The true meaning of points

Community reputation points are pointless if the community does not buy into their value. As a community manager, it is your job to discover the values that create that buy-in.

I’ve written at length now about how online reputation and rewards work to motivate contributions from your community. But before you rush to create a sophisticated system with bells, whistles, points, and badges, you need to make sure that they will be in tune with the values of your community. Why is that? Because if they aren’t, people won’t care about them, or worse, will take it as a sign that you are out of touch (which frankly, you would be).

A good online reputation and reward management system would reflect what matters to your community members, and merely* capture and quantify that value in the form of online reputation.

Let me give you an example scenario to illustrate the point.

Points are awarded every time a community member shares a forum post via social media. When rolled out to the community platform, Community 1 sees a spike in sharing activity and rise in SEO relevance. Community 2 does not see a measurable traffic increase, and the function is barely used; in addition an angry thread is started by a super-user about how instead of rolling out useless junk Company 2 should better fix existing bugs in the system.

So what went wrong with Community 2 and why was there such a backlash? We know that this can work, and we have seen examples of that in action. Then why is the manager of Community 2 being flamed for doing what is considered to be an industry best practice?

The (sometimes infuriating) answer to this question is that nothing is inherently wrong with this logic, until you put it in the context of your community. So let’s examine our two communities a little closer.

Community 1 is maintained by a software company which offers mobile productivity apps for smartphones. Their community forum is open for anyone to read, and only registered users can contribute. Discussions revolve around integrating the user’s existing services (such as calendars, email, exchange directory, etc.) with the apps as well as troubleshooting. By encouraging sharing of helpful Q&A threads, the community now is more visible on social media, reaching more users, as well as attracting new customers. This extra cross-linking also helps the community’s pages to be displayed higher on the search results page, allowing users with problems to find a solution sooner.

Community 2 is run by a home security company, which offers both software and hardware solutions. The forum is only accessible to verified customers, and closely moderated. Product support is strictly confidential, and forum discussions focus on best practices and special cases. Social sharing may lead to broken links and login prompts in the best case, and to confidentiality breach (if someone decided to quote part of the shared content) in the worst. Encouraging social sharing by points rewards will predictably not go over well, since this is not an activity that serves the values of the given community.

So in short: think before you reward. If you are unclear on what your community values, figure that out first. You are the one being paid the proverbial big bucks to help the community thrive, so do your homework, lest you look silly later on.


* “Merely” in this context doesn’t imply that it’s going to be simple or easy. It implies however that the points system is an add-on to the value system inherent in your community, and cannot function without it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Community management, Reputation

Rewards and Achievements

Participation is its own reward, but public recognition is better. Build a system of rewards and achievements that makes sense and provides real benefits to your community members.

As promised, I am back from the visionary ether of what rewards and achievements could (and should) be. Today, I am looking at very practical ways to expand (or start) your rewards program that you can implement right away.

It’s pretty awesome to be part of a community of like-minded individuals who share your enthusiasm for a given project or technology. A lot of people get a kick out of that. Over time, top contributors emerge, and some sort of a meritocratic order forms. However, if you are hoping for vigorous growth and high levels of engagement early on, figuring out a meaningful way to reward desired behaviours would be a good use of your time.

If your mind immediately jumped to images of convoluted brand loyalty programs with miles or points which can be exchanged for a wide selection of goods or services, you may feel intimidated. Who has the budget and the time to manage all that? But fear not! There are ways to run an effective rewards and achievements program on the cheap, using the tools that you already have, and some creative thinking.

Step One: Find all the data

To reward people for things they have done, you need to know what they’ve done, how much of it, and when. This becomes easier ir you’ve already got a forum, because forum platforms usually  have reputation points management built in. Most often participants get rewarded a point or two for posting a message (whether an original thread or a response), and if their answer is selected as the “helpful” or the “correct” one by the original poster, there is a bonus of maybe five or ten points. There may be additional points earned for other in-forum behaviours, such as joining a group or following other users. Whatever it is, if you have an online forum, you have some sort of data to start from.

