Category Archives: Transparency

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

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

Moderation, in spades

Volunteer community moderators are your secret weapon in keeping your community friendly, professional, and helpful.

When run well, a volunteer moderator organization can do wonders for you. They can be your eyes and ears into what’s going on in the community, they can be your sounding board for new ideas, and a source of ideas and suggestions to make your community even better.

Before we even start with recruiting your volunteer moderators, let’s talk about what makes a volunteer moderation team work well.

First, you need to provide clear set of rules for your forum. You may already have some, or none. Start with community code of conduct, where you state the goals of your community and the general rules of engagement for all users. Also write up some FAQs and make sure that all these documents are clearly visible in the forums. Consider linking them from the global site footer, right next to the legal terms of use.

Once you got that covered, you will need moderator guidelines. That’s a document with clear rules for the moderators to follow while enforcing your code of conduct and the terms. Things such as what to do with a flame post, when to lock a thread, and how to deal with spammers. Spend a couple hours in the quiet spelling that out. If you have never written such guidelines before, google “forum moderator guidelines” and adapt what makes sense to you.

Do we get to recruit moderators now? Nope, not yet. If you are starting a new volunteer organization, you better lay down the rules for how one becomes (and stays) a moderator right from the start. Who qualifies to be a moderator? Maybe someone who’s been on the forum for X months, or someone with N forum posts.

In order to avoid creating a clique, and to combat volunteer fatigue, you will also need to put in place some succession/election mechanisms that will allow you to introduce new blood on a regular basis as well as give the old guard a way to step down without losing face.

The rules that work well for my volunteer group are pretty simple, and go something like this:

  1. You have to have 500+ forum points to qualify.
  2. We hold elections every six months and qualified people can step forward at that point, while the existing moderators get to vote on the candidates. We allocate a full month for that process.
  3. If a candidate receives no negative votes, they’re in. Even a single negative vote is enough to take the candidate out of the race.
  4. All existing moderators have to re-commit for the next 6 months during the election time. If they don’t do that during the election month, they get removed from the group.
    Note: Spare no energy to repeat that there is no disgrace in stepping down if you have no time or your priorities have changed. You want this group to consist of active moderators, not sleepers.

Procedure matters, of course. And you have to make sure you hold yourself to the highest standard first, and never ever break your word. Even if your favorite community member has just been vetoed from being elected a moderator.

Why? Because you want this group to work with as little friction as possible, and that requires that no single person has major problems with any other. Also, because you have to show them your trust in order to earn theirs. Trust begets trust, and you’ll have to always have their back, so that when the time comes, they will have yours.

Now you get to go recruit moderators. If you have no volunteer moderators yet, go find out who are the most active forum contributors and approach them. Tell them that you are looking for volunteers, and point them to the guidelines and forum rules that you’d ask them to enforce. First batch you can just let in at your own discretion, and make sure they know that the elections will be happening at regular intervals after that.

Give them a private forum to talk amongst themselves, where only you and the moderators will have access. Establish a moderator meeting or some such to get the group feeling like they belong, and if you have a VIP program, include them in that.

You will have to be an active participant in the forum yourself, to make sure you don’t miss any questions, and also to let them know that you are around if they need you.

As the moderators start implementing your guidelines in real life, you may need to amend them or to add new rules. If you are unsure what to do, ask your moderators. That will show them that you respect their opinion, and help them feel appreciated. And that is what makes a volunteer organization thrive.

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Filed under Community management, Transparency