Facebook does not own community

Written by Jussi Tolvi.

The November Building Online Communities MeetUp guest speaker was Shelley Taylor, who has been doing exciting things in tech for 20 years. In her own words an earlier venture of hers, a digital entertainment platform, was “both a huge success but also a failure” (the success part was 300,000 users). Very Silicon Valley!

A few years ago Shelley started thinking about old-fashioned fan clubs, which have of course been around for ages. Originally using magazines and letters in the post to communicate, it would be easy to think that Facebook and Twitter had completely destroyed the idea of fan clubs. But as is becoming more and more obvious, social media has fallen prey to its own success: artists, record labels, athletes, brands, can’t actually reach their audience on social media any more. This is largely due to the changing business models of the platforms – they rely on advertising for their revenue, so anyone wanting to reach people on them will now have to pay for the privilege (you can read articles with titles such as “What I learned spending $2 Million on Facebook Ads”). In plain terms, the Facebook algorithm will not show your update on your followers’ feed for free. And there are other pitfalls too. There are in the region of 60 Rihanna apps available. Sadly, they all fall under the umbrella of “unauthorized” – the artist has nothing to do with them.


So it might not be an exaggeration to conclude that social media marketing is mostly a waste of time and money. What is needed instead is direct contact and communication with your audience. Face to face, phone, email, can still reach people. Apps may also work better (if you get people to download them first!), as push notifications do get noticed. More old-fashioned, and more hard work, but probably also deeper and better quality communication as well?

This is where Shelley’s Digital Fan Clubs idea comes in. An artist can set up their own branded app, provide content through it, and actually reach their fans who can download the app for free. And it’s not just pop stars that can use the template. Anyone who needs to communicate with specific groups of people can use the same idea. And other organisations have seen the potential benefits, especially those with local information to share (such as a student housing provider).

intro_screenAn interesting and timely application of the idea is Shelley’s prototype refugee support app. Any organisation providing help and support for refugees can app information about their services to the app database, and refugees can then easily find local sources of support, whether legal support or information, food, shelter, or medical help (see image). By the way, it sounded like the biggest issue with this app was collating the data from all the aid agencies into a usable format. That does not surprise me at all…


Should we be more worried about the usual than the unusual?

imagesOut of all he unusual things discovered in Britain’s sewers sex ‘adult’ toys surprise me the least. I suspect its quite easy to lose some smaller ‘items’ down the u-bend!

It’s the list of do’s and don’ts and the consequences of these items cluttering our sewage system that interest me more.

The odd butt plug going amiss is an accident, but what are the regular items that we are constantly chucking down the sewers that are causing the biggest problems?

So these are the questions the latest ‘sewer news‘ news raise for me?

As a mooncup user of over 10 years I am very happy to longer flush any ‘over taxed’ sanitary items down the loo (although obviously I do flush lots of cups of blood – not on the P list). But what damage do tampons do? And are people flushing the plastic backed sanitary towels – is this an issue? Are these more or less dangerous than disposable wipes?

I always got that flushing fats down the sink is a bad idea, but as a 5th floor flat dweller, I now realise that flushing them down the loo just creates a problem further on (saving the pipes in your property is only part of the story). Is the tactic of diluting it and breaking it down with washing liquid still not good enough? Is this only about big batches of fat or is all fat in the system bad?

What about coffee grounds? which seem to clog up the pipework in many a victorian building in London. I really want to find a way to stop every at google campus flushing them down the sink – we flush them down the loo. Good or bad? Is the bin or food recycling the only option?

I am sure the list of questions water customers have is longer than this and whilst I know the advice is to keep to ‘Paper, Pee and Poo’, individuals will often make decisions based on ‘least worst option’ – I would be interested to know what questions others have.

For me, I want to know what the top 10 worst (rather then unusual) items are that damage our sewerage system.

Please join in!


The power of complaining

I always encourage people to complain. You spend good money on things (through buying or taxation) and it seems mad that we accept poor quality, bad value and shoddy service. But complaining is hard it takes time and energy and we don’t always know what ‘good’ is and when services fall short. Complaints are also not the same – there is a  big difference between your water supply not working in your home and thinking that generally, a service could have been delivered better. The staff a bit nicer.