You may not realize that there are other sources of data that may be available to you. They may not be automated and easy to consume, but they are there. Here are a few examples:

  • User group attendees, speakers, and user group leads
  • Conference, webinar, and seminar attendees
  • Lists of bloggers who cover your products
  • List of people who reshare your content on Twitter and other social networks

Step Two: Reward the right people

By studying as many sources of data as you can, you will be able to identify the people who contribute more than average. The goal of a rewards system is to encourage these folks to do more: More blogging, more presentations, more learning, and more sharing.

By rewarding them publicly, you will also send the message to the other 90 percent of the community that you (and the company you work for) value all sorts of contributions, not just forum Q&A. You will be surprised what people come up with once they know that they can color outside the lines. I have seen volunteers creating video tutorials, writing whole books, creating free training coursework, and even fly to another country to help jumpstart a user group.

Your focus will be not on defining what you want the community to do, but rather keeping your eyes out for the reward-worthy actions and making a big deal out of every one. Find a cool new blog? Blog about it. Maybe even start a monthly “community blog roundup” where you link to that month’s community blog posts. Got a bunch of active user group leads? Interview them on your podcast if you have it, or mention them in a community newsletter at the very least.

Step Three: Find rewards worthy of your community

Now I am assuming that my readers are bootstrapping most of their community projects on the minimum budget. If you have more, bully for you, but we’ll be here, improvising if you don’t mind.

Here are a few low-budget ideas that you can implement today, on your own or with minimal support from other groups in your company:

  • VIP program invitations: If you have a VIP program already, invite them in. If you don’t–what are you waiting for? These are your VIPs. Treat them as such. Make some noise about admitting/nominating/anointing new people into the program, so that they feel special, and everyone else knows that they are. A good VIP program will have a recurring admission schedule, a special time when the new VIPs get announced. Make it like Xmas or some other holiday: the wait and suspense is half the fun, but there’s a great reveal at the end.
  • I have already mentioned callouts and public kudos. Costs you nothing, and gives everyone involved warm and fuzzies. And don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a cheap trick: heartfelt sincere gratitude never gets old. Remember, it’s your job to keep the community running; these folks don’t have to help you, yet they do. So thank them, and mean it.
  • Share responsibility. Invite top contributors to guest-post on your blog, make them moderators and user group leads, allow them to help you with things you wished you had bandwidth for, but never get around to doing: official schwag, curation of guest articles, even selection of the next generation of VIPs.
  • If you have a few hundred bucks lying around, you could try issuing physical trophies, or special schwag, such as backpacks or apparel. These work best if the people you want to honor are already in the same place, such as your annual user conference in Vegas. Rent a ballroom, buy some beer, and have an award ceremony for the creme de la creme. The effect diminishes if you have to mail the goodies, but you can have fun with asking the recipients to share photos of themselves with their trophies — on the forums or social media.
  • Speaking of annual user conferences: If you can beg, borrow, or steal some event passes for the VIPs to attend for free, you’ll be able to demonstrate that you put your money where your mouth is when you say “thank you.” You will have to convince the group running the conference to give you some passes, so prepare with good arguments of why they should miss out on revenue for your community people.
  • If you can’t get the free passes, maybe you can convince the organizers to allow you to reserve front-row seats in the general session for the VIPs. We’re back to zero-cost option here, and this may be a good fallback position. They still have to pay to attend, but get special treatment while there.
  • Now that you’re getting used to cajoling other groups in your company into giving you freebees, how about reaching out to the product group and asking for early access to information for your VIPs? Launching a product? You’ve got bloggers. Get them into an embargoed pre-launch briefing, set them up with the media kit, and they will write about your launch. At least some will. The rest will feel privileged to have been allowed into the inner circle.
  • Another cheap or no-cost thing to do is provide your superstars with exclusive access to internal people. It can be a dinner with the CEO at the aforementioned conference, or maybe a WebEx meeting with the product manager where they can share feedback.

As you see, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to show appreciation and recognize the people who make your community vibrant. What you will spend a lot of will be time: finding the right people, and finding the right rewards. But that is what true love is about: time you spend on them. Because they already spend a lot of time on you.

1 Comment

Filed under Advanced, Reputation

Don’t gamify. Engage!

Don’t try to game your users into doing something you want. Instead, use meaningful achievement tracking to encourage community contribution and motivate personal growth.

