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How to design large complex online communities using social science

Sorry if I jump around a bit in this blog post but by reading these points, and listening to the video, you’ll have a better idea of how social science can help you design a successful community, using a specific kind of moderation approach. Or at least how to impress to use the difference between a theory vs design-type approach to community building to respond better to new customer needs.

OK, I am paraphrasing here so bear with me, with me taking notes from Robert Kraut’s Stanford presentation above. My aim is to show how social science can inform good online community design. So the first point is that Kraut makes that I want to highlight is that real community design is “highly multidimensional”. And that this is at odds with logic of social science which seeks to understand effects of one variable at a time, while all other variables are else held constant, to discover causality. OK, so that’s some of the fundamentals sorted. Skip to this section on the video to hear the explanation.

This social science approach is at odds with (i.e. online community) design where you are trying to figure out the configuration of all possible variables to have the effect that you want to have. Kraut says that basically with design you don’t want one variable at a time you want ‘kitchen sink experiments which are theory-based experiments which you want to try out in a relatively cheap way.

But they use agent based modelling – allow theory to be tested as models in community environment, change member behaviour, which change environment (see 1:12:56) – where the ‘Identity Benefit’ is greater when agent’s interests are similar to group interests:

Here’s how to simply capture that ‘Identity Benefit':
# viewed messages that match // # viewed messages

In comparison for the other principal type of community benefit to members Kraut identifies, the ‘Bond-based benefit’ is greater when there is repeated interaction. Kind of obvious I guess, but this is social science, so still worth stating!

Agent-based modelling and simulated communities results

And from simulated communities what Kraut found is that the simulated agent models (taking the place of community members) produced results very similar to that observed in real Usenet groups.

So the next step is that if we have a working agent model that shows how community works we can test out different types of moderation techniques, which can test in this simulated community.

From this Kraut found that ‘Personalised moderation’ out performs ‘Community level moderation’, though this really matters significantly when dealing with a large volume of content, or diverse content. In other words ‘Personalised moderation’ works well with large complex communities.

personalised-moderation

And as an example, I see this personalised moderation functionality  appears to be available in community platform Telligent’s latest version of their analytics, which sounds useful. Be good to know which other major community platforms like Lithium offer such beneficial functionality, and how well it really works in the day-to-day:

Your community can now offer its participants dynamic and personalized recommendations of both people and content. Telligent Analytics looks at your community’s data, compares it with each member’s unique interests, and then delivers personalized recommendations to that member. Telligent Analytics doesn’t just tell you how your community’s doing; it applies the analytics to improve your community members’ experience.

So if you want to go into this study applied in more practical detail here’s Robert Kraut’s paper (pdf) with the graphs and stats:

A Simulation for Designing Online Community: Member Motivation, Contribution, and Discussion Moderation – (pdf: 10.1.1.141.6657)

Or maybe you’d like to read the chapter’s of Kraut’s 2012 bookBuilding successful online communities: Evidence-based social design:

  • Resnick, P. & Kraut, R. Introduction [PDF]
  • Kraut, R. E. & Resnick, P. Encouraging contributions to online communities [PDF]
  • Ren, Y, Kraut, R. E. & Kiesler, S. Encouraging commitment in online communities [PDF]
  • Kraut, R. E., Burke, M. & Riedl, J. Dealing with newcomers [PDF]
  • Kiesler, S, Kittur, A., Kraut, R., & Resnick, P. Regulating behavior in online communities [PDF]
  • Resnick, P, Konstan, J & Chen, Y. Starting a community. [PDF]

How your community can help SEO (and vice versa)

I recently contributed to the discussion on the community manager forum e-mint on ways to make money from your community, and still keep your members happy. Today I was contacted by Peter Belden at Extole with a way which I’d tried myself when I worked at Shopping.com after the impact of Google’s search algorithm changes. Namely using user generated content to improve your site’s search rankings, and thus your ability for people to find you and shop if you have a store. So without further ado, here are their 3 big tips:

There are three tips that marketers should keep in mind when launching C2C social marketing programs to help impact and improve their SERP:

1. Engage your customers wherever they are: Customers engage with brands across their websites, social networks, purchase and post-purchase environments, in-store and more. The most effective way to drive participation in a C2C program is to promote it across channels; via your corporate website, email blasts, and on social networks to drive the highest awareness, participation, and amplification rate.
By giving consumers the option to decide where they want to engage, you will drive higher participation and foster more creation and sharing of stories.

2. Make sharing easy: Make it easy for customers to share stories about your brand, products, and services with their friends. Include relevant sharing options (email, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.).

3. Increase participation through incentives: Give customer advocates a compelling reason to share with their friends. This could be an internal offer (free goods, discounts, or loyalty points), gift cards, or charitable donations. Make sure there is an incentive for their friends to make sharing more attractive. With relevant and appropriate incentives, marketers will see more sharing from their advocates, which will produce more social signals that can be picked up by the search engines.

The Bottom Line – Cultivating Consumer-Generated Content About Your Brand Is a Must

By implementing C2C social marketing programs, brands can cultivate advocate sharing of stories with their friends and social communities. These stories will be amplified across the social web and pulled into search engine algorithms, which improves brands’ SERP. With the ongoing updates to search engine algorithms, consumers have increasingly more power over brands’ SERP, making one thing abundantly clear for marketers—harnessing the power of customers advocates to create stories about brands, products, and services is not a nice-to-have, it’s an increasingly critical element of brands’ marketing strategies.

I just ferreted out a community marketing plan I wrote for Shopping.com back in 2011 where I tried to sketch out a strategy to use community-driven SEO to drive revenue and fund incentives to attract more members. Have a read of how I tried to implement that strategy, or simply drop me a line if you want to know more in detail of how I can help your community:

How members attract members via SEO!

How members attract members via SEO!

Thanks to a re-tweet from Blaise Grimes-Viort I recall an aspect of this SEO community optimisation I suggested to the Shopping.com software guys at the time, which was to allow the community administrator to ‘tag’ reviews and guides with SEO friendly keywords. That way we could legitmately add value by making useful content more visible to customers via search engines. And we could use free tools like Google Adwords Keyword Tool and discussion with our head of SEO in light of business priorities, where to focus our efforts, not to mention where there are opportunities not spotted by competitors which make it easier to rank more highly for keywords. Hey, I even sat in a workshop with Google where they flagged up such opportunities for under-used keywords to attract people.

I don’t mean editing people’s text content to make it more SEO-friendly, which is hardly going to make community members more amenable to making contributions! Rather tweaking your software platform to allow for ‘tags’ to be added, much as WordPress does for this post. You could even auto-generate a set of suggested relevant tags for the community member to choose from, the way you approach it is up to you. But it does take some research, and it’s worth working with your head of SEO, or SEO consultant to get the right. For example in using WordPress tags for SEO I would heed this advice from wpbegineer:

Often people mistake tags to be like meta keywords for your blogs. This is the main reason why they try to add as many tags as possible. Tags are NOT meta keywords for your blog. At least not by default. Popular plugins like WordPress SEO by Yoast allows you to use your tag values to be in the meta keywords template. But if you don’t have these plugins configured to do that, then your tags DO NOT work like meta keywords.