Interview with Maria Sipka from Linqia

Maria Sipka (twitter feed) is the CEO and founder of Linqia, a company whose investors include Esther Dyson, who is on our advisory board. The Linqia marketplace helps monetize social networks by attracting valuable partners. I interviewed her because she can teach clinical teams a lot about creating and managing online communities for and with patients.

Download to the interview or read the full transcript below.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: Welcome to the “Patients Know Best” podcast. I’m very lucky to be joined here today by Maria Sipka.

Maria, tell us a bit about your background, because it was very interesting for me to learn about the work you’ve been doing.

Maria Sipka: Well, thank you first, and thank for inviting me to share some of the knowledge and experiences that I’ve had over many years. My background in the last five years has been in online communities, building online communities and helping brands and companies and individuals leverage community tools to achieve their objectives.

Prior to that I spent ten years in the offline world. The online world is, I guess, fairly new to me; but in the first ten years of my career I focused on helping clients acquire relationships, either with customers or members, and also on how they were able to keep those customers and members.

So currently I’m the CEO and Founder of an online marketplace for online communities called Linqia, and we are passionate about driving value into these communities and making sure that communities thrive and grow and serve the needs of so many people around the world.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: Well, thank you, Maria. I mean, the reason I wanted to talk to you is exactly those communities. So as healthcare gets more complicated and as patients deal with more and more clinicians, and clinicians deal with more and more patients, as well, the community becomes really important as a new tool that helps people work together, and online it’s really where the community building is beginning to thrive. So walk us through some of the things that … some of the new technologies that are available when you’re working with communities online.

Maria Sipka: Well, the actual definition of “communities” can be interpreted as many ways. People know them as clubs, as groups, as forums, chat rooms, social networks. What it really boils down to, any number of people, whether it’s two people or millions of people, that come together to form a gathering for a specific topic, interest or need. We see them as a fairly flat structure or a flat system. Control doesn’t work terribly well within a community environment, especially in the online-community environment, because people can join communities quickly and they can leave communities quickly.

So what’s extremely exciting with online communities today is that everybody is equal: they can participate, they can raise questions, they can contribute to existing topics and spark discussions around interests that prior may have been extremely challenging due to geographic, economic or even language barriers.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: But the fact that people work together as a team rather than like the centralized, hierarchical previous approach is a bit of a switch for clinicians. So previously the doctor or the nurse would speak, and the patients would kind of obey the orders; but they’re a lot more participatory right now.

We have a presentation from you that we’re gonna put on the podcast website, so you can look at it; but could you walk us through that, because it’s really about how do you actually make this happen?

Maria Sipka: Most definitely, and you hit on a very important point there and that is the patients. With the emergence of social media or what we term as Web 2.0, what’s happened is that it’s enabled anybody in the world to have a voice, and what we’ve seen is that the patients are actually in the driving seat today. They have the voice; other patients are listening to each other. And so it’s one of the challenges and opportunities that’s presented itself is the possibility for all of the other key stakeholders to participate in that experience. We’re talking the clinicians, the doctors, the pharmaceutical companies — I mean, anybody, the carers — anybody that has an interest together, it’s made possible today with social media.

And so what’s really important and the presentation that we’re going to go through is specifically in the area of community-building and how communities play a role within your relationship ecosystem. I like to use the word “ecosystem”, because it also fosters that concept of a flat, non-hierarchical structure where one element impacts the other, and so if you put too much pressure within one element or there’s too much control, you run the risk of that ecosystem breaking down. And so with online and with social media and with communities, it almost self-regulates itself.

(00:05:13)

And so what I’d like to do is just go through the whole notion of community-building. This presentation is very much for beginners; so if you’ve already well advanced and you’ve created your community and attracted members and it’s thriving, I’m confident you will be able to pick up some insight. But this presentation is very much for the newbies or the beginners that are like, “Where do we start? How do we enter this space of social media, specifically within community-building? How do we build a community, or how do we join an existing community, and how do we participate? you know, how do these communities play a role of in our relationship ecosystem?”

So I’d like to start out firstly by making a very powerful statement, and it’s one of the biggest misconceptions amongst traditional marketers or advertising agencies or anybody that’s been in a position of influence, and that is that whilst communities are an extremely powerful distribution channel, a place where you can certainly influence the members of the community, it’s very important to note that communities are rarely new to direct selling.

