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.
* * *
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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@drolcak is exactly right re the formula, Pete: Deflected calls = Unique visitors (LSI) * %seeking support (survey) * %resolution rate (survey)*%deflection rate (survey). If you are using our Value Analytics feature, it gives you the last three data points for this formula.
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Always nice to hear from a superuser, @quinnicus -- you folks make the world go round.
I was just thinking about this topic today when I was adjusting my Slack settings, where you can choose Apple style, Google style, Twitter style, or Emoji one style for your emojis there, which I thought was cool.
This request has also come in via our customer-only site for suggesting product enhancements. I would recommend that you add your vote there, but since it's not accessible to the public, I put in a vote on your behalf.
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I don't recommend removing bounces from your ROI calculation. In fact, I can't think of one community that does this. (If you do and you are reading this, speak up!)
@BrianOblinger hints at why this is never done -- it's because single-page visits (aka bounces) are often successful visits in a support community. If you're a typical public-facing community, and even with your AdWords traffic, you're probably generating more than half your visits from search, which means they are landing on content pages with answers. They may not need to go further.
In the data I've seen, bounce rates for content sites of all kinds tend to range from 40-60%. The conventional wisdom says that that forum-based sites skew to the high end of that range, but most Lithium communities fall closer to the middle.
It's not surprising that visitors from a campaign are more likely to bounce. Just because of the nature of campaigns, the resulting visits tend to be less goal-oriented. But it doesn't seem to be driving your bounce rates outside a normal range.
Bottom line, most companies count them, and you should too.
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This is a superb thread all around -- good question, concrete examples, and the benefits and risks both addressed. I'd buy a round of beers if I could, but I'm afraid the best I can do is give you all kudos. :-)
The practice of using the community as an outage board was pretty rare until a few years ago, so it's interesting to see the experiences being shared here. I think the first time I noticed it was with Swisscom, which as you can see is still there. Past outages are deleted (or hidden), as we noted before. Anyhow, that's one more example for you.
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I can’t believe it’s been 8 years since I lost the argument and we decided to launch our own community. (That’s a story for another day – catch me at the 10 year.) Of course, I’m glad I lost that argument, because of all the benefits the community has brought to Lithium, but also for something else: because it’s given us the chance to “walk in our customers shoes,” and experience for ourselves the kinds of things you only learn by creating a branded community for your own brand.
Because I was involved in launching the community and remain involved as the Lithium Community’s “executive sponsor,” @JennC asked if I could put together a list of some of the things we’ve learned. So, here are 8 things we’ve learned over the past 8 years of running the Lithium community.
It’s hard – maybe impossible – to do everything right. We’re the experts, so of course we wanted our implementation to be flawless in every way. Guess what? No matter how intentional you are, or how well you scope your effort to your capacities to plan and manage, you’re going to make mistakes. Recognize them, address them, move on.
When you don’t do something right, sometimes it’s best to just start over. We learned this with our VIP program. After a few years of middling success, we started over with the Stars program, and life is so much better for us and our members.
Community focus will ebb and flow. Over eight years, sometimes the community has been a main focus of attention for our business. At other times, it’s been purely about keeping it going at steady state while other priorities take precedence. Don’t fight it – use this time to take stock and prepare for your next turn in the spotlight.
There is no maintenance mode. While the community might be the focus today and merely the sidelight tomorrow, make no mistake – there is no point at which the community can be put on autopilot. In reality, the community is the focus every day – for those who are using, joining, and participating. Be there for them.
Ownership dictates focus. We all know that community has something to contribute to many aspects of the business, from marketing to sales to product development to customer care. In the end, though, the community has to be owned by somebody, and the things you do best will probably relate most closely to the function or department that funds the community.
Your community team will change. That superstar you have running the community today? In all likelihood, he or she will be moving up or moving on at some point in the future. Make sure you have your operation well-defined, and have other team members who can step in when the time comes.
Your superusers are in it for the long haul. While your community team will change, many members of your community will not. It’s surprising to see how many of our earliest members are still among our most active and influential in our community. Increasingly, they carry the history of our community forward as much as we do.
Your superusers will continuously amaze you. Maybe it’s a fact that people in general are pretty amazing if you really pay attention. Or perhaps there’s just something special about those who devote their time and effort to helping their fellow community members. Regardless, in any venue, from on-sites at our headquarters to dialogues in our private superuser forum, I am always in awe of the insights and perspective these folks have to share. Don’t underestimate yours.
It’s been a fun 8 years – looking forward to many more.
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Great suggestion - thanks for the added info. It could even be a variation on (alternative to) of the purchase intent question. We're getting ready to deploy the new survey on the Lithium community, and I'm thinking that for business like ours -- and yours -- a question around intent to renew (or in your case, not leave) might be more relevant and useful than a question about intent to make an additional purchase. I'll add make sure this idea is part of the of the conversation on around the next release of the feature. If it looks like something we can do, we may run some alternatives by you.
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Thanks for the comments, guys. Glad to hear these improvements are resonating!
@Limydoo I love the idea around churn. I can imagine a question that probes intention to stay/go, much like the question we just added around purchase intent. Interested in any specific thoughts you (or others) might have on this.
