The Internet, and the platforms now available to create various online gatherings, have changed our world and continue to do so. New ways to combine the power of assembled individuals—financially, socially, creatively—are being introduced all the time.

Whenever individuals motivated by common interests come together through an online platform, they create a virtual community. Virtual communities are now pervasive and can be found in many disciplines and professions.

The Abrams Community

Let's start with a virtual community success story, one that comes directly out of the publishing world. The Abrams community is an example of how connections made between people with a powerful shared interest can positively affect personal lives and business. Abrams Learning Trends (ALT), a publisher of supplementary materials for pre-K through fifth grade, launched DIG, a new pre-K program in schools. The program consisted of print books, teacher guides, flip charts, audio recordings, and e-books. ALT was looking to differentiate the program and their digital reader solution to make them stand out in the marketplace.

ALT implemented, a secure, user-friendly social networking environment for the program's users. This engagement community was designed for interaction among classroom teachers, students, and their parents, as well as between teachers within the same school systems. Note that the shared interest holding together this community was the desire to provide an optimum educational experience for these young children.

Since the users of the online learning system are all in pre-K, the modules are very basic and easy to use. While the focus of the learning platform is the young students, it is the publisher, parents, and teachers who are actively monitoring the system. There is plenty of opportunity for parents and teachers to comment on their impressions of how the system is working and what is needed going forward. It was ALT's intent from the start to encourage feedback and recommendations in order to continue enhancing their program and to drive more user adoption. This interaction worked even better than expected.

ALT ensured the platform tracks and measures usage of all the modules. The usage stats, meant originally to be for ALT's own analysis, attracted the attention of the parents and teachers. Consequently, ALT began getting extremely valuable marketing intelligence from its customers. Feedback provided not only direction for the refinement and development of the site, but also recommendations for new content: parents and teachers began seeing where there was a need for additional titles in vocabulary or math, in addition to those already provided as part of the package. As a result, ALT was able to introduce multiple new titles to the community.

Here is a fine example of a win-win arrangement. ALT succeeds with its business model and receives ongoing feedback for enhancing it. The parents and teachers are given an active role in shaping the curriculum for their children. And the children, we can expect, receive an optimized educational experience. This is what a virtual community does at its best.

Defining Virtual Communities

While Abrams is a great example, the publishing industry overall has been slow to adopt virtual communities. Publishing is certainly not lacking for appropriate groups to engage; we have authors, contributors, vendors, and of course, our customers. Yet, any publisher investigating the introduction of a virtual community into its business will reasonably want the answers to several important questions,

  • How would it work in my business?
  • What would we hope to achieve with such a community?

Before exploring the possible uses of the virtual community in publishing, we need to clearly understand its essential aspects.

As a starting point, let's look at a definition offered by Constance Elise Porter in "A Typology of Virtual Communities": "A virtual community is defined as an aggregation of individuals or business partners who interact around a shared interest, where the interaction is at least partially supported or mediated by technology and guided by some protocols or rules."

Note the members of the community are named as "individuals or business partners." The fact is that the virtual community can encompass personal or business endeavors. Particularly successful communities can combine both.

The notion of a shared interest is key. Having a common goal, or even a common passion, is what helps form a community, keep members motivated, and provide the glue or "stickiness" that holds that community together. Without that common motivator, there is no community, merely an aggregation of individuals.

Community interactions are "supported or mediated by technology." This is where the role of a shared platform comes in. Each community will require a platform architecture that specifically supports its purpose, as the Kickstarter platform enables interested investors and entrepreneurs to find each other and pool investment funding.

Ultimately, the virtual community gives us many of the virtues we would expect from an actual community. Note this portion of Wikipedia's definition: "Virtual communities resemble real life communities in the sense that they both provide support, information, friendship and acceptance between strangers."

The Potential of Virtual Communities Within the Publishing Ecosystem

Initially, appreciating the power of the virtual community in publishing may require some modest changes to the way we now view our customers, authors, and even vendors. In the pressures of day-to-day business, it is easy to look at customers as sales targets, with authors and vendors as contractors. In a community, however, all members are working together with a common cause. In that context, we are partners.

