Gina Bianchini is passionate about niche social networks and the community entrepreneurs who envision and create them. She first brought this passion to market in 2004 when she co-founded Ning with Marc Andreessen. Under Bianchini’s leadership, Ning became the largest social platform for communities, giving 90 million unique monthly visitors a place to connect across 300,000 active specialty networks. The team eventually sold the company to Mode Media Corporation. In 2010, 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.
Bianchini clearly has a big vision, but this is the specific story of Bianchini’s experience co-founding LeanIn.org with Sheryl Sandberg and Rachel Thomas – how that experience helped Bianchini refine Mightybell, what it can teach B2B marketers about the value of identity networks, and why these kinds of communities might represent the next evolution in content marketing.
Seizing the Opportunity
“In August of 2012, Sheryl shared with me that she was writing a book called Lean In,” Bianchini recalls. “She sent me the first chapter as a Word doc, and it was immediately obvious to me that this was an opportunity to build an online community that could really help people understand that ‘leaning in’ was going to have to be a regular practice. You couldn’t just read a book like this, decide you’re going to lean in, and be done.”
Bianchini’s idea was to create the right conditions for a self-organizing community to emerge. Instead of building the community around existing relationships the way social networks like Facebook and LinkedIn do, this network would be built around a shared identity and interest. “The community was going to be about how people lean in every day,” she explains. “We wanted to bring a group of women and men together around proven techniques like the ones you find in the Young Presidents’ Organization or similar, small support groups; but our community would be about helping people realize their hopes, dreams, and ambitions in whatever way they chose to define them.”
Fortunately for Bianchini and the 700,000+ people who would eventually become members of LeanIn.org, Sandberg responded to Bianchini’s idea two days later with an enthusiastic “Let’s do it.” Lean In was hitting the shelves in March 2013, so that left the team only a little over six months to bring the community to life. “We basically did a bomb run to found, create, and populate LeanIn.org in time for the book launch,” says Bianchini. And, while she was inspired by the message of Lean In, Bianchini was also interested in the challenge. “It was a chance to take on something really big and ambitious,” she says, “and see if the practices and dynamics that I’d taken from Ning were universal. I wanted to see if those ideas would still apply, and if we could apply them to something we were creating out of thin air. The answer was a resounding yes.”
It’s Not About Content. It’s About Connections.
One of the key community concepts that LeanIn.org illustrated beautifully was the difference between networks and content marketing and why the former is so much more effective than the latter. “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,” Bianchini says. “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. That’s really powerful.”
The member-driven interactions developed into Lean In Circles, small groups of people who meet regularly to support each other, learn, and grow. “The launch of Lean In Circles was incredibly valuable to the development of Mightybell in terms of understanding what the dynamics were at scale for the kinds of richer, deeper networks and relationships we wanted to build between strangers with a shared mission, goal, identity, or interest,” Bianchini says. “That insight really put us on the trajectory that we’re building on today with communities 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).”
So, while the stories of people leaning in were a foundational element of the LeanIn.org’s strength and success, what really drove engagement and growth was the way members were able to interact with each other. “The stories were important, but the circles and organic connections were awesome to see,” Bianchini says. “When women in the Bay area, Seattle, New York, and Dallas started creating regional chapters – we didn’t even have the concept of regional chapters. They just made it up!”
Community for B2B: Underutilized & Full of Potential
Content marketing, account-based marketing, ABST – SaaS marketers are talking about and employing these strategies and tactics across a variety of markets, but the idea of building a community for their target audience gets a lot less air time. Bianchini explains that one reason identity networks aren’t getting the attention they deserve from B2B marketers is because of some holdover perceptions about the definition of community. “For a lot of B2B professionals specifically, ‘community’ has come to mean an old web forum that’s primarily for support,” she explains. “That is not what we’re talking about here, but I understand how it can be confusing.”
Instead of that outdated concept, Bianchini encourages B2B marketers to think about identity networks as a way to help audience segments with a shared identity connect around common interests and challenges. This kind of functional, supportive, helpful network provides a completely different experience to members and an opportunity for companies to take on a very different role. “Understanding the value of an identity network requires understanding where we’re at in the world and what’s going to happen over the next three to five years, especially as it relates to traffic sources and generating leads,” Bianchini says. “ABM is great – there’s a role for it – but do people really want your personalized home page, or do they want to meet other people like them? And, what’s the value to your brand when the power of your product comes up in those member-generated conversations and organic impressions?”
Bianchini often quotes Mike Maples’ definition of marketing: Build an awesome product and syndicate the truth. Identity networks, she believes, are the perfect way to support that strategy. “The best way to syndicate the truth is by enabling a network of nodes that are talking to each other and building relationships well beyond what you are actually doing,” she says. “If you build a network, you are going to have a much greater ability to create and attract new lead sources and people so that you can reach higher and higher levels of the funnel in really effective ways.”
Ultimately, Bianchini predicts that popular marketing approaches like content marketing and ABM will suffer from over-saturation in the market, becoming less and less effective as more people implement them. In this environment, identity networks will give innovative companies a very real and sustainable edge over the competition. “Communities,” Bianchini says simply, “don’t die.”