It’s naive to believe that an active community will benefit the host organisation.
It’s more likely the organisation picks up the tab while members reap the rewards.
If those rewards (belonging, support, influence, and exploration) overlap with the organisation’s goals (advocacy, retention, innovation, reduced costs), the organisation benefits. But direct overlaps are rare and there are usually many hops between an organisation’s goals and that of its members.
It’s no different to hosting an open bar, you might generate some goodwill, gain a few good leads and have a slightly more influential voice in the discussion – but there isn’t usually a direct connection to value.
Communities only create value if they establish or change the social norms of their members.
There is a BIG gap between building a community and creating social norms. To cross that gap you have to do what so many people are reluctant to do, exert influence.
Reluctance To Exert Influence
If you don’t exert influence, you’re probably not going to get much value.
You’re already exerting influence too. You have already established what behavior isn’t allowed. We just want to nudge that further along the road.
If you leave the community solely to its own devices, you’re resting your odds of success upon serendipitous luck. And if the community doesn’t generate clear value, it’s usually shut down.
We need to exert influence to establish social norms that benefit the organisation.
How Social Norms Emerge
Social norms emerge from three things:
1. What individual members believe (individual beliefs). This affects what people are likely to do when they initially join the group and how they intend to participate.
2. What members see others doing (observable behavior). This suggests what behavior is appropriate within the group.
3. How others respond to what we do (learned behavior). We pick up on implicit and explicit cues about socially desirable behavior within the group. This helps shape and normalize behavior.
These are your three tools for exerting influence.
Your ability to exert influence falls within recruiting members whose beliefs most closely align with the social norm you’re attempting to create, showcasing the desired behavior to others, and nurturing the social norms you do see emerging.
3 Approaches To Developing Social Norms
This provides you with the three possible tools to developing social norms.
Your use of each depends upon the stage of the community lifecycle. We can put this under three broad approaches, (1) nurturing, (2) foment and foster, (3) establish and enforce.
In a little more depth.
1. Establish and Enforce A Social Norm
I used to work at a private club which explicitly advised against suits and cell-phone use. This was a big draw for a particular group. We were attracted by this norm, embraced this norm and even helped reinforce it. Newcomers would see how other people dressed, would react if they made calls in the venue, and over time embraced the norm as their own.
Setting a social norm gives you the most control. This works best for new groups. It’s hard to force a new social norm from the top-down upon an existing group. Most failed stories about organisational change come from failed top-down efforts to change behavior. Setting the social norm works best when creating a new group and you have either 1) a large amount of pre-existing credibility with the group or 2) you understand deeply what would resonate among the group. For the latter, you need a decade of experience or a lot of in-depth research.
Setting a social norm can work well to splinter fringe members from existing groups to your cause.
2. Foment And Foster Behavior That Spreads
This is where you work with a few close associates (friends, colleagues, or believers in the social norm) to exhibit the new behavior. This only works if they like you and believe in the behavior.
This usually means they have a meaningful input into what this social norm should be and it’s developed by consensus. Your level of control is thus less. You can’t dictate the norm.
A good example would be things like purchases, book reviews, and participation. If on the day you announce an event you have 23 people primed to tweet or share that they plan to attend, this can quickly become a social norm for the group. But you have to get buy-in from those 23 people first. And the best way to get buy in is to ask them what should happen at the event.
They then positively respond to one another and to others who also plan to attend the event.
This works in online communities as much as offline. If you want colleagues sharing more information, it’s a good idea to establish the quality of information you want with a few closer colleagues first and plan out a month of participating positively to the contributions of each other who share that quality of knowledge until it becomes an established social norm.
3. Nurture existing behavior.
Here you look for pre-existing activity which mostly closely resembles the behavior you want to see and give it more attention. That more attention means featuring it, showcasing it, mentioning it to others, writing about it etc…The Heath brothers called this looking for the bright spots.
This works best in large groups with a high volume of activity. You sift through the activity to find the behavior you can nurture. Once you find the behavior you like, you can turn it into a sticky-thread, have senior people respond to it, and link to it from other articles.
You repeat this process as the behavior gradually drifts closer to the social norm you want.
Two key takeaways.
1. If you don’t exert influence, you’re unlikely to extract value. This is fine if you’re hosting the community as a charitable endeavour. But don’t be surprised if your budget (or role) gets cut when money is needed elsewhere. The more you can demonstrate value, the more resources you have to further develop the community.
2. Diagnose your community size and control before exerting influence. Your ability to foster social norms depends largely upon the size and maturity of the community. The more established the group, the less influence you have. If you’re not having much success right now, you’re probably using the wrong strategy.
p.s. We invite you to learn more about Advanced Engagement Methods. This is our 12-week intensive online program which will equip you with the skills, knowledge, and resources you need to drive quality engagement.
Registration closes on Feb 29, learn more here: http://www.feverbee.com/aem