Distributing Trust Through a Community

If there’s one lesson that all blockchain projects and platforms should learn, it’s that building a community takes work. The brands we know and love feel familiar and effortless but they don’t usually start out that way. Every beloved brand regardless of industry has one thing in common – it has a community. Blockchain is no different. Strong communities don’t just identify with a brand but they help influence what that brand becomes.

Here’s the secret that nobody tells you. Good ideas, good code, and good intentions are necessary but not sufficient for building successful evergreen brands that communities stay loyal to. It takes hard work to develop and maintain a sense of community and meet their ever changing needs.

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Community and Blockchain

It’s vital that community-driven operations, like most blockchain and DLT projects, have institutions that comprise the network. Equally important, and perhaps disconcerting for those with backgrounds in traditional industries, leadership must be open to community questions (especially the hard questions) and be responsive to community concerns. Trust runs two ways, and sometimes that means deference to the wisdom of the crowd and the knowledge of the group. Whenever this happens organically, there’s a spark of an emotional connection being shared between the community and the leaders in that community. The result is either one of two outcomes. Either trust continues to be built or trust is negatively impacted. This is one of the reasons that leaders in traditional industries may have a hard time transitioning over to emerging technologies. Communities, especially online communities, are going to be very vocal about the brand they helped create whether or not you like it.

Once a brand hits a certain threshold, the needs of the community change and the dynamics around building trust changes. Traditional tech businesses, like Apple or Google, are expected to make arbitrary changes and sudden announcements. Secrecy is core to their business; they’d much prefer that their customers don’t know what’s going on beyond the closed doors of 1 Infinite Loop or on the Googleplex campus.

A decentralized project can’t follow such a path and shouldn’t want to. With the support of our community, the NEM Foundation recently rebranded a major initiative which had been years in development. A traditional business would have presented the rebrand as a fait accompli: The project you know as Catapult will, henceforth, be called SYMBOL From NEM.

That’s not how we operate though. We’ve learned that it’s important to put in the work to distribute trust through a community. An example of this was our recent rebrand. We formed a steering committee with members from the NEM ecosystem and consulted with industry partners and our global community to create a rationale with supporting market research around why the rebrand was necessary and what the future could look like under this new brand. We hired a professional brand agency to compile research into a comprehensive proposal and offered multiple options that the community then voted for real-time on the NEM public blockchain.

Not only did the proposal pass, but it brought forth clarity around the future of the platform and built trust with the community and customers that this future could be possible. Blockchain is an industry that is built on the narrative of being antitrust. Our challenge wasn’t just to create a business proposal that had the best strategy but the challenge was how to communicate it in such a way that our supporters would be heard and validated?

Here’s how we did it. Our community is international and not exclusively Anglophone, so we translated all relevant materials into five languages and made the translations easily accessible so they could go viral. Our marketing communication strategy extended not just to old-timers that have been with us since the beginning, but it also welcomed our newcomers and industry-wide supporters. There are unique needs of each kind of sub-communities within our larger NEM blockchain community. Communities like ours are organic and change to fit the needs of the market. This means we have to do the work to be competitive yet also remain authentic so as not to alienate the majority of the voices. We need them and we want them no matter where they are.

Historically, most communities were local: Geography determined connection. This is no longer the case; many of us have friends or colleagues hundreds or thousands of miles away, in different countries or even on different continents. The internet makes a decentralized community possible, but the vast geographic, language and cultural differences that may exist will perplex anyone who is unprepared for global work. As I mentioned above, the NEM Foundation translates key communications into several languages — we don’t want our members to rely on machine translation or secondhand accounts of what we’re saying. Providing translation is the bare minimum of what we do.

Building a community’s trust requires honest communication, and part of honest communication is a willingness to say when things have gone wrong despite where faults may originate. Learning by failure, adjusting expectations, and also correcting misconceptions are not easy or pleasant tasks, but they’re essential for any project that endures. All companies must be agile enough to withstand storms and communication is core to building and maintaining that trust even when a situation occurs that is outside a company’s control.

The NEM Foundation has weathered some volatile moments because we remained open and straightforward with our community and partners. We’ve been on the receiving end of sensationalized news when in 2018 a popular Japanese exchange that carried our coin failed to follow through on security best practices and neglected to keep their customer’s funds safe. Hackers stole a large sum of customer tokens from the exchange due to a keylogger virus an employee unknowingly clicked on. The painful part is that it wouldn’t have happened if that exchange had used NEM’s built-in security protocol called multisig. The NEM Foundation was proactive and communicated the situation publically to our backers while also working closely with international authorities in over ten countries. This was a defining event in the industry that led to stricter laws for how Japanese cryptocurrency exchanges would be forced to evolve and comply to a new set of regulations and security standards.

Interestingly enough, NEM’s protocol was years ahead of these security standards with its advanced user friendly multisig features and now with SYMBOL From NEM, we offer enterprises a multi-level multisignature protocol that protects and future proofs them against vulnerabilities in a way no current blockchain can.

A year later, in the depths of the 2019 “crypto winter” that saw industry-wide losses, the NEM Foundation announced a global restructuring and along with it, a new strategy for success. The bad news may have affected our supporters’ faith when the restructure announcement was amplified with clickbait worthy headlines, but our forthright admission around the situation along with strategic solutions for solving these concerns restored trust with our community and partners. These moments were painful, but NEM, the Foundation, and the community all emerged better and stronger for it.

Remember, communities don’t just identify with a brand but they help influence what that brand becomes so if you want a successful product, it’s paramount to listen and engage in meaningful ways with your supporters. If you don’t, your competition will gladly do it for you.

The NEM Foundation’s commitment to openness goes farther than most: Even such fundamental matters as executive appointments — including mine — are determined by informed democratic election on the public blockchain. I’m honored that our supporters have placed their trust in me and in NEM; I’m proud of the network we have constructed and the goodwill that we have earned. I hope that other projects and organizations will learn from our example. Decentralized connections require work and effort, but the payoff makes all the effort worthwhile.