Understanding the Larger Community Ecosystem


This the third article in a multi-part, living-and-breathing series on community strategy. This post appeared here first on Community.is.

“Relationships are all there is. Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation.”

Margaret J. Wheatley

Indeed, no community is ever alone. The next step in community strategy is the part that often induces the most anxiety – figuring out where you sit in relation to everyone and everything else. We call this the “community ecosystem.” (FWIW, I also feel personal anxiety when planning this step of Loyal’s strategic moves, so you’re in good company).

As with all cultural and social groups, a community exists in relation to others (even when that “other” is an absence of community). That is why it’s so important to take into account the larger ecosystem and landscape beyond the immediate community at hand when planning your community strategy. Here, we’re looking at: competition, peers and allies, larger social and cultural trends, insights and, sometimes even, economics, politics and history. In this phase of community strategy, we’re asking one big, overarching question: Where do we fit in?

How this question is answered a bit different from community to community. Any way about it, this helps to set context and place setting for community.

New Communities in New Industries

While the idea of community has literally been around since the beginning of time, it’s still a new business strategy for many industries. How many success stories of community can you think of in health care, finance, energy and retail? Not many.

In this scenario, we ask a lot of big picture questions:

  • Do the appropriate technological resources and conditions exist to support a community in this space? What about an online community?
  • Are the potential end-users online? If not, is there an offline way for them to easily and scalably interact with each other?
  • Are there any privacy, legal or infrastructural constraints that would impact feasibility?
  • How are people currently connecting with each other?
  • Are there any existing community initiatives or have there been in the past? Were they successful? Why/why not?
  • What are the motivations of the existing players in the space? What do they value? Should we partner with them or not?
  • What would the objections of participation be for end-users and/or existing players?
  • Why now? Why hasn’t this happened yet, and what has changed?
  • Assuming that the time is infact now to build a community in this industry, in what ways are potential end-users already creating work-arounds for community?

While helpful, this type of information often informs more about what not to do than what you should do. For example, with one client’s planned community in a new industry, we found that there was definitely a need for resource sharing and collaboration, but existing players and potential end-users were extremely protective of both their work work and culture. They were less than excited about a community that might invite newcomers to the space, so we took a different direction. However, for another client, these questions provided historical and economic context and cultural urgency that we later used to shape into brand positioning. It’s all on a case-by-case basis, though is valuable regardless.

New Communities in Existing Industries OR Pre-existing Communities

Whether you’re taking a new strategic direction with an existing community or starting a new community in a crowded space, we approach exploring the larger community ecosystem rather the same. However, if you think this approach is any easier than starting a new community in an industry that has never had one before… sorry, friends. This is harder.

The good news is that this is when all of your prior discovery, research and membership work comes together into action. Here are the questions that we ask in this phase of community strategy:

  • What communities and resources already exist in this industry? What does the ecosystem value? What value do existing communities and resources provide to their members (if any at all)?
  • How effective are these solutions?
  • What is missing?
  • How is what want/are able to offer different? Does it provide what is missing? If not, why?
  • What type of behavior can be observed in the community based on the above?

This should give you a good idea of what gaps might exist that you can fill or compliment in the pre-existing space.

For Either

This next step for understanding the ecosystem requires us all to be a bit more creative, a bit of “magic” per-say. Or rather, it requires the ability to imagine that which does not yet exist.

From research and membership planning, combine the answers to these above questions and line them up. Literally.

An ecosystem analysis for a developer community.

You should see a pattern emerge. Values aligned motivations combined with existing resources result in existing behaviors. Or from another point of view, values aligned with motivations net combined with needs result in market gaps. How can you fill this gap? How can you change or modify existing behavior? And just as importantly, which of these is aligned with your business?

The answer to this and how it translates into an action plan is 100% dependent on your community’s specific situation and the resources that you’re willing/able to provide. For next time in creating an action plan.