Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Question of Community

Back in October, I wrote a piece on PR losing to advertising for social media. A lot of people brought up a lot of good points (including that there doesn't need to be a fight).

A friend - Kevin A. Barry - noted that the most important part was "this is not PR anymore, but it's community relations." And, well, how true that is and has been.

And, I have been thinking about that for a while - actually going back to TechCrunch 40. This is a long-term, mulled over blog post, thinking about the events and activities that I attend in the Social Media, Web 2.0 world ... and what is the real value of these events?

Part of the issue is that social media is pretty much a misnomer. Many of the people that jump in as gurus or experts or consultants are Bay Area myopic, and think nearly 100 percent of Web 2.0 communities or Social Media communities ... and that ignores the real communities that do matter. And, that also ignores the past communities (Yahoo! Groups, Deja nee Google Groups, AOL - things that are still highly used, but just aren't "cool" enough now). The joke of it all is that if I look at my past career, I have been doing social media outreach for the past ten years ... it was just via message boards and enthusiast Websites.

The interesting twist is that the article in Fast Company calls out the Tipping Point as a false idea when it comes to influencers. I'm not judging if Watts is right or wrong, but the interesting thing is that it is all community based. People do not like to move out of their safety and comfort zone, and try out new communities. But, as PR people, we need to move beyond one into all communities. And be smart about it.

But, forget people - this is a total mindfuck for companies. From start-ups to large corporations, everyone wants to wrap their arms around social media ... but they do not want to spend the time it really does take to do community relations. And, yes, this is community relations, finding the communities that CARE about what your company or product does, and convey that you care just as much about their community and that's why you are approaching them.

Think about that - you have to humanize a corporation; corporations seemed to be able to at least convey some emotion at one point. There were connections that people felt for companies and products, and consumer loyalty. And, it went both ways.

That's the point: Social media is about more than just one community, the social media community: it's about all the verticals and other communities that likely matter more to your client or business.

So below are paragraphs on various communities I have been involved with - and insight and opinions on them. It's about relationships, not just media lists. Something too many people forget, or just don't get.

Photo Industry
I'm going old skool here, but this is how I got my start in PR: Kodak and then Ofoto. And, how did I help build communities for both? Enthusiast Websites. Working with the people that started DP Review or Imaging Resource or Creative Pro or Steve's Digicams. These were the original blogs that covered digital photography, and I was able to build relationships with them for my clients and myself ... to where I still talk to a few of them not because they are contacts, but because I think of them as friends (take notes - it's not just about pitching). I also worked in the Usenet groups, letting them know they could contact me about the latest KPro camera. How? I would join, read and announce occasionally. Not SPAM, just a quick note. See a pattern on how little things change over the years?

Yes, the online community that loves to be mocked by bloggers ... and one that I believe has taken a massive hit because marketing and PR people jumped into a community without looking or learning or experiencing the community. But, now that the marketing firms have left, it is back to the wonderful community that it was to begin with. There are still many active communities in there - the two that come to mind for me are the non-profits, corporations doing education (such as Cisco or IBM) or medical communities for support and education. It's a vibrant community, albeit not as big as it might have appeared with firms jumping in without looking. But, then again, would any business plop down in a community without research? No, but that's cool and Kosher in SL and other online communities?

Web 2.0
Yep, I'm lumping in all of Web 2.0 into one community, as a lot of it is a cult of personality or a cult of blogs. Look at the various blogs that cover the Web 2.0 space, and the followers that they have. At The Crunchies, you had a full Herbst Theater, and then people crashing the after party to the point that it was shut down for a little bit. Or, look at the past TechCrunch parties, and the cult of personality that surrounds Michael Arrington. Yes, he wields power with that blog, and does have influence.

If you have been to any of the Mashable parties, including OpenMashable in San Francisco, you see that the events have been drawing anything from 75 people to about 300 people in San Francisco. And, it's a pretty well read blog.

Plus, you have Read/Write/Web and CenterNetworks and B5 Media and GigaOm. All of these blogs and networks are well read, and have their loyal readers and all break stories. At the end of the day, they can all be under the umbrella of Web 2.0 communities, though. All of them started out in different ways - I still cannot break myself of the habit of thinking of GigaOm as a telco blog - but they have all expanded to cover a wider audience.

My favorite part of the community is Techmeme, though. Despite the recent snark on the algorithm, Techmeme is the cornerstone of the Web 2.0 community and what is being said and written and talked about at the events. While people might not want to admit it, Techmeme does run the news of the community.

