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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Online networks: Can growth and community co-exist?

Here is video of a Design and Construction Network "Happy Hour" I took in Washington, DC earlier this summer for the Design and Construction Report online magazine. Online resources support and enhance -- but do not replace -- conventional networking practices.

Late last week, Lloyd A. Ntuk, PE, LEED AP, Principal at LAND | Engineering, plc, sent this provocative email to me and Tim Klabunde, founder of the Design and Construction Network.
I'm a subscriber to both your blogs, and had an interesting thought regarding the size of our online communities.

I've been a member of the DCN and was struck by a recent comment by Mark (August 4 Construction Marketing Ideas blog post) on the potential future growth of the various groups. In particular was the thought of which group will eventually achieve national prominence and leadership. That thought, along with the continued expansion of the group members, made me think, "Do I want the group to continue growing and gaining national prominence?"

On the one hand, more participants means more diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives - a definite plus. But it also may mean less sense of community, and possibly less participation from members of the community (the intimidation factor of "speaking" in front of an audience, albeit virtual). As with individuals the quality of relationships is key rather than the number of connections, does this have any correlation to groups as well? I know that subgroups help to a degree, and that being in a metro-area means it will inherently be a large community, but I wanted to get your thoughts on how you see things moving forward into the future.
I answered first:

You ask a good question.

The best answer I can give is "I don't know" but recall a conversation with rainmaking guru Ford Harding about 18 months ago shortly after I started blogging, as I prepared my first submission to the SMPS Marketer on online social networking and leads resources. Ford then thought these resources would be ineffective for marketing; he has since changed his mind and now believes they are important - but you have to work at them. He also reminded me of the power curve, in which much success/energy and leadership is concentrated in the hands of the few.

I sense the social network resources developing now will also define within this power curve. A few "at the top" will receive (and frankly give) an inordinate amount of value from the process; for the others (the great majority) the stuff will be somewhat peripheral and more like a support tool (probably necessary!) than a core leadership thing.

As an example of the dynamics here, when I started blogging, I searched in near-vain for any other blogs relating to the topic; my goal was to offer free hyperlinks without worrying about reciprocation. In the last two weeks, I've become aware of at least five blogs "on topic" but haven't had the time or frankly the strong inclination to research them and pull them forward with references and hyperlinks.

The interesting thing is that it seems that I and Tim are now "old timers" at this stuff -- even though Tim started the linkedin. group less than a year ago, and my blog goes back just a couple of years.

There are still really strong leadership opportunities within local/regional and specialized niche markets, however.
Yesterday afternoon, Tim responded as well. (I received permission from both Tim and Lloyd to report on this email exchange before publishing it here.)
Good morning! You bring up a great point . . .

As you know the DCN was founded originally only in Washington DC with the single goal of bridging the gap between online networking and real relationship development. We have worked to achieve this by building opportunities for people to meet face to face and/or have a conversation in addition to the online discussions. I agree with you that sub-groups are part of the answer as we have expanded across the US, but more importantly I believe that local events will truly achieve the ultimate goal of the DCN. Mark Buckshon in Canada, Matt Handal in Philadelphia, Brice Johnson in Chicago, Ed Colon in Hartford, and Mike Colonnello in Baltimore are the real people turning the DCN into a national and international organization.

Now to get to my thoughts on your question: I was wrong when I originally thought that the online community would be the driver of DCN. As it turns out we get most of our "spammers" from online. Instead it is the local people that are growing the network and creating the real relationships! We agree that growth of DCN has lessened the participation of the community on the main LinkedIn discussion page (at least the % of active participants), but it has also strengthened the real relationships growing in local regions and on other locations on the web (Twitter, blogs, and subgroups for example). So the growth has created opportunity for quality relationships, while also expanding the quantity of relationships available.
Lloyd and Tim's points are worth exploring in greater depth. Online communities, social networking sites, blogs and the like are new phenomena; early adaptors started using these media just a couple of years ago, and they have become mainstream only within the past few months.

(Notably, one of our young, former employees, perhaps one of the first hires anywhere through the job board system, made me aware of the social networking phenomena less than two years ago. He also introduced me to Twitter. I thought Twitter to be a nutty waste of time, but decided to continue blogging. For some reason he and his peers "gave up" on Twitter and blogging about a year ago, though he continues to be active on Facebook. Does that tell us something of the future? I think I should have coffee with him to find out what he is "into" now.)

In Ottawa, I'm still exploring how the the Design and Construction Network subgroup will interface within our community. Membership is growing but interaction online hasn't started to be a significant force, but my experiment of linking the group to engagement with the local Construction Specifications Canada chapter is still very much in the early stages. I sense that the online communities will enhance and encourage conventional networking relationships and business development, and open new doors to interdisciplinary relationships within the community. Of course, that is why the CSC (Canadian equivalent of Construction Specifications Institute) chapter association with the online processes is valid, and it is rational for me as a community construction news publisher to explore these ideas, as well.

Online resources, I think, will neither substitute nor replace conventional communities and friendships and this is why, as Tim reports, the general Design and Construction Network group is now largely becoming a secondary resource to local communities. They are not the best place to "spam" or try to market wholesale without building true relationships. But they can enhance, encourage, and grow your conventional network and community involvement. If you are not involved in the process, you will lose the powerful opportunities these groups provide.

1 comment:

Daniel Smith said...

It is interesting to see how Twitter has indeed "blown up" thanks to its increasing acceptance in mainstream circles, by celebrities, etc. I was one of the early adopters when I used to blog (the reason I stopped, by the way, was that I took a position where I was prohibited from publishing online on subjects related to my work.) In any case, I now have several times more "Followers" on that old disused Twitter account than I did when it was active, thanks to the sheer influx of new Twitterers in the past year. Should be interesting to see what longterm effects this "always-on" communication technology will have on businesses and their branding efforts.

In answer to your ponderings, I use Facebook more often now because it is a more private and closed network, so not really a larger online trend I don't think, so much as a matter of personal preference and professional obligation at the moment.

Drop me a line Mark, let's grab that coffee. I'm still at the same email address- danksmith at that google mail provider.