Most publishers have used the power of the Internet to send email marketing blasts to all their customers. Using it to create a community platform for customers around a common interest can positively change the way they regard the publisher. That platform may not always be an immediate path to increased sales, but it can certainly be an immediate boon to customer relations. If built with their interest in mind, a community platform can do more to promote customer loyalty than any marketing campaign could.

Engagement communities provide their members with a platform for ongoing interaction dedicated specifically to their common interest. As publishers, we are looking to bring together our customers and perhaps our authors into an engagement community based on an interest they share.

It is often subject matter from the trade sector—particularly for hobbies and crafts—that lends itself naturally to an engagement community. On a publisher-sponsored site, hobbyists can be encouraged to ask questions of their favorite authors or comment freely on what works best for them. The publisher can release advance articles or chapters to the community and invite reader response. Authors might use reader feedback to guide their writing going forward. The publisher might facilitate open discussions about particular hobbies or crafts, with the authors as moderators. There can even be contests to encourage readers to recommend new subject areas for exploration. The most avid fans will not only have definite ideas of what they want to see published next, they will also be buyers and enthusiastic promoters of the new publications.

Outside of the trade sector, publishers may not as easily find readers who bring such enthusiasm to particular subject areas, and those readers might not necessarily be the best source for new content development. As one STEM executive has noted, "New scientific discovery is hardly appropriate for crowdsourcing." There are, however, still appropriate engagement communities to target for more academic or scholarly areas.

In the STEM world, for example, there are a number of expert authors who might be brought together around specific topics. Publishers might partner with existing scientific associations already dedicated to specific areas of inquiry, such as cancer research for medical content or nanotechnology for engineering content.

Once again, it would be the publisher's role to encourage interactions and feedback. There might be sponsored forums targeting subjects in which new research is changing ideas. The discussions could be the seeds of new content. Authors could be encouraged to produce papers on new sample chapters to circulate back into the community and generate more feedback.

The "shared interest" here can extend beyond the intellectual enthusiasm for an academic topic. In scholarly research communities, funding for grants is often tied not only to publication of new material but also metrics indicating how often a particular paper has been cited. Engagement communities can provide researchers the opportunity to pick up new papers and cite one another.

Collaborative communities, unlike engagement communities, are often project-oriented. A group collaborates together toward the completion of a particular goal or goals. In publishing, we are well suited for collaborative communities structured around our own production processes. The creation of books and journals is a team effort involving authors/contributors, members of both the editorial and production departments, and of course vendors. Traditionally, the effort is held together by a project manager at the publisher or the vendor (for full service) or a shared responsibility of both.

As publishers have moved more work into the full service model, there has been a subsequent loss of centralized production control. Authors and contributors often complain about being shuffled about from one person to the next, without being quite certain exactly what is happening with their creation at any particular time in the process. Scheduling seems to be getting reduced down to manuscript delivery date and final file delivery date, with little publisher/author knowledge of what is happening in between.

Consider a platform designed specifically for the various interactions that occur in production. Such platforms already exist commercially and might even be provided by the vendor doing full service work. The first benefit is that the collaborative platform provides a communication system dedicated specifically to the project. All members of the production team know where to look for updates and special instructions. Team members can be assigned roles within the platform that provide them access to documents and processes they need or restrict that access as appropriate. The platform itself tracks all versions of pages. Every member of the team can see where the project stands, and there should be no complaints about publications going into "black holes."

Looking back at the way ALT assembled publisher, parents, teachers, and children, we see a small but powerful indication of the virtual community's potential in publishing. There are existing platforms that can meet our functional needs, and there are plenty of opportunities for creating communities. Now it is time to start connecting the dots between them.

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The Technology-Publishing Connection
This is the final installment in CodeMantra’s Technology-Publishing Connection series. A free webinar based on the article will be held on January 25.