The Importance of Reputation in Online Communities

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to participate in a panel on importance of reputation in online communities. I was privileged to share the limelight with the most excellent community managers: Bill Platt of Engine Yard, Sean O’Driscoll of Ant’s Eye View, and Annie Fox of Buzznet. We were quite an unruly bunch, and almost gave our moderator Caroline Dangson a heart attack when we decided to have a drinking game on-stage. Some say, it was diluted Coke, but there are no guarantees. Enjoy.

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Filed under Community management, Events, Reputation

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

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

Orgcharts are stupid

Your users don’t care how you organize your company internally. Community web architecture has to make sense to them and be persistent, not change whenever two departments get merged.

When building and running a community, you constantly have to make choices about information architecture starting early on. Which products get forums? Do you want to organize them into categories? What to do with products that have been discontinued?

Whether you are starting from scratch or taking care of an existing community, you will have to fight to keep your forum structure independent from the corporate orgchart.

Sooner or later, a product manager or some such will come to you and request that you move, or delete a forum because their group has been moved to a different department or the product has been discontinued.

First off, you should never kill a community forum when the product has reached its end of life. There are probably many people still using it, and why would you want to prevent users from providing support to each other after your call center won’t? Your responsibility as a community manager is primarily to your peeps, the users. Taking away what may well be their last resort to getting help will not please the customer who is already unhappy that your company won’t support the product they are invested into.

Same goes for moving of an existing forum just to achieve symmetry with internal organization. If it is active, and people know where to find it, it is best to leave it where it is. If you have to move it, at the very least set up a redirect so that the old bookmarks continue to work.

If anything, my preference is to keep the forum structure as flat as possible. Unless your company has more than 20 products, there is no need to create hierarchies and categories, which will only make it harder to find the right forum. Having a simple forum structure that does not necessarily mimic the way products are presented on your official company site will also allow you to stay free from demands to reorganize every time the company departments get reshuffled.

Now to new forum creation. If you want to avoid creating ghost towns, you have to be judicious with how many forums you create. Assuming you already have all products covered and want to serve your community better, how will you decide which new forums to create and which to stay away from? Thinking from your user’s perspective can help you figure this out.

Communities of use are centered around the needs of people implementing and using products and technologies. So they will either want to talk about a particular product, or a use case, such as “Canon 500 printer-scanner” or “virtualizing mail servers.” If you watch a certain use case get a lot of traffic across your forums, you can expect that a new separate forum for it will get some traction.

However forums that target a specific customer demographic are usually destined to failure. What I am talking about are forums dedicated to vertical market segments, such as healthcare, government, or elusive groups such as SMBs.

While segmenting your customers by demographic or vertical looks good on a quarterly report, it has absolutely nothing to do with your community, which is built around helping people get answers to their technical questions. Unless your software crashes differently in a Fortune 500 bank than it does in a local library, there is absolutely no reason to make a banking forum separate from a librarians forum.

Creating forums for customers based on company size such as SMB is even more dicy. The term SMB stands for “small and medium-size business.” For the longest time “SMB” has been a pet peeve of mine, because all it really says is “customers who are too small for our sales people to bother talking to directly, and we’d rather they self-service or talk to our partners.”

This is why in my professional life, whenever a colleague comes to me for help setting up an “SMB community” I ask “are you sure that your target audience self-identifies as SMB?”

Seriously, do you expect Joe Blow to come to work one morning and realize “Hey I need MegaWidget for my business, but my company is too small for Megacorp to bother returning my calls, so why don’t I google for ‘MegaWidget for SMB’ instead? Surely they will have a microsite for small fry like me!”

Chances are, Megacorp will have a page like this, only it will be frequented by its partners, not SMBs, because in real life, very few customers stop to think from their vendor’s perspective. And sadly the reverse is true for vendors, resulting in SMB forums with nothing but tumbleweeds in them.

In community marketing, it is never about you, it’s about your user community‘s needs. Just because it is convenient for you to define a target group in a certain way, doesn’t mean that they will automatically self-identify and embrace such definition.

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Filed under Community management, Usability

New: Well-forgotten (and renamed) old

No matter what you call it, your community of users beats an overseas call center any time.

You know that something has gone mainstream when the Economist writes about it as a new trend. In this week’s edition dedicated to technology, the newspaper writes about “unsourcing” as the next big thing in tech support after outsourcing.

Quote:

“Unsourcing”, as the new trend has been dubbed, involves companies setting up online communities to enable peer-to-peer support among users. Instead of speaking with a faceless person thousands of miles away, customers’ problems are answered by unpaid individuals in the same country who have bought and used the same products. This is done either in discussion forums set up on the company’s own website or on social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

From there, the article goes on to extoll the awesome savings TomTom and BestBuy have seen by allowing their customers help each other. As usual, Gartner is cited as ultimate authority, claiming up to 50% potential support cost savings.

