Building the Skillshare Community

What is Skillshare? from Skillshare on Vimeo.

I’m loving Skillshare at the moment. The start up may only be a few months old, but it’s already capturing people’s imagination in New York, and it’s easy to see why. They have an inspiring vision to democratize learning, some fantastic teachers already on their books, and a slick, simple website pulling together their community.

Given that they are at such an early stage at the moment, it’s also no surprise that looking at the site I can see dozens of things that I’d love to tweak – I’m sure they are working on most of these already. They have rightly got a very sharp focus on keeping things simple, so just jamming in extra features clearly would not fit with the company ethos. However, here are a few thoughts on features that would support their community without sacrificing their product.

Facilitating teaching

The product team can help grow the number of teachers by making the process of organising, marketing and delivering a lesson as easy as possible.

–          Integrating marketing options into class creation: At the moment there are some good basic options for promoting classes (e.g. Facebook, Twitter and short links), but currently these are not integrated into the class creation process and could be overlooked by new teachers. After the main class creation page I would have a second page where teachers were prompted to promote their classes via social links and email. I would also split email out into a separate button, rather than relying on the Facebook send button, which is not an obvious route to email for many.

–          Direction to marketing advice: There is some great content on site advising teachers how to market their lessons. A pop up after teachers published their first class, prompting them to check this out would be useful and ensure that teachers were as marketing savvy as possible.

–          Basic HTML editor for lesson postings: A minor thing here, but it would be great to include a basic HTML editor in the larger text fields for teacher profiles and classes. Whilst anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of HTML will not have any problem adding emphasis, links, bullet points and so on, a few of these basic options would support teachers that might be on the site to teach without technical knowledge. The class profiles that use a bit of basic structure invariably look more professional and attractive to attend.

–          Tipping point for classes: The pilot lesson and watcher features are already great, and adding a tipping point for classes to go ahead would further reduce the risk to teachers of spending the time preparing and giving a class that was poorly attended. Similar to the tipping point on Groupon, it would mean that lessons only went ahead, and payment was only taken from students, if a minimum threshold of students was reached.

–          Teacher analytics: Not something that would be high up my list of priorities, but a valuable addition at some point, is marketing analytics for teachers. If teachers are going to take their teaching seriously then they would benefit from some analytical support on how their marketing efforts were doing. I would have thought that some form of integration with Google Analytics would provide all the information that teachers needed: traffic sources for classes, pageview numbers, and conversion rates from pageviews to watchers and paid up students.

Adding student comfort

The main barrier I see to students taking classes is concern over their quality, and whether they feel they are getting value for money. A couple of poor classes that left students feeling cheated could hurt the community severely.

–          Linkedin profile link for teachers: Skillshare already allows teachers to easily link through to a personal website, Facebook, Twitter and even Quora. However, I would have thought that the most relevant link for most students was one through to Linkedin, so that students can see professional experience of their teachers. Whilst a blog link might be more appropriate for someone teaching about their hobbies, anyone wanting to teach a business orientated class would hugely benefit from this.

–          Feedback from students: A simple feedback system on teachers would be of huge value to students. Both comments and a star rating for classes (this could be aggregated up to give an overall start rating for the teacher) would immediately give students confidence in using teachers that they had never heard of, but were known to the Skillshare community. I suspect that it would also mean that many teachers started giving discounted lessons when they were starting out so that they could get a good start to their rating.

–          Teacher recommendations: Similarly, the ability for teachers to ask for recommendations from other members of the Skillshare community in a similar way to Linkedin would give them credibility before they taught their first class.

–          Video previews and sample materials: Best practice amongst teachers seems to be writing a blog post on the topic of a class they are going to give. I think this is to be encouraged, as it provides students with a sample of what they can expect before they get into the classroom. Allowing teachers to post video clips of previous lessons or sample materials within Skillshare would also be a great way for students to get an idea of what they would actually get by taking the class.

Big ideas…

One of the reasons that I love Skillshare is that it is a BIG idea – one that could have a profound impact on society itself, as well as be a hugely successful company. It could have this kind of impact with its current business model and functionality, but if I allow my imagination to run wild, I can also think of a few obvious adjacencies that are huge opportunities in their own right.

