Good question, Alan. I think I'd start with the same guidelines we recommend for any employee, namely:
Maintain a positive tone ("twice as nice as everyday life," so that you are not misunderstood).
Avoid sharing any information that isn't already public.
Avoid any forward-looking statements ("x will happen by y") or promises ("I will fix this for you.")
Needless to say, there will be situations where you want to make an exception, but they should be just that -- exceptions, not the rule. Ideally they should come to the community manager if they have any doubt about what to say.
Having said all this, I should note that direct participation in forum discussions is only one of the possible ways to get the executive voice into your community. I am reminded of a post I wrote many years ago, called Three Ways to Show Up. Addressing the question, “How should our company employees participate in our community?” I discussed three ways to do it:
By participating directly in forums discussions, like a typical user does.
By participating in time-limited events, hosted in dedicated forums that are either archived or removed after the event.
For executives, these choices involve different degrees of obligation, effort, and risk (OER). Forum participation is the highest, because of the need to respond promptly (effort), the pressure to provide follow-up responses (obligation), and the unbounded nature of discussion (risk). Events are in between, since they typically have a defined topic (which reduces risk) and a defined time period (which reduces obligation). Executive blogs are the lowest in terms of OER, because you decide the timing and topic; can refine your message; have an approval or review process; and limit or moderate comments.
As I mentioned in my old blog post, I think one of the most effective ways for an exec to participate is to cherry-pick a hot topic in the forum and write a blog post about it. You’d be surprised how much credit an exec will get for doing this. The customer he highlights will feel acknowledged and validated, and other customers will give the exec credit for taking on the tough questions. Meanwhile the exec is choosing only the topics he/she has a good answer for. Wins all the way around.
Part of the decision may lie in how contentious the relationship is between customers and execs in general, between customers and this exec in particular, and around any particular issue you (or they) are considering engaging in. The most contentious issues might merit an approach like (b), since customers might feel they need to be heard (which blogs don’t necessarily allow).
On the other hand, if you already have a close and positive working relationship with your users, it may be fine to just give execs a few simple rules and let them loose. I just know, that's usually not the way it goes.
Hope this helps!
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A few months ago, Richard Millington and I were chatting about a study Richard’s team at Feverbee had recently performed to map the landscape of online customer communities. Richard remarked that most of the communities out there seemed to be focused on peer-to-peer support. Did I agree? Absolutely!
Amid all the talk about communities for loyalty, advocacy, co-creation, etc., what brings customers together most often is the need for help and advice. This need isn’t limited to a single industry — think about healthcare and financial services for two examples — but a large portion of this conversation focuses around complex products or services in the high-tech space — i.e., technical support.
Now, communities are often a hybrid of several use cases or objectives, and it can be difficult to say whether a community’s purpose is primarily support. But I can say that at least half of the approximately 500 communities on the Lithium platform have support as a primary or secondary purpose — maybe the largest single use case we see. And I would guess that’s as true of the community landscape at large as it is of our customer base.
So a few weeks later, when Lithium’s Director of Marketing Rich Reilly proposed a small event at Lithium headquarters co-chaired by Feverbee, Rich Millington and I thought immediately of having support community as a topic. It seemed like a great topic to test out the kind of small-group conversations we’d like to have more of through the course of this year.
The event was last Tuesday. Attendees included director and senior manager level folks responsible for community programs at their organizations. They came from high-tech companies and online services, business-to-business and business-to-consumer companies, and Lithium customers as well as those running on other platforms. It was a great group of experienced people grappling every day with the challenges and opportunities of large-scale, many-to-many customer engagement for the purposes of customer support.
Following are a few of the topics we discussed.
Where does your community effort sit in the organization?
Contrary to expectations, support communities don’t always report into the support organization. In fact, about half of participants said they sat in marketing, not support. A marketing home for community is common in B2B companies, whereas B2C companies generally keep their communities in the support org. B2B communities can also sit in the product development organization, customer success, an innovation group, or developer relations.
In some organizations, the decision of where community should sit isn’t completely settled: “We have to be super fluid; tomorrow we might be under a different organization.”
What are your goals for the community’?
Historically, support community goals have focused on call deflection, and indeed, one participant noted that an influx of calls during a community outage was one of the most effective things in demonstrating the value of community to her organization. But if this roundtable is any indication, there’s a shift toward customer satisfaction and the overall effectiveness of the community in providing the help customers need.
At the same time, challenges abound in measuring those impacts. They include finding the right way to collect satisfaction data in a community, given all the exogenous factors influencing sat, and the best measure for effectiveness, since not all customers indicate whether their question has been solved.
When B2B communities sit in marketing, the objective of providing support to customers sometimes comes second to proving the community can help in acquisition, retention, and upselling. These goals are inherently more difficult to prove because of the many touch points involved in any B2B sale or renewal decision.