Enterprise Irregulars
I include the Enterprise Irregulars (they all have individual blogs, and this is supposed to aggregate those blogs) because I love the geekiness of the enterprise, and I see Twitters and blog posts that seem to ignore this community, and to the point, just not get this community. If you are an enterprise technology, you read this group's group blog ... and you learn. And the best part is that this community is one such that if you do not know them, and do not have their respect, the knives can come out. Shit, I am friends with some of them, and they will still bring out the knives for me if I do not bring the goods. Outreach is only good if the client can deliver, and if they cannot, is it worth your personal reputation?

Public Relations
Okay, I include this because it is such a growing community - a lot of GOOD young PR bloggers that care about PR coming up through the ranks, but unfortunately a growing group of charlatans that are wrapping themselves up in social media with no experience, no skills and no right to counsel clients.

I digress. Through traditional PR and now through blogging, the community has grown and connections have grown, and for me, friendships started and cemented. Plus, meeting people I would have never met and learning of new and smart programs.

I would have never gone to Omaha if not for my blog, nor would I have met Jennifer Windrum at SRA. She reached out to me about something that is for a community that most of the social media people don't think about: everyday people, or in this case, American Idol fans. She showed me what they did tonight on American Idol, and how they are reaching people in that community about the pride of Omaha and their client.

Or, meeting Jason Falls in person, and having him talk to me about a true Twitter project that was better done than anything else I have read or heard about - but reaching an audience that most people don't think about, but is strong as hell: NASCAR and Baja 1000 enthusiasts.

I credit the kids at Auburn - the good kids I wrote of prior - and their instructor, Robert French, for really pushing smart ideas forward, and knowing that it goes beyond blogging.

Social Media
Read Chris Brogan. Read Jeff Pulver (also read him for VoIP). Read Jeremiah Owyang. Read Eric Rice. Read Teresa Valdez Klein. Read Liz Strauss. These people talk (and beyond talking, actually do - a rarity in social media bloggers) about social media and grasp what is going on. Do I agree with everything they write? Of course not, but they are good primers and understand community, and for the most part, do seem to express and talk about more than just one community. But beware the people that wrap themselves up in the flag of community evangelist - quiz them to see if they can talk beyond just Web 2.0.

I wrote about the Health blog community before, and just want to reiterate that it has a different community, one that deserves and needs respect that goes beyond traditional social media outreach. A perfect example of its personal nature is the column that Amy Tenderich of DiabetesMine wrote in Newsweek.

I have written about BlogHer a few times - three, to be exact. And each time what I am trying to convey is that there is no other community like BlogHer.

In Chicago, there were 800+ people that came for the national conference, and another 550 attended in SecondLife. Think about that - 1350 people women (give or take a handful of men) that came together to share ideas and thoughts and views. And, no, the did not all agree with each other, and there were a few good arguments there about race and blogging.

Within the BlogHer community, though, I have been lucky enough to go to three events and meet and convene with MommyBlogger, Foodie Bloggers, Business Bloggers, Social Activism bloggers, Crafters, Political bloggers and more. But, the thing is that it is one big community with a wide variety of interests and thoughts.

Twitter is a microcosm until itself. It has such a wide variety of users - and more outside the circle - that it can be overwhelming to read people's views in 140 characters or less. It is a community - one that actually mirrors the other communities that exist in social media, but one that is harder to communicate with from a brand stand point. How do you get people to friend your corporate Twitter account, unless you are really being part of the conversation and talking/responding? It is a hard balancing act. At least there are ways to search on Twitter now, so you can catch conversations and respond.

Though this was the first year of BlogWorldExpo, the group that Rick Calvert brought together outshined the no-shows and other missteps. IMHO, he should drop the usual suspects because they are just saying the same thing, and keep going with what the show brought that no other show has thus far in social media: the Godbloggers, the Milbloggers and the Political bloggers.

I have never met groups of bloggers that are more committed to what they are writing, more enthusiastic nor more passionate than these three groups. These communities showed what can be done with blogging when it's done from the heart, and rival BlogHer for a great show. Hopefully, this was just the first year of the event.

In respect to space, I did not write about all communities - Digg, Videoblogging, Environmental, Facebook, MySpace, Gossip Blogs, VoIP, etc. - that are just as active and have loyal fan bases. And have their problems and personalities.

And, there are other communities that I am learning more about, such as TechSoup/NetSquared, and the communities that LaughingSquid intersects.

That's the point, though: if you are doing outreach, it is about becoming a part of the community, working with the community, respecting the community. And, the communities are verticals, and are everywhere ... you just have to look and move beyond the insular circle.

Think less media relations, and think more public and community relations.

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