Forum points are great as a motivator for some folks, particularly the ones who are good at answering questions. However leaderboards can also be extremely demotivating for newcomers. Someone just joining your community may see the huge gap between their reputation level and that of a seasoned participant as an insurmountable obstacle. This leaves you in a little bit of a bind: how to keep your top contributors motivated while also encouraging participation from new members?

It is tricky, if all you can track are forum interactions, and you can resort to using “top 10” lists for the hour or the day to give everyone a chance to see their name in the lights. Sure. That will work for some people: namely the same ones who were motivated by the points all along. They are the ones who already spend hours on the forum, ready to pounce on an unanswered question. Maybe an improved points system will reach a broader mass of them, but they do not make up the majority. This is why I believe that any points-based system will forever be lacking effectiveness.

It’s not all about points.

Let me rephrase that: It’s not at all about points. Points are just an easy way out. Quick, and seemingly fair. But does your community truly exist on the Q&A forums? What about bloggers, user group leads, dedicated customers who take your training and achieve professional certifications? What about makers of video tutorials, and curators of compatibility lists? How many points do they earn if they don’t post in the forum? Zero.

Is their contribution any less valuable? Or as their points status indicates, completely devoid of value? No.

So what do you do? How do you capture all the other stuff that is not just a Q&A binary?

It will take work. Years, probably, and still you’ll never be done.

And it will take support and buy-in from groups in your organization that you may never worked with before. Such as channel marketing and training. So this is not for the faint-hearted.

Tell you the truth, I have yet to finish building such a platform in the wild, but inside my head, it would look something like this:

  1. Create a system that captures behaviours online. Some automatically, and some, you should be able to capture manually. Each behaviour that you capture can be called an achievement, and you can view it as a LEGO block that you can make other things from.
    Example: Post on your blog about Linux. OR Give a presentation at your user group meeting.
  2. Those other things can be called quests or missions or whatever you like. You get to write the rules how each of these quests is completed: ten of the same achievement, or maybe any combination of ten achievements from the same “family” that fit together well.
    Example: Post about Linux once every month for 12 months completes the “Blogger” quest. OR Five blog posts, one magazine article, two public presentations, and a podcast complete the “Public Figure” quest.
  3. Make it more of an honor system than a rigid bureaucracy. Allow people to claim achievements, and periodically/sporadically audit. Community is good at sensing BS, so rely on self-policing and moderators more than bureaucratic enforcement, and you’ll be golden.
    Example: Allow me to claim my “blog post” achievement by simply logging in and submitting the blog post URL. Issue the achievement badge immediately, but also list the event in the activity feed for all to see. Have a red flag or other abuse reporting functionality built in, so that others can report fraudsters.
  4. Start with a small, well-defined scope. Don’t forget the forums! Find a way to translate all those points earned daily into achievements, so that everyone can benefit. Thankfully, forums already capture a lot of data, so just come up with a balanced system where forum activity won’t drown out the rest — because it’s that “rest” that you’re really creating the system for (see opening paragraphs).
  5. Once everyone is on board, and obligatory bugs, quirks, and ruffled feathers have been dealt with (remember, you are unseating the reigning elite here, so be prepared), you can begin adding achievements that are traditionally not viewed as “community” or “social-media” like. Professional training and certifications are an example. Same can be done for partner training and certified system integrators. You will find that many of these programs are very similar to a quest in your system. It may take completion of a number or classes and an exam to become a certified partner. In many cases, there is already a system tracking it, so what you’ll do is integrate it with your system, in a way that makes sense.
    This is a really tricky part, and will require that you work together and get buy-in from people who you may not usually work with. If your company is large, there will be many more players involved, and progress will be slow, but in the end, you will have a system of achievement and recognition that will capture more than just forum posts, and will therefore reward and elevate people who contribute to your community in a variety of different ways. And we all love variety, right?

One day, somewhere, I want a chance to build such a thing, and then my joy will be great. Until then, it’s going to remain a vision for me to aspire to with all the community work I do: build each piece in such a way that were there a chance to expand it into this sort of an all-encompassing rewards system, it would naturally fit. If nothing else, it ensures that I never lose sight of the big picture and the overarching goal of running a community program.

In closing, this is more of a visionary post than the usual hands-on guides that I have been posting here. I promise that the next one will be practical again.

