This is the story of how you can move from a "build it and they (may not) come" approach to online places, to helping people create the places they really want to be on the Net. It involves re-inventing a business in public.
The other day I picked up an invitation to join the "Facebook for the cultural sector" issued by English Heritage, followed by one to UnLtdWorld, "a social networking platform that aims to empower and connect socially-minded individuals." This followed on news of MyCharityPage promoted as "Facebook for UK nonprofits". There was clearly a round of excitement among public agencies and funders a year or so back that is now leading to the roll-out of various places where, the promoters hope, we will gather and befriend each other, develop innovative projects, download resources, share services and so on. That's provided we aren't too busy on the real Facebook, on our blogs, or in a host of other online spaces.
It's not really fair to review the English Heritage Our Place, or UnltdWorld in detail yet, because they are still recruiting users and improving functions.
Still less My Charity Page.com, which says it "is an advanced social networking website with a unique combination of functionality for fundraisers and charities, maximising your fundraising potential at no cost to the charity or fundraiser". Ummm ... no it's not, it is a holding page where you can drop a comment. Maybe it will become a Change.org ... but not for a bit.
What interests me is that these sites still have the flavour of "build it and they will come", which didn't work a decade ago when new sites were more of a novelty. Just adding more functions won't attract experienced online users - because they are very critical and busy elsewhere - or the less experienced because weaning people off email and basic browsing is difficult if there isn't a compelling attraction. If there is a login to negotiate it is even more difficult.
These new sites may succeed if they have really good hosting and facilitation to build their community, linked to events and other activities. Maybe English Heritage and Unltd will be able to do that - if they have money in the budget to pay for the necessary staff. I-genius, which I didn't much care for when it launched, is still going with a fair strip of endorsing logos ... but then they have the attraction of a world summit for social entrepreneurs in Thailand in March.
If these sites do succeed, fine - provided they enable users to join up with what's happening elsewhere by bringing content in and out through feeds. As I argued in Do communities need boundaries? - drawing on Ed Mitchell's analysis of different types of online communities - it isn't helpful to build "walled gardens" on the Net while promoting the virtues of collaboration and innovation. I'm hugely encouraged by endorsement from knowledge management specialist Patrick Lambe who says that Enterprise 2.0 should be leaky.
There is another way, and my friends over at Ruralnetonline are demonstrating that you can both build your online offering with your users - rather than invite them in after the event - and also get away from the one-stop-shop approach aimed at a particular interest group.
For nearly 10 years Ruralnet has been running an online system linked to their work on rural community development and social enterprise. It has some core services, orginally run on FirstClass, with a facility to customise for different organisations or networks, but has been very much "come to our place". Over the past couple of years they have been experimenting with Web 2.0 tools, and moving some services across. Just before Christmas chief executive Simon Berry sought agreement from his colleagues to relaunch everything on their 10th anniversary in March.
What!!??? How do you do that and hope to get it right? Well, don't hope to get it right yourself - invite your customers in to help you re-invent your business. Make them co-creators instead of just "users".
Simon's colleague Paul Henderson is leading the way by creating a multi-user blog site where anyone can sign up and comment on proposals or add their own ideas for next generation services. (I declare a strong interest since I've know the Ruralnet team for 10 years, and I'll be running a face-to-face workshop next week to work through ideas with a focus group).
There are couple of factors that give Simon and his team confidence that they can do things this way. The first is that Ruralnet|UK is not just an online outfit: they do events, training, consultancy, and partnership projects which means they have strong relationships with lots of individuals, organisations and agencies . The second is that experience of the Open Innovation Exchange process we went through last year - creating a £1.2 million bid to Cabinet Office in public - revealed how energising openness can be. I've just done a short case study here on what we are calling our most successful failure of 2007. Successful because although we didn't win the bid, we got shortlisted and are convinced it is possible to do things differently.
As well as reinventing everything in public, the Ruralnetonline have shifted their business model from "come to our place" to one in which people can pick and mix which of their services they want. The forerunner of this has been an Experts Online widget that you'll find on sites campaigning to save post offices on the one hand, and also on one helping arts charities with governance issues.
I could go on ... but much better if you pop across to Ruralnetonline and let them know if your think it is possible a new online business this way. If you have something to add, I'm sure they'll aim to make their place your place too. Or the reverse ... it doesn't matter these days.
As I've written before (archived here), the RSA is also inventing a new online place for Fellows and collaborators, and on February 15 developers Saul Albert and Andy Gibson will be taking us through second stage development and discussion issues of how open or closed the system should be, among other things. They've done a great job in prototyping, and I think opinion is swinging towards open. The next challenge will be integrating the RSA Networks site into the main RSA site, and deciding what goes within the Fellows-only login. The question of how membership organisations deal with these tough issues will be explored in our re-inventing membership project. I hope some will be prepared to follow the leads offered by RSA and Ruralnet|UK and open-up to the people who know best what they need - their customers/users/members.