Gail Williams of Salon and The WELL invited people this week to share their thoughts on the subject of "influencers," and recaps the contributions here. Following are some simple tips I share with companies launching online customer communities about how to cultivate "superusers" -- that group of active users from which influencers and advocates can emerge.
Identify superuser candidates among known advocates, online or off. Even before beginning their own online efforts, many companies already know people who are strong believers in their brand and their products. They may know them through offline forums like user groups and user conferences. Today, they may also know them through groups they have created in Facebook or people who are following their Twitter feeds. If you already have a relationship with these folks, reach out to them directly -- engaging them in your community can strengthen their ties to one another and to you.
Identify existing online communities (if any) to reach out to. If you're like most companies, there are already online groups that aren't hosted by the company but provide a place where your customers are receiving peer help and support today. I don't recommend that you reach out directly via posts in their forums or messages to those users. Every forum that provides help to your customers is an asset to your organization, and you don't want to jeopardize that relationship by being disrespectful to the organizers of those groups. You aren't in competition with them -- I always say, a healthy ecosystem is your best friend. Instead, reach out directly to the organizers of those groups. Let them know of your plans. Let them know that you appreciate what they contribute to the ecosystem around your products, and tell them you hope to your community can contribute to it as well. In most cases they will appreciate the respect you show them, and they won't be shy about letting their superusers know about it. Sometimes they often become superusers themselves.
Create "superuser-friendly" user guidelines and moderation policies. It probably goes without saying -- the best way to cultivate superusers is to create a great environment for them to do their work. Sometimes companies say, "we need to be strict at the start in order to satisfy Legal, then we can relax once they realize everything's ok." They then spend the first few weeks hitting users over the head for minor infractions, and guess what? A lot of those early users are the superusers who, if you treat them right, will answer 30% or 40% of all questions. Who answers those questions when you chase all these "answer people" away? That would be you.
In this regard, most companies focus on user guidelines, but that's only half the story. You also need good moderation polices. User guidelines describe what users should and shouldn't do. You need a plan for what happens when they do what they shouldn't. It has to be well thought out, consistent, and respectful. And anyone from the company who moderates or participates needs to be trained in those policies.
Invite known advocates to preview community, create seed content, and provide feedback. Invite your advocates to take an early look at your efforts, a day or two before they are open to the open to the public. They will appreciate being asked. Not only will you get great feedback and buy-in from these users, but you'll solve a difficult as well -- they will help you develop a light layer of seed content which you'll need to launch successfully. This is much better than creating phony accounts, which I don't recommend. You don't need much content to launch successfully -- in the early days, users will look for freshness as much as depth, and will understand that a new community won't have deep content on day one.
And those organizers of other forums? Invite them to preview your efforts too.
Add elements to community structure that allow superusers to identify you (welcome forum) and to identify themselves (feedback forum). Among the forums and blogs and idea boards you'll see in Lithium communities, you'll notice two common forums -- a welcome forum, and a community feedback forum. I can think of lots of reasons why you'd want these two forums, but here's why they matter to your superuser efforts. The welcome forum tells potential superusers that someone is running the place, and identifies who that someone is. Superusers expect that their efforts will be noticed. A moderator can't do this alone. Only the person in charge can.
The feedback forum accomplishes a different purpose. It's the place many superusers use to announce, "I'm here." They do that by making suggestions for new boards, features, etc.
By the way, this is a "feedback on the community" forum, not a "feedback on our products and services" forum. You'll get the latter anyway, in the forums dedicated to product or service discussions. And a forum designated generically for "feedback" is a magnet for rants.
And lest I forget: the welcome forum always goes at the top, and is always read-only. That's your podium. No one else gets the podium -- that's your privilege as the community manager. The feedback forum goes at the bottom, so it doesn't get in the way for most users, who simply have a question they want answered.
Develop a rank and reputation structure to reward and incent superusers. My colleague Michael Wu has given you a graduate course on rank structures on his blog (parts 1, 2, and 3), but let me share a few more general pieces of superuser-specific advice here.
As with online community management in general, superuser management ain't about the software. That being said, as in every other area of community management, your platform can empower you or constrain you in your efforts to do what you need to grow your superuser group successfully. One empowering element is a reputation system. A reputation system works 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to recognize users for their participation. You decide (often with input from your members) what activities matter in the community, and you write those activities into the rules that govern the assignment of ranks. Users are automatically granted ranks when they have satisfied the requirements you define. In the Lithium system, these ranks can also carry permissions, meaning that users can earn the privilege of doing things that other user's can't do.
Some companies, like FutureShop, make their rank structure completely transparent to users. Others, like Nokia, reveal the rank structure but not the criteria. If you read the entire thread at Nokia, you can see how the rank structure has evolved over the past 3-1/2 years, and user feedback and suggestions along the way.
Should you reveal the criteria or not? Most customer communities do not reveal the criteria to members. This is particularly true in consumer communities. Keeping the criteria secret prevents users from "gaming the system" to move up the ranks. But as you can see from the Nokia example, it also adds an element of fun, as users speculate on what it takes to move up from level to level.
But there are advantages to transparency as well, particularly in professional or business-to-business setting. In fact, many customer communities today use a blend of transparency and opacity, delivering the former through leaderboards (see Research In Motion's Support Forums for an example) and the latter through ranks.
