(this was initially posted on the blog On CollabNet)
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Evans Data Developer Relations Conference in San Jose, and it gave me the opportunity to listen to 2 very contrasting approaches to what amounted to the same thing: university outreach. On one side was Jean Elliott, discussing how Sun was going to approach (reach? eclipse? fall just short of?) 900,000 university program members by this summer. In that session, she discussed the various ways Sun had put themselves in that position - it was a tour de force of grassroots outreach featuring open source communities that target life-long academics and students. On the other side was Bruce Carney from Nokia, who delved into a myriad of metrics and measurables in an attempt to define success and track how far along they were towards reaching it. During this session, an inch-thick booklet of tiny font statistics was passed around the room.
It was grassroots outreach vs. statistical analysis. Really, it was inspiration vs. perspiration. Of course, this is not to say that Sun doesn't expend significant energy planning these programs and measuring their success, or that Nokia doesn't engage at a grassroots level, but it was clear which parts each company emphasized, and I started to think about the role of inspiration in online communities.
It comes down to the age-old question, "Why does anyone participate in your community?" There's nothing to force someone to come to any community or make them stick around. Ultimately, someone sticks around because it's in their own self-interest to do so, but there's something "squishy" about how community members self-select, and I can't honestly say that it's 100% about the product or technology that forms the basis of the community. In fact, I'm pretty sure that in addition to a community's core offering, there's an element of culture or "soft" product, if you will. If you run a community and want to engage with your community, how much have you invested in your soft product?
This post introduces the series, which I'll continue for a few days. Tomorrow, I'll continue with a post about "zen and the art of community development" - it's about the engagement, not the direct ROI. It's about the conversation, not simply providing an answer.