–          Venue database: Skillshare’s NYC venue map is a great start to tackling what I think is one of the biggest barriers to running a class – where to host it. Although not an immediate priority, I would love to see at the very least a link through from the class creation page to this map to ensure teachers are aware of it, and ideally some way of booking teaching space. Of course Skillshare could go on to create the OpenTable for meeting and teaching space as well, or even get into property management if it really wanted to.

–          Online classes: There are already calls on the Skillshare website for students to be able to buy videos of classes that are booked up or they can’t attend in person. Creating a pay-per-view library of the most popular lessons would seem to benefit everyone in the Skillshare community – teachers would be able to earn more and reach a greater audience, students would be able to see more content at a reduced price, and Skillshare would have an additional revenue stream. I think that Skillshare is right to focus on real world interactions to begin with, but the possibility for anyone in the World to learn from the best teachers in their field is too big a vision to ignore.

–          Schools and managed classes: Skillshare could also start managing classes in high demand areas, or allow third parties to do this. Skillshare would recruit teachers to give lessons in areas that it had determined had high demand, and handle the management and logistics of those classes itself. It could even put together series of classes into courses. Starts to sound like traditional education, especially if third parties are creating brands for themselves by pulling together courses in specific areas and in effect becoming virtual “schools”. This is obviously the very thing that Skillshare is trying to disrupt, but it is an obvious way for them to go, providing a guided educational experience without the expense and infrastructure that traditional education requires.

Wrap up

Skillshare is a company with a great future ahead of it. I look forward to seeing how they develop their business over time and wish them all the best of luck.

Video from Skillshare website

Advertisements

A beginners’ guide to social media

This is a very basic run down of the main social media sites and components to an online marketing campaign. I’ve tried to keep it to an absolute minimum and link to further information for those interested.

Social media is a great way for you to raise your profile if you are a start up that is cash poor and (relatively) time rich, but as it can take up a huge amount of time I would advise only taking on what you can maintain. A static website with all your basic information is always the starting point, and various social media sites can then be used to enhance your online profile.

Facebook

Overview: A site where you can communicate directly with individuals following your brand, sharing messages, photos and events.

Why bother: Facebook is by far the most ubiquitous of the social media platforms, with 750m users globally. Creating a Facebook page gives you somewhere you can post news and other content, and provides a forum to discuss things with your customers.  Many brands will use it as a platform to ask their core customers for advice on future products, to run competitions and keep themselves front of mind. Facebook also lets you advertise in an extremely targeted way, allowing you to select the age, gender, education level, geography and even interests of the consumers you want to reach.

Creating a page: To do anything on Facebook you need to create a page for your business. This is similar to a profile for an individual. Stick up all your basic information (e.g. contact information, description) and a few photos as a minimum, and add whatever else you can (videos, links, wall posts, etc.).

Posting content: Facebook is slightly less ephemeral than Twitter, so a good target might be to post something every week. Things that are interactive are always good – ask questions, run competitions, tell jokes and so on. It’s also worth sticking up any photos, links to press and other more in depth content as and when you can. If you are doing things right people will “like” or comment on your posts. This is important, because every time they do this, they broadcast your brand out to their own friendship group, so see what gets the most likes and comments, and continue in this vein.

Targeted advertising: If you’ve got money to spend on advertising, Facebook offers highly targeted pay per click (PPC) advertising. You can post small visual ads that appear to the right of people’s screens when they are on the site. Ads can be targeted at just about anything that a Facebook profile captures: age, gender, location, interests, and so on.

Good examples:

Haagen Dazs

Starbucks

Further advice: Facebook itself has a good introduction guide here.

Twitter

Overview: A site where individuals and brands broadcast messages of 140 characters or less (tweets).

Why bother: Whilst Twitter is not as widely used as Facebook, it still boasts 200m accounts globally, and is used by a lot of media types. Using Twitter not only allows you to broadcast content and interact with your customers in a similar way to Facebook, it also allows you to keep up with what the media is saying about you and your industry. Twitter is both more immediate and more ephemeral than Facebook, as a user’s feed might show hundreds or thousands of tweets in a single day. If you are going to get a response then you will likely get one quickly, but anything that you say is likely to be missed by anyone that doesn’t notice it at the time you send it out.

