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Your Ecosystem’s Maturity Should Guide Your Big Community Decisions

Richard Millington
Richard Millington

Founder of FeverBee

Adapt Your Strategy To Your Ecosystem’s Maturity

Should every organisation embrace the ‘community everywhere’ approach?

i.e. should you be engaging your audience across multiple platforms?

If you’re developing a community for a large organisation or within a vast sector, the community everywhere approach is ideal. 

But what if you’re running a small B2B customer support community?

Should you still spend your time engaging with your audience across multiple platforms and building community across multiple channels? 

Can your sector even support this? Is it big and active enough? Do you have people eager to step up and lead? 

The answer depends on your ecosystem’s maturity.  

A mature, vibrant, ecosystem requires you to take a very different approach to an ecosystem which is in its infancy. 

In this article, we’re going to cover what a mature ecosystem looks like, the four drivers of ecosystem maturity, and which approach you should take based on your ecosystem’s maturity.

What Does A Mature Ecosystem Look Like?

While filming some new courses recently, I asked my production crew where they go to learn and get help with the equipment they use.

Every one of them said the same thing.

They go to product-specific Facebook groups.

There is a product-specific group for almost every Sony product videographers and photographers use.

Here you can see just a small sample of hundreds of active groups.

A list of Facebook groups about Sony products.

These groups are typically large, highly active, and incredibly valuable to the audience. 

Now compare this to the camcorder section of the official Sony community.

A screenshot showing the official Sony community which is less active.

The official community isn’t dead, but it’s not thriving either. 

Consider how remarkable this is for a second….

Despite all the time, energy, and resources Sony has invested in engaging members on their costly platform run by verified Sony representatives, their audience clearly prefers cheap platforms hosted by random strangers

And we haven’t even begun to really dive deep into the full ecosystem yet. In addition to Facebook groups there are Subreddits, StackOverflows, WhatsApp groups and all the other channels where Sony customers can engage with one another. There is no shortage of influencers either. 

Almost all of the discussion about Sony products has shifted to platforms Sony doesn’t control. 

How Mature Is Your Ecosystem?

This sounds like a criticism of Sony. But, in reality, it’s a testament to their success and popularity. Not every brand has people eager to create groups on their behalf (or people willing to join them!). 

Sony is in the vanguard of the ‘Community Everywhere’ era. Their audience engages with Sony products everywhere and Sony is one of a growing number of organisations which needs to adapt to that. 

But not every brand is Sony. If you’re running a small community for a niche B2B product, you aren’t going to have hundreds of Facebook groups. The ecosystem isn’t big enough to support that. 

The strategy you need to adopt today depends largely on four key factors which are highly visible when we explore the Sony ecosystem. 

These drivers are as follows: 

Driver 1: Audience Size

The size of your audience is a decisive factor in and your approach to community.

Sony is a huge organisation with millions of customers around the world.

This means leaders have a deep well of people to draw potential followers from when creating groups, channels, or other media. 

This is why organisations in the B2B sector which sell highly specialised products to a far smaller audience wouldn’t have the plethora of leaders creating their own third-party channels.

There often isn’t a large enough audience to make it worth their while.  

The larger your potential audience becomes, the more likely you need to adopt a ‘community everywhere’ approach.

Driver 2: Existing Connections Between The Audience

A unique factor in Sony’s ecosystem is photographers and videographers are deeply interconnected (with or without Sony).

They have a natural tendency to talk and share advice with one another.

They frequently collaborate on projects with one another and you need multiple people for a film shoot. 

The audience doesn’t require Sony to connect them. Even if Sony didn’t exist, the audience would still engage with one another.

These connections make it easier for people to launch and quickly grow a group without the organisation’s involvement. 

In sectors where the audience has no natural tendency to connect and relies on a brand to connect them, it’s far less likely these groups will naturally develop.

It will simply be too difficult for most people to find others in their space and benefit from referral traffic.

