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How To Encourage Collaboration and Member-Generated Content in a Social Network Community?

Fostering an open and collaborative environment is part art and part science, where science = enabling tools and platforms, while art = the policies and programs that marshal the forces of sociological influence in human behavior and motivation.

The SAP communities were built for the members, starting with SDN (SAP Developer Network) for developers working with SAP NetWeaver and evolving to include other customer roles, outside bloggers, analysts, partners, competitors, prospects, as well as SAP employees and other interested parties. We didn’t build SDN or – later – the broader SCN (SAP Community Network) to promote SAP’s marketing, sales, or support agenda… we’ve experienced many benefits related to these areas which I’ll detail later in this series, but the primary focus has always been on engaging the community by providing high value to those community members so they (you!) could be more successful.

SCN Enables and Encourages Conversations But Does Not Create Them

As a community driven by its members, an element of SCN’s “social media strategy” is to leverage new tools and technology to facilitate conversations and collaboration in a virtual environment, and to create the environment for that exchange to take place. We’ve incorporated features like blogs, wikis, forums, downloads, eLearning, articles, podcasts, videos, rewards programs, widgets, RSS feeds, LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Digg, YouTube, and more. These integrated technologies enable engagement between customers, partners, SAP, analysts, media, independent bloggers, consultants, competitors, prospects, and others. 

Our policies and programs ensure that anyone can ask or answer a question in our forums, anyone can request to be a blogger or comment on an existing blog, anyone can submit whitepaper and article content to our library, and anyone can submit a proposal to speak at SAP TechEd events.

It’s this diversity that helps drive robust conversations and keeps our communities vibrant, with a high percentage of outside content (versus SAP-created content) generated by members and shared within SCN, rather than content being primarily produced by SAP and pushed at community members. 

Your Knowledge and Experience Are Scarce Resources That Others Value Highly

User-generated content is a crucial part of keeping our communities dynamic, providing fresh and relevant information that draws in first-time and repeat visitors. Even with our large and open membership, the 90-9-1 principle holds true in SCN, where about 90% of members are simply consumers (readers) of content, rather than contributors.  The 9% of occasional contributors is the next largest segment, and rounds to 180,000 individuals sharing an answer in a forum, commenting on someone else’s blog, or editing a wiki page.  The majority of our activity is driven by a very small group of active participants (the 1% of our membership of 2 million is still a big number: 20,000 people). And, of course the tip of the top of the pyramid: our SAP Mentors, who are less than 1/200th of 1% of the total population – a very exclusive group.

Recognition & Reputation Are Behavioral Drivers to Encourage Knowledge-Sharing

We want to encourage more members to contribute their knowledge, and we also need to keep a check on the quality of content that is submitted to maintain the integrity and value of our communities so what you get is rich content with true value.  

One way we manage this challenge – encouraging people to share more actively – is through our points system, a feature that makes SCN special – if not unique. Community members reward each other with points when another member provides an answer, a technical paper, submits a demo, shares code, or provides other assistance and expertise for the good of the community or its individual members.

This program fulfills dual roles: It awards and publicly acknowledges frequent and high-quality contributors – enhancing, or in some cases, establishing, their reputations as experts in their particular field(s) – while aiming to encourage community activity in our forums, blogs, wikis, etc.  I also personally like the fact that we can say “thank you” so easily and readily, simply by rewarding points to those who share their time and comments with us. 

There aren’t big-time tangible rewards if you reach various point levels … for example, no Lamborghini for the top contributor in the ABAP forum (sorry…).  In the past, we used to send out swag as you hit various point levels, but mailing hats and t-shirts became logistically challenging and too expensive – and there are more important things to do with that budget than to ship t-shirts around the world.  Happily, we find that our most prolific and highest quality contributors do so simply for the pleasure of helping others – with the added perk of furthering their careers, gaining reputations in their areas of expertise, and expanding their personal and professional networks. 

Unfortunately, this Lamborghini is not (yet!) an SAP Community Network "top contributor" prize.  (Should be in the color red anyway...) 

