Building the Brand — Community Governance
In this Building the Brand, Eugene sits down with Scott to talk about the role of community governance in a brand strategy. It's never been easier to start and build a brand today, but a side effect of this is building loyalty has become that much harder. Instead of freely providing what the brand has to offer up front—or even simply dictating it to your audience—how about building a community that has some say in how things are run?
Hosted by Eugene Kan & Scott Masek
Text & Transcript by Nate Kan
Audio by Elphick Wo
Hosted by Eugene Kan & Scott Masek
Text & Transcript by Nate Kan
Audio by Elphick Wo
Many of today’s business models, especially in media, are predicated on a “come-one-come-all” basis where access to the ideals officially marketed by a brand are all but guaranteed with the requisite purchases.
But as we’ve seen, where the sole barrier to entry is cash—or worse, where there simply isn’t one—brands are easily adopted and discarded at the earliest convenience when interest fades and something marginally flashier comes along; a side effect of a globalized Internet where any would-be entrepreneur can secure funding from just about anywhere, assemble a brand and open its doors.
A potential solution? Grow a community around your brand—your “tribe” if you prefer a buzzword long treasured by the blogosphere of the 2010s. Yet at the same time, it might no longer be enough to just get people around the campire. Part of growing that community is giving them metaphorical stock in your company, a real sense of ownership and connection.
In this episode of Building the Brand, Eugene and MAEKAN COO Scott Masek sit down to discuss the definition of community governance—the idea of involving a community surrounding a brand in the decision-making process—and what it means for MAEKAN.
We're lucky because these are our listeners, these are our readers, these are people that care about what we do. And I truly think that they're the ones who are going to impact the next iteration of great products or great innovations or whatever it may be.
At MAEKAN, the story defines the medium. Some stories function best as written text, others hope to capture the emotion through an intimate audio experience. In cases such as this audio story, the transcripts we provide are done to the best of our ability through AI transcription services and human transcribers. We try our best, but this may contain small errors or non-traditional sentence structure. The imperfection of humans is what makes us perfect.
Scott: 3 ,2, 1.
Eugene: That is not necessary.
Scott: Just Helping you out.
Eugene: Building the brand is MAEKAN’s ongoing series around developing a modern day brand and media company. Over the course of this series we’ve talked about everything from why we’re based in Hong Kong, the role of tangible design as a digital product and as a digital publication and writing for the years as an audio publication. Today, I’m joined by making COO Scott Masek.
Eugene: How they’re going, Scott?
Scott: I’m alright. I’m feeling great.
Eugene: Yeah. So we’ve been on a bit of a hiatus, I think, trying to figure out what the next topic to talk about entails and one of the reasons why I think it’s been challenging is we don’t really want to talk so much about the process so much as the strategy around the things that we’re thinking about. One of the things that we’ve been really big on recently is this idea of community or social governance. So before we get started, if people aren’t familiar with social governance or community governance, what does it mean to you? And I would also argue and preface that the term’s kind of made up right. It’s kind of a mixture of certain things that we’ve just kind of put together.
Scott: No, I wouldn’t say it’s made up, but it uses different facets of society and governance that we see today that are more and more important. I found a few definitions online that I think are interesting. Maybe I’ll share them and then I’ll probably provide some feedback.
Eugene: Yeah. I think to be helpful for people to just immediately understand what what it means to us from a very sort of top level perspective.
Scott: Sure. Let me give you two that I found online, which I think were pretty good, but I think they both have some limitations. And then maybe delve into why we look at it in a certain way. The first one is from Victoria University in Melbourne. There’s an article I found says “the concept usually refers to community participation engagement and decision making in public matters and as related to terms such as local governance, social governance, network governance and participatory governance,” and then the other one was from this website called RTM Team—Results That Matter: “Community Governance refers to the process of making all the decisions and plans that affect life in the community, whether made by public or private organizations or by citizens.”
So, I prefer that second definition because the first one felt too glued towards a standardized governing system. And I think for us as a media brand, as a media company, and also as a company in the 21st century, being that things are very much different in terms of governance, I think that second one made a lot more sense to me. Part of the reason for that is community governance means more than just ensuring that people are participating in something. It means true ownership and work that comes with making sure things happen.
Eugene: So, can you give me an example of how this would incorporate into something like MAEKAN.
Scott: So the base case example would be MAEKAN is writing a story, we have say, a person in mind and a topic in mind, but then we give it up to the community and say, ‘hey this is what we’re thinking about, but actually what would you want the angle to be in terms of that story.’ What that does is you’re putting the reader, who is our ultimate consumer but also our partner and what we do as a company, in the driving seat and say ‘okay, actually you know, maybe this could be better approached another way,’ and because we cater to a creative community, you also source a lot of better ideas than just the ones that we have currently.
