Content cost and creation – and how it relates to community building

During a meeting at the Dell Storage Forum in London Hans De Leenheer, one our invited bloggers, told me something to this effect:

You are Miss Social Media. You have to make it so we are able to keep connecting. You have to make it so we can grow this community. That is your job!

My first reaction was – hey wait I can’t single-handedly build a vibrant community. I may be able to architect an environment where people can connect. I may be able to find influencers who want to connect and create a community, and I may be able to create a space online where that can happen. But I rely on those influencers to invite other members to the community, and to create relevant content that can serve as the glue that binds individuals together in a common interest and communion (see this post for more on the technical definition of community).

Why will people join a community?

People initially come to a community to fill a need for information. If it is a business-based community, the business can create some of the content that will fill the information needs of their customers. But the danger in only relying on content created by the business is that the information tends to get stale very quickly. The information offered to the community will probably be subject to the same internal processes as press releases and website content. The content will be what the business wants to project, what it wants its customers to know and believe.

Many times, content created by community members is much more current. Community members aren’t bound by corporate policy on communication.They can say it how they see it.They may be fans of the products the business creates, but they can also call out all the warts and blemishes of the products. If the community is positive, community members will offer solutions to problems they encounter. This is the type of content that people look for when they are trying to fill an information need.

If the community is being managed well, the business will interact with the content created by the community. This forces the business to create current, up-to-date content. The kind of content that fills the information needs of their customers. The kind of content that moves people from visiting because they are interested in information about the company’s products to developing an attachment to the individuals creating the content about the products (employees and other customers). It is this kind of content that facilitates the creation of community.

The cost of content

Yesterday I saw Marcia Connor tweet this from the IBM Connect conference:

There is a real cost to storing content (after all, I do work for Dell Storage!). But I think the idea behind this tweet goes even deeper than the financial cost of storing the data. For me this brings up so many questions….

Is there a way to architect things so content is always fluid? There is only so much that can be done from a technical architectural standpoint to make the data – the 1’s and 0’s fluid. How do you make the content fluid? What organizational barriers (dams?) prevent content from being in motion? How can we architect communities so that the content flows and everyone is able to extract the value from that content?

Things I’ll be pondering….but would love to hear your thoughts on this.


A community to support customers must be more than customer support

I’ve been thinking about this post for a long time. I’m noticing that many businesses will set up a community for their customers, but the community never makes it any further than the customer support stage.

My Verizon example

I bought an HTC Incredible phone from Verizon. I’ve had Verizon service for years and years, and I like them. I like that the Incredible is built on an open OS, so that I can write an application for it (in my copious free time, of course).

Since the OS is built by Google, all of the Google tools you normally use are built in. People are writing all sorts of neat applications – I have a pedometer, a wedding countdown app, an app that tells you the stars and constellations you are looking at in the night sky, apps that tell you where your twitter friends are in relation to you, an app that prevents me from butt dialing my friends, and many others.

Sometimes the applications don’t play nice with the internal memory. There is a tool that shows you how much memory is being used, but it doesn’t report that information accurately. Once you start running low on memory, applications start to break. Like texting – and I need to be able to text.

I googled around and confirmed my suspicions: the memory reporting tool isn’t providing accurate information. So I called Verizon, and talked to a really nice guy. Had me do the stock – pull the battery from the phone – move. I kept asking him how to tell what is really using up all the memory. He said there was no way. He said the best way was to wipe the OS and do a fresh install.

Here’s where customer service and a community to support customers should be different.

On the one hand you have me. I’m pretty good with operating systems, although truthfully I’ve never played around much with a phone OS. Mostly because the wireless carriers lock that down so you can’t play around with it. But from what I researched, and from my technical experience, I knew although wiping the OS would only solve the immediate problem — it would come back. I wanted to troubleshoot the phone.

On the other hand you have the Verizon CSR. He gets paid based on how fast he can get people off the phone, and how many people he can help a day. He’s not going to take up half his shift to troubleshoot an open OS issue. He actually told me this (in a really nice way though). So from a customer support point of view he identified a problem, identified a solution, and pleasantly tried to help me.

Of course I said no thanks. I went on to find a solution – Advanced App Killer – that gives me the ability to kill any running apps on the phone, thus freeing up some space. I didn’t need the answer that got me out of the queue, I needed some help understanding the deeper issue and developing a strategy to deal with the root cause of the problem. I needed community support, not customer support

Lessons learned

If you have a community set up for one of your audiences, fight the urge to answer their questions as if you have a customer support queue to clear. While you were building the community, hopefully you were

  • Finding the target community members
  • Messaging to the prospective members about the types of content and interactions that would be available in your community
  • Listening to what your members were saying

Now that folks have decided to join you, the next steps may be to foster an atmosphere of trust where members are learning from your official program team, but also from each other. If you can get that trust rolling then you can promote engagement and build affinity between the community members and with your program. Hopefully this will lead to a dynamic learning environment.

Building a dynamic learning environment in a community

All of this work has to happen with a background appreciation for the small world you are trying to bring together in your community. Is the content (and the way it is presented)¬† in the community relevant to the information needs of the members? Verizon didn’t care that I was an advanced user with different information needs, they just wanted to fix the high level problem and get me off the phone.

I’m not saying to ignore the problems and questions, there needs to be a mechanism to answer every question. What I’m saying is in a community you have to dig deeper. Don’t just answer the question using a paraphrased version of a script your customer service team would use. Why not leave the question sitting there for a few hours, see if another community member has some insight? Observe the conversation between two natives of the same small world, perhaps you’ll see the real question that didn’t get asked.

