Tag Archives: Twitter

Rewards and Achievements

Participation is its own reward, but public recognition is better. Build a system of rewards and achievements that makes sense and provides real benefits to your community members.

As promised, I am back from the visionary ether of what rewards and achievements could (and should) be. Today, I am looking at very practical ways to expand (or start) your rewards program that you can implement right away.

It’s pretty awesome to be part of a community of like-minded individuals who share your enthusiasm for a given project or technology. A lot of people get a kick out of that. Over time, top contributors emerge, and some sort of a meritocratic order forms. However, if you are hoping for vigorous growth and high levels of engagement early on, figuring out a meaningful way to reward desired behaviours would be a good use of your time.

If your mind immediately jumped to images of convoluted brand loyalty programs with miles or points which can be exchanged for a wide selection of goods or services, you may feel intimidated. Who has the budget and the time to manage all that? But fear not! There are ways to run an effective rewards and achievements program on the cheap, using the tools that you already have, and some creative thinking.

Step One: Find all the data

To reward people for things they have done, you need to know what they’ve done, how much of it, and when. This becomes easier ir you’ve already got a forum, because forum platforms usually  have reputation points management built in. Most often participants get rewarded a point or two for posting a message (whether an original thread or a response), and if their answer is selected as the “helpful” or the “correct” one by the original poster, there is a bonus of maybe five or ten points. There may be additional points earned for other in-forum behaviours, such as joining a group or following other users. Whatever it is, if you have an online forum, you have some sort of data to start from.

You may not realize that there are other sources of data that may be available to you. They may not be automated and easy to consume, but they are there. Here are a few examples:

  • User group attendees, speakers, and user group leads
  • Conference, webinar, and seminar attendees
  • Lists of bloggers who cover your products
  • List of people who reshare your content on Twitter and other social networks

Step Two: Reward the right people

By studying as many sources of data as you can, you will be able to identify the people who contribute more than average. The goal of a rewards system is to encourage these folks to do more: More blogging, more presentations, more learning, and more sharing.

By rewarding them publicly, you will also send the message to the other 90 percent of the community that you (and the company you work for) value all sorts of contributions, not just forum Q&A. You will be surprised what people come up with once they know that they can color outside the lines. I have seen volunteers creating video tutorials, writing whole books, creating free training coursework, and even fly to another country to help jumpstart a user group.

Your focus will be not on defining what you want the community to do, but rather keeping your eyes out for the reward-worthy actions and making a big deal out of every one. Find a cool new blog? Blog about it. Maybe even start a monthly “community blog roundup” where you link to that month’s community blog posts. Got a bunch of active user group leads? Interview them on your podcast if you have it, or mention them in a community newsletter at the very least.

Step Three: Find rewards worthy of your community

Now I am assuming that my readers are bootstrapping most of their community projects on the minimum budget. If you have more, bully for you, but we’ll be here, improvising if you don’t mind.

Here are a few low-budget ideas that you can implement today, on your own or with minimal support from other groups in your company:

  • VIP program invitations: If you have a VIP program already, invite them in. If you don’t–what are you waiting for? These are your VIPs. Treat them as such. Make some noise about admitting/nominating/anointing new people into the program, so that they feel special, and everyone else knows that they are. A good VIP program will have a recurring admission schedule, a special time when the new VIPs get announced. Make it like Xmas or some other holiday: the wait and suspense is half the fun, but there’s a great reveal at the end.
  • I have already mentioned callouts and public kudos. Costs you nothing, and gives everyone involved warm and fuzzies. And don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a cheap trick: heartfelt sincere gratitude never gets old. Remember, it’s your job to keep the community running; these folks don’t have to help you, yet they do. So thank them, and mean it.
  • Share responsibility. Invite top contributors to guest-post on your blog, make them moderators and user group leads, allow them to help you with things you wished you had bandwidth for, but never get around to doing: official schwag, curation of guest articles, even selection of the next generation of VIPs.
  • If you have a few hundred bucks lying around, you could try issuing physical trophies, or special schwag, such as backpacks or apparel. These work best if the people you want to honor are already in the same place, such as your annual user conference in Vegas. Rent a ballroom, buy some beer, and have an award ceremony for the creme de la creme. The effect diminishes if you have to mail the goodies, but you can have fun with asking the recipients to share photos of themselves with their trophies — on the forums or social media.
  • Speaking of annual user conferences: If you can beg, borrow, or steal some event passes for the VIPs to attend for free, you’ll be able to demonstrate that you put your money where your mouth is when you say “thank you.” You will have to convince the group running the conference to give you some passes, so prepare with good arguments of why they should miss out on revenue for your community people.
  • If you can’t get the free passes, maybe you can convince the organizers to allow you to reserve front-row seats in the general session for the VIPs. We’re back to zero-cost option here, and this may be a good fallback position. They still have to pay to attend, but get special treatment while there.
  • Now that you’re getting used to cajoling other groups in your company into giving you freebees, how about reaching out to the product group and asking for early access to information for your VIPs? Launching a product? You’ve got bloggers. Get them into an embargoed pre-launch briefing, set them up with the media kit, and they will write about your launch. At least some will. The rest will feel privileged to have been allowed into the inner circle.
  • Another cheap or no-cost thing to do is provide your superstars with exclusive access to internal people. It can be a dinner with the CEO at the aforementioned conference, or maybe a WebEx meeting with the product manager where they can share feedback.

As you see, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to show appreciation and recognize the people who make your community vibrant. What you will spend a lot of will be time: finding the right people, and finding the right rewards. But that is what true love is about: time you spend on them. Because they already spend a lot of time on you.

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Filed under Advanced, Reputation

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

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

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

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

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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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.

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Filed under Community management