Category Archives: Essentials

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

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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Filed under Essentials

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