Managing Content & Consumption: Online Communities Move Front & Center

evolution of online communities

Editor’s Note: Online communities have a long and storied history that roughly corresponds to the evolution of technology that connects people and enables content development and consumption. This is the first of a six part series that examines the content development and delivery in the context of the emerging, integrated online community.

Two well-known axioms, viewed through a different lens, can inform the ever-changing world of content producers in the 21st century.

First, people want to connect with other people, to share—to ask and answer questions, entertain, brag, argue, teach, support, or condemn. Above all, they participate in communities to get answers to questions.

Second, the more things change the more they stay the same. In other words, the technology and the media for communication may evolve at light speed, but the need to connect, to communicate relevant information doesn’t. So as our sense of, and participation in, communities moves online, we need to ensure that we use the fundamentals to create, produce, and manage content within and among the communities we want to engage.

Know your audience

The most well-known fundamental for content developers of all stripes is probably “Know your audience.” It’s the reason that somebody invented the icebreaker for training sessions, and that marketing people survey customers. It’s why technical writers harass the help desk, and why bloggers struggle to learn web analytics. People have questions, and they want to connect with people in places where they can get answers. Those questions could be something as simple as “what should I make for dinner tonight?”, or as complex as “how do I prepare this 747 for takeoff?”

Writers and designers create answers to questions. But crafting and delivering those answers means understanding the nature of the question, the context in which it’s asked, as well as the people asking it. And these days, the vast majority of questioning and answering happens in a digital space.

Problem solving through commonality

Whether in pursuit of a common goal or mutual interest, humans need to connect with others to do questioning and answering. In centuries gone by, communities of purpose accomplished things like building a neighbor’s barn or the town schoolhouse by being in physical contact with each other, and using actual tools. Somebody was the expert on measuring, somebody else on hammering nails, and somebody else on digging foundations. Communities of interest might meet in evening “salons” to discuss news of the day, or at church socials to catch up on the doings of family and friends. In today’s society, you can find a community of interest or purpose on anything, and some aspect of it—if not all of it—will live online.

While arguments still rage in some quarters about whether technical writers could write promotional copy, or content marketers could create accurate instructions on using a product, convergence has already begun. In fact, the labels we apply to our content development, technical, marketing, informational, promotional, entertainment, etc., matter very little to the audience searching for an answer. Today’s consumers (and producers) blur the distinctions between public and private, information and entertainment, needs and wants, and even fact and fiction. Hence the emergence of “infotainment”, “technical sales” and “content marketing” as business trends and content disciplines.

At the end of the day, audiences are trying to get their questions answered. They start by searching, by Googling, for the answer. Then depending on how critical the need for an answer is, they’ll try other, asynchronous methods like email or a discussion board. They’d rather find the answer on their own, so they might click a link to text with an online chat agent. If they absolutely must, they’ll call a support desk or read some printed material that came in the box. If they like the answer they find, they often share it with others. Content lives and evolves in online communities.

Five focus areas for content (community) developers  and their online communities

It’s easy to recommend that content developers need to create the right content in right medium for delivery to the right audience on the device(s) of their choosing, but what does that really mean in practice? Execution is always the difficult part whether you’re a small team or multinational corporation.

Here are the five fundamental areas to focus on as you create (or acquire), deliver, and manage information within your (online) communities:

  1. Understand the limitations on your content consumers as they search and ask questions.
  2. Decide what online communities you have, and what communities you need.
  3. Prepare your content strategy and plan your content management processes based on the media and channels required to address the consumer’s content limitations.
  4. Choose the appropriate technologies to create, deliver and manage content, and to recruit and reward online communities.
  5. Engage and govern your online communities to evolve them and support your organizational objectives.

“How,” you might ask, “given all of the technologies out there today?” The remaining articles in the series will look in detail at these aspects of managing community and content. We would love to have the benefit of your experiences in managing communities, as well as managing the content lifecycle. Please use the form below to ask your questions, or offer your viewpoints on these topics.

Other Resources:

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