We’ve often dealt with a number of brands and individuals to say, “I want to create a community so I can sell more, or I can get people to fill out surveys” or just focused on their end objective, which is extremely important; but understanding that a community is an ecosystem, the last thing you want to do is waltz into this community or create a community and start selling something, because you’ll frighten people away. You know, people want to … people really that join a community or create a community want to feel like they’re starting a shared experience where it’s a trusted place, there’s transparency and that people are open to really discuss what’s important to them and share what’s important to them. So —

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: Sorry, may I?

Maria Sipka: Certainly.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: I was just going to add that for clinicians, this is a really important point to make, because they don’t want to participate in a commercial environment where they feel like they’re trying to sell their clinic or they’re trying to show for more business.

The participatory approach or relationship ecosystem is really about different people helping each other out, and that may well lead to more patients coming to your clinic; but you’re not there to advertise your clinic and not there in direct selling.

Maria Sipka: And communities work the other way around. The more you add value, the more information that you share, the more you enable people to connect and really develop their relationships, the likely result of that will be some kind of a sale or commercial outcome; but that really comes in 99% of cases on the tail end. You do a great job of the first bit, you know, and then the rest will fall together, because at the end communities for clinicians or for businesses do need to clearly demonstrate some kind of ROI, some kind of Return on Investment.

I’m not talking about cash, but there does need to be some set objectives and you need to monitor and really determine whether you’re meeting those objectives, because if you’re going to be investing time into building a community or joining an existing community and sharing, then there does need to be some benefit for you; but within a community, we like to see it as a relationship conduit.

So it’s a place where you can establish and deepen relationships, and it’s very much an authentic experience, unlike traditional advertising or focus groups or … you know, okay, that’s still taking place today; but you’ll find the most successful communities on the Internet are those that really foster relationships and people feel like they can share.

So in terms of community-building, we’ve identified — well, actually we didn’t identify this, a site called Awareness — they do a lot of research in this space — identified eight different types of communities, and as a clinician you could fall into any one of these eight different community types.

So the first different community type is a corporate-voice community. A corporate-voice community facilitates a dialog with your audience in a personalized, humanized voice that builds trust through ongoing conversations. So it’s very much intended to dialog and converse with whoever it is: it could be your patients, it could be doctors, or it could be carers, or it could even be other clinicians, okay? So a corporate-voice community is where you can participate in a dialog.

(00:10:14)

The second type of community is a user-generated content or micro-site campaign community. That’s where you can build demand for your products and services. It could be through a contest, it could be through a survey, it could be through some other viral marketing program. This is typically for brands that want to sell a product or service, not necessarily do research. It encourages interaction amongst the users through the content that they submit, and they vote on the submissions of others. So it’s a way of being able to see that community with some kind of, we call it, a content or an asset and enable the community members to interact with that by the voting or sharing, and it gives you direct, immediate feedback. But what’s absolutely key in a user-generated content community is that 98% of the content should be generated by the users. Your role is to spark or inspire the users to actually create that content.

The third type of community is an enthusiast community. An enthusiast community typically increases brand awareness by stimulating a common passion in the audience while encouraging members to share thoughts and ideas. So if your key stakeholders are particularly enthusiastic or passionate around a specific topic, then you can create a space where people can — those key stakeholders can start to share their ideas and thoughts; so it’s bringing people closer together and increasing the conversations on a much more frequent basis.

The fourth type of community is an association or a subscribers community. So the purpose is to increase like customer satisfaction through an exclusive velvet rope-type community, so they’re typically closed communities or not even visible to customers, association members or subscribers. So this is particularly relevant when the key stakeholders that you’re looking to create a community around are extremely pressed for time. They have many other choices where to participate, and you want to offer something very unique and compelling, and one of the reasons why that physician or that clinician would join your community is because you’re offering something exclusive. It doesn’t necessarily mean exclusive in terms the film or the music industry. You know, exclusive might be that you have access to do content or something that people would want to join and participate in a discussion around.

