Category Archives: Care and feeding

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

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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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

This is why you can’t have a puppy

Cross-posted from my personal blog with edits.

You know the story all too well. A marketing manager for one of the many products in the company will request a blog for their team. The blog gets dutifully delivered and the group posts their inaugural post. Then maybe a few more, with diminishing frequency. Then–silence.

The blog becomes a checkmark on somebody’s quarterly report: “Blog created.”

Why are you so upset about it?, you may ask,  and you’d be right to ask. It’s not like a dormant blog is actually suffering, or causing harm to anyone. Or is it?

A blog, just like your Twitter account, or your Facebook or Google+ page is not a one-time thing, it’s a commitment. Much like you commit to walk a dog and clean up after it, you commit to run your social media channel. It’s not something you GET, it’s something you GET INTO, and have to take care of continuously.

A dormant blog, should your audience stumble upon it by accident, well after you have all but forgotten it existed, will harm you by making you look like you are not doing your job. Which quite honestly, you aren’t. If the last post on your blog was made half a year ago, and your Twitter account has three tweets in it, all from more than last month, your social media presence looks kind of like this:

And this sort of thing does not impress your audience. And if you forget, the “audience” are those potential customers who you as a marketing professional are supposed to impress.

So next time you want to go all “social-media” on your audience, think. Do you have the resources and the commitment to take care of these new outlets in addition to all the other stuff that you do?

If the answer is no, figure out whether these new channels will be more effective than something you are currently doing, which you can now drop in favour of your social media involvement.

Go stalk someone who’s successfully using social channels. Maybe they work in a different department, or even at a different company. Spend a few hours to click around and see just how much social media output they are producing. Can you match that effort? Can you do at least half that?

If the answer is no again, go see if you can hire an intern. No, in all likelihood they won’t create anything as effective and powerful as a full-time professional who is well-fed and has some level of relevant industry experience. But this is the absolute least you should do if you are dying to get into social media.

If you can’t even afford a starving student to tweet for you part-time, and you don’t want to do it yourself, drop it.

Put that idea on the ground slowly, and back away. No sudden moves.

Now, just. Walk. Away.

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