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]

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.

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.

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.