For me complaining is not about the one interaction I may have with a company or public service that was a bit shoddy – for me it is about the next customer too. If the company does not know that this a problem that affects many their customers how can they change what they do. Get better. This is why I complain. Lots.

I complain mostly to banks, especially because they ask you to either write or use a premium rate number to make a compliant. This, in my view, is a poor service tax and is completely unacceptable. It should never cost me money to complain.  I also always ask how things will change as a result of my complaint.

It is part of the reason why I went for a role at CCWater. I wanted to champion the consumer and level the playing field for customers in a sector that used to be a public utility where the relationship is complex. You can’t move water supplier. It is also a vital service (water and sewage) that keep us healthy. Water is precious.

As always these things are not simple. In water a complaint about price, a leak, customer service, a major incident are all different. They alert a company to something fundamental and sometimes unique about their service offer and how it can improve or deal with risk and disaster. But whatever the complaint, they are all about a element of service delivery and how it can improve or evolve.

Water is not an easy  business, but it is affected by the weather (flood or drought) with an infrastructure that is buried underground with expensive and technical equipment that purifies the water we drink. It needs keep pace with the things (like pesticides) that sneak in and affect it. Most business will never have to deal with such a complex set of external, unknown factors.

The bill and its cost is the simplest complaint of all, and in most cases it is the only interaction we ever have with a water company. The only lever we have as customers.

So what am I getting at?

I have heard a series of presentations from water companies today about their complaint numbers.  The payments they get for delivering water in part relies on good performance in this area. I am generally quite impressed, water companies are not slow in innovating around complaints. They do see them as fundamental to service delivery. They have an incentive to do well.

So here are my key thoughts from the presentations today:

How do you measure light touch comments and complaints made through non-traditional providers?

Complaint numbers for most industries are collated from the phone and email complaints. But there are many more ways to complain – they may be a quick picture of a water leak from the phone on twitter. Is it captured? Does it count? Do you ask people to go and fill in an online form? (yes Islington Council I am looking at you here)

Is the sector interacting with new platforms powered by consumers rather than themselves? I am keen to talk to Resolver about how complaints to Thames Water and other companies is going. How are they planning to disrupt complaints ? What can water companies learn (what can CCWater learn?). Are these complaints measured? Are they included in the ‘official’ figures?

Is the process for comments and ideas different to complaints?

Islington once sent out a great set of posters saying they were a listening Council. They wanted ideas as well as complaints. But there was a no process for an idea or comment. Everything was treated as a complaint. You can’t have the same process for engaging people around ideas as you do problems. You have to build new systems that do the right job.

How can water companies really engage customers in co-designing and even prototyping their future? A good case in point is redesigning bills. Water bills go out once a year the window of opportunity to change it narrow – not very agile.  Maybe there is a group of customers that could form something more dynamic than a focus group and instead become the companies early trial group. Here I always use the example of the Maramarati (of which i am a dedicated member) – a dedicated fan group who test ideas (mostly marketing) for social media before they are launched on the public. It is harder to engage people around being a special-sub group around water. Not impossible. But its a challenge worth investigating (I see water conservation and health being key pulls). These customers could be tour beta testers and changes can be made before roll out. Real critical friends.

I am interested to here more innovation and ideas of good practice in this area and if there is inspiration from other sectors.

How do you think ahead?

Competition is about to come into water for non-domestic customers and there could be some spin-offs for household customers – businesses demanding more and better can drive change as a whole. But I don’t think this is the only change driver – technology, environment and political and policy changes will create a different expectation from customers. How you use all these factors as a positive rather than something that takes you by surprise.

How do we (CCWater) use what we know about water companies and their customers to campaign back to water regulators and the Government?

I don’t think this role (a LCA) is a one way street. Meeting the challenge of us all using less water is not just the responsibility of water companies. But its not clear who is taking the lead. The same with the complete arse about tit way the social tariff has been done (more on this at a later date). What are the issues we can take back the other way, bring together a coalition of interested parties and make a real difference? There was a long list produced at recent stakeholder meetings and I would be interested if, in developing its workplan, CCWater will be introducing some bark as well as bite.


Communities that drive positive change

Screenshot 2015-10-17 11.52.56

Patrick from Which? is a bit of an old hand. He’s been running their community discussion website, Which? Convo,  since 2010. But Which? is even older. It was started in 1957. So how has a membership organisation that was founded before the internet risen to the challenge of connecting with people online?

