Monthly Archives: October 2012

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.

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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.

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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.

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Filed under Community management, Essentials, Responses