Architecting Communities of Passionate Participants: A Talk with Chris Parsons
How can a B2B firm use LinkedIn to build a reputation for thought leadership? Christopher Parsons, who heads Knowledge Architecture, a consulting and software firm, has built a LinkedIn group with more than 1,100 members who share perspectives and insights. Doing it right requires lots of groundwork and patience.
All kinds of professional services and other B2B companies are using social media to try to generate attention and leads. LinkedIn has been the focus of much of that activity, and for good reason: In less than 10 years, the online business social network has attracted more than 120 million members in more than 200 countries, including 2 million companies with LinkedIn pages. One of best ways for B2B companies to network with clients and potential clients is through LinkedIn Groups, online gathering places for people with shared interests. As of December 2010, there were about 750,000 LinkedIn Groups, according to tech blogging firm TechCrunch.
We belong to a number of LinkedIn Groups but have found none as stimulating and as well-orchestrated as one called KA Connect. The brainchild behind KA Connect is Christopher Parsons, head of a 2-year-old consulting firm, Knowledge Architecture Inc. His firm advises architecture, design and engineering companies on how to capture and capitalize on the knowledge of their employees, to both market and deliver services. The firm also sells software for creating intranets for this purpose.
Chris’ online group has about 1,100 members, ranging from CEOs of architecture firms to leading academics. It has enabled Chris’ firm, architects, engineers and other professionals to share perspectives, insights and solutions and learn from one another.
But the LinkedIn Group has a bricks-and-mortar counterpart: Knowledge Architecture’s annual conference, KA Connect. The firm held its second one in April, attracting 130 people from around the world (at $1,000 a head). The online and offline community-development initiatives have enabled Chris to create a passionate tribe (as he likes to quote marketing guru Seth Godin) that has helped Knowledge Architecture become a growing, vibrant firm (about $1 million in revenue this year).
We asked Chris to talk about his success with his LinkedIn group, how it fits with the rest of his marketing mix and thought leadership content development activities, and what’s next for the firm.
Before founding KA, he was chief information officer for Steinberg Architects, a 130-person San Francisco architecture firm, and IT director for SMWM (now part of Perkins + Will), another architecture firm.
In this Q&A, Chris talks about the genesis of his company, how he manages his LinkedIn roundtable, the synergies between his online group and his annual conferences, and the impact of both on his consultancy business.
- Starting a New Consulting Business
- Gathering the Community Under One Roof (Online and Offline)
- Continuing the Momentum with LinkedIn
- Managing the Online Conversation
- How Online Discussions Fuel Live Discussions
- The Roundtables’ Role in Marketing
- Resisting the Temptation to Sell
- Should A Professional Firm Have a LinkedIn Group?
- Impact on the Business
Bloom Group: Why did you start Knowledge Architecture?
Chris Parsons: At Steinberg Architects I had built various information and knowledge systems that integrated multiple sources of data. I had shared these with people at local and national roundtables. Even going back to the SMWM days, I was always involved in these roundtables, whether they were online or face-to-face or a hybrid, where people talked about what they were working on.
When I talked about our systems, I heard a steady drumbeat of “If you were to build software like that for my firm, we'd happily pay you to do it. No one else is building anything like it. We want to buy it."
BG: When you launched Knowledge Architecture, what was the state of the market for consulting to architecture and construction firms on knowledge management issues?
Chris: To my knowledge there wasn't a market. The architecture and engineering market had been hit as hard, or harder, than probably any other industry. The construction dollars just came to halt and projects were just stopped. IT spending in the industry was contracting very quickly. Firms were going into survival mode, or keeping the lights on mode, or however you want to phrase it.
BG: Knowledge management has been talked about since the 1990s in such industries as consulting, chemicals and high tech. Were there any role models for managing knowledge for competitive advantage in the architecture, design and engineering sectors?
Chris:The idea had come up at various roundtables that I would attend, but it would usually be technology-centric. I’ve since learned about a few firms in our target sectors that have been doing this really well for 20 or 30 years. Arup, a 10,000-person engineering firm founded in the UK, is so good at not only the technical side, but also the cultural and marketing sides. Everyone who joins the firm must read an 8-page document that describes their responsibility to make sure that clients get the best of Arup.
To deliver on that, they had to develop systems, processes, and a culture of knowledge sharing. If somebody in Shanghai calls you in Sydney asking for help on a problem with a technical issue or a client, you are expected to drop what you're doing and help them. That goes right to the core of the company.
BG: You had this hunch that there was a market for knowledge management software as well as advice about how to leverage it in architecture and engineering firms. So where did the LinkedIn group idea come in? What was driving the need for some kind of online community?