When it works right, it’s a great system. But it’s not perfect, and later in this series I’ll detail some of the issues that can crop-up, as well as our response.

Lessons Learned:

Along the way, we’ve learned a few things that might be helpful to you in maximizing member-generated content if you’re managing or actively participating in a social network or a virtual community.  For example, we believe …

  • The community response and tone are important.  They need to be welcoming and encouraging, and cannot be overly judgmental.  Tone needs to show appreciation that someone shared their thoughts and perspectives. It needs to be forgiving of honest mistakes, of differences of opinion, of different regional or cultural traditions and styles, and even of small things like misspellings, grammar, and so on, in order to encourage open contribution across a global community and in a variety of roles and experience levels.

  • Tools need to be fairly easy to use with some of the latest bells-and-whistles, but tools are less important than social levers – again, incorporating elements of art (policies) with the science (platforms and apps). While it’s necessary to have a platform with features to easily encourage collaboration – like forums, blogs, and wikis – you also need to establish a trusted culture of two-way sharing.  John Hagel III and John Seely Brown recently published a related blog in the Harvard Business Review about the importance of building trust within social networks, which is a necessary change from traditional networking.  They say:
“[Understanding the needs of others] requires intense curiosity, deep listening and empathy that seeks to understand the context that other person is operating in. It also requires willingness to disclose vulnerabilities, since it is often hard to get the other person to share their most challenging issues without a sense that you are willing to do the same. … Reciprocity becomes a powerful foundation for trust.”

  • Differentiate between “Marketing 1.0” (push, self-promotional, imbalanced) and “Engagement 2.0” (exchange of fair value, sharing of information, assisting others as down payment on the potential for future help from someone else one day in the future). As Seth Godin recently noted, your goal shouldn’t be to yell at a lot of people through a bullhorn. It’s much more effective to talk with people who choose to listen to you. (Note: talk with them, not at them…)  Help educate others to adapt their mindset and behavior – but be patient; it can be a long process.  Model, encourage, request, and demand that kind of engagement. 

  • Appeal to individual motivations – which aren’t always financial. Incentives to contribute may stem from a desire to build a professional reputation, the hope for fame and glory, someone’s interest in strengthening their knowledge by teaching others, and other reasons – in addition to or instead of the potential for financial gain. 

Behavioral Economics Can Be a Guide to Incentives and Disincentives  

Dan Ariely, author of the book Predictably Irrational, researched decision-making and behavioral economics. In a study comparing monetary markets with social markets, he and his colleagues found that in monetary markets, “the amount of compensation directly influences individuals’ level of effort.” Whereas for social markets, “effort is shaped by altruism…individuals work as hard as they can regardless of payment. Altruism results in a level of performance that is high, constant, and insensitive to payment level.” And social markets can quickly be transformed into monetary markets as soon as payment is introduced – thus changing your members’ behaviors – but are not easily changed back – so be careful.

Experiment to Find the Right Balance and Mix to Maximize Member Participation  

It’s important to discover the right balance for your community. While we keep SCN as a social market by associating no monetary value with the points system (except for donations to a non-profit tied to the number of Active Contributors who earn more than 250 annual points), we do advocate and support monetary rewards in Innocentive. For the Innocentive challenges, we made sure the reward amounts were set high enough to differentiate between helping fellow members with their problems (the altruistic side) and being paid to solve a business challenge (the economic side).

Tools, Policies, Tone, Incentives = All Are Components in the Effort to Draw-Out Member Content  

A social network or community is 1.0 if it’s one-sided with a single entity dominating the conversation, pushing its messages out, using the web as a platform to broadcast.  It’s 2.0 when conversations occur.  Enabling and encouraging that exchange requires a mix of art and science, but we’ve found some best practices in our own SAP Community Network.  In the spirit of sharing, we’re happy to offer our experience as a guide (or a cautionary tale) for others.  Please comment below if you’ve discovered other truisms or patterns.  In particular, I’d be especially interested in knowing why you’re active here in SCN. 


Mark Yolton