Eugene: If I could chime in there too. I think what’s critical about almost this crowdsourcing element and I think that community governance isn’t something that necessarily is a new concept you’ve seen it as crowdsourced projects or whatnot, but I think what’s fascinating is that now more than ever you’re seeing it happen more in real time, which means people that are going to create a product—and product can mean a lot of things, it can mean a sneaker, it can mean an editorial product; they’re helping shape what is the outcome. You know, you and I had this discussion offline before and it’s like theoretic. You’re arguing that community governance exists. Amazon reviews: someone going on Amazon buying something and reviewing something that’s, in a way, governance because it pushes it in a certain direction. But I was arguing that that’s reactive versus being proactive.
Scott: But I think it’s twofold. You can be proactive in building a product and then seeing how it performs, and then you react to the feedback that you get and then be proactive to adding certain features that maybe people haven’t added or thought about. So it works both ways. The problem with a lot of online readings is that—I mean, having worked in e-commerce, I know this for a fact—you can definitely tweak it because you can pay for it. And anytime there’s a monetary incentive for you to be able to change something—I don’t know what I think is good or bad, but what that means is, you can game the system.
So, if I’m pulling out a really bad product and my rating is 5 stars, what that means is if I’m a normal consumer, I’m looking at this and thinking, “okay, this is great it’s five stars, I’m gonna buy this.” I get it, it’s crap, I give it a one star review and then the guy calls me and says, “I’ll give four of them for free. And then just make sure you give me a five star review.” So, the game is rigged from the start. And I think that’s where a community governance comes in and says, “well actually, the community is better off if that company either improves its products or people don’t buy their products.” And so the accountability looks very different. That’s what I think. I think maybe maybe to delve into this topic will be useful, at least in my eyes, is to talk a little bit about social contacts right now and how that applies to maken. So think about a republic Republic is Latin for Res Publica, which means “the public thing” and a republic, in essence, is the biggest form of social governance or community governance that you want where citizens go out and elect people or make choices that go and define what the community or the country moves towards.
The problem is today we find that these these institutions are corrupted either morally or financially or however you want. You get events like the 2008 financial crisis, which triggered things like Bitcoin or blockchain where people are thinking, “okay, I can’t trust these centralized systems. And so I need to do something different in or still get a voice or still get a fair opportunity to do something so I know I’m putting a lot of different things together but I think this plays well into this topic because if you consider the way the world works today people no longer feel like their voices are being heard. So if you pay your taxes it’s like, “well, I’m paying my taxes, but 70 percent of that is going to the army.” Some people are okay with that. Some people are not okay with that. Community Governance would say, “well, in our community, we would want these taxes to be used for primarily—”.
Eugene: “—for a story, like, I want to create a fund that is going to hopefully make certain stories of reality. On a quarterly basis, let’s say.”
Scott: So if you use that metaphor of the tax system, it’s the same thing. If there’s a tax pool, the community decides where that tax pool goes as opposed to a central authority. Where it’s challenging as a brand, it’s you also recognize that for a community, the vision might be short term, but they’re not necessarily thinking about more of that long-term brand building.
Eugene: Maybe that’s something we can talk about, some of the limitations of community governance. Like, what is it and what is it not?
Scott: So in my eyes, I think that the challenge really comes from making sure you understand what your final outcome needs to be: do you want your engagement to be meaningful or do want it to be a facet of your business that draws people in but is not something that drives them? I think these two very different things, right? And I don’t think that community governance means that you give up the ownership of your business to other people. I think what it means is for some parts where you recognize that your consumer is the person who ultimately is the one taking in your content—.
Eugene: —and deriving value from it. It’s creating value for the consumer.
Scott: Precisely. From that, you need to be able to recognize what is working for them, but also have a bigger picture of what your vision is in the future. That’s a tight rope to walk because as a business owner and as a business leader, you know what’s good for the business in the long term of it because you have that vision that you don’t necessarily communicate or maybe there’s different reasons why you wouldn’t communicate it. Part of it is maybe because you think you’re not at a point where you’re sure as to what you want to do, or maybe you’re at a point where your funding is too low, so you’re not able to necessarily have a timeline for it.
Eugene: Just to give a tangible example is: you wouldn’t really allow the decision of whether or not to accept certain types of business into the mix unless that was necessarily compromising your ability create value for the consumer, right?
Scott: What do you mean?