Chris: What came first was the conference, not the LinkedIn group. When I started KA in 2009, I had some vague notions around technology and culture and process. But I wasn't exactly going to market with a fleet of services and tools and a defined methodology that I'd built over the years. It was four months after I founded Knowledge Architecture and I had made maybe one sale. We had to figure out what consulting for knowledge management looked like.
From going to IT roundtables and other conferences, I noticed that IT conversations had forked in two directions, but only two directions. One was from pure technologists who came from outside the industry and were talking about servers and storage —technology-focused topics. Or they were talking about computer-aided design tools. They weren’t talking about information. Nobody was talking about business intelligence, knowledge management, and information systems. So there was a huge vacuum to me that needed to be filled.
I wanted to get together a group of people to talk about the issues that interested me and that were important for our new business. I was looking for stories and ideas from people actually doing knowledge management. One CIO told me, “No one’s ever going to pay for knowledge management consulting. You can't define knowledge management, so you should focus on doing something else.” By the way, he has since become a client.
BG: So he thought knowledge management was a bunch of fluff? I mean not much of an application in the architecture industry?
Chris: He did, and I think he was right. The way that it had been applied to date was a bunch of fluff. In fact, I've come into contact with people doing knowledge management at some firms and they weren't really doing anything. It wasn't strategic. They were managing documents and improving processes a bit, but nothing big ever came of it. It was an excuse to sell software, and that’s how a lot of people look at knowledge management -- rightly so, because a lot of times that’s all it is.
It was a hard problem, and I like the idea of a hard problem. I wanted to hold a conference so I could get people together to see what was really there. Our first one was in the spring of 2010 in Chicago. I thought we’d get maybe 20 people. We ended up with 80, including the 36 speakers.
BG: That’s an impressive number for a consulting firm that was barely one years old. How did you get people to come to the conference?
Chris: I used word of mouth, email marketing, and a little bit of my LinkedIn contacts. Once I raised the flag, people started coming out of the woodwork. It was like a light had been switched on. I started hearing things like: “There’s this woman in Denver who's been talking about this for 20 years.” Or “There's an HR director who is doing some really progressive stuff. She's not calling it knowledge management, but it’s close.”
That was the network effect of asking the question and putting a base together with the conference.
BG: Why and how did you start your KA Connect LinkedIn group?
Chris: After our Chicago conference, I was walking up Lake Michigan with my wife and talking about how we could keep the momentum from this thing going, saying that this is a great group of people with a lot of ideas. So I thought about throwing together a LinkedIn group so we could keep having discussions. Put them all in one place, make it easy for them to ask each other questions.
But again, in my mind it was the 80 people from the talk plus the 20 or 30 people who told me they wanted to go but couldn’t make it. I figured we would have 150 people in a LinkedIn group.
BG: But then it just took off.
Chris: It did, but not all by itself. I had to call people, ask them to submit discussion thread ideas, encourage people to comment, stoke the fire. I was very involved with it. It wouldn't have happened without me continuing to push it, there’s no doubt. But also, people just discovered the thing.
BG: What were the key things you have done to increase the size of the group?
Chris: One strategy is bringing in interesting people to contribute a point of view that will stir it up a little bit. It has been especially effective to find people from outside the industry. Folks really like that.
Building the group membership is almost like a sales job. Anytime I get a business card, every time I meet somebody, every time somebody inquires about our software, I make the pitch: “By the way, I'm going to invite you to join our LinkedIn group. It's a great discussion forum for knowledge and information management. Feel free to jump right in.”
It's so primal right now. I probably do that 20 times a week. When they join, it shows up on their LinkedIn profile, and their peers, colleagues, and friends say, “Well, what is this KA Connect?” Then I get a wave of those people joining as well.
BG: How many of your LinkedIn group members contribute to the discussion?
Chris: You have to embrace the fact that not everybody is an active participant. Research shows that in any given group, you're going to have one person who is contributing a lot, nine who are going to passively contribute and 90% who are just lurkers. To get the LinkedIn group as vibrant as I wanted it to be, I had to embrace that math. It might not be perfect. You might have a body of people that are more likely to contribute than not, but I found it to be generally true. For our 1,100 members, that means we've got 10 kinds of "alpha-contributors" and another 100 that are kind of occasional contributors. And I think that feels right to me, intuitively.
BG: So the clear majority are not doing anything but reading?
Chris: That’s correct. But think about this: I probably follow 100 blogs. I read God knows how many books a year. How many times have I actually commented or contributed with a letter? Very rarely. But I'm alert all the time.
So I’ve heard comments from clients, prospects and others about the LinkedIn group. They’ve said things like, “I really loved that LinkedIn discussion from six months ago. We all talked about that as a board, it became an issue on our agenda.” I'm thinking, “Holy cow -- this is having impacts in places I never would have imagined.”
So just because people aren't contributing doesn't mean they aren't reading, and it doesn't mean they don't think it's valuable.