The fifth type of community is a loyalty community, and the purpose of a loyalty community is to enhance customer or member loyalty by communicating and rewarding these top key stakeholders. So if you have people within your community and they are consistently contributing and really adding value to your cause or your topic of interest, then you can also create a community to be able to reward these people and give them some form of status. It could be that they become moderators in your community. It could be that they get to attend special events. You somehow find out what are their hot buttons and provide them with means to motivate them to participate, because what’s really important when you create a community is you don’t want that community purely to sit on your shoulders. If you can distribute the moderation and the participation amongst the community, then it becomes a very thriving opportunity for people to share and it’s not totally dependent on you or just a few people. So loyalty communities are a great way to be able to identify those champions and keep them engaged.

The seventh type of community is a peer-support community, and a peer-support community is sort of touching on what I’ve just mentioned, and that is reducing customer service and support costs by providing a vehicle for community members to solve others’ problems. So if you create a community for patients and they start to discuss a specific topic, you’ll find that the community will start to help each other. Again, you don’t want the one-to-many approach; you want the many-to-many, where everybody can help each other, and they are some of the most thriving and valuable communities that are out there, because you’re actually enabling, people are still compelled and inspired and motivated to help others, and then those that are being helped can also find ways to overcome their challenges.

(00:15:07)

And then the last type of community is an event community. So an event community builds and maintains buzz leading up to and following an event. So if you are currently organizing gatherings amongst a few or many people, then you can actually create a community that keeps those conversations ongoing, and as well as generates enthusiasm leading up to that gathering. What we find with event communities is that often a lot is shared and discussed when people physically get together. It might be a presentation, or people might be referencing books that they’ve read or people that they’ve come across. Well, community is a great way as a repository to then — you know, whoever shared something of value, they can go back to that community and actually upload it into that group and say, “Hey, everyone, I’ve just shared this presentation that we went through” or “Here are some of the outcomes of the survey that we did” or “Here’s some insights from the experience that we had”.

So they’re the eight different types of communities that you’ll typically see throughout the Internet, and I would say that specifically what would be related to you is communities around perhaps the association and subscribers, the peer-support communities and the event communities would be the three communities that would be most relevant to those that are listening to this podcast.

Is there any comment that you wanted to make on that, Mohammad?

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: Yeah, I was going to say that’s a really nice classification, and I think the three you picked out are the ones that I was thinking of, as well. The new one that I’m also noticing is six, the innovation community, in that we’re seeing now patients who are both, you know, giving advice on new medications, but also contributing to the production of those new medications. So you’re seeing patients who are also creating groups, that are fundraising, that are allocating resources and then stepping forward when the clinical trials are around. So they’re part of the process of creating that new innovation that cures the disease itself; but, yeah, the three that you’ve picked out are really particularly interesting to clinicians, I believe.

Maria Sipka: Well, thank you for those observations; very relevant. And what we’ll move on to in terms of the next slide is to give you a little bit of a pulse-check on what’s happening within communities around the community space around the world. All of you will no doubt belong to at least one social-network channel. It could be you could be a member of Facebook, you might even be a fan on MySpace of a particular band, or you may be using Twitter by listening or participating by sharing. There are so many different channels out there, and I have no doubt that you belong to at least one of them.

Specifically within communities in social networks, today we have over 2,000 social networks. Five to ten years ago or five to seven years ago, there were only a few, and that’s really where the masses congregated; but, today, there’s been an emergence of many, many, many social networks, and what we’re seeing is the emergence of niche social networks around nurses and, even if you have a look at a nurse community, it could be in specific languages or specific fields. So we are finding that people no longer want to be part of a generalistic community; they will be to maintain their friendships or their professional contacts who are LinkedIn. But for those that are really wanting a valuable experience, they will choose to either create or join a social network or a community of purpose that’s highly relevant to their field or their passion, or their hobby.

We’re finding that within these social networks, we have around about 160 million communities. Most of these communities, 95% at least, have been created by the members themselves; so they’re volunteer-led. One important point I should note is that not all 160 million-plus communities are active or alive. We estimate that only 5% of them are actually interesting and would complete our assignment.

So in the social-networking space we have around about 950 million members. They currently belong to a social network, and keep in mind that there are roughly 1.6 billion people who are online today. Of the 6 billion that are in the planet, we have 1.6 that are currently online, of which 950 million belong to a social network, and at least 350 million people belong to some kind of community.

