaluating just about everything they’ve come to know, Communispace (and their competitors) give them yet another fix that allows them to extend their addiction just a little bit further.

(Thanks again for your comment and the fantastic debate, Julie. It’s vitally important that we all keep an open mind and open communication if we are to improve and grow. As Walt West said: “The trouble with doing something right the first time, is that nobody appreciates how difficult it was.”)