I’ve got a super shiny treat for you today! As you know, I love all things community – I think it’s all that love sharing… anyway, who better qualified to talk about community than THE Tara Hunt? I asked Tara to share some of her pearls of wisdom and here’s what she had to say:-
Tell us a bit about yourself…
My name is Tara Hunt, but most people know me by my superhero moniker, ‘missrogue’, which comes from superhero Rogue of the X-Men (’cause I’m geeky like that). I’m a Canadian living in San Francisco. I’m a longtime blogger and now an author (first book coming out later this year) and I write about online communities and marketing strategies in the new relationship economy. I also run a coworking space in San Francisco called Citizen Space and a company called Citizen Agency. I travel quite a bit to speak at various conferences on web stuff and marketing stuff and juggle all of this with being a mom of a 15 year old.
What is “whuffie”?
Whuffie is a term coined by Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing fame. He wrote an awesome sci fi novel called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom where in the future, money has been replaced by a form of social capital called Whuffie. In basic terms, when we meet, I would ping your Whuffie to get a score. A high Whuffie score would mean that I could trust you to work with, share ideas with and generally trust your opinions. You can also use Whuffie to rent an apartment, buy a car or pay for your meals. One raises Whuffie through creating beautiful things that benefit a community (works of art, useful tools, etc.), gaining people’s trust over time and building a network.
In my book, The Whuffie Factor (pending release date later in 2008 or early 2009), I say that Whuffie is neither the future or science fiction, it is how we currently relate to one another in online communities and, although we cannot currently use it to buy cars, pay or rent or buy meals, it indirectly affects our cash flow, so in essence, we do pay for our lifestyles through attaining Whuffie.
What are the highs and lows of your career to date?
The highs have definitely come since I moved to San Francisco and started working with startups advising on online marketing and community outreach. The ultimate high was getting my book deal with Crown Publishing (Random House Business division). The lows were when I was in Toronto struggling to get work because my ideas were a little ahead of their time. I knew I was on the right path, but because I didn’t have the Whuffie to win people over and there weren’t so many clear case studies out there to point to, when I talked to people about the idea of online communities and relationship building with individual customers, they would dismiss me. Everyone wanted SEO (Search Engine Optimization) experts and traditionally focused marketing. It wasn’t until Riya.com, a startup in the Bay Area, took a chance on my ideas that I could actually prove myself and build a case study (and Whuffie) that things took off for me. And since then, it’s been an amazing ride.
What do you think of building communities to monetise them?
Well, I don’t think you can monetize a community. You can definitely turn social capital into currency by building something people love and are willing to pay for (directly or indirectly), but monetizing a community doesn’t work. It turns people off.
Is there a minimum timescale you think that it can take to build a solid community?
I’ve seen people build a strong community through authenticity and passion in 6 months, but I’ve also seen the same authenticity and passion take years. There are always other factors involved. Is the market ready for the idea? What else is capturing their attention? Is the technology advanced enough to make it a good user experience? Is it a mainstream or a niche idea? Twitter took over a year to explode on the scene, but now it’s the strongest community I know. YouTube took 6 months. LinkedIn, a network that has been around for years, is just starting to really pick up. Pandora needed to wait for the technology to emerge before it exploded 4 years later, then it grew like wildfire.
In your opinion, are online community activities required for all businesses in all fields?
I think so. Even if it is indirect. I think of my hair stylist, Gilbert. He has a website with salon information, but doesn’t really participate in online communities. Still, he understands the power of them. When I go in to get my hair done, I take photos and post them to Flickr of before and after and I tweet my experience. This has driven several new clients his way. So, he’s taken it upon himself to encourage his other clients to do the same and it is working well for him. I spent a bit of time talking to a woman who grows beautiful dahlias for a living and we discovered the flower growing communities online that could really help her connect with other businesses and exchange tips on growing and growing her business. There is always a way to engage with online communities that will help your business, even if it seems unrelated.
What shouldn’t you do when building a community?
Well, you shouldn’t lie. You shouldn’t go into it with the attitude that you are only building community to make a buck. There are so many benefits from being open, transparent and authentic – like better feedback, growth of Whuffie, better networks, happier customers, increased word of mouth, etc. – that by engaging on any other level is a waste of time for both you and your customers.
How do you measure success?
In a couple of ways.
1. By my ability to have friends everywhere I travel. This means that people have to trust me as well as read my tweets and blog. So when I say, “Hey, I’m coming to Boulder!” I have at least a few people who I can sit down and have a nice dinner discussion with.
2. By the number of people who spread my message. It’s not the reader numbers or the followers, it is the number of people who enjoy what I have to say enough that they will pass it along. I also love it when it becomes their own message, which leads me to #3.
3. By the number of people who I can pass the fire onto. This means that they see what I’m doing and what I’m saying and either challenge it or carry the torch to effect world change on their own terms. I don’t want a fan club, I want to inspire people who want to inspire more people…
4. And to be honest, I also measure my success by how long I can sustain this amazing lifestyle I have. I get to travel all over the world, meet amazing people, sleep in late many days, research and write and take the occasional consulting and speaking gig that keeps me on my toes and offers me the ability to pay my rent – as long as that keeps happening, I’m doing something right.
Many people believe that being a woman in the web industry can be a hurdle, do you believe that this is the case or that it gives you an opportunity to shine?
It’s both a hurdle and an advantage. A hurdle in that I have to go further to prove myself in geek circles (but much of that is because I’m in marketing, too), but an advantage in that there aren’t so many of us, so I get to stand out.
In years to come, if you could be remembered for one thing, what would it be?
Making a difference. And by that, I mean creating more opportunities for people to build their own Whuffie and succeed – creating more opportunities for more people to shine.
Thanks to Tara for taking time out to talk to me, I hope that you got as much out of it as me :). Good luck to Tara with the book launch.