(00:20:06)

They say that the average number is around about five; you know, typically a person that belongs to a community and gets what a community is about and somehow receives some form of value, whether they are part of a tech community or something around an iPod or even a patient group, they will then join at least five other groups that match their interests and needs.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: So just to come back to the comment that the vast majority of the active communities that are user-led, so a clinical team is much more likely to join an existing patient-led community than they are to create their own community for such patients.

Maria Sipka: Exactly, exactly. and we’ve found that professional communities that are created by professionals, like clinicians, companies, brands, those type of communities it’s the other way around: 95% of them are alive, they are thriving in one way or another, simply because they are tied to business, some form of objectives, business objectives. It is very different from a member that belongs to Facebook that is passionate about golf that creates a golfing group. That community has a 95% chance they could be (glitch) a community that’s created by a professional has a 95% chance of having (glitch), has all the … whether it’s (glitch) come forward and one of the acts we got (glitch) we got, because you (glitch) their patients, your blood, to keep it going.

So in terms of what we spoke about before, how we started different presentations in that community, shouldn’t be seen as a sales channel, but rather a relationship conduit. Another way to see community is (glitch) way to teach with your kids, because in communities patients are live. If you take a look at what you’ve traditionally done before, what you’ve been exposed to before is that you had somebody, an individual or a company or an organization with an objective, whether it’s, say, to promote an event, create a loyalty program, promote some kind of new information about a service or product or to do a survey or to create a focus group.

Traditionally, how that process has happened is via some form of a communication channel. It could have been via an email database; a mailing list, whether it be sending letters or email addresses; it could have be by an advertisement or picking up the phone. You know, communication really in the old days, or how we classify as Web 1.0, was quite rigid, you know, and the reality was that all of the people that they were communicating to, whether it be two or three or thousands, all of those relationships were locked in like a database. You know, the people were unable to communicate with each other; so they’d participate in this survey and weren’t able to share their experience around participating in that survey; or if they attended an event, yes, they could talk with one another at the event, but then there was no before or afterwards.

So it was very much a rigid, one-way channel, and what’s happened today is that those databases or those relationship groups have been brought to life, you know, and what we see today is not a one-way channel, but rather a collaborative channel so that you can actually release any type of message or spark any type of conversation, and immediately you can start seeing the results of that through communities and other social-media channels.

And what’s happened is that — and this is what most of us are grappling with — is that the rules have changed. Because of this level of transparency and immediate feedback, suddenly those that are actually releasing that message have had to deal with a completely different set of rules.

One of my favorite cartoons in the presentation is that if you talk to people the way advertising talk to people, they’d punch you in the face. And that’s how severe it is within social networks and communities and sites like Twitter and so on. People just don’t like being manipulated or influenced or sold to. And so what we need to understand is how to operate and play within this whole new ecosystem of social media where suddenly users are the ones that really have a say in this ecosystem.

(00:25:27)

So what I’d like to —

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: So, Maria, the — I guess that the traditional way that if you’re a hospital, for example, you would have the Communication Team releasing press releases and they’re the ones also talking to … they’re the kind of public-facing Communication Team.

Now they can’t do that; now it’s gonna be the clinicians who are communicating with patients in a public forum through a community website. They’re the ones that are actually the Communication Team, and it’s more distributed — it can’t be centralized — and they’re talking the way they normally talk to patients; they haven’t had the professional advertising way of talking.

Maria Sipka: Exactly, and it goes even a step further than that. Clinicians are the closest people that can relate to the masses. You know, the masses don’t want to hear from the Marketing or PR executive; of course the Marketing and PR executive has a very important role to play in all of this, but we’re finding with any type of company or brand or any user group, the people want to talk to people that they can relate to.

And so, you know, the step further that it goes to now is that the clinicians are actually reaching out to the influencers within this social-media ecosystem, and those influencers could be prominent people that have a lot of … they could be patients; but those specific patients have influence over many other people. They could be bloggers, you know, and those bloggers could be the patients that have decided to share their experience by blogs and by Twitter and they’re the mass and have a huge following. The clinicians are reaching out and identifying these influential people — we call them influencers — and then sometimes those people are the ones that then deliver that message.

