Customer often ask us for guidance as to how to start and manage a thriving community. Whether it’s a Digital Marketing solution or an Enterprise 2.0 solution these tips still apply.
I’ll also go ahead and caveat that this isn’t a complete list – by any means!
1. Identify Measurable Goals and Objectives
What are the metrics for measuring if the community was successful or not? Is it customer satisfaction, lowering support costs, increasing brand interaction? Depending upon what the purpose of the community is these can different. Jeremiah talks about 5 key principles in some of his posts (I’d recommend following him): Listening, Talking, Energizing, Supporting and Embracing.
One of the key findings documented in this post at Read Write Web’s post Corporate Social Networks Are a Waste of Money, Study Finds was that lack of metrics and criteria tends to be a problem. Most companies still tend to focus on page views.
2. Learn about the existing communities that your customers already use
Whether you realize it or not a ‘community’ likely already exists for what you do – before you run off and create your own solution take some time to understand how you are going to add value. A lot of the newer companies that want social computing solutions are still operating under the false belief of: build it and they will come. The reality is, most likely they won’t.
You need to figure out how to add value, not just more noise. The best way to do that is to go to the places where people are already participating. Learn what they need and what you can do to uniquely provide value.
Back when I was at Microsoft and starting the www.asp.net community we dealt with a number of existing communities. The way we provided value was a centralized location where all parties could come together and where the product teams shared information (slides, product insight, help, etc.). This made the community unique and valuable to the members.
3. Ensure first time visitors get an immediate “feel good” experience
MySpace.com is famous for ensuring everyone had a first friend when they joined. It’s incredibly important that new members are not only welcome but can be connected to the social layer of the group as quickly as possible. Tom Anderson became famous when you join MySpace Tom is automatically your first friend – while you didn’t necessarily need to interact with Tom you instantly were connected into the community.
This immediate “feel good” experience transcends people. It also means that you ensure the technology is aware of a user’s first experience too.
4. Let real people be the brand and encourage personal connections
When you look at really successful communities what you find is that real people are standing up and speaking on behalf of the brand. Look at what Microsoft has done with blogs.msdn.com or channel9.msdn.com and what Dell has done with sites like direct2dell.com. Rather than presenting filtered information through a PR agency, these brands are allowing passionate individuals who are intimately familiarly with the company’s products and services to directly represent the brand.
Communities thrive on personal connections. When you encourage and foster participation from the company you strengthen the brand with the customers those people interact with. In fact, over time you’ll see customers in turn also become brand champions.
5. Hire a Community Manager
Look at this list and then look at the companies they represent. Most of are forward thinking organizations that have communities that have measurable results. Jeremiah also lists the 4 key tenets of a Community Manager: Community Advocate; Brand Evangelist; Savvy Communication Skills, Shapes Editorial; Gathers community input for future product and services.
Jeremiah has another great post detailing how to hire for the various roles.
6. Your content is king. User generated content is good too
Everyone is a-buzz these days about user generated content. Unfortunately most people tend to think of user generated content as what they will get, not what they give.
This is a really, really bad assumption. Don’t start a community with the expectation that your community will create your content – eventually they likely will contribute significantly, but in the beginning they are consumers not creators.
The best advi
ce here is to enable people
within your organization – such as a community manager – to take responsibility for creating or finding valuable content for the community. Provide them with insight or information that they could not find elsewhere. The best user generated content (early on) is the content that you create.
7. Stay committed to growth – possibly monetize the community
I’m seeing this a lot these days: companies have started communities through SaaS vendors or as simple “black ops” projects and are finding themselves in an awkward situation: success. Something that started off as an inexpensive experiment is now costing them a lot of time and resources.
This is typically coming at one of the must difficult junctures too. The community isn’t always full valued yet – likely due to a lack of metrics – and proving a return on investment is difficult (reinforcing why metrics are so critical early on).
One option to consider is monetize the community by selling ads. As it turns out communities can be great sources of revenue for advertising dollars as you are typically selling placements which are highly targeted.
8. Encourage organizational adoption
This should really be something that the Community Manager should be charged with ensuring occurs: making certain that everyone within the organization is able and knows how to participate.
A best practice is to publish some guidelines (although some may debate this) around what is good and not good to talk about. Some general guidelines: stick to the topic at hand. Don’t delve into religious, political, or other topics – unless of course that is the purpose of your community! In other words: use common sense.
Great organizational adoption can happen from the top down – when the CEO is blogging – or from the bottom-up.
9. Reward them – Highlight key contributors
Many people thrive on recognition. Communities facilitate common-minded individuals connecting with one another and using points or other means of recognition reinforces participation.
Most community tools include some sort of points system that rewards people for their contributions. This is an automated and simple way of calling out key contributors.
A few companies go even further and allow for points to be traded as credits (similar to an airline rewards system). You can also use a points system to identify who your biggest advocates are and give them special treatment.
10. Close the loop – act on the feedback
Feedback is one of the measurable returns on investment you from a community. As I’ve mentioned previously communities really are the ultimate focus group. Customers share lots of insight into their perspectives of your product and services. If you really want to energize your community show them how you act on all of the feedback (positive and negative), ideas, and everything else they care to share.