2 Comments

Filed under Advanced, Community management, Reputation

Presentation from MongoSV Masters session

I have been in a major heads-down mode, having switched jobs, and elbow-deep in building the foundations for a community. Hence, no new wisdom was shared.

However, I have totally given a talk at MongoSV in December, and here are my slides.

Transcript

1. Community is not about you OR What community leadership is about by Alex Maier, Community Director, Nebula

2. Who am I to say this?
• 15+ years in online marketing
• 10+ years in open source
• Founded Fedora Ambassadors
• Led VMware vExperts
• Building a community for Nebula
Blog: comrademanager.com

3. How to be a successful community leader
Empower your community
then get the hell out of the way

4. People will only do what they want
• Community == Volunteers
• They came to do something they care about
• They likely have own ideas
• You can’t fire them
• You can however make them leave

5. Identify what people want
You can observe a lot by watching. -Yogi Berra
• Listen
• Look for patterns
• Distil into actionable projects

6. Connect the right people
Soylent green is people!
• Use your insight to find like-minded people
• Bring them together
• Explain why you think their interests are a good match for collaboration

7. Get them the resources they need
• Sometimes it’s money
• Sometimes it’s infrastructure
• Sometimes it’s training
• Only your community knows what they need
So ask them.

8. Arbitrate when necessary
• Passion begets conflict
• Don’t expect kumba-ya
• Don’t be afraid of conflict
How to arbitrate:
• State the rules—clearly and in public
• Apply rules equally to everyone
• Even to yourself!

9. Stay out of the way
• Don’t micro-manage
• Actually, don’t get involved at all if possible
• If they follow the rules of the community and are productive, leave them alone
• Learn to accept unexpected outcomes
• Learn to love them
• …even if they weren’t your idea

10. Show gratitude
• Recognition is a powerful motivator
• Simple “thank you” email or message on forum does wonders
• Promote volunteer leaders
• Give them more responsibility
• Don’t stop thanking volunteers
• Gratitude never gets old

11. Don’t take all the credit
Sounds like a simple thing, no?
Brings us right back to the beginning:
Community is not about you

12. Thank you

Leave a comment

Filed under Community management, Events

Does it have to be a forum?

While a forum can be an important part of a flourishing online community, there are other things you can do to provide more value to your users.

Community does not always equal forum, but forums are often part of that equation. Ideally, your community will have more than just forums, and here are a few ideas of what you can build. Some of these are hard, and some are easy, but all will add more value to your online community.

  • Community-supported reference lists
    It can be as easy as starting a wiki document with a table template and allowing your community members to add to the list, or you can go all-out and build a web application with a fancy UI and a database on the back end. The purpose is to provide your users with a place they can maintain reference information, such as hardware compatibility, supported drivers, regional resellers, retail locations, etc. To see which of these your community may like, read your forums and see if there’s a type of question that comes up all the time, e.g. “Who carries this brand in Wichita?” and then you’ll know.
  • User group infrastructure
    If your peeps want to form user groups, be a darling and give them a place to coordinate. It can be just a forum on your existing community platform, or something new, but the key is to give the users control of their groups and stay out as much as you can.
  • Betas
    They can be open to public, or invitation-only, but integrating your beta programs with your community efforts is always a good thing. Let’s say all your betas are non-public, which is often the case. Sifting through forums, you may find your most engaged users, and those who are very knowledgeable about a given product, so you may invite them to participate in your beta. As a result, they will feel special, and when the product comes out, they will have more in-depth knowledge to better help other users.
  • VIP program
    Speaking of special people, you should think of starting a VIP program. While this means that you’ll have to run a whole additional community on top of all the work than you already do, the payback in mindshare and good karma can be immense. By building a core of super-fans of your brand you invest in long-term evangelism. Often you don’t even have to do much more than recognize them in public and give them access to the people they respect inside your company. It would be better of course if you could run programs such as embargoed pre-launch briefings and focus groups with them, as well as provide discounts and exclusive opportunities to them. However, you’ve gotta start somewhere, and a little recognition goes a long way.
  • Customer advisory council
    Same as with VIP programs, listening to your customers may be one of the most powerful tools you have for increasing engagement and also just finding out what your users want to see from you in the future. Attaching that to your community will provide visibility to this program and even people who aren’t on the Council will feel like you are doing your homework and listening to your customers by just seeing that it is there. Of course, you would have to get buy-in from your R&D people to actually engage with the Council, or otherwise you’ll have a bunch of disgruntled influencers on your hands!
  • Influencer outreach
    And now that we’re talking about influencers, creating a special community program–be it a dedicated private forum or something more sophisticated–is also going to get you a lot of return on investment. Nurturing your relationships with key influencers is important, whether they like you or not. If someone hasn’t written a favourable review of your product yet, information-starving and excluding them will not change that. You will only be able to change your critic’s mind after you find out why they think your products suck. And you won’t find that out until you engage with them.
  • Community blogs
    Some people have their own blog, and some (like yours truly here) have multiple. Most people however don’t. Providing an opportunity to create a relevant blog on your community platform may convince some people to post their thoughts about your products and brand every so often. Starting a blog is like staring at a blank page: intimidating. When you have an opportunity to contribute to an existing blog aggregator, this barrier may be reduced. I can hear it already: “But what if they write something wrong? What if they write something negative?” If they are wrong, other community members will correct them. If they are negative–better they be negative in your “clean and well-lit place” where other people may respond with positive comments and endorsements, than somewhere else.
  • Community lists and aggregators
    Start creating and maintaining lists of social media profiles of the people you would like your community to follow: Twitter lists, blog aggregators, that sort of thing. If you are afraid people will get confused between the official and external content, maintain two of each: “Official corporate blogs” and “Community blog roll;” “Official Twitter list” and “Community twitter list.” You get the idea. Again, takes work, and you have to have a way to keep these lists tidy, but it pays off in higher visibility for the content you want to be noticed.