BG: Have you prevented anybody from joining the group, a competitor or somebody else? How do you keep the riff raff posts out?
Chris: I've never prohibited anyone to date from joining. I definitely moderate all the posts that go up and I probably ding one out of every three posts that people submit.
I've moderated some comments out, but that’s infrequent. I will ding posts that are obviously or even unintentionally self-promotional, or that share something without context or not in the form of a question – for instance, people who want to share their blog post, and it's not appropriate. I will ding stuff if there's misspelling in the title or in the body, so it won’t show up in someone’s inbox as misspelled and kind of a broken fragment.
We have very few direct competitors at this point, although I'm sure that's going to change. I would envision that we would let competitors be part of this network. We certainly have let in software partners; we have some partners that we've chosen over another product. I've let their competitors join, and in fact, a couple of them have sponsored each other, which I think we have to let happen.
BG: So anybody can join but not any post can go up there. That’s good. Some LinkedIn communities have a tremendous amount of spam, which of course is just a huge turnoff.
Chris: It is, and I find my tolerance level going down as I get busier. I find myself unsubscribing myself to more and more of them because it's clear they're not being moderated. It's totally a “Field of Dreams” thing. They've done a “build it and they will come” and they just hope that this community is going to run itself. Those communities just don't hold much value for me. They actually make it harder for me to do my job; when I will tell people that we've got a LinkedIn group, sometimes they’ll have a look on their face that says, “Oh yeah, another one of those.” I have to convince them that ours is different.
BG: So how do you look at the value of your LinkedIn group, and has that value changed over time?
Chris: When I started the group, my expectations were maybe a little bit higher than they should have been. I thought it was going to be great, that there would be conversations flowing every day. And I thought people were going to have these great conversations.
But there were weeks where I'd post something and no one would comment, especially when our numbers were smaller. It just wasn't getting to be what I wanted to be. But then we'd have some breakthrough and things would be going great.
I think that people tend to give up on these things way too early. My sense is they evolve slowly. You have to contribute a lot in the beginning to model the behavior you want to see. You have to bring in more alpha-contributors to do it. But it takes time and I think it takes numbers. You've got to scale it to get a critical mass of contributions.
But still, there are people in the group who haven't contributed once. That makes me a little sad because they have a lot of ideas. It could be that they're too busy, or the email reminders go to their spam folders, or they're afraid of bestowing company secrets in this kind of forum.
BG: When you look at the attendees of your two conferences, how many of them were, per your terms, the alpha-contributors on your LinkedIn group, or the occasional contributors or the lurkers?
Chris: There’s a connection. Since our 2011 conference, I've noticed that, of the people who are really engaged and fired up online, the vast majority were at the conference. I think that that did something to really charge up the base. And people know who they are, so when Mark asks a question of Randy on our LinkedIn group, they've already met each other and heard each other speak. I think they came back from the conference kind of charged up.
BG: So the ones who heavily contribute to your LinkedIn group are more likely to attend your physical conference …
Chris: Yeah, and the converse is also true. Once somebody attends the conference, the more likely they are to participate in the online group.
BG: How does the LinkedIn community influence the topics, content, and other topics discussed at the annual conferences?
Chris: One of our online contributors, Ryan Smith, a professor at the University of Utah, wrote a couple of really sharp, insightful comments on one of the threads. I invited him to expand his comments into a thought piece, and in two weeks I had a guest blog post. We already had the speaker lineup set for 2011 but he's on my list for people to approach in 2012. But he also really wanted to attend the conference; he just came upon our group too late to make it.
Amanda Walter, who wrote a guest post recently, does PR consulting for architecture and engineering firms. She and I were talking on the phone and she said something about using internal communications to fuel your external communications and thought leadership efforts. My reaction was, “Wow, I really like the way you said that. Will you write a blog post for us?” That then turned into a LinkedIn post, and so on and so forth.
Sometimes a consulting client will say something in a meeting and I’ll urge them to write about it because I know others will be interested. And I can say that maybe six or seven talks at the conference were our clients, and I've actually encouraged them to give talks based on things I've learned about their companies that I found really interesting.
Sometimes it goes the other direction -- from clients back out to the LinkedIn group out into the conference. I guess what I'm saying is that I'm always looking for stories and ideas, and I want to spread as far as possible, and they can come from any of these different places.
BG: How do the LinkedIn group and the conferences fit into the marketing of KA’s consulting services?
Chris: We simply want to get people into our neighborhood, in one way or another, whether it’s through software, the conference, a talk, a blog post, or a tweet. We have many hooks out there floating in the ocean.
The key is to bring them back one way or another. Maybe they're the kind of firm that will never be a paid client of ours, but they can create so much value as being part of KA Connect through their values, through their ideas, through the people that they know, that that's where they belong.