Eugene: So for example like let’s say that there’s a brand that has come into the mix that wants to work with MAEKAN. Do you allow community governance in that context? Or do you have to put your foot down and be like, for the better of MAEKAN in the long run and from a visionary standpoint, you kind of need to make that decision on your own?
Scott: But I don’t think that’s what community governance is about. I think community governance is about not being able to buy a vote. It’s about having to earn it and having to work for it. And the work that you put in ultimately benefits the greater community. So, voting on an issue such as, “oh, this is like the hot new brand right now. MAEKAN should do something with it.” That’s less relevant than, these systems that aren’t in place currently—like, maybe you want to build an app or maybe there’s a new segment of the website that could be created—if someone says, “okay, you should be doing this, this, this, and this. I’m giving you a full exposé and steps on how to do it,” that means that someone has put in significant amount of work and time and thought into something.
That gives you the right from a governance standpoint to be able to push that boundary. I think that’s a lot more valuable than just saying, “oh, everyone gets a vote. Here’s a bunch of tokens. And the one that has the most tokens that person’s vote is more valuable.” It reminds me a lot of the the DOT system that Ray Dalio talks about. So Bridgewater’s—so for people who are not familiar—Ray Dalio’s a hedge fund manager, has his own hedge fund called Bridgewater and one system that they have in their teams is a DOT system. The DOT System has a proprietary proprietary technology and all it is is a ratings system. You go into a meeting, you hear what people say and then you can rate it. But also an algorithm’s able to hear what you’re saying and it measures it. From there, you’re able to see where your biases are, where your strong points are. And what that translates over to is some people, over time, make better decisions than others.
And so instead of giving everyone one vote, it’s like, ‘my vote is weighted higher or lower because my vision of things or my track record is a lot better than someone else.’ So when you think about community governance, I don’t think it’s about giving everyone a voice. I think it’s about giving everyone an opportunity to maybe play into the system better than the people that work the hardest are the ones that care the most. They’re the ones driving the the vision behind everything else that goes in. And so from a MAEKAN standpoint, if you’re thinking about a story, I would much rather I’d much rather want to listen to someone who either is from certain field or has met that person that we want to do an interview for or someone who contributes to our communities regularly because they have enough communication and ideas to understand and be able to fail more likely and come up with more ideas that are more likely to succeed as well. So maybe maybe I’ll ask you about this.
In one of the definitions, so the RTM definition that I had earlier. There were three main pillars to community governance: engaging citizens, getting things done, and measuring results. I think those are very important things, especially the measuring results because it goes back to that DOTs idea. If what you say yields positive results then we should be paying attention to one percent or another more and then you have hopefully enough data to be able to track it. Where do you see this playing out in terms of our business?
Eugene: So one thing that I’ve really identified with in regards to this sort of community governance thing is that in many ways if your culture is predicated on something that doesn’t involve a level of friction to be a participant, the bonds created aren’t very strong.
And what I mean by that is like, if you can just buy your way into a culture and buy the right things or consume the right things and all of a sudden be part of it, it’s far too easy for people to dip in and out. So by virtue of having people that are committed, that are engaged and contributing, you know that there is a level of interest on their part. It also helps strengthen the product itself.
Scott: One example that you’ve referenced many many times is sneaker culture. I mean, I almost feel like we’ve reached peak sneaker culture maybe a year or two ago and now we’re just getting into the after-effects. That’s a perfect example of what you’re talking about.
Eugene: Yeah. Like back in the day, you obviously needed the money to buy something, but also you needed to create real connections with people or you need to travel. And I actually had to catch myself a few days ago where I was trying to look for something and I like, oh man, I can’t buy it online, but then I realized, well, that’s kind of nice at this juncture where I need to go to the store to check it out or I need to know what store.
And I need to do a little bit legwork, so that I think is something really fascinating and interesting. But that’s the thing: the thing that you need to always be aware of is like what is that friction level you need to overcome and what is that barrier to entry. Because it should be high, but not too high, because of what is the balance point between—.
Scott: —it can be restrictive. So on that topic, you’ve had to deal with me for for quite some time now. I always like to have—”measurable” doesn’t necessarily need to be in the data as it doesn’t have to look like, “oh, you get an extra 500000 shares for one thing or another,” but measurable might be, “we’re noticing that our users are talking about it more or maybe they’re they’re just more interested” or they might engage with another user because someone had an opinion on something. What do you think are measurable ways of creating and curating community governance?
Eugene: I think first and foremost, you really need a strategy or a game plan and see what are the things that are open for discussion currently. I mean, things can change at some point in time. You could, theoretically, have like a fully decentralized autonomous organization like a magazine that was really fully governed.