So it’s almost like, you know, we’ve got a game of Chinese Whispers here: you’ve got the Marketing Department that then communicate with the clinicians, and the clinicians communicate with the influencers, and the influencers are the ones that communicate with the members. And it’s fascinating to see how that message is transformed, and it evolves when the Marketing people finally get around to monitoring, “Okay, well what’s actually being said here?” that’s where the greatest insights and innovation come from, because that’s where you truly listen and understand what are the needs and what are the interests of these key stakeholders that we’ve traditionally been talking to, not talking with.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: So the Marketing group, it’s more that their role is training or sort of cascading expertise, because there still are some risks of when you’re talking online with patients, because everything you’re saying is archived, is stored, and if you say something wrong then it’s available for people to talk about. So do you switch to a training role as you go to thinking about the stakeholders and what they would want?

Maria Sipka: Yeah, well, what we’re finding is that executives such as Marketing, Communication, PR, they’re responsible for identifying the tools that are out there; they’re responsible for monitoring what’s being said; they’re responsible for somehow digesting that information and gathering various different stakeholders — whether it be community members, whether it be clinicians — and sparking a conversation as to, “Okay, how do we respond to this? What does this mean?”

So they’re also involved in understanding what are the rules and regulations and guidelines that are out there, because specifically within the health industry it’s a minefield. We’re speaking with some of the world’s global pharmaceutical brands, and some of them have done nothing because they’re just so scared to take that step and risk being fined or put into the spotlight as having broken the rules. And so it’s very important that the backroom or the engine behind is feeding the right type of frameworks and guidelines and tools in order for that community to really thrive. Does that make sense?

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: It does.

(00:29:58)

Maria Sipka: So one of the approaches that I like to take when going through some of the basics of community-building is that we start off with taking off our professional hats. So if you are a marketeer or you are in PR — okay, most of you are clinicians — or whether you’re in Market Research, just take that hat off for a moment and put yourself into the shoes of your key stakeholders. So picture the type of people that you would like to be conversing with that you would either like to join a community with those people or create some kind of a community.

We’re specifically going to focus here on community-building, and we’re going to go through a journey to understand the role of online communities within your relationship ecosystems; and how the relationship ecosystem operates is, it’s a cycle, okay? And this cycle can actually be applied to different community types that we went through earlier.

With any type of community-building initiative, there’s always … you start off with defining your offering, okay? So what is it that you’re thinking of offering to these key stakeholders that you’re wanting to gather and really questioning is there really a need for this offering, because often we find that, you know, we’re convinced that there needs to … a conversation or a gathering needs to take place around a specific topic. We don’t do anything to validate that, so it’s a very, very important to question is there really a need for what it is that we’d like to offer.

And who are your key stakeholders; you know, how are they currently segmented? I’m not lumping them all into one bucket, you know; there might be four or five different members of your community. Mohammad, you might have more of an insight into, you know, when we think about a community of clinicians, who would be the different participants that you would see that would be engaging within this community?

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: So you have, obviously, the clinical team, which the doctors, the nurses, the allied professionals; but also you’ve got the patients, and you’ve got the carers for those patients, and finally there might be some social support, as well. So the people who are preparing the social-care package along with the clinical one.

Maria Sipka: Okay, so you’ve got roughly anywhere between three to five key stakeholders that you’re addressing.

And the next question once you have identified them is, how do they currently behave? You know, this is to gain an insight and understanding of how they could potentially participate within your community, understanding how they can behave. If you’re targeting carers that are around the clock taking care of patients, then is a community really going to be valuable within their day-to-day activities; how are they going to find the time to participate; and what’s going to be relevant and meaningful to them?

To understanding how these key stakeholders currently behave and the relationship that they potentially have with this online medium is important, because then you can plan around that and find touch-points to engage those people to make it a very relevant and meaning experience to them.

So this first stage, or phase one of defining your offering, requires that you research; you speak to these — you identify the key stakeholders, you speak to them; you find out what’s important to them. You might have some ideas as to what you feel is important, validate that with them and create a crystal-clear image of what it is that you’re going to be offering the type of experience.

It’s very similar to if you’re setting up a restaurant, where you can imagine what type of people are going to be visiting your restaurant, what kind of food they’re going to be eating, are they going to be there for two or three hours or just a half an hour. You know, it’s really creating that crystal-clear picture.

