Secret sauce for online communities
Recently, I attended an SF Online Community Meetup session, a monthly gathering of online community managers and enthusiasts to share strategies, tools, and insights for managing online communities effectively. We’ve been doing a lot of community work, so I was keen to gain insights from experts.
It was a solid lineup of pros, all managing respectable, robust communities:
- Bill Johnston, Head of Global Community, Dell
- Thor Muller, Chief Technology Officer, Get Satisfaction
- Rachel Luxemburg, Group Manager, Community, Adobe
- Gail Ann Williams, Community Director at Salon.com/The WELL
The theme of the evening was to hear what “secret sauce” these managers developed to keep their communities thriving and happy. Here’s what they had to share:
Bill Johnston, Dell
Johnston had several points of wisdom to offer:
“Strive for a higher purpose”
I love this one. It matches the long-term thinking that we constantly advocate here at Tendo. Johnston suggests building a community that will support a sustainable business (sustainable in the sense that it can thrive over time). His “secret sauce” for achieving this? Build a robust community of participants who are experiencing a positive relationship with your company or brand. Don’t just use your online community as a place to link customers to products and services. Use it as a way to improve people’s experience.
“Define, identify, and engage your advocates”
This is a piece of wisdom that applies outside of online community management as well. Basically, find your cheerleaders and reward them. Johnston reengineered a VIP program that was being ignored into a “Rockstars” program that thrived. Dell Community Rockstars are nominated by their fellow community members or they can nominate themselves. The reward is increased celebrity within the community—and presumably higher engagement (not to mention some warm fuzzies with the brand).
“Make your platform provider your best friend”
Your technology platform can be the biggest roadblock to building your online community. Johnston suggests getting good and cozy with your platform provider: Explore its native feature set, understand its roadmap moving forward, and be an advocate for positive change.
Thor Muller, Get Satisfaction
“A sense of meaning attracts people”
Similar to Johnston’s advice about having a higher purpose, Muller advises having a sense of meaning behind what you’re doing with your online community. Have a purpose to interactions within the community. Give your community members power to express themselves, which gives them a sense of purpose as well. Muller says to “broadcast your purpose.” In other words, identify concrete goals and be transparent. This builds trust and, therefore, more meaningful relationships with your community members.
“Serendipity = chance + creativity”
Are you getting as much from your community as it's getting from you? “Serendipity is looking for one thing and finding another,” says Muller. Look for surprises—what you don’t expect. Find the wisdom that your community has to offer, which will likely be great insights into what your customers are thinking and feeling. You might even be inspired to develop new ideas, new business models, or new directions for your community.
Rachel Luxemburg, Adobe
“Choose your battles wisely”
A large part of successful community management is about time management. You can’t be everywhere, know everything, and answer every question. And most of the time, your community will step in and answer a question anyway, likely providing great information and insight. In fact, that level of engagement is the mark of a successful community.
Luxemburg advises waiting at least 24 hours to respond when a new question or discussion post arrives to give your community a chance to step in and address it. That is, after all, what the community is there for, right? This leaves the community manager free to provide greater value by addressing things that the community can’t.
Gail Ann Williams, Salon.com/The WELL
“Ranking has an emotional component”
Williams opened with an anecdote about a community member who was an experienced writer and accustomed to receiving criticism. But he was dismayed when a post of his received a “thumbs down” from another member. Why? The context of his post wasn’t really competitive, argumentative, or confrontational.
Williams recommends that community managers be aware of how ranking tools can affect their community culture. Does ranking encourage your community members to post thoughtful comments, or does it discourage them for fear of criticism or retribution? Does a ranking mechanism match the tone of your community? The answer might be yes. Or it might be no. For example, in a forum where members are sharing lots of personal stories, a ranking system or button for “disliking” posts might not be appropriate.
If there is an implicit rating system, such as the ability for an editor to highlight specific articles, it might be wise to minimize other ranking tools. Positive reinforcement, like highlighting an article, can encourage members to participate, without the fear of being slammed by their fellow community members who might just be having a bad day.
My final thoughts
My biggest insight from the evening is that these community managers are successful because they’re passionate about the value of what they’re doing. They care about their communities. They nurture them. And most importantly, they understand fundamentally that their communities comprise individual human beings who are taking time out of their day to contribute to a shared online experience. Whatever you do with that engagement in a business sense, the most important thing to understand is the value of what your community members are offering you in return.
So, with that, enjoy your community building!