I mean, that would take a certain level of scale and magnitude to happen. But in the very early stages, someone needs to make the big difficult decisions and other things that can help guide it and shape it definitely are open for discussion. And I think for us, What does that look like? That means what are features you want to see incorporated on MAEKAN, right? Is it a job postings board? Is it transcripts? Is it more of a certain type of content? Is it asking questions for interviews? Those are kind of the top-level things and I think the things that we can start getting into on a deeper level are things that require a little bit more investment and that investment could be time or money. If MAKEAN’s going to create product, what are brands you would want to see MAEKAN partner with or what types of products? And once you start identifying that, I think that’s what becomes really interesting and fascinating.
Scott: I think that’s also the challenge as to what does it mean beyond just MAEKAN? What does it mean for a a media company to be, to have community governance?
Eugene: I think we should definitely top of the caveats and limitations because this is something that in a media landscape I think hasn’t truly been proven out. So it is an ongoing experiment in many ways.
Scott: Well one worry: when I think of MAEKAN, I think of content that is deeper in terms of the way it’s built. So that means that you actually take time to write a story. It means you actually take time to curate the audio. What that means going forward is people come to expect that and it becomes a lot less transactional. It’s not like “I need this piece of information I need it now.” So the story that you do today will still be relevant five years from now. How do you translate that over to an experience from a community governance standpoint where the impact of what decision you make today will be felt in five years from now.
So if, for example, if I’m a making user and we’re doing in collaboration with Nike and you get to pick the purple lining on the shoe or whatever it is. And that decision that curation that you’ve created is still going to be there five years from now because that’s still going to be around. That’s something that people want to get involved with. How do you do that sustainably where people are always going to want to be part of that decision today. That’s going to have an impact or a ripple in five years from now. What do you think?
Eugene: So basically your question is “how do I get people involved for the sake of being involved even though the outcome is not immediately evident?”
Scott: Yeah. And how do you get people engaged for the long term? Because that’s the hard balance to find, right? If you are looking for a long-term engagement, there needs to be a long term incentive as well for people to want to stick around. And our media platform will evolve, obviously. But how you maintain a sense of ownership for people who either have been there for three months or who have been there for three years. If more entrants come in and it becomes very elitist then that’s not valuable. The additions have to be relevant and useful.
Eugene: Yeah. I think that the value of it is the biggest thing that you’re hanging your hat on. If you don’t know what value you’re creating by allowing people the opportunity to decide something then I think strategically, you need to kind of rethink why you’re doing it. For me, I see the value in certain ways. I see it from almost a selfish point of view. I want to have my blind spots covered by someone from a different perspective. That’s one way of looking at it.
But from the other perspective of someone who has the opportunity to make a decision, I think it achieves two things: you’re helping shape somebody you believe in. And secondly, you might have some sort of internal value served by asking a question, by having your mark put on something. I think that even then if you are a person who has their question posed to one of your favorite designers, that in itself could be very valuable.
Scott: And that might be a question that opens up a whole bunch of answers as well and provides perspective. I think one aspect that we can talk about and we’ve talked about it a little bit, but anything that’s crowdsourced or “crowd created,” those are forms of community governance. One good example is the Hyperloop. That started out as a bunch of people who were like, “we should build something like that. Here’s the ideas floating around.” And then you have people who are math teachers in the middle of North Dakota and investment bankers in Tokyo, whatever it is, contributing whatever they have in terms of their knowledge and are contributing that to the same place.
And those ideas are vetted because problems arise, right. So every step will reach a common problem and then different people will come with different conclusions or solutions to how to solve that problem. And then the best one wins out, so you can test it or you can come up with data for it and that moves to the next stage. So you’re drilling down to your end goal or you’re doing that problem by problem by sourcing all these different ideas and then making sure that you pick the right one.
Eugene: The one thing that I find challenging, but also very interesting is that let’s say that there’s a topic that everyone’s voting on and you end up being on the losing end. I think what’s critically important is for whoever’s overseeing and managing the community to understand that just because you don’t 100 percent believe in this idea, you can still be committed to the cause. I think that’s always going to be the biggest challenge and I’ve always said this too, whether you’re running a business or you’re part of a community, you can’t get every decision right.
Like, you can’t have every decision that you want to go through actually materialize, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you know, you’re cut out of it. It’s simply part of a broader narrative and I think that’s something that’s really important if you want to keep the peace because what happens if a decision comes through and suddenly you’re not on the winning end. It doesn’t mean you’re excluded from a community per se.
