Friday, October 13, 2006

Am I just a figment of the community's imagination?

I've been striving to communicate better with one of the communities I'm currently working with while I prepare their website for relaunch.
It has a very active forum-based community.
One of the steps I've taken is to set up a blog where I am (I think!) honest and transparent about what we are developing, what's on time, what's not, what isn't working - and welcoming feedback.
I've also recruited around 30 users to help us test it and offer their ideas and feedback. I hope they'll not only hone it, but also become advocates for it.
We've started a photo-moblog for users. And all this 4-C style stuff has been going fairly well.
But I got an unusual response to one email I sent direct to one user. After receiving it he posted this on the forum:

"OK, the TRUTH is out there; who else has been getting unsolicited PM's & e-mails of our new on-line edditor?'cos it's got me wondering; has any-one ever actually met him?I can see lots of stuff popping up on the mag site and the new blog bit, and stuff, and I was thinking it must take a lot of activity to do all that.Do they let him out at all, or is he locked in the bowls of an Emap basement somewhere, hooked up to wires, that give him electric shocs if he doesn't upload enough bites by set deadlines?Maybe, he's actually been locked in the forum hamster wheel with a lap top?Maybe he IS the lap-top. A 'virtual' person; a figment of the 'Matrix'!I dont know.Replied to his latest and asked him, but, not sure. If he replies, could still be a ghost in the machine, couldn't he.I mean, like artificial intelligence, kinda stuff.Any one care to comment?"

There followed a bit of piss-taking etc

The thing that interests me about this is the writer's automatic assumption that he's been the target of a group email of the worst corporate kind.
It was in fact an email sent to him and just five other people who have provided us with email addresses - and was an invitation to write a news story about anything he liked and have the community judge how long it stays on the homepage/comment on it etc (a bit of a warm up for the blogs mechanism we're due to launch).

What this tells me is that he has learned to expect corporate, non-specific communications from representatives of the brand. And that may take more than a few blogs and pleasant emails to change.

Just six months ago I might have thought - 'idiot, doesn't he understand what we're trying to do?'
Now I think, I'm the idiot, I've got to work harder to make my communication with the community less corporate (even though I thought I'd taken giant leaps in that direction, they clearly haven't gone far enough). I have to work harder to break down the barrier between the brand and its community.

There has been, in the past, a real ignorance of the online community view within (particularly, but not-exclusively) print editorial teams. If people posting on our forums complain or tell us we've got something wrong, I've seen print teams close their ears and bad mouth the users as their ONLY response. If you're still in that camp - you have to change.

The other thing that became clear from the recent posts on our forums was that users have worked out that this brand is not the only one I work for - that they're getting a shared resource. I think they are ok about that (they discuss it in a relatively humourous way) but what I have learned is it's not worth trying to pretend I'm entirely dedicated to them. If you aren't honest, your community will find you out, so just play it straight.

UPDATE: My response to our user above, seems to have worked quite nicely. He has responded by email to me again - in an amusing, philosophical way. He's now actively testing our new blogs. I've tried to continue to be human rather than corporate in my communications and the thaw is discernable.

The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?