The second phase of the community-building process is a very important one, and that is setting your objectives. So once you’ve started to paint a picture of the offering, then ask yourself: what does success look like? You know, in order for this community to be successful, what are the different things that need to happen? Out of our potential key stakeholders, if you’ve identified 50 or 100 or even 1,000 people, then how many of those people would you like to join your community and at what stage? They’re not going to suddenly join from day one; it may take twelve months or even two years to engage those people.

So, understanding how many people are going to be part of your community; then also painting a picture of success around their interactions: are they simply going to be digesting information. If so, how will they respond, you know, and what percentage of people will respond. Typically within communities, most people are what we define lurkers: they will come in, they’ll browse around, but they won’t participate. They will click on articles, which is one success indicator; but they won’t necessarily post new articles or respond to others.

But still there does need to be a healthy level of, say, 5% or 10% of your community that are continually contributing, because otherwise you’ve just created another communication channel that relates to what we call Web 1.0, which is just a blasting tool of information. You know, the aim is to get people to participate.

So, you know, over what period of time? Communities on average, depending on what type of community and how challenging or easy it’s going to be to engage those key stakeholders, can take anywhere between six months to two years to mature. You know, what we’re seeing today is that people will join communities, and they need to see that there’s some level of consistency in order for them to come back and contribute over again, for it to become a part of their life in some way. And so realizing and managing expectations from the outset as to how much time you’re going to give in order for this community to grow is extremely important.

A community that I saw, I witnessed being created last year, was a community called Business Fights Poverty. It was created on NING, which is a free social-networking tool where you can instantly create a community, and now this community has over 5,000 members. It’s deeply ingrained within the community leader’s day-to-day activities; however, he’s not the only one that’s contributing in this community. Lots of 5,000 members are not certainly contributing on a regular basis.

If you have a look at this community and see the activity stream, you have a very healthy level of community members that are participating on an ongoing basis. So he was able to achieve his objective within 12 months in a very proactive way, where he integrated this community into his day-to-day communication with his various different stakeholders that he identified.

Thirdly, you know, how are your goals, how are your community objective tied to your business goals? We spoke earlier about Return on Investment. In order for you to justify spending time in this community and potentially even gathering more resources, which could mean some level of cost, then how are they tied to your business goals? If it’s around research? Then, what type of research looks successful to you? Is it based on the number of people that participate in that research; or if it’s about innovation, then how have you been able to measure the activity that relates to new innovative ideas? And so clearly being aware of what your business goals are, they need to be aligned with the objectives of your community; they go hand-in-hand.

And finally, how and when will you measure success? Many of the tools that are out there enable you to measure activity on a daily basis, okay? So you can measure, you know, how many members belong to that community; you can measure how many people are clicking on specific posts or topics that you’ve posted; you can measure how many are replying to posts. So the average community platforms and tools that are out there will enable you to measure.

You can do a little bit of a pulse-check on a regular basis if you want a highly active community; otherwise, we recommend that you measure the success at least on a monthly basis and then determine what do you need to be doing more of and what do you need to be doing less of, and then implementing those changes and again monitoring that the following month to see what impacts change or not.

One example of measuring success that we’ve implemented within a community that we launched is that we find that when we post topics within our community — that could be a new job, or it could be an event, or it could be a question that a member has posted — we will then promote that through Twitter.

So we will say, “Hey, does anybody have any answers to these questions?” or “Is anybody interested in this job?” And we find that that increases our number of traffic. We will have 40 to 50 people visit our community every time that we’ve broadcasted something of interest via the Twitter channel, depending on how many followers we have.

So there are different ways that you can adjust how you go about doing things, and then just do more of that once you find what works. As they say, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. So measurement is absolutely key within this process.

The third phase of the community-building process is developing your community plan. So it’s sitting down with the people that are going to be important within this community. They could be any one of your key stakeholders, they could be a patient, a carer, a physician and a number of clinicians. It’s important to gather as many people as possible, because whoever gathers at this stage, they’re your early supporters and they can play a key role within your community.

As part of the community planning process, there are a number of different areas that you need to address; but the most important one is, do you have a budget to create your community? and what I mean by “budget” is not necessarily in dollar values, but it could be how much time you’re going to invest. Time is as good as money, and so what type of budget can you realistically contribute towards your community-building initiatives; or if you decide to join a number of communities, how much time and money would you allocate towards that.

