Are Identity-based Networks the New Content Marketing?

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Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part interview featuring Gina Bianchini. In the first installment, she shared B2B-relevant community-building lessons she learned as a co-founder of the LeanIn.org network.

Gina Bianchini is on to something big, something that’s changing individual lives and also beginning to change how some forward-thinking companies are engaging and building affinity with their customer audiences.

Since 2004, when she co-founded Ning with Marc Andreessen, Bianchini has been a digital community pioneer with a special expertise and interest in creating niche networks. Under Bianchini’s leadership, Ning became the largest social platform for communities, giving 90 million monthly unique visitors a place to connect across 300,000 active specialty networks. After the team sold the company to Mode Media Corporation, Bianchini partnered with Matteo Melani, formerly a senior engineer at Twitter, to found Mightybell.com, a software platform that enables people and companies to create their own network-based communities around members’ shared identity. Built for entrepreneurs and business innovators, the Mightybell platform is the first service that enables its users to create a community and community-based business on mobile.

Since launching Mightybell in 2010, Bianchini has had first-hand experience and ring-side seats from which to witness the power of networks in action. In 2013, she co-founded LeanIn.org with Sheryl Sandberg and Rachel Thomas. Inspired by Sandberg’s book, Lean In, the team built a global network that grew to include more than 700,000 women and men. More recently, Bianchini has enjoyed watching networks like OwnIt (103,000 small business owners and self-employed people) and Hairbrained (the community for craft hairdressers founded by Randy Taylor and Gerard Scarpaci) thrive on her Mightybell platform.

The idea of building prospect and customer communities is not entirely new to B2B businesses like SaaS companies, but the concept may be about to reach a pivotal tipping point. In fact, Bianchini goes so far as to predict that identity-based networks represent the next stage in the evolution of content marketing.

The Network Advantage (Better Than Content Marketing)

Bianchini believes that as content marketing matures and evolves, it will be less about PDFs, landing pages, blogs, and other inbound tactics and more about building communities to bring people together around a shared identity that is relevant to the brand. A recruiting software brand might, for instance, create a community for HR professionals; or a demand generation brand might build a network for data-driven marketers. The companies who are first in their vertical markets to establish such a network will have a critical advantage over the competition.

“If you’re not building the identity network for your target market,” Bianchini warns, “there’s a high probability that someone else will, and then it will be doubly painful for you to compete going forward.”

In addition to the potential for community dominance with a first-adopter strategy, owned networks provide a way to get out from under the monopolistic thumb of mainstream social networks that can change the rules of the game overnight and send you scrambling to make up lost ground with expensive pay-to-play options. “Fundamentally, the way content marketing (blogs or other kinds of publishing scenarios in which you’re trying to get people to discover and share your content) is set up today, makes it really hard to succeed,” Bianchini says. “Unless you hit the algorithms of third-party social networks totally spot on, you’re at their mercy.” And, as most brands have experienced, those social brands can be merciless.

Networks also alleviate a substantial amount of the content creation burden. “Instead of relentlessly posting, you are facilitating conversations between two nodes in the network,” Bianchini explains. “You introduce them and get them talking to each other, which then creates its own network effect and gets more people engaged and contributing. Those contributions then trigger notifications to other people, drawing them back into the conversation to make contributions of their own.” The difference between content marketing and networks is the difference between being stretched way too thin in the role of a one-way, always-on publishing engine and being efficient by using the network effect to organically increase your shares, referrals, and the value you provide to your audience.

The bottom line: there should be a definite sense of urgency around staking out your network territory.

“If you don’t create a valuable community network for your target market and someone else has, you’ll be left dependent on the dominant third-party networks and potentially blocked from ever building out your own identity network,” Bianchini says. “That’s a very bad place to be.

The Identity-based Network

Bianchini’s community-building journey has covered a lot of territory, but always comes back to a very specific mission: How do we create the absolute best way for people who share an identity or an interest to meet each other? “It’s a fundamentally different challenge than building a social graph of people who already know each other professionally, personally, or by reputation,” Bianchini says. “It’s not unlike the premise behind user conferences. Why do you have those? You have them so that you can bring a particular group of people together around a shared identity – B2B recruiters or demand generation experts or whatever other group is relevant to your product.”

Networks built around identity help people connect with and learn from each other. As Bianchini saw first hand with the LeanIn.org network, it’s member-to-member connections that bring a community to life. Empowering a group of like-minded people with shared interests and goals to meet and organize with each other is a very effective way to activate an audience around an idea or goal. Emphasizing the potential of a self-organizing community and the advantage such a network has over one-way content marketing, Bianchini says of the LeanIn.org experience, “If we had stopped at content marketing alone, just having Lean In stories for instance, the community wouldn’t have had nearly the same impact or inspired such a spectacular grassroots movement. The excitement we saw was generated because we were clear that LeanIn.org was about our members meeting and organizing with each other around the world.”

How to Build Community Around Identity

Once you’ve established the common identity of your network members, it’s time to ask some big questions:

  • What do they need?
  • What’s important to them?
  • Who do they want to meet?
  • What sort of challenges do they face that can’t be solved via a Google search?
  • What sort of questions do they have that they don’t want to ask on Facebook or LinkedIn?

In short: How do I create the single most valuable network for these people?

To populate your network, Bianchini recommends a direct approach that gets very specific about who your audience is and what you’re offering. “Join our network of middle-market HR professionals who are coming together to create the largest collection of practical ideas, forays, and experiences of people like you,” she says as an example. “Navigate together through topics that don’t have obvious or easy answers and which you can’t search for on Google. Come together to learn and grow with other people just like you.”

Promotion channels for your network can include a variety of the usual suspects – content marketing, Facebook ads, etc. – but you should also leverage the network effect to build your community. “Sometimes, the best tactic is simply asking members to recruit three new people to help make the network stronger,” Bianchini explains. “You built a network because you weren’t satisfied with having followers. You wanted to bring people into a community in which people are talking to each other and building relationships. That same relationship dynamic applies to building your network. Get people talking.”

The Right Network Focus (Hint: It’s Not About You)

The number one thing to remember about an identity-based network is that it’s about the members’ identity, not your product. “It’s a really important distinction,” Bianchini says. “You actually want customers and prospects talking to each other about how they deliver on their profession. It’s sharing stories, experiences, and practical ideas.” Focus on creating the space and facilitating conversation around how your members can be successful in their profession. That’s your number one role.

“Always start with the identity of your market,” Bianchini says. “It’s not about posting articles that you just want people to read and share, it’s about facilitating identity- and practice-related conversations around topics and questions that they can’t find easily in Google searches.” Once you’ve established this very specific type of dialogue you can thoughtfully and tactfully start conversations that are more directly related to your product. But always remember that the network’s primary purpose is to connect people, not promote your product.

Once again highlighting the difference between content marketing and identity-based networks, Bianchini adds, “The network gets more and more valuable as more members join and contribute and those contributions trigger notifications and return visits from other members. Now you have something. Now it’s not about trying to relentlessly post 500-word articles every day (which is not that effective), it’s about people introducing themselves and having conversations.”

As a final note, Bianchini points out how even as people are starting to grasp and implement the identity network concept, mobile is already upping the game. “My mission to help people with shared identities meet and converse is only getting more and more interesting as we move to a world with three billion people on smartphones,” she says. “These people spend 86% of their time in native apps – a third in games, a third in messaging and networking, and a third in everything else. This is a world in which the opportunities to create networks around shared identity are only going to get more exciting and more powerful.”