It's hard to generalize about rank names because it depends on the community, but I prefer rank structures in which no rank is disparaging (no "n00bs"), lower ranks don't suggest expertise (doing so can create cynicism), and upper ranks have titles which reflect the seriousness in which many users will regard them. (Don't forget that some people treat them as a credential they have earned -- which they are -- and sometimes even put them on their resumes.)
POST-LAUNCH, FIRST 30 TO 90 DAYS:
Identify emerging superusers as they move up the ranks and provide positive feedback. Within the first 30 to 90 days of a community, the community manager's task with regard to superusers is very simple: you must make sure that your superusers know that you know they are there. You don't need to give them anything, or promise them anything, or give them any privileges, or fulfill any of their requests. You simply need send them the right signals. If they send you a message, answer it promptly. When you observe people rise up the ranks, or who otherwise stand out for the quality and quantity of their participation, send them a message of thanks. Done.
Acknowledge their suggestions and ideas, without making commitments. I mentioned the value of the feedback forum, but there's an obligation there too. A community manager must acknowledge those suggestions and thank the user publicly for offering them. You don't need to agree to those changes, unless of course they are something overlooked and easy to fix, but you do need to acknowledge them as ideas you will consider as the community grows. An offline message asking for more details is good too.
Tune reputation system based in real user data. Around the 60 day point you'll want to "sanity check" your rank structure to make sure the quantities you set for each ranked have proven to be reasonable and achievable. Michael has some tips on this, but running a quick report that shows users by rank will show you whether users are moving up (good) or stagnating (bad).
POST-LAUNCH, 90 DAYS AND BEYOND
I say 90 days here, but the following steps should really occur no earlier than 90 days in most communities, and very often occur later. The key question to ask are, a) has a group of superuser emerged, and if so, b) do I have enough history on each of those users to understand their habits and character?
Review participation history and refine superuser group down to supporters. Generally after 90 days, you can answer "yes" to (a). It is generally a small group at that point, and the users are characterized by daily visits to the community, frequency of contribution, and quality of contribution. All of these criteria can be measured and reported -- assuming that you provide a way for other users to rate the quality of a contribution.
However, there's one other criterion that matters. It's one that distinguishes supportive superusers from other who are not supportive. By "supportive" I don't mean that they are advocates of your brand or product, although they often are. I mean supportive of the community and its goals. In general, this means they understand the mission of the community as you have defined it, and that their participation supports that mission. At a minimum, it means they don't violate community guidelines. More broadly, it means they provide a model for others and help ensure that other members participate successfully too. This isn't true of every superuser, or even every helpful and knowledgeable superuser. But it must be true of superusers who you bring closer to your organization as you formalize your superuser program.
Create a private forum accessible only to superusers. I like the idea of offering superusers a private forum where they can engage with you and with their superuser peers. Because they are in your community every day, they notice things they want to bring to your attention -- for example, problem users -- or have questions they would prefer not to share on the community at large. It's a privilege you can offer them, and it helps you as a community manager as well.
Why wait 90 days? Well again, unless you know these users via some other forum, you'll need some history in order to determine if they are supportive. If you create a forum on Day 1, here's what will happen: you'll invite your most active users. Over the next few days or weeks, you'll realize that one or more of those users isn't particularly mindful of the guidelines, and in fact prompts complaints from other users. However, when you try to remove that user from the private forum, other superusers will object -- you can't remove Bob, Bob is not a bad guy, give him a chance, etc. At that point, mere days into your new community, you've created an "us and them" situation with your superusers. As a community manager, you'll have plenty of battles to fight -- you'll be thankful you didn't start by sparking this one.
Create a specification for the superuser program -- criteria for selection, term of membership, etc. Of course, superusers don't work for you, and you don't assign them tasks -- they do their work voluntarily because of the satisfaction they get from doing so. However, if you do grant superusers privileges like access to a private forum, you do need to think about how you administer additions to, and exits from, the group. Not everyone will want to participate forever, and you shouldn't want or expect them to. Nor should you lead them to believe that they are "lifetime members." In other words, you need to create a formal program.
Microsoft's MVP program is larger and broader than a superuser program for the average online community, but I think its principles apply to almost any superuser effort. Sean O'Driscoll describes the MVP program in this video.
Reward and empower superusers with additional permissions and privileges on the community. If your community platform permits, you may want to grant superuser privileges that other users don't have. Access to a private forum, as mentioned previously, is one. But you might also consider things like the ability to upload attachments or videos, to author blog posts, or to edit or delete messages. There are more than 90 permissions on the Lithium platform that can be distributed in this way.
Explore other opportunities for rewarding and growing the superuser group (invitation to focus groups, participation in beta tests, previews of products, recognition at conferences, in-person meetings, etc.) Over time, you'll find many opportunities to reward and engage your superusers. Access to betas or early versions of products is particular prized by superusers -- not for any monetary value, but for the chance to keep their knowledge as current as possible. Don't neglect the chance to bring some of those virtual relationships into the physical world by inviting your active users to join you at industry conferences that may be of interest to them. I know a community manager who keep track of all the cities where his superusers reside, and simply calls them when business travel takes him to their area. In our increasingly virtual world, there's still nothing like a having a cup of coffee with a friend.