Most communities also have goals focused on traditional community metrics like registrations, visits, contributions, etc. — particularly in situations where the community is intended to help grow the business (start-ups) or grow a population critical to the business (developers).
A complicating factor is that today’s support communities are multidimensional, serving more than one goal or more than one audience. Some B2C support communities also include areas for discussion around hobbies or lifestyle. High-tech communities often include areas for technical discussion by developers in addition to more general help and how-to for end users. Many communities encourage participation by employees, which presents its own unique challenges.
How well is your community understood and supported inside your organization?
The short answer is: not as well as it should be.
Regardless of where the community sits, it usually has many other stakeholders across the organization, which complicates reporting structures and makes it hard to achieve a clarity of purpose. Stakeholders often form their own opinion about what purposes the community should be serving, and these can be at odds with the goals the community is designed for or committed to.
Business leaders generally don’t understand community metrics, so reporting has to educate as well as inform. In addition to metrics, customer anecdotes and direct quotes go a long way toward conveying the unique value that community brings to the business.
While most organizations get that community is a good thing, community often lacks the broad understanding and support that exists for more traditional functions. A lot depends on getting buy-in for a method for quantifying return on investment. FeverBee recently published a useful report on calculating ROI. And, as I’ve previously observed, the ROI approach can’t -- and shouldn’t -- come from the community team alone.
How large is your team and how is it composed?
Community teams have three components: dedicated resources who report directly to the community director or manager, 2) contract or shared resources who report into other organizations but have a dotted line to the community team, and 3) voluntary resources from the community, which can be either customers or employees.
In terms of dedicated resources, participants described teams ranging in size from two people to seven. Most common roles included program manager, community manager, administrator, engagement manager, event manager, and content manager. With contractors and matrixed resources, teams range up to 20 people or more, with the most common roles including moderator, analyst, developer, IT support, and community manager for specific categories, languages or subcommunities. When voluntary resources are added, the numbers can go up to the hundreds, and include employee subject-matter experts, leaders for specific topics or boards, advocates/ambassadors, and the traditional community top contributors/superusers.
How do you recruit for, and evaluate, your team?
Community team members come from external and internal sources. External folks are typically brought in for specific community or social skills, and internal for their knowledge of the community, company or industry. Internal candidates might also be sourced when the required skills already exist in other functions (i.e., content management). A good mix of internal and externally sourced team members is often the result, to get the best of both worlds.
Evaluation focuses on successful execution of plans as well as demonstrated positive impact on the team or the community. In most cases, evaluation methods are derived from corporate-wide programs for assessing performance — a marked change from the recent past, when community and social programs were considered so new and unique that standard assessments didn’t apply. At the same time, there remains a challenge of evaluating the community team based on participation or engagement trends, which can be influenced by so many factors (new product introductions, product issues, marketwise developments) that are beyond the community team’s control.
What are some high-impact ideas you would share with all of us?
Here are just a few of the successful ideas participants shared:
Invite user “origin stories ": People love to talk about how they became a gadget geek, a small business owner, an engineer, etc. Focus on whatever identity community members share.
Entrust your users with a decision: Find an opportunity to change or improve a community process, feature, or experience by asking your community’s opinion. Usage can increase when people feel ownership.
If you sell a product, introduce product loans for top contributors: Allow them to donate to a non-profit at the end of the loan — people are often more motivated by what you enable them give to others, than they are by what you give them.
If users create something with your product, create a space for them to share and get feedback on what they create. If you sell website building software, share page designs. If you sell analytics software, share reports. If you have a developer community, share code.
Pass along customer stories to your product team: You can start small — anecdotes and one-offs are fine. Sometimes efforts that don’t scale are exactly what you need to get started.
Make connections between superusers and executives.:A one-to-one connection can give execs a window in the experience of customers and the value of community.
Invite employees to sit in on calls or meetings with superusers: Like execs, employees want and need that direct voice of the customer.
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Thanks to all the participants for their willingness to meet and share. We’re currently surveying them for feedback on this session. If the feedback is positive, we may do more. Interested in attending future support roundtables? Have ideas for roundtables on other community topics are with different attendees? Let us know in the comments below.
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For the latest installment in Lithium’s “Thought Leadership Series: The Modern CX,” I was interviewed by a colleague and got into how and why brands are adapting to the evolving landscape of social and community technologies. Here’s the Q&A. Enjoy!
Q: In your recent piece for Marketing Mag Australia, you show how return on investment (ROI) is there for social and community. If so, why is it still so difficult to convince upper management of its importance to the business?
First, you need to take a look at how you are quantifying ROI. In that piece, I also talk about some of the barriers that exist in measuring ROI. Those barriers have nothing to do with social or community. They are about good business measurement practices, and also about access to data. If you can’t find a way to navigate those barriers, you’re not going to succeed. So put the numbers together first. If you don’t know how to do it, ask your vendor or your peers in other organizations for help.
