Monthly Archives: September 2012

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.

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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.

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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.

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Filed under Care and feeding, Transparency