Posting content: Setting up a Twitter account is extremely basic, requiring much less information than Facebook. Posting content is an art form however, and there is barely space to cover the basics here. As tweets are so fleeting, aim to post something out once or twice a day. If this seems like a constant bother then write all your tweets for a week at the same time, then use something like Hootsuite to send them out whenever you like (choose times when people are likely to be online, like afternoons and evenings). As well as tweeting frequently, make your content relevant; ask yourself why anyone would be interested in it. As with Facebook, interactive posts are generally good, but links, photos, jokes and factoids should also do the job. Make sure your post still makes sense after being cut down to 140 characters, and if necessary just include a hook to get people interested and a link to your website or Facebook page with further information. AFTER you have written your first half dozen posts search for anyone in your field that you want to hear what you are saying, and follow them. Hopefully they will reciprocate and follow you back. Once you’ve started following other people Twitter should also start suggesting further users to follow. Stay aware of what others are posting, and if you get the chance then direct a tweet at them by tagging it with their username including the “@” symbol. Watch your @mentions to stay aware of when people mention you, and respond if it seems appropriate. Hopefully if things are going well you should notice people retweeting what you are sending out, and your number of followers steadily rising.

Good examples:

Wholefoods

Zappos

Further advice: Mashable have written a great guide to Twitter here.

Tumblr

Overview: Microblogging site which allows users to easily share photos, comments, posts and more in customized templates.

Why bother: Definitely less of a priority than Facebook, Twitter and having your own site, Tumblr is still a useful medium for content that is more in depth than you can post to other social media sites, but which doesn’t need a permanent home on your website. As blog traffic is typically updated regularly, and contains a variety of words that are associated with your products and industry, it can be helpful for getting a higher natural search ranking on Google. There are many options for creating a company blog (e.g. I use WordPress for this site, and Blogger is also good), but Tumblr is as good as any, with a super simple interface with plenty of customization options, a slick overall look, and built in syndication to users just browsing through Tumblr.

Posting content: Blogging allows you to go into a little more detail than is possible on Facebook and Twitter, and allows you to draw together material that is written over an extended period in one place. Given the longer nature of blogs, relevance is at more of a premium than frequency. If you can write something every couple of days then great, but if your posts are longer then every couple of weeks that is probably fine. Think about blogging as marketing in a purist sense of educating your customer. The best posts are usually ones that inform your potential customers about the industry your products are in, positioning you as a trusted source of information, rather than selling your products directly. Don’t forget to promote your blog by linking your account to your Facebook page and sending links out to your posts via Twitter as well.

Good examples:

Grooveshark

Further advice: Mark Suster has written an excellent guide to blogging here.

Foursquare

Overview: Location based service that allows retailers to run promotions targeted at customers in their area.

Why bother: Foursquare now claims 10m registered users globally. If you’re a retail business in a major city then it’s likely that by running a promotion through Foursquare you could pick up additional customers. Outside of major cities, and especially outside of the US, the benefits are probably more marginal at the moment. Running a Foursquare promotion is free and shouldn’t require constant maintenance, unlike other social media options.

Claim your venue: The first thing you need to do is claim your venue on the Foursquare website. This is analogous to creating a page for your business on Facebook.

Run a promotion: Once you’ve claimed your venue you can run promotions. Think carefully about the deals you run and who you are targeting. Good examples might be “check in and get a free drink” to attract new customers or “free drink with your fifth check in” to promote repeat business from existing customers. You can run more than one promotion at a time, and monitor their success with the analytics that Foursquare provides.

Good examples:

Goodburger

Heartland Brewery

Further advice: the Foursquare website itself is pretty good.

Others:

Linkedin: professional networking site. Extremely useful for individuals, but not something where you really need a unified company profile.

Quora: social Q&A site. Great for those working in professional services to demonstrate their expertise. Again, limited use for businesses as a whole.

Google+: Google’s foray into social networking may have hit 20m people in the first month, but it’s still too early to tell if it is going to be a success or not. Or whether they will ever let brands on officially anyway.

Image from Super Simbo

Solving distribution of wealth in digital communities

This post follows a recent conversation with 4chan’s creator Chris Poole.