These are just a few ideas that you can incorporate. To answer the title question: No, it doesn’t always have to be a forum, but having one is usually a good start.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advanced, Care and feeding

Soylent green is people!

At its core, community is not a platform. It’s the people.

Last week I was participating in a panel about Marketing Cloud, and we touched on both the aspect of marketing cloud technology and marketing using the cloud. I wish there was a recording of the discussion, because my co-panelists were super knowledgeable and engaging, and over the course of an hour we’ve touched on a number of really good topics. But there was no recording, and therefore I can’t share it with you.

At one point, Joshua uttered words “open community” and I just could not resist the urge to ask in my best smart Alec tone, whether there is any kind of community other than open. “Oh yes, there is! Failed!” I concluded, and was challenged rightfully to explain myself. Joshua pointed out that Twitter for example is thriving yet they do not generally open all their APIs and their solution is proprietary.

My response: Twitter is not a community. Neither is Facebook.

A community, at least in my mind, is a group of people, united by common interest or experience. While I use Twitter on a daily basis these days, I do not feel a particular sense of community with random people posting there about what they just had for lunch. While all of Twitter users could thinkably come together as a community should the company say, announce that they plan to start charging for their services–the outpouring and insta-unity would be overwhelming–until something of that scale, impacting all tweeps, were to happen, we are rather a smattering of communities.

There are foodies, movie lovers, friends keeping in touch, artists, and nurses on Twitter, talking to their own communities about things that matter to them, which have little relevance to others.

I find that there is a lot of confusion coming from people equating community with the platform that is used to host it. A platform does not a community make. People do.

I would even go as far as to argue that you can have a successful community that did not use a social platform at all. Listserv, anyone? Or even–gasp!–completely offline communities that meet in real life? Like a church or a book club?

Let me revisit the quip about two kinds of communities: open and failed.

Openness in this context does not mean open source. Neither does it mean absolute transparency and openness towards any and everybody. All it means is that the community should be open and transparent towards its members.

As a corporation, you may want to run a private beta or a pilot program that you would not want to share with the world yet. As long as the participants know what’s going on, and know what is expected of them, and what they can expect in return from you, running a private community with them is a-okay.

If you are openly recruiting customers for such a program, you must share as much about the organization and selection criteria of the program upfront as you can without saying too much about the actual secret bits. If you are collecting names, but not everyone will be accepted, say so. Then there will be no bad surprises for the folks who did not make it in, and no speculation about why.

Whether you use an open-source solution to power your community programs changes nothing on the fundamental openness of your interactions with the people who make it up.

