Tag Archives: business

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Care and feeding, Transparency

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Community management, Events, Reputation

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Community management, Usability

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Care and feeding

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Community management