Friday, August 12, 2005

Community vs. Contact -- Trust vs. Transactions -- Members & Subscribers -- There Is A Difference

As a subscriber to Business Week, I saw the piece they just ran on Craig Newmark, the founder of Craig's list, in their column called, “Voices of Innovation.” My guess is that almost no one these days doesn't know about or at least hasn't heard of Craig's list. My daughter uses it all the time. It was nice to see Craig recognized yet once again, although his desire to avoid the limelight is nearing legend proportions.

While I don't know him personally, a few years ago at a conference in New York, I was asked to be on a panel with Craig and Laurel Touby, the founder of Media Bistro. The subject we were to discuss was the building of online communities.

Seeing the piece in Business Week reminded me not just of the panel but of the common thread that I recalled from each of our remarks -- even though none of us had talked to the other about what we were going to say. The common thread was that each of our sites had grown by personal referral and personal involvement with our "community."

“Word-of-mouth” is a difficult thing to actively control, but when it works in your favor, the positive results can be quite powerful. ExecuNet was formed in 1988 before commercial Internet usage, and obviously at that time we relied heavily on referrals from our members. Seventeen years later, we still credit recommendations from our members for much of our success and longevity.

In today's world, the value of word-of-mouth buzz is compounded by the speed in which news travels over the Internet. For example, every time ExecuNet appears in the press – as it did a couple of weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal – we see the results online as blogs and website links and reprints, all of which help in driving traffic to our site and making people aware.

No matter how people get here, however, I have always felt that personal referral was the most powerful advertising there is, and that is evidenced by the fact that the community we have with ExecuNet is based on the commitment that comes from being a member. That was -- and still is -- the key factor in why personal referral remains the way most of our members get here.

One of the first questions many people who contact us for the first time ask is how we measure our effectiveness as a career management resource for senior-level executives? My response is usually along the lines of "How did you hear of us?" The answer more often than not is "A friend of mine told me about you." To which I then respond, "Well, you have now found a good part of the answer -- by reputation.
Most people I know don't refer people to something unless they feel there is value there. I don’t, and I wouldn't expect you to either."

There is a real difference between being a member of something and simply a subscriber. Craig interacts and treats those who use his site as real members of a community. In turn, those visitors (and I believe our members as well) bring the most important element in any business or personal relationship -- TRUST.

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