Since much of my work with the SharePoint community is externally facing, many of my colleagues don’t have any visibility to the things that I do as part of my job. So, it wasn’t too surprising that one of them recently asked me, “Hey, you’re a technical marketing guy by title, but you’re a community lead by role. What is it that you actually do?” My answer: “My job is to improve the various channels and modes of communication for anyone who wants to interact with someone else about SharePoint. That’s the key difference between community (omnidirectional) and marketing (unidirectional).” I notice that some traditional marketing professionals even in my own organization are apprehensive if not downright reluctant to embrace community because they fear that they would lose control of their message or positioning.
While it’s certainly true that one cannot control what the community does or says, if one finds an effective way to influence the community, then the community can become a huge amplifier for one’s message, it can more precisely target that message by providing the appropriate context to a specific audience within the community, and it can increase the credibility of the message by communicating it as a piece of friendly advice rather than a form of direct marketing. Of course, it’s a two way street because you simply cannot trick the community into buying a piece of bread when you only have flour to sell. :-) In this era of blogs and powerful search engines, news (especially the bad and ugly variety) travels extremely fast. In order to fully embrace the community, you must be prepared to deal quickly and honestly with reality rather than to try to cover it up with marketing spin.
However, it’s simply impossible for a single person like me to effectively influence an entire community of tens of millions of people who sell, use, develop, implement, and administer SharePoint-based solutions. Therefore, I think of community in terms of concentric circles of people as well as overlapping circles of people. At the core of both models are the passionate leaders and influencers within the community. These are the people whom I recruit into the SharePoint MVP program (active members are listed here, here, and here). Admittedly, I’ve been spending the majority of my time interacting with the MVPs during the past couple of weeks in preparation for the public availability of the Beta 2 Technical Refresh release of WSS 3.0 and MOSS 2007. I can tell you right now that the installation process will be tricky and that you must read the installation documentation prior to attempting an install. Keep an eye on the SharePoint Team Blog for an important announcement very soon. While it will be very exciting to see the uptake of interest in SharePoint within the community immediately after B2TR is released, what would be even more exciting for me is to witness just how influential and effective the SharePoint MVPs will be in helping those in the community, who are evaluating SharePoint 2007, to get past their potential difficulties in upgrading to B2TR.
[Update 09/11: B2TR installation information has just been posted on the SharePoint Team Blog.]