1 Comment

Filed under Community management, Responses, Transparency

Rent or own?

If you care about shaping the discussion around your products and brand, you won’t get around hosting a community.

With all the existing social channels, do you really need to host your own community platform? Your community is already congregating on Facebook, and Twitter, and StackOverflow, and Reddit, and you barely have enough resources to keep up with the goings on there–Can’t you just meet your users where they are?

In my previous post, I talked about the seeming redundancy between a branded community and documentation/support content. Having read it, my friend and colleague John Troyer has sent me this article on The Role of Brands in Online Communities, which deals with the other seeming redundancy: branded community v. third-party social media sites.

I agree wholeheartedly with what the author says: by limiting your community engagement to only the third-party sites such as Facebook and Twitter, you would miss an opportunity to create a “clean, well-lit place” for your community to engage with you  and your brand, help each other, and find professional connections, to name just a few.

While “clean, well-lit place” makes total sense to me as a metaphor, let me explain what I understand it to mean.

First and foremost, it means a place where disruptive behaviour such as flaming is not tolerated, and a certain level of professionalism and politeness are the norm. This creates a welcoming atmosphere that encourages participation from people who may not otherwise be active on other public forums.

Second, hosting a branded community gives that space a sense of being officially endorsed. Anyone can start a Yahoo mailing list or a Facebook group dedicated to a product, but when the maker of that same product hosts their own, it puts the weight of the brand behind the community, and that matters to the users a whole lot.

Finally, by being hosted on your corporate web domain, it is easy to find, and therefore can become a hub for your users  to discover your hosted community as well as all the other communities related to your brand, such as a listing of your third-party social media channels.

You may say, “Sure, sounds great, but it also sounds like a lot of work.”

It sure is.

So what do you get in return for all this trouble?

You get to control the context in which people engage with your brand, as well as to influence the discourse somewhat. If you only use third-party sites to talk to your community, you give up all that control.

Mind you, with great powers come great responsibilities, so use that control wisely and remember the main tenet of community building: It’s not about you. If you think that people will put up with your self-centered patter just because you got a pretty branded community site, you will be wrong, and end up with tumbleweeds before you even get going.

In order to grow the community engagement, you will have to come up with things you can do to provide something of value to your users. Otherwise, they’ll just stay on Facebook and prove your naysayers right.

Leave a comment

Filed under Community management, Essentials, Responses

Why do you need a community, anyway?

Aside from helping your users be successful with your solutions, you need to build a community for the conversations about your products and your brand to happen in a friendly civilized environment.

Since most of us work in corporate environments, it is not a far-fetched scenario where you get asked: “Explain to me, why do we even need to invest in building a community? Can’t we just have a good Knowledge Base and Support instead?”

If you only approach this question from the standpoint of helping your users with their technical questions, then you really don’t have an argument for deploying a user community platform. If you only want the community there to field questions, spending the money on hiring more technical writers and support agents will indeed bring you more bang for the buck.

However.

Once your product is out there for the world to see, conversations will start happening around it. People will talk about your brand and your products, and their experiences with them. There is nothing you can do to prevent this, and neither should you. Conversation is a good thing.

Just like in the olden days people made friends and invited them up for tea, creating an official space for your users to get together and have such conversations will get you good will from them.

What you (and your hypothetical question-asking colleagues) need to realize, is that your community exists independently of you. The moment you let people get their hands on your product, you have created a group united by their user experience. When you spin up a forums platform, all you do is give that user community a welcoming home, where you get to set the tone and rules of engagement.

If you don’t give them a home, they will go and talk about you on somebody else’s online forums, the conversation will become fragmented, questions will go unanswered, and frustration will build.

The “welcoming” part is also important.

You know the typical internet forum: full of snark, flaming, and other such things that leave an unpleasant aftertaste. Since you want your community forums to be a welcoming and professional place where people can have conversations undisturbed by trolls, some amount of benign control on your behalf is necessary and will be welcomed by the participants. As long as you only police the tone and not censor any negative comments or criticism, your efforts to keep the discussions clean will be supported, and when you are ready to recruit your volunteer moderators, they will have a clear example to follow.