But even with the numbers in hand, the battle isn’t won. I find that the awareness of this stuff among executives is relatively low. With communities specifically, I often describe it as the biggest secret in social. Hundreds of millions of people use brand communities every month, but how would you know? I don’t see anything about this in Fortune or Forbes or the Wall Street Journal. Don’t blame your executives – they have little opportunity to learn what’s going on, outside of what’s the latest hot social network. So you have to educate. Use examples. Find out what your competitors are doing, or others in your industry.
Q: Any other secrets?
Yes, one big one. Because social and community channels today are new, they are often smaller in volume than other channels. And because they are small, it can be easier to discount their importance. And sometimes social and community managers aggravate the problem with flawed measurement and reporting practices.
If you are managing a social or community effort, you need to make sure the numbers you report don’t underestimate your impact. I’ll give you an example: for communities, it’s common to report metrics like registrations, active users, topics, replies, etc. But since most community use is passive rather than active – in other words, people reading rather than posting – all those metrics radically undercount what’s really happening. To me, the most important metric is monthly unique visitors. I’d start there.
Another thing: you should get in the habit of is putting your ROI calculations in the content of potential future growth. For example, let’s say you save x costs today at y level of usage. What will this look like at z usage levels? When will you get there? What will it take to get there sooner? Most social channels are generating a small fraction of the value they could generate if the brand focused on driving adoption. If you paint that picture, you can escape that danger of being “too small to matter.”
Q: We hear a lot about cost savings and sales. Are there other benefits from community and social that you think don’t get enough attention?
Customer insights. It’s on everyone’s radar screen – companies will often say it’s one of the reasons that they are doing this stuff in the first place. But you don’t see it highlighted very often, and you certainly don’t see it quantified as part of an ROI exercise.
Among the things I’ve heard more than once: “In our community, we hear about issues weeks or months in advance of when we hear through traditional channels.” In part this is because of the ease and speed with which customers can share their opinions online. But there’s something else happening here too. I often say that a customer will wonder before they will complain. Is it just me, or is something wrong with this product? Have I just not learned how to use it? Is this happening to anyone else? A customer may spend hours, days, or even weeks in this “wondering” stage before they would ever pick up the phone or drive to the store. Many of our customers very intentionally make communities part of an “early issue identification” process, so that insights are promptly spotted and escalated to the right people inside the organization. An effective program can have a big impact on call volumes, complaints, product returns, and customer sat issues.
Q: Why can’t you do that with call center data?
You could, but the reports from traditional call centers often don’t end up at the executive’s desk until a month after the problems emerge. With communities, you can just go on the website and see what issues are customers are having in real time.
Q: Ok, here’s a question community managers often ask: how do you find the balance between an employee responding to a question and letting customers pitch in with a solution?
It’s funny, we never got this question 20 years ago. That’s because the attitude used to be, the community is where customers to help customers. If you need an answer from us, you know our phone number. Brands didn’t think customers wanted them to participate in the community. Of course, that was wrong – if it’s your community, your customers expect to see you there. I think those expectations are even stronger today than they were even two or three years ago. That’s because customers are now seeing brands answering questions out on social channels. So if you’re not doing that in your community, you’re going to be disappointing some people.
To figure out whether you have the right balance, look at the metrics. If it’s taking you a day and a half on average to get a first reply, then it’s not the time to pull back yet. In fact, maybe you need to participate more until you can cultivate more active customer-contributors. But if you’re already providing a reply in 30 minutes on average, maybe you have some room to step back a bit and create room for customers to respond first. Other relevant metrics are response rate (what percentage of questions get replies) and satisfaction (what percentage of users say they are satisfied with the experience they are getting in the community).
Q: Any final tips on how you inspire those customers to help out?
A robust and active group of customer “superusers” is the product of doing many things right. It starts with getting enough users to the community. Remember that only a small percentage of users have the potential to be superusers. It varies by community, but can be as small as one out of every 200. So to have superusers emerge, you need to have lots of people coming in the first place. The other benefit of having lots of visitors is that you’ll also get lots of questions. Questions are the oxygen that superusers need to grow. Keep in mind too that you have to remain worthy of their support – which means that way you manage the community, deal with issues that arise, and even behave as a company can have a positive or negative effect on people’s willingness to help you. So a large part of the superuser challenge is building a healthy and growing community and company to begin with.
The next layer is recognition, privileges, and rewards. Early on, it’s enough to just have a good gamification system (ranks and badges) and also some one-on-one communication with those who are emerging. That’s all recognition – letting them know that you know they are there, and letting everyone else know too. At some point you want to formalize the program, with criteria, privileges, and even rewards if you choose to do that. That formal structure will allow you to grow your superuser group more efficiently.
Q: Thanks for your time today!
It was my pleasure!
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Just one additional nuance here - I think our Business Value Engineering team prefers Visits here instead of Unique Visitors. It's a slightly less conservative metric (since each visitor might visit more than once in the period), but it's closer to how support organizations typically measure (not in terms of people, but in terms of calls).
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