Since 2010 ‘Which? Convo ‘ has had 8m visits, 130,000 comments, 400,000 poll votes, 200+ authors, 4,000 conversations – and all of that starting with a blog on WordPress and expanding to using Buddypress. It just goes to show you don’t have to go all flash and bespoke to get started or even to grow. Their revamped site is still built on the same system.

Interestingly, for an organisation whose funding is from their paying, subscription magazine members, this site is for everyone and they don’t do a hard sell. They see the value in their community members powering the campaigns that bring about change – and then, I guess, cementing their reputation as the effective friend to consumers. 

So here are some of the lessons we learnt.

Nurturing keen members

Rather than a free for all forum they have divided the new site into subject areas. As their consumer brief covers so many items, this allows the community to navigate to their area of interest. This means they can also create content written by their experts and by members who have a deep interest in a subject. Giving active members the space to blog is one way to reward activity and also allows people to help share the agenda. 

But they also use polls to generate content and use this as a way to test ideas for future campaigns. 

Most useful was their approach to criticism and controversy. There is unlikely to be an online community where people don’t disagree with each other or take issue with your policy line. They see this as part of the territory, allowing discussion to happen, using member blogs to show both sides of the argument and being honest when its just not something that Which? as an organisation can agree with!

Using conversations to change the world

They can also gauge which members would make great case case studies for the media. Their trail of comments are a great way to test whether they have something to say and can say it well. 

“Our community has helped shape our move to campaigning with consumers. The community stopped the abolition of cheques, and directly influenced the launch of our Fixed Means Fixed, Costly Calls and Nuisance Calls campaigns.” Patrick Steen

Lee Beaumont set up a premium rate number and made cash from nuisance calls. He became the consumers hero. But Which? found him on their convo site (we salute Lee!)

They had 30,000 comments and 260,000 signatures on their nuisance calls petition. Community Members Martin Bostock and Lee Beaumont spoke to the media, not as Which? but as informed consumers with stories to tell.

Using the data to make campaigning more effective

We all struggle with knowing what data to collect and how best to use it for insight. You would think a big organisation like Which? had it licked. But they are really just building in the ability to collect more data to make their campaigns more effective. 

This was a useful reminder to me. You can crunch as much data as you like, but the real test of whether you are getting things right is if people are responding to your content. Only build in whiz bang features if it helps your community do more of that! 

Which?’s revamped site is all about making it easier for the community members to tailor their interaction. They achieved this with a simple modification requiring a simple sign-up process.

 Take homes

  • Your community needs a shared purpose and they need to know what it is
  • Show your community’s achievements back to them
  • Your biggest advocates can be your biggest critics (and vice versa) – listen to them honestly and you can turn them around… Don’t be afraid to let go
  • You don’t need the latest software – give them features they want not what you want
  • Don’t let data go to waste
  • Don’t hide your community away – they are a huge asset to your brand so put them front and centre
  • Push the importance of your community within your organisation – everyone needs to be involved, especially if you are a small organisation. 

You can see the slides from the event below and do join us at the next one  – from Fan Clubs to Supporting Refugees with Shelly Taylor.


Sleepio – how to keep your community members engaged for longer – by Claire

My first time attending the Online Communities Meetup organised by Laura Willoughby and, while I’m a bit of a newbie to using social media for anything other than mild narcism, the night was both eye opening and self affirming – I’m not totally at a lose end! I think we also made some kind of meetup record too – with 2/3rds of the people who clicked attending actually showing up!

So, it’s with a packed out room that Helena, the Happiness Officer at the digital medicine company Big Health (creators of Sleepio), shared her learnings about motivations of community members and how to foster them, backed by research and experience. For almost 3 years now, she has been co-managing and managing the Sleepio website Community – an anonymous online space where people going through the Sleepio program can connect with each other or seek advice from Sleepio experts.

