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Content Starts The Community Logic Tree

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A development framework for building and analyzing communities and how they operate.

Originally published by Daniel Karpantschof on Medium.

“We want to build a community around it, what do you think?”

Having worked with community design (on and off) for almost 15 years, you wouldn’t believe how often the question above has surfaced in conversations. What do I think? I think you need to ask yourself some questions before thinking about community building.

Every brand that has set out to build a community (or anything else for that matter) knows that, at the very core of it all, they are faced with two fundamental questions; What are we trying to achieve? And how do we do it?

A designed community might be the solution; but it could just as easily be a waste of your time, energy and money. One major challenge in talking about communities is, that it often is confused with engagement, followings and/or brand building, when in fact it is none of those. And all of those.

NOTICE! I don’t distinguish between online and offline communities. That makes some people queasy. Stay with me. It’s a conversation for another time.

For now, let’s talk about the logic behind communities. Much like business logic communities follow a similar pathway of decisions and truths — and by breaking it down we can design the community to support the strategic goals you seek to accomplish.

Enter; the Community Logic Tree (version 1.0)

Housekeeping: I should mention that this piece is an introduction to the Tree — a model, prone to change, ideally through your feedback. Consider this a thought framework — a lens to look through, to perceive its logic. Not an in-depth manual. I’m working on a book on community design thinking, so there will probably be more “ver 1.0 thoughts” coming your way.

Start with a Strategy

Moving from Left to Right. On the most fundamental level, ask yourself, what you wish to achieve. What strategic goals can a community serve (if any, at all)? This might be outlined by your agency or an edict from high above, on the hill, but in most cases the community designer is, somewhat, in control.

There are thousands of good reasons to work with communities (be it audience development, employee happiness, customer retention, organization design, education, brand extension — you get the gist), but it should be in support of strategic goals, such as higher customer retention, better internal collaboration, external thought-leadership, lower employee turnover, etc. The community is not a goal in of itself.

Branch 1: Identification

Is the community defined and identifiable? Examples: “Yes; we all work at The Economist”, “Yes, we all read Harry Potter” or “No, we don’t have a grasp of the group we wish to define”. (Why the latter keeps coming up is a valid question, but it does).

Examples: At Sandbox there was a (somewhat) clear membership process, that made it easy to identify the community. At Nexus we were very focused on not having a membership, but let shared experiences define the community identification.

Branch 2 & 3: Internal Environment

This is where it gets juicy. If you aren’t familiar with Edward Hall’s rather phenomenal theories on high versus low context cultures, I suggest you take a look at it. It’s rather intriguing. Essentially it outlines the idea behind whether a group of people understand each other in routine communications.

In high-context cultures (Finland), fewer words are necessary to express a statement, than in low-context cultures (New York). How does it work in the community you are working with or thinking about designing? Is context necessary or do future/current community members understand references, language, terms and ideas? Do everyone know what that special ring means? Or the reference of certain rituals or ceremonies?

Example: At Roskilde Festival there is an internal understanding of how we temporarily exist as social group. In spite of a mix of culture, languages and backgrounds, given the shared (and often transformative) experiences, many things can be left unsaid, but still be communicated clearly.

How aware are the members of the community, of the existence of the community? If you could measure the strength or affinity of a relationship between an individual and a society, this would be it. A simpler way of looking at it would be whether the community is explicit or implicit. Has the community defined itself towards its own members?

Example: While working at The Economist, it was interesting to observe how people could work, eat, think and create in the same physical environment, yet the awareness that we were part of a community was very low. On the other hand, anyone who was just at Burning Man (and washing the dust out of their eyes, as I’m writing this) is returning with a high awareness that they shared a rather remarkable experience with a community of fellows.

Branch 4: External Environment

All communities have some sort of delineation (see Branch 1). There are members and there are non-members. How is this particular community positioned (intentionally or not) towards non-members? Is it inclusive and have a “soft” delineation? Or exclusive and have a “hard” delineation? How hard is it to cross over that line, from the outside and in?

Example: At Sandbox we placed a great amount of emphasis on being inclusive in our relations to the external environment. At most events non-members could participate and there were rarely many shared secrets in the community. On the other hand, it is very hard to be part of the community surrounding Roskilde Festival if you haven’t attended one. At once attended, you are a part of it.

Branch 5-7: Experience

Now we are getting to the really interesting stuff. Unfortunately this is where many start, when they think about communities. These are the most visible and tangible aspects of communities, but starting here is like ordering a Coke, when what you really wanted was a soup (it’s a little late; forgive my metaphors).

Principles of Engagement Venues
First; a venue of engagement can be anything from a facebook group to a church. From an airport to an office. From a Burning Man camp to a group text.

Second; let’s agree that we’re talking about primary engagement venues here. With the increasing complexity of our lives, we interact with more and more people, using more and more channels, venues and platforms.

Third; We can talk about two fundamental branches of venues (or platforms if you will. I won’t). Venues that exist in Space and Time versus Space or Time. (Third grade Math Logic recap: AND = both / OR = either).

Example: When the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting is commencing, in a few weeks; the members will be engaging in the same space, at the same time. Fairly straightforward. The same can be said about company employees.

Example: On the other hand, once the annual Nexus Global Youth Summit is concluded, the members interact with each other online, let’s say, in a facebook group. That is the (virtual) space. But they don’t have to all do it at the same time.