Pause and think about the information needs of the member who is looking for help. Why is the member asking for help? What is the underlying information need? If you can ensure that the information need is completely met, that member will feel a very strong affinity to the community.

Even if the community managers do not belong to the same small worlds as the community members (perhaps marketing runs a community for highly technical individuals), having the community managers adopting  communication rules that make sense to your target audience will help build affinity. If members have access to the vocabulary of their own small world, they will have the words they need to initiate a search for information.

Doing customer support online is easy. Answer the question, clear the queue. Community support is hard. Identify the question, speak the same language, dig deeper for the real information need, provide relevant content and answers, build engagement and affinity. There are no short-cuts, and its easy to fall into the trap of just clearing the queue. But taking the slow, arduous route to real community support will get you to the place where you are reaping the real benefits of social media.

Systematic Instructional Design should be a Learning GPS

This post is a continuation from a post about the impact of lots of freely available content on learners. My argument is that systematic instructional design can be used to help students navigate the tremendous amount of content that is available to them.

ADDIE is our friend

I know everyone hates on ADDIE, but using ADDIE as a true design process can help to create a Learning GPS for our learners.

A: The first part of ADDIE is A – Analysis.

If we are designing instruction, one thing we should be analyzing is our audience:



  • Are they experienced?
  • Do they know the vocabulary of the discipline?
  • Are they newbies?
  • (If you design corporate education) What is their job role?
  • How much time will they have to come up to speed on this topic?

D: Once you know this information, the Design process can start.

Maybe part of our jobs as learning professionals is providing a GPS, based on the experience level and job role of the student. For total noobs, we’ll have to design a way for the students to learn the vocabulary. For experienced folks, we can show them the most relevant places to search for information and let them build a CoP or PLE (whatever we’re calling it this decade).

E: Notice how the E in ADDIE is not at the end, but connected to each step of the process?

If you design something that you think will work as an information navigation device for your audience, pilot it! Evaluate it!

Just because the navigation system works for you does not mean it will work for your audience. Not only do learners need to understand how to find and filter information online, they need to have an affinity with the source of that information. They need to be able to trust that source if they are going to add the source to their PLN. The content needs to resonate with the learners for them to take action on what they are learning.

D: If your pilot went well, go ahead and Develop this new system.

I don’t know what it will be – you are going to design it for YOUR learners and THEIR needs. Once you have built the system, go back to E (evaluate!).

I: If everything still looks good, Implement the new design.

Once again go back to E (evaluate!).

Help learners learn to find content

We can use ADDIE (and other instructional design models) to design new systems of instructions, taking advantage of the user-generated content that is building the enormous digital universe. We can help newbies learn the vocabularies they will need to perform effective searches. We can create a learning GPS that will help experts and novices navigate to the content they need to get their jobs done.

This is just the starting point though. How do you get learners to connect with each other? How do you get them to trust you to provide content relative to their needs, and to stay connected to you? More on that in a few days.

More content means we need instructional design more than ever

By now you’ve all heard it. Heck by now you have experienced it. I’m talking about the explosion of the digital universe. IDC and EMC have been measuring the size of the Digital Universe for a few years now. This year’s study confirms our digital universe – or all the information that is available to us in a digital format – is growing even faster than we thought. In fact they expect it to grow 44 times what it is now in the next ten years.

This means we have more content available at our fingertips (literally!) than at any other time in history. For learning professionals, this should be a great thing right? We can just connect people to the Internet, where they will be able to find all the content they need.


The amount of content available is the solution and the problem

Time: Think about the last time you had to search for something you knew nothing about. For instance, right now I am very interested in learning about SOAP and REST because these technologies enable cloud applications. Problem with me: I have zero free time. At some point my itch to figure this out is going to overwhelm me, and I’ll sacrifice a few nights of sleep to learn the basics.

Where should I start looking for content? A google search for “soap rest cloud” looks promising, but returns 1,620,000 results. Just eyeballing the top results makes me think the articles will be too advanced for what I know now.¬† I don’t have time to sift through all of that, I just want to know the basics from a source I can trust to give solid technical content.

And are there really 1.620,000 pieces of content available? Probably not. From experience, I know many of the results will be reposts of one good blog post or web page, with some spam and non-relevant links mixed in. I have enough experience to be able to filter through most of the muck, but what if I was a complete novice?

Vocabulary: Every discipline has its own vocabulary. When you study a discipline its one of the first things you learn. Ohm’s law. The Negroponte switch. ADDIE. When you learn these terms, you have a reference for researching more about the terms, learning new things related to the discipline. If you are a total newbie, you may not know the vocabulary of the discipline. This limits how you search for information, and it may be a barrier to finding the digital content you need.

Search Engines: Many times search engines provide results in a chronological order. For example, I couldn’t find a good reference link for the Negroponte Switch, so I gave a Wikipedia link. The Wikipedia article is an orphan, which makes me question its relevance. But even thought I know what this term means, I couldn’t find an article that succinctly describes it. I learned about it in college 10 years ago, so my thought is maybe all of the articles I need are just to old to come up in the first 30 pages of Google results. My experience with the term helped me sift through the content provided, but if I was a total newbie would I have been able to do that?

So we have tons of content, we’ve all agreed on that. But can learners find content when they need it, especially can they find it at the time of a performance need? I’ll touch on that in my next post.