Since the release of their iPhone app, Helena has learnt some tough lessons about community engagement – specifically about how intrinsic motivation works to keep people engaged in online communities and what you shouldn’t do if you want to keep it intact for the long term. During Helena’s talk she introduced me to Amy Jo Kim (is it a social media faux pas that I had no idea who she was?) and it’s actually changed my life as a Community Manager. Helena spoke about membership life cycles, and catering for each of these users at different stages as well as understanding who they are. What are the motives behind user participation in social communities? Understanding why users participate can lead us to understand further how to engage users and increase their participation in online communities. Before anything, we must first learn a bit more about our users.

Membership life cycle for online communities

On the Sleepio platform, Helena broke down these phases into three parts: First time user, lurker, engaged member. Amy Jo Kim suggests 5 phases of a user’s lifecycle within a community:

  1. Peripheral (i.e. Lurker) – An outsider, not participating but we know they are listening to conversations
  2. Inbound (i.e. Novice) – New user, beginning to invest in the community, on his way to full participation
  3. Insider (i.e. Regular) – Committed participator, member of the community
  4. Boundary (i.e. Leader) – A member greeting newcomers, creating interactions and content, as well as encouraging/sustaining participation
  5. Outbound (i.e. Elder)  – About to leave the community.

We spoke a lot about ‘Super Users’ and how they fit into the lifecycles as engaging new or lurker users, and nurturing those relationships, a role which then plays into the longevity and the passing on of community ethos. For example, inviting people to be greeters by offering them memberships in return.

Main Take Aways:

  • Speak to your users regularly.Online, offline, smoke signals…. Be human.
  • Figure out the intrinsic motivation of users.  Importantly, do not ask them what they want, but what they need as this will generate completely different responses. Many online platforms generate add on based on what users need which then just sit there idle as they weren’t actually needed.
  • Do your user research.  Why do members stay engaged within the online community? What is their intrinsic motivation? Understanding users intrinsic motivation through self actualisation and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, as well as the importance of the dual relationship between helping ourselves and helping others.
  • Once you’ve figured out the need. Ask – “how can the community address that need”?
  • Keep it Simple. Participating in the community should be simple for the user. The simpler it is, the higher the participation rate will be.
  • Stay watchful.  Do not break the feedback loop.
  • Triggers Use as many triggers as possible to nurture through intrinsic invitation.
  • Create Reactive Content.

Claire Tunnacliffe – Community Manager – Club Soda


How customer and user forums can help build your business

Thanks to Chris for sharing at our latest meetup how his jobs forum has grown into Wikijobs today.

Just like everything in life, it is never good to compare your fledgling start-up with a company that has been building over 7 years. But by delving a little deeper you find the problems, dilemmas and hard work are just the same for everyone at the beginning.

How it began:

In 2007 Wikijobs started their forum – and like every community they had to build members quickly. After all no one wants to be the first at the party.

So a combination of posting themselves and linking their community on other sites helped them build a user base quickly, “Build bridges into your site so it is no longer an Island”.

Here are the 3 key pieces of advice that came from Chris:

1.  Content is King: The posts they made in their own community were detailed and useful – lots of advice on getting a job. Advice that could not be found elsewhere on the web. This drew people in.

And here is the piece of advice I wish I had a year ago – whether you are writing blog posts or your forum is generating great advice, it is this content that draws people to your community.

So if you are starting your community, one  easy first step could be to start a blog and allow people to make comments. It will not only help you develop the tone for your business, but begin to draw people to your idea. Their comments will provide valuable customer insight (as well as being the start of a forum).

For WikiJobs, their growing forum posts helped them create the content and articles and brought people in – like example questions for tests run by the big companies for recruitment. All crowdsourced by the community.

2.  Email is still vital. Email people and let them know what is going on in the community and encourage them to participate. So pick a platform where that email data is yours! There are a lot of off-the shelf platforms that can help you do that (Drupal, Buddypress etc). 

Email keeps your customers hooked.

3. Once you have a community you can sell. The size of their community attracts advertisers and their community also use 3rd party products (like practice psychometric tests) from which they get a good affiliate fee. So once you have a community of size there are ways to monetise. 

They also reward their community for bringing friends into the community.

Testing the water

resizerIt’s hard being an active and engaged customer. We are at our most strident when it comes to buying physical items, like clothes and food, where the market is competitive, the price is transparent, it is easy to shop around and there are clear returns policies to start to level the playing field.  The comparison sites help us navigate complex tariffs for phone and broadband, but it still takes time to get a good deal and more importantly know whether you really are getting the best deal for your money.

