Online Communities Dos and Don'ts

Ann All

I recently interviewed Toby Richards and Mark Yolton, the folks responsible for heading up online communities for Microsoft and SAP, respectively, and I've also had the pleasure of interviewing Vida Killian, who manages Dell's IdeaStorm community. One thing that emerged from all of those conversations is the importance of enlisting people who "get" social communications to manage your corporate communities.


I was struck again with this thought in reading a Harvard Business Review column written by Debi Kleiman, VP of product marketing at Communispace, and Anat Keinan, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, in which they detail six online community mistakes. I've reproduced them below and added my comments.


Don't think you can just plug in and go. As they write: "If you don't have people who understand your business and have the skills to facilitate vibrant discussions without dominating the conversation you won't generate good insights." This is so true, but it's a common mistake for companies to not devote enough personnel to social communication efforts, or to have too many staffers participating with no unifying strategy to guide them. Dell, SAP and Microsoft all ask employees to pitch in and help monitor and manage discussions, but they seem to let community members take the lead.


Yolton leads a core staff of about 50, which devotes itself full-time to reviewing content, adding content and assisting community members. About 500 other folks within SAP, developers, product managers and the like, keep an eye on discussion forums related to their expertise. Said Yolton: "They don't answer all the questions, but they look for ones that haven't been answered or were answered wrong and help steer those in the right direction." SAP and Microsoft also ask community members to lead discussions and reward them for doing so.


Don't believe bigger is better. Kleiman and Keinan say "large communities are less effective than smaller ones at nurturing relationships among members, and between members and the brand." Yet Dell, SAP and Microsoft all have large communities. The SAP Developer Network, one of five communities contained within SAP's larger Community Network, has roughly two million members. Membership in the other four communities ranges from 170,000 to 400,000. Yet SAP actively encourages members to connect with each other, by bringing them together at physical events among other means.


I think members of larger communities tend to create their own sub-communities around topics of discussion, common interests and other areas. Smart companies can keep an eye on the sub-communities and nurture those where appropriate.

Don't expect people to stick around for nothing. Dell, SAP and Microsoft all dole out perks to community members for their participation. As I noted in this post, Microsoft rewards some members of its community with early product releases and opportunities to speak with Microsoft product engineers. Likewise, SAP gives some members goodies such as reserved seats at SAP's physical events, meetings with SAP executives, and invitations to press briefings, earnings calls and other events where they might get an early heads-up on SAP news. IdeaStorm members sometimes get the thrill of seeing their ideas implemented by the company, and they also receive small tokens of appreciation such as an engraved pen.


All three companies also stressed to me the importance of less tangible rewards such as connecting with peers and adding contributions of value to other members.


Don't "sell." None of the companies I interviewed see direct sales as a main objective of their communities, though they do think that encouraging a more personal connection with their brand will encourage sales. Interestingly, SAP's most recently created community within the larger Community Network is SAP EcoHub, which Yolton explained is "a marketplace of partner and SAP solutions as opposed to a community where people share information with each other." It doesn't sound like a hard sell for members, who can "sort and search and rate and rank" the available solutions.


Don't drop the ball. In other words, write Kleiman and Keinan, "develop a long-term relationship with your community." Again, all three companies work hard at engaging their members and trying to convert passive community members into more active ones, an issue I wrote about in this post.


Don't hoard the data. Kleiman and Keinan suggest creating reports and communication plans and sharing community data with folks throughout your company, from product managers to C-suite executives. They write: "Some people should hear unfiltered customers voices; some need deep dives with detail; others need quick and dirty top-lines. The more that people throughout the company engage with community feedback, the more value they'll find and the higher your ROI will be." Ed Moran, director of product innovation at Deloitte, made the same point when I interviewed him about Deloitte's "Tribalization of Business" study. He said:


Your whole enterprise should care, not just marketing. Your product development people should be sitting right there saying, "What does this mean for the next revision of our product?" It'll help you get smart about support. "What are the bugs in our product, or what's not clear about the owners' manual?" You can correct that almost in real time through better integration with your support. Think about HR, even. People who are really engaged with your company's product and services and want to help, wouldn't those be great people to employ some day? So when you go across the enterprise and look at the different functions, every one of them should have a seat at the table.


Moran also suggested companies should consider establishing centers of excellence responsible for disseminating community-generated information to relevant stakeholders. He said:


... If you have an office in Brazil, some of the stuff you are learning there might be good to integrate into operations at the mothership. There needs to be a mechanism to get the information from Brazil to the mothership. A center of excellence can do that. The center is tasked with everything you are learning and getting it to the right places in the organization.

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