Or maybe they’ll be a great fit for us as a consulting client and a software customer. Maybe we'll bring them a little bit further into the family. I think these tools are really great for that. No matter where people are, we try and find a way to make it easy for them to come in and be a part of what we're doing.
BG: So knowledge sharing is a big part of your marketing efforts. Is that accidental or on purpose?
Chris: I think I was doing it intuitively and upon reflection realized I liked the way we were marketing and kind of made it more formal. We’ve done it to the point that when I was pitching my 2010 conference to one of our software partners, whom I really respect, he pointed out that my concept for KA Connect was really a marketing piece. I looked him and said, “I don't know what you're talking about. This is where the ideas come. This is how we share. This is how we all get smarter together. This isn't marketing.” And he just started laughing.
In retrospect, KA Connect probably is part of our marketing strategy but I really didn't see it that way in the beginning.
BG: So how did you envision KA Connect in the beginning, and how has it changed?
Chris: I saw that we could just do so much more as an industry and for our company, but I also just wanted us to be more mature. I just felt like there were answers out there that I wasn't seeing and by getting people together to talk about it I felt we could help each other find our way there.
And since KA was organizing it, I also saw it as a way to brand our new company; when you think about knowledge in this industry, I wanted you to think of KA first. I wanted to share these ideas with people whether or not we necessarily got the credit or got a project out it. I think it came from a really good place, and it still does.
That's still one of our primary motivations. But over time I've learned that, wow, this way to market is loaded with benefits. Because it establishes ourselves as thought leaders, it gets our name out there, and we learn from it in terms of the advice we give or the products we build. It's a way to attract people into our sphere that we can then decide if we want to convert to a paying customer.
BG: Isn’t there a temptation to actively sell to people who are in your fish tank here, this community? It’s seems as if you are educating and connecting people rather than directly marketing to them. You don’t appear to be pitching them services and software through this community.
Chris: That's a good point because many of the people who attend our conference are heavily into product marketing. They don't do thought leadership marketing. And that's fine. That's the way that they operate and they've been very successful and I respect that.
One of the guys at our conference told me, “Chris, I think this is all great but man, you're missing a huge opportunity here. You haven't told anybody here what it is your company does, you haven't shown your software, you haven't talked about any of your case studies for your clients. Dude, you've got to get up there and promote a little bit more.”
My response was, “Are you kidding me? This would kill everything! There's no way I would do that.” But, I go to their conferences and that's exactly what they do – a kind of gussied up promotional event to show how smart they are. That's just not what I want to do. I think it would be a smaller group. I don't think it would get to 1,000 people if that was what we were doing.
So you need a zero tolerance policy, or you run a different kind of event; you call it “user conference for whatever” and then everyone knows that’s what they're there for.
BG: Would you recommend all B2B firms to set up things like LinkedIn groups and if not, what kinds of firms and under what circumstances?
Chris: I would definitely not recommend this for everybody. Anybody considering this should imagine the group two years from now. Are you still blogging? Are you still feeding this community? Do you have a topic or a series of topics that you and/or your firm are charged up about? Is there enough fuel to make this effort sustainable?
It's a lot of work and sometimes a lot of non-glamorous work – inviting people, getting them in the database, making sure we respond to comments. Stoking the fire takes time, and you need to fuel it with questions or topics that you really want to explore over a long period of time. If you're not curious that way about the kind of ideas that can become thought leadership, it’s a bad fit. You shouldn't waste your money and time. You should do product marketing instead, if that's what your firm is passionate about.
I know a couple of LinkedIn groups that are totally phoning it in. They've got a LinkedIn group and they might have more people than our LinkedIn group, but there's nothing happening. It’s because it’s not really them. It's not their culture. It requires a sharing, community-building culture and so it goes down to the core. If you're not a sharing, community-building culture, why in the world would you want to start an online community? It doesn't fit.
BG: What has been the impact of your LinkedIn group and the conferences and everything in between, on your business?
Chris: We have six full-time employees and we are projecting $1 million in revenue for this year. If we had taken the same amount of my time, money and effort and invested that into a traditional, inside sales program and done traditional product marketing, I think it's possible we'd be doing better.
But that’s just not really in my DNA, so I'm not sure if it would have quite worked. It's not how I want to run my company and I feel like we would have missed out -- on all the connections, the influence, the positioning. But most importantly, we would have missed out on the ideas. Through the conference, the process of working with 44 speakers, working through the material and helping them find their ideas, it’s made us that much better informed on the issues. This whole process has helped us learn which problems we need to solve. It's made us smarter, and we've gotten paid to do it. And I hope we've made other people smarter.
With just a six-person firm, we now have the kind of network influence and leverage with our partners that makes people think we are much bigger. And I've heard this a bunch of times from prospects, “You guys are only six people? You feel so much bigger than that.” And I certainly take that as a compliment.