Creating value from the overlap between networks and communities

What does the difference between social networks and communities mean to
business when looked at from both a marketing and an individual participant (customer) perspective?

It’s often said that the single most important feature that distinguishes a social network
from a community is how people are held together on these sites:

  • Why people join networks vs communities: old/new relationships vs sharing common interest with strangers.
  • What grows networks vs communities: social activity (offline = drink with mates) vs cmty: relationships/recognition/reward around common interest.

But what isn’t always explored is how the power of social networks vs communities varies from a participant point of view. So here I go in just two paragraphs:

1. To put it simply the power of community is that of influence with strangers, especially of top contributors/superfans for branded communities.

2. In social networks the impact is viral, that is the so-called network effect, where like
online dating its power is the ability online to connect with networks of networks – also known as ‘degrees of separation’ – that makes online networks especially powerful. Likewise a participant in a social network can have a disproportionate effect when an idea or call to action ‘goes viral’ when it gets picked up and acted on by complete strangers.

So business strategists therefore have to approach them differently. What makes it confusing is that your market may contain both a community and a network, for example at Lego there is a community of enthusiasts which create a lot of content but contribute little relative to the business bottom line. And then there is a large consumer mass market for the Lego product which can be found online through social networks like Facebook. Of course this is an artificial distinction too, as in a real sense which takes time to value for both businesses and participants: “Everyone in the community is a customer.”

At KLM they are harnessing power of social networks to allow people to join up with other travellers and book a seat next to someone with a shared interest – creating a mini-community for the duration of the flight?

So the real objective to create value may not simply be to understand the difference between networks and communities, but in knowing how and when they complement each other when approached from an individual participant viewpoint, and how individuals can create value through their actions in your online community or social network, and how they overlap based on a participant perspective. Make sense?

I’ve jotted down the differences faced with the same challenge to better show what I mean, using the example of a new health education gaming device, as outlined below:

Mass market: social network  Niche: online community
Business goal: <where fits business goals> <where fits business goals>
Measure: <enter network measurement> <enter community measurement>
acqusition/activation/purchase engagement/purchase
Target activity: Example: launch of a new gaming device Example: launch of a new gaming device
Internal resources: Social media manager together with /design/marketing: reporting to Head of Marketing Community manager together with design/marketing: reporting to Head of Marketing
Market focus: New customers Existing customers
Social tools: Facebook page/top blogs Branded community
Social monitoring: Use tool such as Radian6 to monitor network virality -> conversions Community analytics -> conversions
Key participants: Bloggers/influencers Superfans
Cross-over between network and community: Blogger access to talk with superfans Superfan response to new gaming device
Comfort-zone killer: Allow influential bloggers to talk with superfans Allow superfans to feedback on early stage product design ideas via private community

Background notes

Branded community builders Lithium comes to online community via games which are a natural community where people did not know each other, but have acquired a shared interest!

For definition source see the Lithium post from Dr Michael Wu, who goes into greater detail on the difference between networks and community (wide but shallow vs narrow but deep) in his post ‘Still Fishing Where the Fish Are?’:

Social networks
i. Everyone has their own social network (whether online or offline). Everyone has friends, families, and people they are acquainted with.
ii. In a social network, people are held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships, such as kinship, friendship, classmates, colleagues, business partners, etc.
iii. The primary reason that people join a social networking site is to maintain old relationships and establish new ones to expand their network.
iv. Primary ‘enabler’ are a [common activity] in a social network.

i. Communities are held together by common interest or specific objective in a business setting. It maybe a hobby, something the community members are passionate about, a common goal, a common project, or merely the preference for a similar lifestyle, geographical location, or profession.
ii. Clearly people join the community because they care about this common interest that glues the community members together.
iii. Some stay because they felt the urge to contribute to the cause; others come because they can benefit from being part of the community.
iv. Primary enabler in community is [relationships], as these develop as a result of shared interests.

Yes, I was in the audience wearing an orange hoodie. No, that’s not me!

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.


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:

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]