Just because you’ve built it doesn’t mean they’ll come

Online communities have become more and more prevalent and important to us – both as individuals and professionals.

On a personal level, one need only to look at Facebook and its half a billion users.  The amount of time people are spending catching up and interacting with friends through it is huge compared to their interaction prior to FB.  I know from experience that I’ve been able to connect with friends and talk to friends I wouldn’t even have bothered trying to find had it not been so easy.

On a professional level, all companies are looking for new ways to emotionally engage (and tie-in) their customers and prospects.  Certainly, as part of an agency, the number of ‘social media’/’social networking’ requests has increased significantly over the last year.

The question businesses (B2C and B2B alike) tend to ask is:

  • how do you start that engagement?
  • how do you maintain that engagement over time?
  • what platform do you engage with people with?

But often they miss the most critical ones, namely:

  • WHY do you want to create a community? (If it’s just because everyone else is doing it, then cease and desist.  Think about this carefully and when you have a better answer, come back)
  • What do you have to OFFER THEM? (Why should people want to be part of this community?  If you’re not enhancing their daily lives you’re a nuisance and a distraction.  Again, cease and desist if you have nothing to offer then and return to this project when you do.

Only when these two questions have been answered should clients then move on to the other 3 questions above .  Sadly, what tends to happen is that these two questions are post-rationalised, meaning a severely diminished user experience and therefore engagement.

With all this in mind, I went to an event last week held by Reputation Online around ‘Communities’ – building and maintaining them.  An excellent day that confirmed some of my own thoughts but also introduced me to some new ideas and perspectives.  The rest of this post is all about what I learnt, what I thought etc.

“Face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it to be” – Jack Welch

First the stats.  In the WorldWideWeb, over 50% do not have any sort of participation online, whilst the content development is done by a lowly 13% of online users – in the words of Churchill Never… was so much owed by so many to so few’.

So companies need to add another question to their ‘set’ – How do we find/create that top 13% in our community?

Blaise Grimes-Viort showed this pyramid about the types of engagement that people have within communities.  Again, community managers should be looking to move people up the pyramid as they become more engaged with a community. From ‘Sharing’ upwards they all play an important role in pushing your message because not only are they seeing it, but they are also taking action with it – the mere act of sharing opens new people to the community and shows that the content created has value.  So, one more question for companies to ask themselves is – How do we move the 52% inactive into the upper steps of the ladder?

But companies need to be realistic.

Creating a community is a long term project.  Someone likened it to parenting – ‘you are very involved early on, you will have lots of sleepless nights but as it grows you will be redundant to its development’.

Companies should also consider:

  • how long it will take to see a return (critical to understand this, as many communities die a death because companies don’t see an immediate ROI and abandon the communities)
  • what kind of return you are likely to see (pipeline of business, demand for RFPs due to thought leadership activity, etc)
  • what and how much involvement will be necessary internally & (ultimately) are you able to deliver – too often clients build a community but don’t possess the processes or staff to support and -again- abandon it
  • the fact that a community is not a panacea for emotional engagement and merely creating the environment does not mean you have a community.

“It is better to create than to learn.  Creating is the essence of life” – Ceasar

When you’ve answered all the questions above, you are then ready to create your community.  But now the question becomes where will you find them?

Every single one of us is already part of a community and some of our friends and peers are probably interested in the content we develop, so publicise it through email signatures, in conversations or via your company website. One of the simplest ways of doing this is to get staff to develop content.  They can then promote the community to their peers who will do likewise thus extending its reach. You can also tap pre-existing communities. For example, if you are part of a LinkedIn group, let them know about your group (by distributing some content from it through LinkedIn) so that it becomes another resource for them to visit.

Once people are in your ‘community’, make it easy for them to find information and contribute.  You can consider incentivising them to contribute so that doing so become habitual.  The more they are engaged, the more they will come back and contribute. And the more contributions your community has, the more valuable it becomes to its users.

Another way to ensure people come back is to respect them and that means that if they contribute, you should acknowledge that contribution. Even if it’s not something you want to hear – but more on that later.

One point made during the event which I had not considered before was publicising the achievements of the group as a whole (passing 100 users, etc) and as individuals.  This makes your community feel involved in your success because it is their success too – after all they contributed to it.

Also, look for opportunities to make the community ‘live’ offline too.  If possible, create events for people to attend (professional or social) where the bonds they make online can become stronger and real, rather than merely virtual.

For a guide on how not to treat your community, read Jordan Cooper’s entry. [UPDATE 14/10 – if you’re interested in how to make members feels special, or why they may not be engaging, click here and here respectively.]

“In the face of criticism, we can become bitter or better” – WA Ward

One of the key worries for a lot of companies is the lack of control over what is written and said.  To an extent, if you don’t want the bad stuff thrown at you then don’t open yourself up. So, how can you minimise the potential damaging effects of this?

There are ways to ensure that everything that is written (good and bad) is done in good faith and within the community guidelines.  One of the critical things is to establish the rules of engagement – what is permitted and what is not.  Beware not too be too restrictive otherwise people will feel you are obstructing them from airing their views and will simply go elsewhere.

At the same time, don’t be afraid to tell people off for going ‘off-brief’ – commenting on customer service in a discussion about new products. In those occassions, let them know that their views are appreciated but that specific section is not the right one and, if not already available, create an area where their views are relevant.

Most importantly though is to acknowledge them.  There is nothing more irritating than not being heard.  Web2.0 is all about a two-way communication so engage in the conversation – don’t just throw stuff out there and leave it, you could be missing hugely important and significant sales opportunities. And if they have a valid point, then for goodness’ sake make sure you address it.

This will (at times) be a painful process but once it is bedded in, it will become easier and the group will self-moderate.   The ultimate goal is that users become super users and will act as your ambassadors, respond on your behalf and become almost more knowledgeable about your product than you (the ultimate prosumers).

“I know 50% of my advertising is wasted, I just don’t know which” – John Wanamaker

Because the use of social media/networks is relatively new for most companies, knowing what success looks like is quite difficult.  Also, there are so many things you can evaluate.  So, what should you measure?

The elements below are just a few of what can be a very, very, VERY long list:

  • SEO
  • Member satisfaction
  • Site traffic
  • Comments
  • Page views
  • Content tagging/forwarding
  • Time spent on site
  • User generated content

These will give you a sense of how popular your community is and how engaged your community members are.  But this should not be seen as the only things you measure.  As the site grows you should look to grow this list as well into to give you added insight into how your member interact with you.

“A community is like a ship; everyone ought to be prepared to take the helm” – Henrik Ibsen

The whole point of joining communities is finding people with similar interest so companies need to create spaces where people can engage with others easily, feel stimulated to contribute to the community and become your community’s biggest activists/advocates. If you do this right, your community members will become your biggest assets.

With thanks to all the presenters at ReputationOnline Live and Reputation online.

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