Driver 3: Types of Interactions

Facebook groups (and similar platforms) aren’t like-for-like replacements for traditional brand-hosted communities. 

While people come to the official Sony community to ask questions and get an answer, on third-party platforms they engage in a multitude of other interactions. 

Yes, there are still lots of support-based questions in there, but there are also:

  • Sharing and learning best practices. 
  • Sharing of work and getting feedback (or just showing off).
  • People looking for jobs and others recruiting. 
  • Buying and selling relevant products.
  • Product recommendations
  • Upcoming events 
  • etc…

The nature of Facebook (with its easy and natural ability to share multimedia content) makes it a natural fit for the kinds of discussions which rarely happen in a forum-centred environment. 

If your audience only needs to ask questions and get answers in a text-based format, then a forum-centric strategy might still make sense. 

But if your audience strongly desired different types of sharing (especially multimedia sharing involving photos, audio, video, code snippets and more), third-party platforms are typically a better fit.

Driver 4: Types of Interactions

Every Sony group I’ve found thus far has been created by volunteers.

Yet, a deeper investigation of these volunteers reveals something interesting.

Many volunteers work or run organisations which sell products to the same audience as Sony.

This doesn’t mean the groups are flooded with direct promotion, but it’s clear having access to a large audience would benefit their business. 

While many group leaders might genuinely want to build a community around a product they love, I’d suspect an even larger majority might have a clear financial incentive for building a group around Sony products. This is a good thing!

This fits into our thesis about where and why experts proactively share content today. They do it in places where they can build an audience which might benefit them in the future. The same is true of the leaders who step up to run these groups. It’s not overt, but they could benefit by building a large audience. 

The more the community supports an ecosystem of businesses, the more incentive there is for leaders to create their own groups and channels.

Evaluate Your Ecosystem Using The Maturity Index

We can use these four drivers to create a simple scoring system as you can see below.

For each of the following areas, you can assign a score from 0 to 20 depending on how far along you the ecosystem is in each category.

For example, an organisation with a potential audience size of 12,000 people which primarily asks and answers questions through vendor events and a hosted community might score as you see below.

There is naturally some subjectivity which creeps into this. Different people might assign different scores to each category. Don’t be too concerned about that. 

What matters is you have a broad idea of the scoring for each element using the criteria above and can see what kind of approach makes sense for your organisation. 

In this example above, we would see this brand is probably at the limits of its central Q&A strategy and should consider an integrated strategy.

Sony Ecosystem Maturity

However, if we were to do a ‘back of the napkin’ (i.e. without data) review of Sony, we would probably have a scoring similar to the one below.

Here it’s clear the audience size, connectedness, types of interaction, and businesses supported are significantly bigger.

This places them in the ‘leader-led’ strategy approach. 

We can briefly review each of these approaches below. 

Deciding Which Strategy To Pursue

Once you have an idea of the environment you’re in, you can begin to decide which kind of strategy you should pursue.

Treat the below as a broad guideline rather than a fixed rule.

Every organisation is different and must deal with unique circumstances. 

The maturity of your ecosystem should dictate what kind of community approach is best suited to your organisation. 

The more mature and fertile the ecosystem, the more you shift to a decentralised approach – one where you engage and support in platforms which you don’t control.

Next Steps

Your community strategy should be decided as much by external factors as internal factors. Too many copycat approaches fail because the ecosystem isn’t mature enough to support the approach. 

It wouldn’t make sense, for example, to pursue a hub-and-spoke strategy if your audience is small, disconnected, and primarily looking to ask questions and get job help. You need to connect the audience together first and increase its size. 

Likewise, it wouldn’t make sense to pursue a centralised forum strategy if your community is vast, dispersed, and supporting an ecosystem of partners who could be motivated to build their own groups. 

Treat the scoring system here as an approximate guide rather than a rigid system. Yet use it to guide you to the kind of approach you should pursue for your ecosystem’s maturity. 

If you need some help, feel free to contact FeverBee

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