Stephen Johnson: Building community using social technology


As part of We First thinking, I have championed the use of social technology to scale positive chnage. a shift in the way brands and their communities relate. I had the pleasure of speaking to Stephen Johnson at SXSW about exactly how they are using a community engine to do just that. Here’s some insights he shared

SM: Thanks, Stephen. Share with us a little about Community Engine, what it is and what its purpose is.

SJ:  Community Engine is a group of people that have amazing passion and commitment to shifting the way businesses engage with communities and how they can actually develop communities. Over the past three years invested a lot of dollars and smarts into developing our own social network platform, which we are in the process of mobilizing right now. Put simply, Community Engine believes that social technology can improve the human condition by enabling social or commercial transaction. It’s very exciting and was very serendipitous that I got involved with them. We share a lot of the same values. It’s very new and fresh and wonderful at the same time.

SM:  We were chatting earlier about the difference between social media 101 and social CRM and where you see the marketplace moving.  Can you talk a little bit about that?

SJ:  Sure. The world has changed quite significantly regarding innovation in the tech and social space. Every week something new and exciting emerges. There’s so much R&D happening and other great stuff that has pushed the whole social media 101 context away from the initial interactive space and taken commerce and communities to a whole new level of socialization. The commerce (in the context of the importance of the way friends and relationships) impacts productization (the sale of products and services around reviews).  You only have to look at something like TravelPod to understand the impact of that. Even further, look at the role of community and the way a community can impact a brand to foster and nurture communities of shared interest, to help them socialize their businesses, to help them innovate their products and services, to help them do really great stuff in the community related to their brand as well as the wider community—the social good part.

SM: What I find so interesting about your story is that you were an ad agency guy for a long time and you have now left the agency world. A lot of people have been watching this happen to more brand and agency people. Can you tell us a little about that journey?

SJ:  For many years I really struggled with the value system within agencies. I often felt that we were constantly trying to extract revenue out of stuff that didn’t need revenue extracted out of it. I made some wonderful friend and established some great relationships and worked on amazing projects, but it really came down to personal values in the end. The reason I launched Altitude was because I saw an opportunity to mobilize creative and strategic partnerships around the world for social change.

Essentially Altitud3 will evolve to become a social enterprise kick-starter in a similar vein to Techstars, the idea being that there are a lot of wonderful ideas and social media and technology gives us an amazing opportunity to collaborate. This is really about collaborative innovation to solve complex problems in the world.

What was happening in agencies was joining the dots. I’d be working with clients and start to seed ideas and fresh thinking into these clients (we’re talking big global corporations) and unfortunately, what was happening was that clients were saying that they did want to collaborate, but they didn’t like the agency values.

It became very hard for me. I found that my work in the space started to take me away from what I was truly passionate about. I have a community and I feel a sense of responsibility to maintain the integrity that flows through that because, ultimately, it’s all about relationships. Every good thing that has ever happened in my life, in my community, even being here [SXSW] has happened through relationships and we should never ignore the power of that.

There is still an agency project that I’m working on: a wonderful initiative called Engage360. It’s a project that I started on in my agency context, and I am still involved in that project, leading the strategy to create an advocacy frame around energy conservation in California homes. It’s a big goal. We want to try to reduce energy usage in California homes by 20% by 2020. We’re essentially creating a movement around it.

Thanks to stephen for his time and you can follow him on Twitter @huxley