Once you’ve identified your budget, then identifying what type of resources you’re going to need to manage this community; and resources fall into two categories: you have internal resources, so your internal resources could be yourself and your colleagues and potentially even what we’re seeing is engaging the Legal Department to make sure that we’re abiding by the latest rules and regulations that are out there; it could be touching base with your Marketing or PR or Communication. And so what type of resources are going to be necessary; and what does that mean in terms of their time and what action items or responsibilities they may have either as a one-off or on an ongoing basis.

And then the second bucket is the external people. External people are absolutely key within the community-planning process. External people could be potential patients that would like to moderate a forum or can moderate reviews; they’re the people that evangelize and really provide that level of support to the members that are going to be joining your community.

We’ve often also seen that people that create communities engage external partners and suppliers. So anybody that you have a relationship with, how can you engage them in this community and give them some kind of a role and manage them on an ongoing basis. When I say “manage”, it’s more like really inspire them and motivate them to contribute.

The third area — and we’ve briefly touched on it before — is the technology aspect. Will you be building this community, or will you be using an existing technology? I wouldn’t recommend building at all unless a company or organization that has extremely deep pockets, which not many companies do today. Why reinvent something that’s already been created? There are over 120 different providers of community platforms and technologies. Some of them are completely free, like NING. I’ve seen even some companies create their communities in groups within existing social networks where there already exists thousands, if not millions, of their potential key stakeholders.

So I’ve seen on business communities formed within LinkedIn, within Zing. You could create a patient group or community within patient-related or health-related social networks. So this is a very key question, and often we’ve found that those that invest heavily into the technology, unless there is a strategic reason why it just has to be that way, you really should put 95% of your focus into actually creating the community experience, because unfortunately we’ve seen many companies spend literally millions of dollars on creating their communities, and by the time they’re ready to launch the community, they’ve run out of budget. Then 12 months to two years later, they’ve had the headaches to deal with, and they haven’t even got their community off the ground. So you really need to think twice about how you’re going to draw about your image, and I would highly recommend that you use an existing platform and one that’s free to start with.

The next element —

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: Can I just, just to repeat that —

Maria Sipka: Yes?

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: — the whole aim is if you do have millions of dollars, you should really spend it on the connections that you have who build the strategic content for the community, as opposed to developing software or building your own platform.

Maria Sipka: Exactly, exactly.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: So we’re coming to the kind of ingredients of the community, you’re kind of laying them out; so can you just repeat those for us? It’s on the last slide, again, starting from the transparency.

Maria Sipka: Yeah, so we’re talking about the cycle to create communities and the first —

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: Yeah. So go ahead, I’m sorry.

Maria Sipka: Yeah, and so the first phase is defining your offering; so being very clear about what it is that you’re going to offer to this community that you’re going to create.

The second step is setting your objectives, and how are they aligned with your business objectives?

The third stage is the community-planning phase; so, creating a plan. If you don’t have your own plan, you become a part of someone else’s. So really putting the energy and effort into the planning. And then there’s three other phases that we’ll go through. So I can run through those a lot more quicker because I know we’re running out of time here.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: Uh-huh.

Maria Sipka: Okay?

Dr. Mohammad Al=-Ubaydli: Yeah, go ahead; I’m sorry (laughing).

Maria Sipka: So just to finalize on this third phase of the community plan, where will you gather content? As with traditional media, content is king; it’s the substance that sparks and generates conversations.

So if you’ve created a community around a specific topic, then being able to feed that community, continually with fresh, engaging, compelling content is absolutely key.

And then the fantastic thing about social media, a benefit about social media, is a lot of this content already exists on the Internet. You can actually go to YouTube, you can go to Flickr to get photographs, you can go to SlideShare to get slide presentations, and you can see feed a lot of this content into your community without you having to recreate it from scratch. Of course, you can also use your community to feed with your own content; so if you’ve created a research paper or you’ve written a blog article, then your community is the place where you can feed this and spark conversations.

And finally addressing is there any potential to draw sponsors to your community? If you were to create this community and the more innovation focus there is and you’re able to acquire a gathering of people, then who would be interested in sponsoring this community? And sponsorship may not necessarily be in cash, it may be in kind: it could be offering an event venue, or it could be offering exclusive content; it could be the opportunity to drive more members into your community. So really think about sponsorship and what type of value you could provide and they could provide to you.

