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]

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 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 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 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.


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 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!

Who believes in the 90-9-1 rule?


A second question on LinkedIn from Dr Michael Wu, Principal Scientist at Lithium Technologies:

Is there something more accurate and precise than the 90-9-1 rule out there? IMHO, Lorenz Curve and Gini Coefficient. Do you know anything else? The Economics of 90-9-1

My answer as part of yesterday’s Online Community Manager group discussion kind of sums up where I’ve got to after reading Dr Wu’s blog previous post and this latest one:

I like the approach you have using economics-based models. I’ve come at it from a more particpant-observer type sociological point of view, so what I’d like to see is for your analysis to return a new ‘rule of thumb’ based on your in-depth data analysis.

The 90-9-1 rule is useful to community managers because it helps provides a starting point for understanding, as Arantza says above. For example it would be useful to know from a practical point of view whether for more open communities (as opposed to niche market research or project based communities) the 90-9-1 is a useful tool for helping launch a new community.

It’s partly about creating a social dashboard that can explain to a member of senior management why a certain kind of community activity may help or hinder greater participation.

I did this kind of work previously in the National Health Service, creating simple reports on the success of a national public health initiative, which worked well for senior managers (government ministers in that case).

So I come back to the challenge, the age old relationship between lab & fieldwork if you like, what would be the new rule of thumb/thumbs?

I’ve chosen to highlight multiple feedback loops as a useful tool, to help drive top contributors for example (taken from the HP Labs research), but I take your point that for commercial ROI purposes more precision is required. To put it another way in such a dynamic social context how does precision allow you to create heuristics for day to day community management?

Do you believe in the 90-9-1 rule?


A question on LinkedIn from Dr Michael Wu, Principal Scientist at Lithium Technologies:

Do you believe in the 90-9-1 rule? Do you think it is a hard and fast rule, or do you believe that it is just a rule of thumb?

What do 10+ years of data across 200+ communities say about the 90-9-1 rule?

My answer as part of the Online Community Manager group discussion kind of sums up where I’ve got to, hence why I thought it worth reproducing here:

Hi Michael,

It’s getting a little late on Friday evening here in the UK but I wanted to share my experience in case it’s of use to you.

I tried to use the 90-9-1 rule as a heuristic to help guide community development here: – and used that rule of thumb in designing a drupal-based community metric package to help monitor the balanced between readers and contributors in various facets of measurable development.

In addition I believe it’s worth considering the value of designing feedback loops, so that your top contributors for example are rewarded for their efforts. I did a slideshare sketching out that concept here: – in fact that got me thinking about the broader topic of ‘viral loops’ but that’s another story with I was sharing with some great people at the Social Media World Forum in London this week.

Otherwise thinking about the 90-9-1 rule also has underlined to me recently the value of measuring offline use of online communities, especially to the majority of ‘readers’. I’ve blogged on that aspect here:

Hope that’s of use.


Stuart G. Hall

PS: I’m off on a skiing today but hopefully I’ll get chance to read Dr Wu’s in-depth piece on the subject when I get back from Rauris in Austria!

Pic from Ava Maria Seven’s photostream.

How to radically reduce your R&D costs


The answer to how to radically reduce your R&D costs is to involve customers in the product development cycle, using social tools as well as face to face meetings. That’s the powerful experience of ‘community chick’ Dawn Lacallade of SolarWinds, the US-based web-based network management software people at yesterday’s Telligent webinar. For your consideration I screen-grabbed the slide in question below, and should have the full set online shortly.

How using social tools to involve customers can reduce R&D costs

In summary, thanks to this intro text on the Telligent blog, SolarWinds has been able to lower costs, increase profits, and speed product enhancements by focusing on these core areas: (1) Aligning multiple departments around one community (2) Evaluating metrics that tie to company objectives (3) Monitoring growth and participation (4) Identifying influencers, contributors, and connectors.

I also liked the fact that when quizzed as to why there was a 30% involvement rate of staff in the community Dawn said this fitted their community, but it was for each business to find the balance right for them – neither swamping a community nor under-supporting it.

Full set of slides and notes, and a recording of the webinar here.

An Abstract Framework for Modeling Argumentation in Virtual Communities


Found on the blog beamtenherrschaft, a research blog about information systems, complex networks, technology enhanced learning, social software, communities of practice, web 2.0 and more:

“Classic argumentative discussions can be found in a variety of domains from traditional scientific publishing to today’s modern social software. An interactive argumentative discussion usually consists of an initial proposition stated by a single creator and followed by supporting propositions or counter-propositions from other contributors, usually part of the same virtual community. Thus, the actual argumentation semantics is hidden in the content created by the contributors. In this article, the authors describe an abstract model for argumentation, which captures the semantics independently of the domain. Following a modularized approach, the authors also take into account additional important aspects of the argumentation and present a possible use of the framework in the context of virtual communities.”

To obtain a copy of the entire article, click on the link below (costs $30).

Member organisations and online communities

Different types of online communities require different approaches.  We hear a lot about consumer-driven communities with large numbers of members, or business to business communities for select professionals, but less of the needs of member organisation’s online communities. Understanding the needs of your audience, whether through intensive market research, creating personas of your typical audience types and their needs, or benchmarking what your competitors are offering, all has a part to play. What that doesn’t always give you though is a wider perspective on the specific needs of your member organisation…

The difference between B2C and B2B communities


Interesting comparison on the difference between B2C and B2B communities from B2B expert Vanessa DiMauro who says on the community managers’ forum e-mint: “B2B online community building is less common than B2C communities and is just starting to garner attention in the media. I have been working exclusively in B2B for many years and i can say the entire strategy, process, rules and metrics are very different than b2c.” Sound interesting to you too?

Worth also checking out Vanessa’s Leader Networks White Paper (pdf) on the subject of creating professional peer-to-peer communities.

One final thought from discussion on e-mint is that for B2B community management it helps if you have some business experience to bring to bear. For example Vanessa’s presentation makes clear B2B communities benefit from simple presentation, not overloading with information. One further issue would be to discuss the pros and cons of anonymity in this B2B space, and possibly the value of profiles. One to come back to, for sure.

See below for her slideshare on this subject: