An Initial Analysis of the Fast Company Community

As an analyst, I watch the online community space very closely, and am always interested in seeing how traditional institutions and organizations approach, adapt, succeed or fail in adopting social tools.

Fast Company, a forward thinking business publication has revamped it’s corporate website to now be an online community. Their initial three page announcement written by Edward Sussman: “The Media is Social


[Fast Company, a traditional publication, has featured community as it's primary focus. But success isn't guaranteed as: innovating without a clear objective is dangerous, the bottom-up approach must cascade to the whole organization, and they must rapidly make course corrections]

Opportunity
Fast Company is the first, but certainly not last, mainstream publication to integrate the majority of their site as a social community. The starting page of their website isn’t the magazine, or it’s articles, but is the community site. Traditional media is under fire from social media, the power has shifted to the participants, so in return Fast Company is participating: hiring bloggers and video bloggers (Robert Scoble and Shel Israel) and are integrating within their site. In many other cases, websites have bolted on social forums around content, this is clearly a full replacement of community over Fast Company content.

Objectives
Fast Company is attempting to involve readers and the market to be involved in creating content. We’ve listed out there are five major social computing objectives, (listening, talking, energizing, supporting, embracing) and this one could fall under embracing, where customers and employees collaborate to build next generation products and services.

Challenges
Once the initial buzz wears off, we’ll have to see who will remain leading the and joining in the conversations. Will the lines between professional created editorial and community continue to be blurred? How will high quality content be elevated so usefulness is found? Most importantly, with the many reports showing that advertising on social networks is ineffective, how will Fast Company monetize?

What they deployed
Fast Company deployed a community platform using Drupal, and hired experts to implement, it contains a variety of features from profile building, forums, user created blogs, media rooms, event calendars, and many other features. They have made this the primary experience from the homepage of Fast Company, and have a control navigation bar at the top of each page.


Initial Analysis of the Community, Fast Company should:

Determine a Goal
Being creative for the sake of innovation isn’t enough. It’s great to see that they are trying something new, but what is the end goal? How will they measure results? Does the team know what success looks like?

Quickly Squash Bugs
I noticed a few hiccups that aren’t uncommon on a launch. 1) Site error: the site was not available for some time, Chris Brogan has screenshots 2) I tried to message Edward, but it got stuck in an endless loop of clicks to add him as a contact before messaging him, confusing. While all excusable the first week, this needs to quickly be resolved.

Focus on fewer features
The community site launched with too many features, as a result, the initial interface is overwhelming. I encourage clients to launch with only three major features, (such as a profile, forum, blog, media, q&a, etc), unfortunately, Fast Company launched without all of those

Elevate Fast Company Editorial
The professionally created content that we seek from Fast Company is hidden, which is too bad, as that’s why we come to them in the first place. There’s currently a saturation of online communities on every given subject on Ning, Facebook, LinkedIn, Yahoo and Google groups. How is this different? I think the order is backwards: Lead with the editorial, attach the social features second, the social features should orbit (in context) the articles.

Clean up the Interface
The interface is crowded and unclear, resembling enterprise software, there are too many options and tools. I’m not the only one, I received feedback from some of my 3000 followers in twitter: “@jowyang I agree, the site was bewildering at first” The deployment looks like the features were determined by the developers and not a user experience designer. Let tools be hidden, and show more on a mouse over or let them cascade out. It’s confusing to understand what the top categories are compared to the control bar, then the many features on every page. Think Zen: articles first, social second, features and tools third.

Start with a tour
Develop a quick and dirty walk through video or animation that highlights how the website will serve the users, and how they can be involved and contribute. Highlight at the lead in video, and have your top bloggers post quickly.

Make community a core ethos of company
Being first has it’s advangtes, you get the buzz, but there’s also disadvantages: the path has not been cleared before, and innovators must quickly course correct when mistakes happen. Editors, writers, journalists, management and support must all be involved in the community, taking input, talking, and discussing. For success, Fast Company will need to involve a social way of thinking in everything they do, this can’t simply be a flash or wine thrown in the pan by management.


The Big Picture:

Can a business publication blend journalism and online community to create something better than either by itself? This is the ‘fast’ question posed in the community, and there were a myriad of responses, most positive. My response was the following:

“Yes it can, and it can also learn more from it’s audience, fuel research, ideas, and stories. The successful business will learn how to get the community to be part of the content creation, and how to monetize on top of this.”

The Future
Expect this to be a success for Fast Company, but they’ll need to act on the previous recommendations. Expect other business publications to quickly launch similar communities, and soon the industry will be inundated with ‘me toos’. The savvy publications will still realize that the web is distributed and won’t limit their community efforts to their corporate domains, but will also spread to where the people are. The savvy fishermen, fish where the fish are.

Conclusions: Being innovative doesn’t guarantee success
Fast Company has launched an innovative community site, unseen by most mainstream publications. When the shinyness wears off, the company will need to involve community in every aspect of it’s strategy for it to thrive. This is certainly a website and community to watch, I’ll post additional analysis in a few months, and hope to get some numbers from the team.

  • http://socialmarketingstrategy.blogspot.com/ Joshua March

    Great post, I agree with what you say. It’s a great step forward for media, and I’m hoping it will lead the way with other media sites in becoming more open and social – however really we (as readers/users/consumers) want to be able to interact in a social way with these sites without having to go through the endless signing up and profile creation. Que to Data Portability!

    I think that your comment on elevating editorial is really important, this is what will keep users coming to the site and what will differentiate media sites from each other.

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    I’m seeing some resonation in twitter:

    sonnygill @jowyang Great overview. Biggest thing that popped out to me as well was the cluster of options/features. Needs more simplicity

  • http://www.bunde.us Eric B.

    Great post, I think you have laid out a great gameplan for blending the new social aspects of business with the traditional model. IMO I think the company Ethos should be a little higher on the scale, right after Determine a Goal. @carr13221 via Twitter.

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Thanks Eric

    I didn’t prioritize the recommendations, but you’re right, it needs to be first and foremost

  • http://www.jeanettefisher.com Jeanette

    Jeremiah~

    Your assessment is right on everything, as usual. One design psychology observation: the website has too much red, which makes it look cheap. In fact, the colors just don’t harmonize. However, the Design section content captured my attention.

    Joy~
    Jeanette

  • http://peterdawson.blogspot.com /pd

    “web is distributed and won’t limit their community efforts to their corporate domains, but will also spread to where the people are”

    So true ! – from the manifesto !!

    #Companies must ask themselves where their corporate cultures end.

    # If their cultures end before the community begins, they will have no market.

    When was this manifesto cut ?? April, 1999 – which year are we in now ?? I wonder how long it takes to for companies to “Wise up”

  • http://www.exciteaudio.com Talking Website

    Really good post. I agree with what you have to say. Thanks.

  • Dyde

    Great overview,

    I don’t agree, however, with the interface being too cluttered. See Businessweek f.i, compared to it FC is much nicer. Though if they could reduce stuff by 10% it’d be much nicer. For instance, who needs Advanced Search? Also, is it me or it’s hard to notice red headlines? I found that my mind seems to filter those out. And there needs to be a clearer distinction between content types. It’s hard to differentiate between a blog post and Q&A.

    Regarding challenges, I think the biggest one for them would be the target audience is simply too busy. People rarely find time to read Economist or BW, which are excellent publications, IMO, so it’d be hard to dedicate time to yet another SN.

    Still if they can clean up the interface, and show that there is value in participating, I think this will be a successfull site. Don’t know if it will increase their print sales though.

  • http://globalneighbourhoods.net shel israel

    Thanks for this exquisite analysis, jeremiah.

  • http://siliconvalleymusings.com steve

    I am wondering why Fastcompany provides blogs, contact lists, event management, bookmarks, media storage, etc.

    In this day in age, there are already many well established sites that provide these facilities. Why would Fastcompany attempt to compete?

    For example, do you Jeremiah intend to duplicate your blog posts on a Fastcompany blog, or import your Facebook friends to a Fastcompany contact list?

    If you are, how do you intend to import, export, and keep these social media assets in sync? Wink? Plaxo? To what end?

    Are Fastcompany’s blogs and media stores being indexed by search engines? Even if they are, why would you dilute your search engine ranking across duplicate blogs or media stores?

    It seems like Fastcompany provides a laundry list of basic social media tools, but no compelling reason to switch to any one of them.

  • http://www.socialmediaexplorer.com Jason Falls

    As expected, a thorough and thoughtful review. I’m apt to agree with the constant need for listening and improving. Social media is all about adaptation to the direction the community pulls you. And yes, technical and user experience hiccups can put a damper on enthusiastic usage and recommendation.

    However, I would reiterate (thank you for commenting on my post) that the success of a community more so depends on the community itself rather than the tools provided by the host.

    My position is that media-based communal efforts have a better chance of engagement and sustainability because those willing to raise their hand and participate have more wholistic commonalities than, say, a consumer brand CRM or affinity program. I know I identify with FC readers more so than Sony enthusiasts. While I may enjoy interracting with people in a Sony environment, the FC reader is much more likely to engage me in conversations on more levels than cool TVs.

    It is all a balance. The tools need to be useful and intuative. But the kind of people hanging out at FC are what we’re there for.

    (Totally agree they should prioritize the FC articles, though.)

  • http://geekmommy.wordpress.com GeekMommy

    A great overview, Jeremiah – they should’ve paid you for it! :)

    But you missed something here that I’d add – presently, the interface looks just a tad too much like a portal for my tastes.

    It makes one wonder if they were going off of the Yahoo or MSN model… and if so, why? If you’re going for those users, they already have their sites, and the expectations would be that news, games, and email would be the focus.

    I think they’d be better off reducing their initial focus on features as you suggested.

  • margy

    jeremiah — you are the best. THE BEST! this is like a primer for anyone developing an online community and a cautionary tale for the legacy pubs like fast company who can’t stop talking about the cool stuff they did — in 1999.

    i agree with geekmommy. they look like they’re trying to be a portal instead of a community site. oh well, i’ll read it anyway. for awhile.

    thanks again, jeremiah. you rock, as always.

  • http://www.krishword.com/blog/ Krish

    Jeremiah,

    Very well written analysis.

    In my opinion, the future of traditional media is closely tied to social media. They have to embrace it and they have to embrace it right. They can use professionally created content on top of the user generated content and they can use it along with advertisement for monetization. I also feel that they should offer both subscription based payments and per article micro-payments in their monetization strategies. This way, they can reach out to niche users (those who are willing to pay for certain topics of their interest but not subscriptions). I think fast company can set the standards if they play their cards right.

    Their current version is a perfect example to highlight the importance of UI expert in a team. You need to get UI right before stroking the imagination of users. My first impression about fastcompany social network (I checked it out in beta stage before I tried yesterday) was “what the heck they are trying to do”.

  • Roxstyle

    I have been a big fan of http://www.newsvine.com for several years. What I see missing at FC site, is a clear division of publication generated editorial versus community generated content. I think they could take some UI clues from Newsvine.

  • http://www.jobsinsocialmedia.com Chris R

    The Industry Standard recently launched itself again online and incorporates a few social features. The new site has a simple and clean 3 col layout.

    http://www.thestandard.com/

  • bloggo

    Roxstyle,

    I’m sure the point was to weigh with equal importance community generated content and professional edit, and not bucket the community stuff of to the side. They’re making a statement.

  • prakash

    Fantastic Analysis, I believe they must have done intial community survey/research before they started working on this big change.Fast Company has taken a big risk of integrating community and editorial team in this first release, I would have released in phases. I agree GeekMommy if they haven’t done their research you should be paid my friend.

    Best

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  • http://scobleizer.com Robert Scoble

    Fantastic analysis and one I’m going to take to heart in my discussions internally with Fast Company. Thank you so much for doing this (we indeed should have paid for it)!

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  • http://originalcomment.blogspot.com/2007/11/step-1-create-social-network.html John Johansen

    Step 1: Create Social Network
    Step 2: ???
    Step 3: Profits!

    One point that seems to be forgotten as media companies rush to join the SN fray is that I, as a reader, can talk about their content wherever I want. I’ve already got an established network (FB, del.icio.us, Twitter, my blog, etc.) I can point them to the content I want to discuss and go forward from there.

    Certainly a FC-branded social network will aggregate readers of the publication but that’s only relevant if I’m in ‘discovery’ mode for building my network. The value of the publication for me is in two areas:
    1. Content that I wouldn’t find elsewhere
    2. Conversation with FC to guide editorial towards my interests

    Disclaimer: I haven’t signed up for the FC site, I’m not really interested in YASN.

  • http://www.conversationmarketing.com ian

    Um, and why exactly am I going to join a 4th or 5th social network?

    I think Fast Company could do better by providing a way to aggregate commentary from OTHER networks.

    “Tag your entry ‘Fast Company’ and we’ll moderate and publish on our site.”….

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  • http://FastCompany.com Ed Sussman

    For my full response, please see:

    http://www.fastcompany.com/blog-post/initial-analysis-fast-company-community

    Hi Jeremiah,

    I’m the president of Mansueto Digital and built the new FastCompany.com along with several dozen extremely talented strategists, IAs, developers and designers. A true team effort of more than a year.

    Now that we have a couple of weeks under our belt, I thought I’d take a few minutes to reply to your thoughtful post. First, many of the day one performance issues and bugs you reported have been fixed — it’s not often that a new, innovative platform gets tried out by so many hundreds of thousands of people from day one, but we’re a popular brand. Intense scrutiny from day one isn’t a problem that the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Digg and LinkedIn had to contend with, but I’m not complaining — we’re glad to be popular. We have loads more fixes and features to iron out still, but from a technical perspective, the site is overall doing very well given we’re in month one.

    From a business and editorial perspective we’re doing great also. We’ve signed up sixteen thousand new members since beta launch, joining our existing ranks of tens of thousands of business professionals interested in engaging in a dialogue about business. And we’ve continued our tradition of world-class journalism at the same time.

    I think this connection between our journalism and our community isn’t something you fully picked up on in your analysis, perhaps because it was done on day one when the site was full of commentary about, well, the site. So the day you wrote your post, it was a bit hard to see where we would be on day two, three, four and on…

    Let me set the record straight: it is not true that community on FastCompany.com is a “full replacement” of edit content, as you said. Actually, pretty much the opposite. The intent of the community is to amplify the discussion about business that our dozens of professional journalists and Fast Company experts spend their professional lives reporting and writing about. We are not slowing down our journalism at all on FastCompany.com.

    You may have missed this because slot one of the hompeage on day one was my essay about the new site. On every day since slot one is a feature story from our writers. But slot two is a member micro-blog based on an answer to a daily “Fast Talk” question we pose. We then feature a member blog, before returning to our professionally produced staff blog and expert blog.

    All in all, about half the stories come from our writers and experts, and half from members, although the member pieces are mostly based on questions and ideas posed by our editors. This is how we maintain consistency with the brand: we only ask questions and select member content to features about the FastCompany core themes of innovation, technology, management, careers, leadership, design (in business), social responsibility (in business) and work/life balance.

    The same is true on the eight topical index pages built around these subjects — about half the content is from our professionals and half of it curated from members. I think this is pretty clear to people reading the content.

    Devoting this much space to the members — and what’s more, giving them editorial prominence from a design standpoint that signals equality with the professional journalists — may have been so overwhelmingly different from what you’ve seen from other professionally-produced editorial websites, that you surmised we were just becoming a community site.

    But we’re not — we’re a fully blended journalism/community site. And three weeks in, rather than just be hypothetical about what might happen, I can give you some concrete examples. Again, we are only three weeks in:

    -We are approaching 1,000 reader posts a day about business topics raised by our journalists.

    -Members have set up more than 500 blogs about business.

    -We released our annual special edition about the most innovative companies in America, including Google, and featured profiles of dozens of leading executives.

    http://www.fastcompany.com/fast50_08/index.html

    These stories will form the basis of a Q&A with our readers for the next month, which will extend the life of the stories and the conversation far beyond what we ever were capable of before.

    -All of the content produced by the members is being stored on their public profiles (even if it isn’t highlighted by the editors on our homepage), so we have hundreds of thousands of readers now able to connect with the readers based on what they are writing about business.

    That doesn’t happen on other professional journalism sites, and it doesn’t happen on pure social media sites either. So, for example, take Jeremiah’s blog on the other site where he posted this —

    http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/2008/02/09/an-initial-analysis-of-the

    Some people had some really interesting stuff to say. But I have no idea who they are, how to reach them, and what else they may have written recently. If Jeremiah were to become a FastCompany.com blogger (we have some fancier RSS tools debuting soon to satisfy sophisticated bloggers) and I wanted to get to know any of the people who wrote comments on the post, I’d be just a click away from their profile and their contributions to the site — blog post comments like this one, comments to professionally written articles, blogs posts, answers to daily editor questions, a list of the feeds the member subscribes to, articles they recommend, and more.

    We think it’s a better model for serious conversation than anything out there. We still have a lot to improve — our interface is pretty elegant, we think (thanks in large part to the very fine folks at Bond Art & Sciences, especially Razorfish’s former lead information architect, Karen McGrane) but we want to make it even better. Improved navigation of for logged in members is coming, as is improved functionality on groups (one feature in particular, due in about six weeks, will be pretty exciting).

    Here’s a prediction: not only will other media companies evetually follow some variation of our model, I bet some of them will partner with us to directly join our blended journalism/community network. I have a great few weeks of meetings planned to try to make this a reality.

    If you were reading this on Fastcompany.com, you could just click on my name to see more about me and read other stuff I’ve written. Since you’re not, here’s the link to my FastCompany.com profile:

    http://www.fastcompany.com/user/95053

  • http://www.web-strategist.com/blog/ jeremiah_owyang

    Ed, thanks for taking the time to respond so thoroughly, I’ll take a closer look over the following days to watch the innovation between the new model of journalists, community using social media tools.

  • http://martycollinsblog.spaces.live.com/ Marty Collins

    I agree with another comment, I don’t understand why FastCompany would build their own blog capabilities. I believe the next phase of the web is about aggregation. Most people have their own blogs, Facebook, Twitters by this time. I would not be interested in starting yet another blog. What would be truely innovative for me would be for me to link my blog post to the comments so I could keep my content together while still sharing it in the conversation. That’s innovation.

  • http://FastCompany.com Ed Sussman

    Hi Marty, We’ll add the capacity for you to link to your current blog in the coming months. But most of our readers do not write blogs so it’s very useful to give them a tool that lets them blog or write comments for a community of like-minded business professionals. Or to just answer editors’ daily questions on the site or comment on articles. Many people don’t want to take the time to market their blog and FastCompany.com makes it easy for people to find a relevant audience.