The fourth phase of community-building is the acquisition and uptake. So this is the stage where you go out and engage these key stakeholders that you identified earlier, understanding how they’re segmented will enable you to, number one, identify where it is that they currently hang out, okay? Sometimes you might need to go and approach these people offline through a telephone call, at an event; or they may already exist within existing groups online, or they could be a Twitter following. These people could already exist, and tailoring and customizing an approach on how to go and identify where these people hang out and how to reach them is something that needs to be defined before you actually take that action.

And when you identify these people and you reach out to them, understanding what are the different carrots you’re going to offer: what’s going to compel those to either invite their members or themselves to actually come and join your community or group? You need to give them a good reason; you don’t just say, “Hey, we’ve created a community around X, come and join”; “Hey, we’ve created a community around X, and this is the value that you’re going to find if you come and join us.” So part of the acquisition and uptake stage is making sure that you’re very focused in who you’re going after; that those people are highly targeted; and that you’re offering an authentic experience for them to join.

The fifth phase of the community-building process is the result and pulse-check phase, which we went over earlier. So this is where you’re really establishing and generating some kind of return on investment of money or time. So when is it that you know that you’ve achieved success? If you’re monitoring on a daily or monthly basis, you’ll quickly determine whether you’re generating success or not.

How does your community fit into the life of your key stakeholders? You preempted it in the first phase, but are you really playing a role within their life somehow? If these people are returning and spending 5, 10, 20 minutes within your community, then you’re a part of their life; so understanding how you are a part of your life is important. It gives you an opportunity to then create some kind of a formalized referral if membership grows is one of your objectives and you’d like to attract some more people into your community.

If you’re a part of your members’ lives, then there’s a high chance that they will invite others. So why not formalize that process of invitation, either through tools or through incentives or simply just asking, “Hey, do you know anybody else that would like to join this community?”

If you’re creating a larger community, then — and this is something you need to check with IT or your Communication Department — is how does your community integrate within your existing customer relationship-management system. And at the end of the day, the results and pulse-check, the proof is in the numbers. So make sure that whatever tool that you do use, you’re able to track the success.

The final stage is retention. So once you’ve attracted all of these people, you’re keeping them engaged, you’re seeing the success factor is there; then if you’re in it for the long haul, how you’re going to retain your members’ interest. How will you keep these people engaged and deepen those relationships? Will you offer some kind of incentives? Will you incentivize evangelists within your communities?

People love to meet offline, so if there’s a possibility that you can create some offline events, then you’ll find that people will develop deeper relationships, they will refer more and they’ll come back to your site more often. So engagement is and retention is a very important consideration, because once you’ve got that final phase figured out and you’re successful in that, you can then start the cycle all over again and perhaps introduce additional offerings and then go through that relationship cycle again.

What’s important to keep in mind when building communities and going through these six phases is that create a checklist and ensure that your community is maintaining high standards. And what we mean by “standards” is that we’ve found the most successful communities have a high degree of transparency, engagement amongst many members and not just a few. There’s consistency; so, you know, you say you’re going to communicate once a month, then you communicate that newsletter once a month. If somebody posts a topic, then you respond to them within 24 hours. Consistency is something that’s very rewarding for members.

The ability for the members to be able to collaborate amongst one another, celebration is key. so if you’ve achieved something successful within your community, then celebrate that success; promote it through a newsletter; feature it on the homepage; create a discussion; celebrate members and the various different activities.

And the last two points are simplicity: keep it very simple. There’s nothing worse than joining a community that has too many bells or whistles. Start with a very simplistic approach, offer less, find out what it is that the members are looking for and then start to test that out and add more and more as time goes by.

And then finally, measurement: the ability for you to measure the contribution from yourself, as well as the members, that enables you to really benefit from this ecosystem that you’ve created or the community that you’ve created.

Dr. Mohammad Al-Ubaydli: Maria, I really appreciate this, partly because for clinicians they’re not really sure how to communicate with patients online, and partly because no one’s really sure. It’s kind of a new medium, and so I really appreciate the expertise and experience that you’ve brought. It really kind of breaks it down for everyone involved. Thank you.

Maria Sipka: Thank you.

Total Duration: 55 Minutes

Full transcription provided by Tech-Synergy.

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