Scott: But to that example, there’s no winning end as in you’re always winning if you achieve the same goal that everyone has, which was back to your point that the ultimate vision should be driving the decisions. And what happens in between is irrelevant. It’s just these are means to an end, but the end is something that everyone wants to achieve. And as long as everyone agrees upon what that looks like in terms of from a broad strokes perspective and you’re able to achieve that, then that’s more powerful than “oh well, this was edged out 51 percent to 49. So it’s a divisive issue.”
But actually, it doesn’t really matter. It just means that we’re moving forward with one thing and then you’ll be able to vote or govern yourself or your community in the next round where the next iteration will go. So with all that said and done, the bigger question is how do we apply that to our own company? We’ve definitely had a few ideas, but certainly you seem to really care about this. I think we all do. But what do you see happening in the next couple of months to years that will drive that?
Eugene: I definitely want to see a more formalized structure and how we involve the community for storytelling. Like, I have kind of random stuff here and there are people suggesting things, but I would like to make it more formalized and like, imagine on a quarterly basis, you compile all the different stories and people would vote on the ones that are most interesting and then we would pursue them. Right?
That’s a way of looking at it. I think there’s also other things that are even lighter touch. It’s like, “hey, we have an interview lined up with this gold medal winning athlete. What are your questions you want to ask?” And then everyone can submit questions. I mean, that’s sort of like the whole Reddit Ask Me Anything. So those things, though, in a more formalized manner, I think are what are more interesting.
Scott: But I don’t think that necessarily community governance. I find that that’s more like community involvement and community creation, but not necessarily governance. How would take—.
Eugene: —’cause you’re kind of influencing the product, though. Right? That’s the way I look at it.
Scott: Yeah. And I guess our product is built that way, but I would want to take it one step further. It’s more like what is the next iteration of MAEKAN and how do you help impact that? So getting people to actually vote or comment or build—
Eugene: —conditioning them, yeah, for sure. And then ultimately, MAEKAN as you know it right now is like kind of this scattered amorphous ecosystem that hasn’t been consolidated. But I think once we start bringing things together, then we can start assessing what are the next steps that go beyond what is a publication and a Slack community. I think you raise a good point, but from day one being now like how do we approach things?
I think it has to start relatively small because I think the concept is half novel half new. So you will kind of need to know, “oh, this is weird. Now have an opportunity to kind of actually influence this,” where in the past, you’re just meant to have a mostly a one-way dialogue with a media company.
Scott: That’s interesting. How do you distinguish commenting and that aspect of media that we have today with more of a community governance aspect?
Eugene: I see comments more as contextual. Comments cannot exist without that sort of “seed” of content right. That’s the way I think things happen, but it doesn’t mean that a comment can’t be a seed for a story.
Scott: Or a seed for greater community guidance.
Eugene: It could bemany things. It could be like, “hey, you know whats? I feel as though it’d be great if I could leave a voice message as a comment as opposed to me typing out you know a 400-word piece.
And then so many people want this feature and all of a sudden, in six weeks time we have a new voicemail feature that would be an example. What about you? I know that you’re a really big especially coming from the ecom world. You have kind of an interest in how does community governance influence that that world?
Scott: Of e-commerce?
Eugene: Not necessarily the e-commerce, but just in terms of if MAEKAN is to create products and experiences, how do we get people involved?
Scott: We had a discussion yesterday about this, this is a harder topic which is: do people want to be told what’s cool or what is relevant to them? Or do people want to curate it themselves? Because you find that it’s hard to get people to really drive a strategy all the time because you need people who are fully in your culture or whatever, but having those those people are very involved in your community is sometimes very hard to have. So if you don’t have those people, how do you curate it yourself and then try and get some feedback? I think this is a harder problem if I think about products altogether. As a consumer I would want to be able to influence part of the process.
So you could have MAEKAN build out the base and more of where the direction is, but then give the opportunity to other people to contribute their details or whatever else. And these comments end up creating something that’s different from what our original vision was, but is validated by the communities that we serve.
And so we’re lucky because these are our listeners, these are our readers, these are people that care about what we do. And I truly think that they’re the ones who are going to impact the next iteration of great products or great innovations or whatever it may be. And so giving them an opportunity to speak up also creates opportunities for a broader shift in societal change.
Eugene: Mic Drop. Both: BOOM.
Scott: “Co-boom” right there…KABOOM. And this is MAEKAN It up!
Eugene: You can’t say that. That’s my shit!
Scott: What do you want to have quick conclusion?
Eugene: I don’t think you need to do that. We’ll fade it out with music and you’re good. Done Now.