Many communities and especially games use points systems to increase engagement – Foursquare shows you a rolling one week total of your points earned, compared to your friends. People have a natural inclination to accumulate as many points as possible and have more than those around them. Some communities reinforce this urge by allowing points to be traded for virtual items, used to unlock new features or otherwise giving them some value. For example, Turntable.fm’s DJ Points unlock different avatars skins.

However, as soon as points are converted in other items, distribution of wealth starts becoming a problem. Whilst new users in the community enjoy seeing other wealthier users around them to begin with, it is because they aspire to that wealth themselves. If that wealth seems unattainable, then they may well lose interest in the whole community.

Furthermore, the community dynamics can become disrupted by trading, even where this is not explicitly allowed. Users tend to find a way to reciprocate actions to effect trading very quickly. I wonder how many users on Turntable.fm are voting up songs, and thereby awarded DJ points to others, not because they like the songs they are playing, but because they want others to reciprocate this. The ecosystem can even spill out into real world currency – you can buy virtual items of other players in World of Warcraft for USD. When many people use online communities for their egalitarian nature, allowing users who are richer in real life an advantage is hugely destructive.

So how to avoid the problems of distribution of wealth, without removing the highly positive influence that a points system can have?

Make wealth less conspicuous

If it is easy to see how much wealth other users have, and how far you are behind them, then the problems associated with wealth distribution are exacerbated. Conversely by reducing how conspicuous people’s wealth is, these effects can be minimised. In many communities (as in real life), a user’s wealth of points cannot be directly observed, but the items they can purchase with these points can be.

Making items that users can buy with points exponentially more expensive for marginal gains in functionality or form can allow “richer” users to have some value to their wealth, without putting them too far ahead of less well off users. Most level systems adhere to this principle, with the first few levels easily achieved, and higher levels requiring a far great number of points to reach.

Expire points after set time

One of the simplest ways to prevent some users from getting too much richer than others is to have points expire after a certain amount of time. This way experienced players need to keep engaging with the community to maintain their wealth, and the maximum wealth that anyone can achieve is limited to the amount that they can earn in the lifetime of the points. Foursquare keeps a record of only the points you have earned in the past week, and British Airways reset their frequent flyer programme members tier points (but not the actual miles) to zero at the end of the year in this way.

Adopt a welfare system

Many community based points systems have some form of welfare system, where users are given a certain amount of points each day or week automatically, or simply for logging in. This allows users to get started immediately and taste the benefits of accumulating more points, but also means that users without the skills to accumulate huge numbers of points just need a little more patience. A welfare system alone is unlikely to be a solution, but it can be helpful in many communities to get users started.

Create seasonal virtual goods

Instead of expiring points after a certain time period, virtual goods can be given a temporary nature instead (or indeed, as well). This could either work in the sense that users pay a certain number of points to lease virtual goods for a set time period, that virtual goods only exist for a finite time period and need to be renewed, or that new virtual items are constantly being released in seasonal cycles like fashions. In this last case, the items might have different forms but identical functionalities. In any of these cases, users have to maintain their points earnings to have the latest virtual items, and new users can get up to speed quicker, by only buying the most recently released items.

Migrate more experienced users to a new area

Some games migrate more experienced, richer users away to a completely separate environment from new users. This way the environment that users interact in always has a limited variation in wealth. Call of Duty allows users access to a new set of hard core multiplayer servers in return for handing back all the weapons and virtual items they have accumulated and starting again. Many MMORPGs have a newbie town where new players are sheltered from the wealth (and dangers) of the wider, virtual world.

There is no reason that a large number of different areas cannot exist, each for a particular wealth of user. Furthermore, users don’t need know that it is possible to enter other, more advanced areas before they have accumulated enough points to enter them. Indeed, having “secret” areas that reveal themselves just as users think they are exhausting the possibilities of the original one is undoubtedly a hugely compelling feature for many.

Wrap up

Giving users in a community points has a tremendously positive effect on engagement, at least initially, and this can be amplified by allowing users to trade points for virtual items or features. However, communities with a wide distribution of wealth can quickly run into problems with new users feeling points “wealth” is unattainable, or puts them at unfair advantage. There are several ways in which the negative effects of distribution of wealth can be moderated, and these can be used in conjunction with one another if needs be. The right solution for any given community is likely to reflect that its overall value system and culture, and should augment rather than supersede this.

Image from zzzack’s Flickr photostream