All communities have currencies. Whether you are aware of this or not. They can be intrinsic social currencies (admiration, prestige, gratitude, accomplishment) or extrinsic, virtual currencies (badges and such) and actual currencies (frequent flyer miles, money, discounts, votes and the likes). Often it is a combination, but identifying what kinds of currencies are driving the community forward is mapping out what motivates the members to join, as well as align it with what the rewards are for joining.

Example: Frequent Flyers are accruing miles and then rewarded for their loyalty. In exchange for recurring purchases, the member is allowed a certain level of luxury otherwise not available.

This is important. Currencies crossing over ecosystems, not only creates misalignment between motivations and rewards, but can have potential dangerous effects.

Example: As a Star Alliance Gold First member of an affiliated airline, I receive an exclusive treatment that enables me to have direct (skip the TSA line, priority boarding, lounge access, complimentary whathaveyou) and indirect (emotional experiences of being elite, exclusive and smug). This is not something you want to bring over in the community surrounding the non-profit startup scene, as elitism is frowned upon, as opposed to the higher net-worth communities, that embrace it. Each ecosystem to each their own currency.

If politicians accept money (monetary currency) in exchange for votes or decisions (political currency), we have a problem. In fact (anti-bribery) laws exist to prevent that. If you, after a Thanksgiving meal (a form for social currency), get up and ask your mother-in-law how much the meal is (monetary currency) you commit a faux pas! Or offer to taking care of the shop owners (social currency) dog, at the checkout counter in the supermarket.

Change over time is called entropy (actual decline into chaos, but let’s assume chaos won’t ensue). So how would a member progress in the community. What happens over time? I’ve identified the following four core models of change (there might be others, if you think is one, please do let me know):

  • Defined: A community member advances, based purely on specified timing. As with Sandbox, we wanted to try a model of membership/fellowship lasting three years, and after that you’ve graduated out (and then into an alumni community — which would be separate)
  • Scored: Progression in the community is determined by trigger actions. A scout masters a specific skill, they get an honor badge. A frequent flier hits a certain mileage, they advance to Platinum Level.
  • Classed: Groups of people can graduate together, based on reoccurring events or ceremonies. Students will each year increase one grade. When a scout turns eighteen, they graduate from junior to senior. If you’ve been with the company for 25 years, you get a pin. You get the idea. It resembles Defined, but isn’t time-limited, as much as triggered by time passing.
  • Tenured: Once a member, always a member and there isn’t a any progression to your stature. You’re in. This is seen mostly in ill defined, but cultural high-context communities. Audiences, readerships, fans — though not fan clubs! — and people that have undergone transformative experiences together, such as attended Burning Man will have structures such as this.

Branch 8: Governance

If you noticed above I separated out fans from fan clubs. The difference herein is that you can have a fan community, but not necessarily a fan club. The opposite is obviously, rarely the case. But the institution should be considered separately from the community.

Now, organization is how the community is governed. This is, often — but certainly not always — institutional as well as community related. In either event, the community is(whether there is a formal structure around it or not) governed by certain principles.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of books available on management and governance of institutions, but I’ve mapped out the following four classifications, as it relates to community management (notice, that this is the first time, that term comes into play). The governance or “community management” essentially brings the strategic goals, as defined pre-Branch 1 and ensures alignment with Branch 5, 6 and 7 (collectively, the “community experience”).

  • Ungoverned: It is what is says. There is no governance structure in place, and therefore no institution (or vice versa). For instance the collective maker community. Or readers of The Economist. Or the Occupy Movement.
  • Distributed: Governance happens multiple places at the same time, but with a universal strategy in place. Usually seen in local organizations and various branches of companies.
  • Universal: There is a central governance structure in place that manages the entire community. Usually seen in audience development and customer retention practices. There is a community manager that oversees the community as a whole.
  • Autonomous: At the other end of the spectrum from ungoverned is the autonomous. There is still a clear definition of governance, but the governance takes place completely independent from anything else. Anyone can start a Harry Potter book club, and whether you do it or not, the “sister” book club one town over is entirely unaffected, though both groups are part of the global community around these books.

There are probably other variations of these governance models — as well as hybrids — and again; if you think of one, I’m dying to hear about it. Note that you will find influencers and leaders in all of them, but the governance structure around said influencers can be placed between direct and indirect. A lack of governance is not necessarily a lack of leadership.

I hope I managed to give you an idea about the framework of community logic. All these independent branches of decisions and truths determines how you can design and execute your community to serve your needs and align with your strategy. But beware! Communities are complex organisms, often in contradiction with themselves. What holds as a truth for one part, one member of one subcommunity, might not for another. The Logic Tree is intended to provide a framework of thought, but ultimately there will be divergent paths. The task of the community design is to set the parameters for these. The task of the community manager is to nudge and push in order to converge.

If you wish to build a community of affluent youth, to engage in philanthropy, as we did with the Nexus, you need to design it with an “harder” delineation in mind. A more exclusive, less governed, high context experience. We wanted it to be transformative experiences, so we chose space AND time venues (annual and regional summits), as it elevates the personal relationships. Yes, there is a facebook group, but it exists in support of the actual community space, not as the main one.

Communities exist all around us. You can apply these deliberations (what I call “Community Design Thinking” — the framework) to the ones you engage with or manage, as tools to aide you in successfully executing your strategy.

The majority of conversations behind the thinking of the Community Logic Tree happened over sangria with Nico Luchsinger and Chris Chavez, and talks and correspondence with KermitMattan GriffelRichard Demato Jr. Jr.Casper ter KuilePiP, the Nicky Yates, Kenneth Dahlin, Peter Lemmich and Aparna Mukherjee.

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