Monthly Archives: July 2012

Starting from scratch

Where do you start, when all you’ve got is your company web site?

Start with a forum. If there isn’t one, spin one up. If you can get support from your IT, the better, but if not, you may have to buy a SaaS solution, hosted by the vendor. Get your boss to approve the expense, and you’re set.

Create a general discussion forum and a forum for a handful of your main products. Don’t create too many at once, you want to avoid tumbleweeds by fragmenting your discussions too much. If people demand a certain forum, there’s always time to create it. That will even make you look good, too, since you will listen to the community and deliver what they want.

“You can observe a lot by just watching,” said Yogi Berra. So now that you have a forum, chill out for a bit. You are trying to grow a community, after all. So let it grow. Watch it closely while it does.

Remember the 90-9-1 rule? Make it work for you. Watch over time as people post questions and answers, and identify the upper ten percent. You can only do this after a few weeks of activity, that’s why you needed to chill, so chill while you still can. Once the community starts going, you will have your hands full!

Identify the top posters and offer them to become your community moderators. Start with the most active ones and go down the list. A team of about ten should be enough for most forums, but there is no harm in having more, depending on whether you are trying to cover all time zones and multiple languages.

I will cover best practices for running a moderator organization in a later post, so here’s just a quick run down of minimum requirements for a successful moderator group:

  • Create moderator guidelines, by which they will live;
  • create forum rules and code of conduct, to empower the moderators to make their decisions and enforce;
  • have some sort of succession/election/retirement process in place to avoid volunteer fatigue;
  • stand by your moderators in public, even if you may have to have a private discussion with them later. Trust begets trust, and you absolutely have to trust them first, or go home now.

After you have your moderators in place, you can use this group as a sounding board for new ideas, and also can recruit them into your other evangelism programs. They will become your eyes and ears in the community and will be able to help you find more active evangelists and contributors who in turn can help you find more and more quality people.

There you have it, you have started a community.

If you work for a typical company though, often there already will be a comatose forum somewhere in the depths of customer support area, protected from the knowledge-hungry customers by a login or even a pay wall. What now? You can’t start from scratch anymore. In this case–revive it.

Reviving is a long process, which relies on many things out of your control, but here are a few things you can do right away that will help breathe new life into an atrophied discussion board.

Tear down this wall Mr. Gorbachev! You may not be the leader of the free world, but you too know that openness and freedom are good things. Now put yourself in your community’s shoes for a moment. They want answers, maybe while deciding whether to buy your product, and instead of getting sweet sweet knowledge they are forced to create an account or worse–buy the product before they are even allowed to get to the forums. How would you feel in their place? Yeah, I would get mad, too.

So go and plead and bargain and negotiate, but get at least some of the basic product forums to be viewable by guest users. No login required, no strings attached. Let Google index the publicly viewable content, so that you can begin establishing your community as the number one source of information about your products.

Your sales people may not find this smart, but you are the community manager now. You are in charge of doing what is best for the community, not your sales force. Your community is a reflection of your brand, and vice versa. When you are generous with your knowledge, people will trust your brand more. A strong open community will strengthen your brand and drive more customers to purchase. But you may not always be able to demonstrate this with a clean sales funnel. Thankfully, that’s not your job. Your job is to grow the community.

Once you have your at least partially open forums, go to the step where you chill out and watch, to see the natural leaders manifest themselves, so you can make evangelists and volunteers out of them, and you will be well on the way to a vibrant community.

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Filed under Care and feeding, Essentials

Why community management isn’t

When it comes to community, “management” is a misnomer. You don’t “manage” a community, you serve it.

When asked what I do for a living, I say “community management,” and cringe. For me, the term management implies a business-like approach, profit and loss, ROI, that sort of thing. Instead, I rather see myself as a mayor of my community.

Come to think of it, with just over a million registered users, I got myself a town to run, with moderators as the police force, web engineers helping with the town infrastructure, and all the different product groups setting up shop in the forums, to help the town inhabitants with their questions and problems.

Every morning, I read through my community notifications: moderators reporting spammers who need banning, new members asking for help finding information, maybe some bug reports for the engineers to fix. My resources aren’t unlimited, and most times I have to choose how to allocate them between regular maintenance work as well as upgrades and bug fixes.

Just like with a real-world town hall, I get requests from different groups for new features, and to raise priority of certain bugs that have been on the back burner for a while. And every once in a while I even get to be a judge in disputes between community members or vendors.

So all in all, I think this analogy stands up pretty nicely, so I will go ahead and stretch it out a little further.

In all languages that I know, the work that a city hall worker does is called a service of some kind. It is public service in English, öffentlicher Dienst in German, общественные услуги in Russian. Are you catching my drift? What I am saying here is that as a mayor of your online community you are less like a corporate manager, deciding between outsourcing jobs to off-shore and cutting local wages, and much more like a public servant, serving your little community and responding to its everyday needs.

Now with this “public servant” mindset, reasons for many of the popular “community management” failures become duh-obvious. Take my favourite pet peeve, the video contest. Just because Coca-Cola corporation is able to attract some brilliant submissions, doesn’t mean you will. And it’s not because your community is any less talented, although I suspect that computer engineers may not make best moviemakers, or they’d all quit their jobs in the datacenter and move to Hollywood. You will not get the videos out of them because that video is what you want, and not what they want. They are your townspeople, not your employees, and you cannot tell them what to do.

Same goes for any “engagement” efforts that have the goals of your company at the center, instead of the goals of the people that make up the community: share your story, photo, video, tell us how great our products are, for a chance to win a trip to our company event or an iPad. Initiatives like these treat the community members like workforce, and try to “pay” them with a prize that may not even be relevant to your company or product. If it’s a cool gadget, you may get a dozen submissions, but you will not inspire hundreds, and you will not make anyone feel like you are tuned into what is going on in your community. It will be perceived as soulless marketing, and that will be the end of that.

To have a community that is abuzz with cool people doing cool stuff, you have to keep your ear to the ground and your hand on the pulse of the town, and look for cool things that your community members are already doing. The moment you see a cool project in the making, swoop down and shower the person(s) in question with any kind of support you can provide, and don’t really ask for much in return. Just empower them and get out of their way.

That last bit about getting out of the way is very important too. You see local government supporting citizen initiatives all the time. Say, there’s an art project that got a grant. While a grant will often have clear guidelines as to what kind of art project will be sponsored, you won’t see the mayor actually picking up the paintbrush or donning a tutu to help. Once the grant recipient is picked, they can do as they please within the constraints of the grant.

As a result, the town gets a new mural or a dance performance, the starving artists get to stave off starvation for a while longer, and the mayor gets a happier community.

The sooner you realize that you are the one serving the community, and not managing it, the sooner you will stop stepping on the rake of artifice and begin having genuine engagement with people in your community.

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Filed under Care and feeding, Community management