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Build Your Community Hub, Don't Rent It

General consensus seems to be that more followers is better. One of the big stories on Time the other day was "Caitlyn Jenner Reaches 1 Million Twitter Followers Faster Than @POTUS". Who wouldn't want 1 million Twitter followers? It seems like a great way to be able to reach more people and influence them. It turns out that just because you have a substantial following, doesn't mean you can readily convert that following into a substantial impact. Anil Dash's post titled "Nobody Famous" (originally published on Medium here) takes readers through Dash's experiences with a pretty large Twitter following and what it has meant for him in real terms:

I’ve got more Twitter followers than you. I’ve got more Twitter followers than Ted Cruz, and I’m only a little bit behind Björk. If my followers were a state, we’d be creeping up on Wyoming in terms of population. Having half a million followers on Twitter is a genuinely bizarre experience, especially considering I’m just a random tech nerd on the Internet and not an actual famous person.

...

Basically, somebody who worked at Twitter back in 2009 added me to that list, and all of a sudden my online network got upgraded to the kind of numbers that are usually only reserved for rock stars. It doesn’t bother me that I didn’t end up with a ton of followers online because of any merit of my own; these things are always arbitrary. But in addition to getting onto that one weird list, I picked up a lot of my real followers simply by being early to Twitter. That’s a tactic that definitely helps you get more followers, and I’d strongly recommend joining Twitter in 2006 if you have the option. #helpfuladvice

Dash's post is revealing. He explains how substantial Twitter followings make using many Twitter apps impractical; doesn't earn you the best table in your favorite restaurant and seems to create expectations with a significant number of your followers that they deserve not only your attention but also the benefit of your following to help them achieve their goals, whether they be trivial or noble.

What I found really interesting was just how little meaningful engagement takes place on Twitter that is directed outside Twitter. Although I've seen this in my Twitter Analytics, it stands out far more when you look at a large Twitter following like Dash's:

Worst of all: Nobody clicks. Well, not nobody, but out of about 550,000 followers on Twitter, it’s very common for fewer than 400 of them to click on a link I share. (That’s .07%!) And yet dudes (yes, it’s always dudes) feel like they’re doing me a favor by asking. I cofounded a company that helps people understand their behavior on social networks, and looking at some of my most popular content that I’ve shared shows about 1700 people clicking on a link, in total.

His Twitter Analytics statistics reveal an average "Engagement Rate" around 2% to 3% and reinforce his comments about a really low click through rate. When I compared Dash's experiences with some of my own (I have a far smaller following on Twitter), I saw a very similar picture. At the same time, there is one party that benefits far more from all of this activity: Twitter itself. This isn't to say that using services like Twitter, Facebook and Medium is a bad idea, more that basing your community engagement strategy on an assumption that these services' popularity will carry you is pretty risky.

We still live in ecosystems where we must work with others

On the other end of the spectrum is journalism professor, Jeff Jarvis whose post about Facebook's Instant Articles titled "I, for one, welcome our new newsstand" adopts a different approach to social integration. As you may expect from Jarvis, it is a practical approach based on his starting point that integration is better for users:

Facebook just gave publishers almost what I was wishing for. It is enabling news companies to go to readers where they are (we used to call that home delivery), embedding their articles, photos, videos — and ads — in users’ streams of attention and keeping all the revenue they sell or a share of the ad revenue Facebook sells. They call it Instant Articles because it saves users the time of clicking on links and waiting for web pages to load. It’s a start, a good start.

I wish that Facebook would also work to share data about users at their option so news companies could serve those users with greater relevance and value and learn to build relationships with the public as individuals and communities rather than as a mass.

His focus is on the news industry but his points are similarly applicable to commercial publishers like brands that make substantial investments in content marketing:

If news and technology can come to terms, we can begin to reinvent journalism in a distributed world with new business models. I’ve been suggesting that publishers consider starting new services — and new businesses — inside Facebook if the company will make that feasible. We in media can’t do it all by ourselves anymore. We are no longer monopolies in control of content and distribution from top to bottom. We now live in ecosystems where we must work with others. Get used to it. Find the opportunity in it.

Medium's Ev Williams' post titled "Medium is not a publishing tool" offers another perspective. He states that even though many users see Medium as a great place to "create a nice page to point people to from Twitter",

... that’s not the point. Or, at least, that’s not the end. In the last few months, we’ve shifted more of our attention on the product side from creating tool value to creating network value.

That is true not just about Medium but virtually any platform which you can use to publish your work. The question is whether the real value is primarily to or from the network? It isn't a simple question to answer either because there is value in both cases but, as Dash's experience with Twitter reveals, Twitter activity is more valuable to Twitter than it is to its users.

The debate between a strategy that requires you to develop and cultivate your own platform and one that starts with a relatively lightweight starting point of your own and a heavier emphasis on 3rd party platforms is interesting, for sure, but how is it practically relevant to a brand that wants to sell more widgets by cultivating a passionate and loyal community of customers?

Build it and show them why they should join you

The answer, I believe, lies in the strategy the Kardashian family is adopting. Jordan Kretchmer's article on MarketingLand titled "What Kim Kardashian Can Teach You About Building A Long-Term Audience" presents an overview of what, I think, could well start a renewed trend of building branded, centralized community hubs.

With 30M followers on Twitter, 25M on Facebook and 28M on Instagram, she’s cultivated a larger audience than most of the Fortune 10 companies combined. So in February, when she quietly announced a project that would shift her marketing focus away from those social networks, it piqued my attention.

The Kardashians, along with Tyler, the Creator and Howard Stern, have partnered with technology company Whalerock Industries to strategically take their social presence into their own hands by building independent media hubs.

Kim’s hub, for example, will include everything from photos and videos to makeup tutorials and city guides, she told the New York Times. Why? By centralizing their communities on their own websites and mobile apps, these celebrities put control over the content, data and profits into their own hands — not in the hands of a third party, like Facebook or Twitter.

The idea isn't to divorce yourself completely from the social web. As Jarvis pointed out, we "live in ecosystems where we must play with others". What we can do is develop a strategy that positions our brands' hubs as the focal points of the communities that develop around them. Instead of investing substantial resources and time in cultivating a Facebook Page, a Twitter following and so on, use those touchpoints to direct the community back to the brand's hub, a "digital destination". Kretchmer makes three helpful suggestions as starting points:

  1. Define and clarify shared values that your community resonates with and that will be the glue that binds it.
  2. Define clear objectives for this hub that go beyond driving traffic. Do you want to drive sales, build a mailing list as a primary communication channel or something else?
  3. Building a completely new hub is an expensive exercise, especially if it is an untested model. Start small and evolve the model as you find what works and what doesn't.

Social platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Medium are frequently where your communities choose to congregate. That doesn't mean you should abdicate control over your content or surrender your ideas for how best to cultivate relationships with those communities to these 3rd party platforms either. You know what your community is passionate about. Now you need to create the space that encourages them to express that passion and that enables you to achieve your goals.

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