So how do you make your customers do your support work for you? Enter another buzzword (that one I have actually heard of): Gamify! Provide points and achievement levels to entice the customers to play and compete, and you’ve got it made. People will fall over themselves to answer technical questions, and you will be able to lay off half of those Philippino support agents you hired back when Outsourcing was the name of the game.

Winning!

That’s all fine and good, but as with many business publications, the focus is entirely on what the company wants. In this particular case, the company wants its users to provide tech support for each other, and needs to game them into doing this work for free. I dunno, this sounds one-sided, and a little scammy to me.

What this article fails to mention, and many Business majors miss on a daily basis, is what the customers actually get out of it. Because it’s not the points. You can set up your community support forums using the latest software, and use the newest gamification technology to motivate people to donate their time and expertise, and you will still fail if you only focus on your selfish goals.

Online communities of use have existed for almost as long as the Net itself, despite what the Economist and Gartner may believe. Smart companies have been embracing online communities for a long time, and the really smart ones have built such communities and kept them free of the corporate censorship and marketing copy.

The distinguishing quality of a community of use, as opposed to say, anime fan forums, is that the users come together to help each other succeed with whatever it is the community organized around. Like knitting, or using Photoshop or other software, or fixing vintage automobiles. In order for such a community to thrive, it needs to empower its members to exchange opinions and information freely, and to allow constructive criticism and even talk about competition.

In order to thrive, the community needs user’s trust, and you gain that trust by making sure that:

  • The information in the community is unfiltered by corporate and therefore genuine.
    Some policing is always necessary, and I will write about community moderators separately. Things such as flame wars and profanity do not enhance a community and should be kept to a minimum and cleaned up. What I am referring to is removing user posts that are not in line with corporate messaging or having employees post on forums without disclosing their affiliation.
  • User contributions will not be censored because they may express criticism or suggest a competitor product that may help resolve the issue better.
    “Help users be successful” is your mantra as the community manager. If a competitor’s product will help your user succeed, what would you rather have: an unhappy user of your product, or a happy user of a competitor’s product who now trusts your brand more for allowing them to find out about the alternative?
  • The forum owner (the corporation in our example) will not abuse its power for propaganda and will mostly leave the users in peace to do their thing.
    When building a community, your goal should be to empower the users to do what they came here to do–ask and receive help–and get out of the way. If you come up with nifty new ways to help users help each other more effectively, or create a new reward program to recognize the power-users for their disproportionately huge contribution, that’s fine, because it helps. But don’t dedicate prime real estate of the landing page to a new flash ROI calculator and push the forum list down below the fold!

So in short, yes, the savings from engaging and empowering a community of your users can be very real, but they will not just magically materialize if you don’t approach this exercise with user benefit in mind.

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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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Community is not about you

If you only engage with your community for selfish reasons, you will fail, and it’ll serve you right.

You have forums, blogs, and social media channels at your disposal, and you even post fresh content at regular intervals, but your community is still withering on the vine. There are no comments on your blog posts, forums are full with the sound of crickets, and only spammers ever tweet at you.

What now?

While it may look like you are doing all the right things on surface, take a closer look at what you are actually posting in all the channels. Chances are, you will find that your blog is full of repurposed press releases and marketing copy, and that your tweets are pointing to general-purpose pages or promotional microsites that have flash animations but no meat to them.

Now ask yourself a question: What have you done to deserve your community’s attention? What have you given them that you expect their likes, and retweets, and shares?

It’s neat to sit at your desk all day creating campaigns, measuring engagement, and pulling sentiment reports. And all too often we focus so much on metrics that we forget that the only reason we have our jobs are our customers, and that in order to have a thriving community we have to serve it. In short, it is not about what you want, it’s about what your community wants.

People invented all the social technologies not for us to blast out our corporate messaging, but because they had a genuine need to share the stuff they care about with their friends, family, and colleagues. So give them the stuff they care about.

Give them access to documentation and the knowledge base — free and without a login. They liked your product enough that they are using it, and they need help with it, now is not the time to try their patience by putting up barriers. Next thing you know, someone will tweet a link to your KB article.

And make your user forums public for crying out loud. If some of your customers are engaged and generous enough to help others on the forum, use their generosity to your advantage. Build your site navigation to make it easy to jump from community area to official product pages (and back!), then use the power of SEO to bring in more traffic. Because no marketing copy is more relevant to the product than the customers actually talking about it on your forums. Your users get visibility and recognition and you get more readers and more participation. You might even preempt a support call or ten.

I have seen super active communities with a healthy ratio of about 1-2% posters out of hundreds of thousands unique visitors, most of whom arrive through organic search. Some of these uniques will convert to contributors, but don’t expect miracles. You won’t defeat the 90-9-1 rule, but you can remove the barriers to participation and increase the total audience.

The neat thing is that in the end, everybody wins. If you give your peeps what they want, they will return the favor in spades, and your metrics will look awesome.

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Filed under Community management