One of the most common questions people ask me is why do people participate in online communities. For some, the act of logging onto a computer network and having a conversation with someone you have never met seems utterly foreign to some, but these are often the same people who will happily chat up a stranger in the grocery line. Go figure. While I completely understand the value of online community exchanges, the question is persistent enough to warrant a bit-o-research. So as part of The Social Mind research project that my colleagues at the Society of New Communications Research and I have just completed, we focused on learning more about the questions who uses social networks and online communities, what drives them to participate and what do they hope to get out of the experience.
Now that I have covered the high level findings in a previous post, I wanted to spend some time sharing some of the more detailed findings – especially those that pertain specifically to online community. My colleagues, Don Bulmer and Peter Auditore will cover some of the findings that don’t specifically relate to community so if this study is of interest to you, you may want to follow their analysis as well in their blogs.
On to the data….
According to the research, people spend most of their time online with colleagues in professional networks (41%), followed by friends, family and experts. Only 13% report spending the most time online with their family. Seems the closer the relationship probability, the less time online is shared. In the survey, we had an “Other” category and it was interesting that the most common fill-ins pertained to business; most popular fill-ins included customers, prospects, and clients. Business use of social networking is definitely top-of mind for many users.
We then poked around a bit to learn how, if at all people’s use of social media channels varied by relationship. There is a significant different in what channel people choose to reach others in their lives.
Clearly, people generally understand the nuances of the different communications channels and making judicious selections based on their communication needs. The finding that people use micro-blogging most frequently (45%) to reach an expert especially interesting to me. Perhaps it is the informal nature of the platform or perhaps the strength of relationships that are developed there, but it does seem logical that people would feel comfortable reaching out on Twitter and the like to experts to make a connection.
I thought it was especially interesting (and reassuring!) that nearly 80% of respondents participate in online groups to help others by sharing information and experiences, and (66%) participate in a professional community to belong to a group of colleagues and peers. (41%) participate in groups to be seen as someone knowledgeable. Only a relatively small percentage use networks and community to persuade others to adopt their point of view or buy a product of service. It has long been known in the community world that community is no place for a vendor booth – it is for the exchange of ideas and not the waving of sales flags. Yes, direct and indirect sales can occur as a by-product of thought leadership shared in community exchanges, however, it is the content and ideas that yield value in professional communities.
This finding is especially exciting I have long ascribed to the idea that there are 4 types of community members and each deserves their own motivational triggers for participation. Here is the blog post that talks about my approach and now there is current data to further substantiate the method.
Nearly all reported that they participate in online networks and communities for educational purposes and to learn about topics. Fantastic news! This demonstrates the growing importance of online community as an educational platform for experts to show what they know and for information seeking to find the insights they seek. (It is important to remember that people can be both experts in one topic and information seekers in another topic simultaneously.)
So, at the end of the day, what these data are suggesting include;
- Our understanding about the nuances of online collaboration channels are growing on sophistication. We choose specific tools for different purposes and people, accordingly.
- Most participate in online communities to share information with others and to help another, even if they never met in person.
- Most use social networks to learn and get smarter on topics and to connect with or learn from experts.
As the world is, literally, at our fingertips, we now can use social networking to find, learn from and connect with those peers and colleague that we value and not be limited to the person we share an office with or who happens to always be at the same conferences. We are what we give, online. Thank you for reading Building Online Communities for Business by Leader Networks. We are a research and strategy consulting company that helps organizations succeed in social business and B2B online community building.