Why are profiles important?
The way profiles works reflects the fact that the quality of communities reflects individual members’ actions, which is the prime driver of the success of a community.
If a member decides not to complete their profile then they’ve chosen to be relatively anonymous, whether they know it or not. But if as community manager you have a large percentage of members that are anonymous this will obviously negative impact on the quality of conversations. Conversely if you have a community where most members have a rich profile which they keep up to date then it’s likely to result in positive conversations. And positive conversations sustained over time help sustain a successful online community.
The value of measuring profiles
Consider the value of profiles in light of the 2008 Tribalization of Business study which found that “the greatest obstacles to making a community work are not technology-related or getting funding, but getting people involved in the community (51%), finding enough time to manage the community (45%), and attracting people to the community (34%)”. Interestingly the same study also reports a disconnection between what organisations’ communities say they are going to measure to track success and those they actually do record. Perhaps to drive the message home we should stress the value of a metric which demonstrates the degree to which profiles have been completed as a proxy measure of community participation, especially considering the findings on the core importance of profiles?
“Based on research in the field of virtual communities, most business thinkers will agree that there are 4 fundamental pillars to successful communities – content, members, member profiles and transactions. If managed properly, these four dynamics can lead to economics of increasing returns that characterize most successful communities.” (‘Understanding the Power of Communities – Even When You Do Not Have Critical Mass of Users’)
The role of the community manager
If members of a community take part in discussions, and express a wish to be part of a group, then it’s the job of the community manager to ask them to complete their profile so other members of the group know who they are discussing with.
The benefits of this approach will show in the quality and number of community discussions. It’s a matter of trust; you are more likely to engage in conversation with when you trust who you are talking to.
To put it another way if you simply invite people to participate with a one-to-many email blast when they’ve shown little desire to take part in discussions, you may get a lot of readers, but you won’t get many people joining in discussions.
Influencing the community eco-system using profiles
From a more scientific viewpoint it’s the role of the community manager to set an evolutionary example in the online eco-system by completing his or her profile to encourage others to imitate. Similarly it’s down to community champions to fully complete their profile as they are leading by example in discussions. In turn community managers and champions should aim to refresh their profile every month; profiles are (to quote Chris Brogan) not a place to dump a snapshot of where you’ve been. It’s an opportunity to stay connected to people, and to demonstrate where you are now, and where you plan to go next.
There’s the additional benefit that when community managers or champions ask members to complete their profile when they first take part in discussions that other readers also see this in public and understand from the benefit in context, not just the principle, and are encouraged to make the same step themselves of adding their profile to take part in discussions.
Consider the scenario of two John Smiths
Two John Smiths are in the same discussion and no-one knows which is which as they haven’t ticked the boxes to show their profile, or have no detail in their displayed profile.
In this situation it’s the job of the community manager to invite them publicly to add their profile so other individuals, as with a normal conversation, take part in discussion on the basis of knowing who they are talking to. It’s obvious that you are much likely to take part in a discussion with people you know. In LinkedIn in the absence of a community manager due to the scale of the undertaking they’ve automated the process so that you are encouraged to complete your profile with a graphic which shows how complete it is.
You are going to invite people for a reason – so they will take part in discussions. To do this successfully they need to complete their profile so people are encouraged to talk to people. This is connected with the benefit of using real names as community members’ display names, rather than anonymous ‘usernames’ for online communities. Understanding how profiles work helps see that non-unique real names are the way forward, as it’s about getting individual members of the community to tell other members who they are, so that other members feel they want to take part in discussion with them. See the recent case of MySpace, which is facing tough competition from the behemoth Facebook, which changed its software to make the use of real names the option of choice for its members. (Meanwhile Faceboook recently took note of the power of its members by putting out its Terms of Service out to vote by the community).
The power of scale unleashed
Indeed the next step, to reiterate, the next step in the process of valuing profiles is for the community manager to advice members how to keep the profile up to date: it shouldn’t just be a place to ‘dump a snapshot of where you’ve been’, but also where you are going. The (‘fractal’) business bottom line is that the more individuals within a community take this approach the more this scales up and positively impacts on the value of the community as a whole.