Staying Relevant Online

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The following is draft material for my next book, Welcome to the Fifth Estate (the follow up to Now Is Gone, which is almost out of print). Comments may be used in the final edition. You can download the first drafted chapter of the new edition — Welcome to the Fifth Estate — for free.

Care 2 Founder & CEO Randy Paynter left a great comment on my blog yesterday (which will be cited in my new book) about staying relevant as an online community developer, and how your interactions need to change to continue to foster growth. Randy would know as the creator of a 14 million person nonprofit social network. Staying relevant online remains one of the biggest challenges facing organizations today.

Once you have developed a following, moving from a conversation driver to a conversation facilitator is critical. It empowers the community to become part of the brand, as Randy noted. That’s why Dell continues to thrive online, as opposed to other brands like Old Spice, which seems to be a one hit wonder.

There is more. Technologies adapt, features develop, and social networks are born and fade into distance. Maintaining relevance to your stakeholders requires a “think liquid” attitude that allows your organization to move with the times and serve your stakeholders. Like water, which finds the path of least resistance to get to the ocean, an organization needs to remain flexible and follow its community and use the tools that they find most relevant at the time. Can you imagine if your favorite nonprofits and brands still insisted on using AOL as the primary way to interact with them?

One of the reasons why Facebook and Twitter remain relevant is that they are constantly proactively upgrading their feature sets to serve the people using their networks. Today’s Twitter news is a classic example. When serving video and pictorial content becomes more important, these services focus on them.

Like technologies, issues remain in motion, too. If a brand or nonprofit is so committed to staying on message or on topic, it may miss the boat. Dictating interesting points of view to the Fifth Estate may capture its attention, but if there’s no quid pro quo with a commitment to serve the Fifth Estate’s interests, they will move on. Common interest is a two-way street.

For example, the 2010 election is one of the more interesting ones in recent times with continued anger towards Washington based in economic uncertainty. In this week’s political news, the community has moved on from the national conversation about mosques to the economy. If politicians continue focusing on red herring issues like New York and the mosque issue instead of the economy, they will continue to lose traction with their potential voters.

Because the Fifth Estate represents a widespread swath of our society’s voices — real people — it changes. Relevance to our various communities is about a commitment to change and evolving with the times. What are your thoughts about maintaining relevance?