Guest Post from Mark Pollard (@markpollard): Currently, lead digital strategist at Leo Burnett. Moving in new year. Shhh. But more importantly CEO/Chief Editor/Administrator of Stealth Magazine
In the spirit of learning, the official soundtrack to this post
Over the past few years, when I've not been making strategy or changing nappies, chances are I've been doing something connected to hip hop. The good kind. Not the kind you made fun of when we were at school. The kind that makes you think, that challenges your perception of the world and makes you want to become more skillful.
Now, hip hop - as with most sub-cultures - comes with a lot of rules and hierarchy. It can be a difficult community to crack because it grew up being taken advantage of (by film-makers, photographers, record labels, media, advertisers). But the advent of the internet allowed newcomers to circumvent the system, to build new communities that weren't reliant on the rules of the hip hop establishment, and to find new audiences and distribution channels. My magazine, Stealth, was part of that changing guard.
I first published Stealth - the magazine and website - in 1999. Within a few years, the time required to publish an independent magazine (in its heyday it was 108 pages, full colour and came with a CD-Rom) led to the decision to simply turn the website into an online forum. This will change in the future now that print is becoming even more difficult to sustain.
The forum currently averages 20,000 visitors per month (with about 50% of traffic coming from search), hosts over 120,000 posts, and is read by people key to the scene, journalists, academics (one even wrote a paper on the dynamics on our message board - see footnote) and upcomers alike. Adsense covers hosting and I'd spend less than 1 hour per month on maintenance.
Here are a few things I've learnt from running the forum and creating a media vehicle that's purpose was about giving a voice to the under-represented and being an active part of a real-world community.
Work hard for credibility
This is a give and take kind of thing. Hard to earn, easy to lose. It takes time - you can't just launch something and expect people to take you seriously. You need to live and breathe it - not delegate it. You need to take a hit for the community, promote their cause - not just yours, work your arse off... then they'll respect you. Ammunition: knowledge, connections, ability and willingness to make things happen - for other people.
Help the influencers
Not ALL influencers are worth your time. Sometimes the people who seem the most influential are just the loudest and are the worst to deal with. I've often come across people I'd call King of the Kids - grown men who want the approval and following of teenagers (and hang out with them all the time because it makes them feel important). They look influential but don't always have people's best interests at heart, and will always complain. However, the influencers who are worth connecting with will help you help them help you once you've invested energy in them. Get to know them personally - and don't sell to them. They're too smart for that.
Anonymity sucks, authenticity's cool
Don't be an anonymous brand 'doing viral' (and don't 'do viral') and don't allow people to post or contribute to your websites anonymously. Our website has a low number of members (under 2000) compared to the number of visitors (over 120,000 uniques per year) so I temporarily experimented with anonymous posting. It led to really bad karma on the site with people putting each other down. Lord of the Flies stuff. Real relationships are built through authenticity - it's one reason I used to insist writers in Stealth be credited with their real names (unless they were known figures).
Drama wins every time
As with most blogs you read, the posts that get the most views have DRAMA. Any time there was a fight, any time there was sledging between different graffiti crews, these posts would get the most views. Quickly. When Triple J started to play Australian hip hop, I wrote that the hip hop they chose was gimmicky and slightly racist (long story), and within days we'd had thousands of views. This is the sort of stuff that gets emailed around, talked about face to face. If it isn't hurting someone, it's OK to let it happen. If you do it intentionally, all the time, people will bore quickly.
You need to let go
Yes, this point is in every "Thingamajig 2.0" presentation. What I found is that creating a 'leadership' vacuum (ie for the main people to not always be the ones who solve problems, post articles) leads to other people getting more involved, feeling ownership of the community. Over time, you get a feeling for the people who care most about your online community so I would invite them to become moderators and see how else I could work with them (employ them, ask them to write, etc). Letting go is not about being negligent. It's about not being anal and controlling.
Following on from the previous point, letting go typically sees communities of people self-regulate - especially if a mutual set of values is understood and shared (something a brand can expedite). And if people aren't allowed to be anonymous. If debate is smart and of substance (and doesn't lead to physical threats), then let it happen - and don't feel you need to express a point of view or take sides.
Offline influences online
I'm finding this point true with my recent (and second) flirtation with Twitter. Much as offline brand activity can spike online activity (eg watching a TVC can lead directly to Google), much as meeting your Twitter friends face to face leads to more @ messages and other networking opportunities, if you run a community, get off the computer as much as possible to meet that community. It will make a lot of difference. It's why this post is on Julian's blog right now.
So, really, the main points here are about being 'real' - not hiding behind a corporate veil, and understanding that the online world (for brands as much as people) truly follows many of the same human and tribal truths we know intuitively. Oh, and there's nothing wrong with making mistakes - there's no drama in perfection.
Stealth stuff on the interwebs
We've had a few occasions where the forum has attacked journalists and academics. One of the most interesting started after members of our message board had criticised Ian Maxwell's book, Phat Beats. He came across their criticisms and then wrote a paper ("When Worlds Collide: A Subculture Writes Back") about the online community hierarchy without consulting anyone - it was a bit mean. The paper was then found, posted and criticised until he eventually joined the forum and discussed his thoughts. DRAMA! Read the post here.
Next week: How Julian Cole games you: A cynical take on strategic blogging