And this only helps when it comes to directly measuring the value for money. If you want to shop ethically, environmentally or on the quality of the product or service, the information is difficult to find on the internet and may not be user friendly.

Utilities and financial services can prove even harder to navigate. Privatisation of water, electricity and gas does not mean we have the ability to literally get our water or gas from another companies’ pipes, or attach another electricity cable from another supplier into your home. Instead the supply can come from a company that has done a wholesale deal for the gas and competes on price alone to get it into your home, or in the case of water and sewage competes for a Government contract to supply your patch.

We don’t switch banks either, and this is made harder by the way the hide the charges they make – instead of being open these are often recouped through all sorts of over-priced charges,  lower interest rates and using our money to make more money. How can deice where to put our money if the information we need is hidden from us?

As a customer my ability to know what is best for me gets harder and harder the more important a service to my everyday existence – banking, electricity, telecommunications and water. It makes my head hurt. It’s no wonder that Brits rarely switch providers – it is hard to switch and this then allows industries to continue to pull the wool over our eyes and benefit their shareholders rather than their customers.

After my stint as CEO of Move Your Money I have become more convinced that we need strong and varied voices looking out for customers needs. Regulators only do part of the job, and they themselves need to be held to better account. Our financial regulators let us all down before and during the financial crisis, this was compounded by the revolving door between banks and the regulator (as our highest paid civil servants jumped ship after the crisis and joined the banks they were meant to be keeping an eye on). Our regulatory system does not inspire confidence.

Which! provides valuable information on products and services and is beginning to sharpen its teeth with more campaigns, Ethical Consumer affords us a short-cut to allow us to be a value led consumer. But both struggle with the enormity of the task at hand and have limited resources. What may be important to me as a customer may be different to the next person, so they each give me only part of the picture for me to be an empowered consumer.

And then of course these consumer campaigning organisations are only as good as the data they collect.  The information often is commercially sensitive so that the things we need to know most are hidden behind the veil of confidentiality.  Relevant data needs to be liberated and shared for good not hidden away – only then can I have what I need to help me make decisions about where I spend my money.

So why am I sharing this with you?  Well I have just taken on a new 3 year role as a consumer advocate for the Consumer Council for Water, the body looking out for the customers of the water and sewerage companies in England and Wales. Water is a vital utility and its delivery is complex.  It is not a service we can switch. 

I have set up this blog so I can share information as I learn more about the sector, ponder how we can be active consumers and ask you questions about dilemmas that are thrown up my the way.

I am looking forward to tell you more. 

What we can learn from peer to peer support

The second Building Online Communities meetup happened on Tuesday at the new Google TechHub in Shoreditch. The theme this time was “What we can learn from peer to peer support online”, and the speaker was Jamie from TalkLife. Here member Jussi Tolvi shares the finding from the event. Want to come to the next one – sign-up here.

TalkLifeTalkLife is a peer-to-peer support network, for talking about personal problems and mental health, via an app or on the web. Jamie talked about how he came up with the idea and how it has developed in the last three or so years. It’s safe to say that there have been ups and downs… This type of community obviously has some very special issues to deal with, as it involves mental health and young people, but it sounds like TalkLife have managed to create as safe a space as reasonably  possible, with an amazing active group of people keeping it that way. And in fact we talked about the possibility of having so much safety and security that the community just doesn’t function any more.

One of the most interesting points for me was TalkLife’s algorithm for quietly pushing posts up if nobody has responded to them. The aim is to make sure that everybody in the community gets their voice heard, and to keep engagement up. And that what happens in the first 15 minutes after joining TalkLife is the key factor in retention. Jamie also made some good points about their metrics: what is really important for them might not sound that exciting for others (e.g. potential investors), but absolutely make sense for their particular business and community. And their “vanity metrics” such as user numbers are very impressive too!

And if you didn’t write them down (or weren’t at the meetup!), these are the books that were recommended by Jamie and others:

The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz

Onward and Upward: Reflections of a Joyful Life by Michael Wiese

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal

The Facebook Effect: The Real Inside Story of Mark Zuckerberg and the World’s Fastest Growing Company by David Kirkpatrick

Elon Musk: How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is shaping our Future by Ashlee Vance