1 Comment

Filed under Essentials

Speaking at CloudCon San Francisco

Cloud Con San Francisco 1-3 Oct 2012I am thrilled to have been invited to speak at the CloudCon Expo and Conference in San Francisco next week. I will be part of the panel on social media marketing and monitoring, called Marketing Cloud.”

If you look at my speaker profile, you will notice that I have taken on a new role with a cloud computing company called Nebula. I have only been here a week and two days, and am just beginning to get my bearings. While there’s a lot of new stuff to learn, there’s been a nice chunk of deja-vu mixed in as well, due to the fact that the cloud computing and Linux and Open Source are a fairly tightly-knit field.

I am looking forward to attending CloudCon and making new friends with OpenStack users and contributors, and also to catching up with many of my old friends from Fedora and Red Hat days. If you are planning on attending and would like to meet up, drop me a line on Twitter or comment here.

1 Comment

Filed under Events

If you love them, set them free

The walls that keep your competitors out also limit your community.

A little while ago, I spoke at the Badgeville Engage 2012 conference, and a woman approached me at the evening reception. She was working for a SaaS company and asked me for advice on increasing engagement levels in the customer forums they were running.

My first question was: Are your forums public?

The answer was No.

I asked why that was, and she explained that they were afraid that their competitors would join the forums and poach their customers.

While I understand how one may come to think that way, I most certainly disagree that this fear is justified.

Let’s assume for a moment that the competitor’s salesforce is an exception to the overworked norm, and they have the free time to join and peruse an online forum in search of disgruntled customers. A few scenarios come to mind:

  1. Competitor approaches Customer 1. C1 is dissatisfied and ready for an alternative solution. Competitor lands a deal. Now do you think keeping the competitor from finding that customer on your forums would have saved you from losing the customer? No. C1 would have googled for an alternative solution anyway, and one of your competitors would have got their business. If not this one, then another. Either way, C1 was on the way out.
  2. Competitor approaches Customer 2. C2 has problems with your solution, but is invested and trying to solve the issues. Now put yourself in C2’s shoes for a second. Here you are on the user forums, trying to figure out why you can’t get the software to do what you need it to do, and instead of a helpful suggestion, some sales dude plugs a competing solution. If you were C2, would you react to that positively? I would not. And neither would your customer. As a result, C2 may even have a worse opinion of the competing company for trolling the forums. Because that’s what this is called, and nobody likes trolls.
  3. Competitor does not engage directly with your customers, but instead starts threads in your forums saying how much better their stuff is. Where I come from, we call this spam. Unsolicited off-topic posts have nothing to do on a forum, and that’s what you got your moderators for. Spammy posts from your competitor will be cleaned out, and after a few attempts they will leave.

Whichever way you look at it, there is very little risk to opening your forums to public. The benefits however are huge.

You will be generating daily fresh content that is relevant to your brand and sending your SEO through the roof. Potential customers will be able to see that you have an active community, which is always a plus when selecting a product.

If you can, make sure that your support and documentation group is involved in the forums. Ideally, they would jump on every complicated question that stayed unanswered for more than a day, but we all know how busy they are, so don’t expect miracles there.

At the very least, ask that the Knowledge Base (KB) team creates weekly posts in one or a few of the most popular forums. Here are a few ideas for recurring posts, each can be a monthly, but four of them would cover the whole month:

  • most popular KB articles of the month
  • new KB articles of the month
  • KB articles updated this month
  • team picks — this way you can highlight some articles that are neither fresh nor popular, but may be useful to get people to look at anyway

If you can at all, integrate your KB and support platform with the public user forums, and provide an incentive for your docs and support employees to promote a certain number of threads/documents each month (say, one a week) to the public area. Here are some ideas for recurring Support posts:

  • most popular support question of the week
  • most interesting support question of the week
  • top 10 issues of the week
  • a “tips and tricks” series covering your basic technology or some advanced know-how

Both the Docs and the Support posts should come with deep links into the Knowledge Base and Documentation, to both get people to learn more about your stuff, and to drive up the search engine relevance of your content across all platforms.

This is the point where you realize that your KB and documentation both need to be made public, too.

The rule of thumb should be to make it all public, unless you absolutely, positively have to make it private, such as would be the case with partner content or private betas. If you can’t find a very good reason to keep it closed, open it up, and reap the benefits of transparency.

1 Comment

Filed under Care and feeding, Transparency