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Back in January, I shared some perspective about our new Value Analytics feature, which was made available to all our customers as a core feature of our community platform at the end of last year. Since then we’ve had more than 60 customers turn on that feature in their communities, and they’ve collected results from almost 200,000 users to date. Here are a few results that I’ve found interesting so far:
Companies choose between Net Promoter Score (NPS) and CSAT at an almost 50% split. (Value Analytics asks you to choose one or the other.)
Results from B2B communities so far are skewing slightly higher than B2C across key Value Analytic metrics like success rate, NPS and CSAT.
Early results suggest that CSAT correlates strongly with low Time to First Reply, especially in B2B communities.
In the meantime, our customers have offered a ton of feedback on things they’d like to see added or improved in the feature. Among the most common requests:
Ability to assess the potential impact on sales, rather than just cost savings.
Ability to customize more questions and answers.
More logical flow between some questions.
A more intuitive experience for administrators in configuring the survey.
Better clarity in question format, particularly in relation to the NPS question.
A free-text question so respondents could provide context for their responses.
Ok, so that’s what customers are finding, and doing, and asking for. What about our team at Lithium?
Well, I was super pleased that we were able to do a quick update earlier this year to address some “gotchas” that made it into the initial release – and many thanks to those who helped us spot those. Even better, we were able to release a second, more significant update just a week ago, as part of our version 16.5 platform release. While there are still plenty of improvements we’d like to make, I’m happy to say that you’ll find each of the bullets above are addressed in a meaningful way in this release. Go team!
If you haven’t turned on Value Analytics in your community yet, the new, improved survey is waiting for you – please use it! But if you’ve been already running the feature and collecting data, we haven’t forgotten you. We’ve actually retained the original survey (called the “Impact Survey”) alongside the improved survey (called the “Customer Experience Survey”) so you can plan your migration to the improved survey over time, in a thoughtful way.
Thanks again to all our early adopters, who are pioneering these kinds of measurements in community. And thanks, too, to our internal teams in product marketing, product management, and engineering, for keeping this feature (and all our products) improving and evolving.
For more info on Value Analytics and the improvements in 16.5, please see the Knowledge Base article About Value Analytics, and the Release Notes for 16.5.
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@BrianOblinger, couldn't agree more. @oliverlutz1 a fix is already underway for the scale issue and will come in 15.12, and possibly sooner. Re the comment box, good feedback. We've had other folks ask for workflow that takes an unsatisfied customer into an escalation path. Looking forward to seeing what else we hear in the coming weeks as this gets rolled out to more communities. @Huntson, thanks to you as well. Our data suggests that, between NPS and CSAT, most customers will find the tool useful. But we'll certainly find out in the coming weeks and months as we monitor adoption. I don't doubt that some customers, like you, will continue to find that a traditional survey tool better meets your needs.
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Holiday season is now behind us, but just before it arrived you may have noticed something new in the admin console -- a gift from our analytics team. It’s a new feature, part of our core platform and available to all customers on version 15.10, and it’s called Value Analytics.
I was lucky enough to help the team that developed Value Analytics, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on what’s in it and why it matters.
As you know, data and analytics has always been a key focus at Lithium. We’ve got the world’s largest database of enterprise social and community data, going back 15 years and covering hundreds of brands in dozens of industries around the world. But there’s one kind of data we’ve never collected in our platform: data on user intent, success, and satisfaction. This data was sometimes gathered independently by our customers, and sometimes they shared it with us. More often though, it was locked in spreadsheets or databases inside their organizations, or never collected at all.
Last year our Business Value Engineering (BVE) team -- our “ROI geeks” -- began to ask the question: could we find a way in every Lithium community to easily gather and analyze this data? Our analytics team accepted the challenge, and by late last year had a beta version of the product live in a small set of communities. (If you use the Lithium Community, you probably saw it first. They were included in our beta.)
So what does Value Analytics do? It starts with a standardized set of five survey questions:
What is your purpose for visiting the community?
Were you able to find the information you were looking for?
If you did not find your answer, what would you have done next?
How would you rate your overall experience on this community (very satisfied to very unsatisfied)?
How likely are you to recommend our community to a colleague or a friend?
While the answers to some questions are customizable, the questions are not. They are based on formats most commonly used by customers already doing similar surveys, and ones endorsed by standards groups and professional organizations, including the creators of the Net Promoter Score SM (NPS®). This standardization saves you time and effort, but it has another benefit too -- it enables us benchmark your performance against other communities like yours. This is exciting for me, because in the 20 years I’ve been working with communities, we’ve never had the answer to questions like: how satisfied, on average, are users of brand communities today?
Value Analytics is designed for communities of all kinds, regardless of industry, audience, or focus. But there’s additional value if your community focuses on customer service or support. You’ll note that questions 2 and 3 provide data that can be used to quantify cost savings based on avoided calls to your call center. The results are already starting to roll in. Jaime Perez and his team Microstrategy share their results in a new Lithium case study.
We recommend that every customer enable this feature immediately. The questions will appear for a randomized set of community users based on simple configuration choices you make, such as surveying the community overall, or focusing on specific community areas (nodes) or roles. Don’t get hung up on all the other things you might want to ask or know -- you can run more extensive surveys using other tools. You may be doing so already, and that shouldn’t change. This tool is different. The power is in its simplicity. You’ll get a quick baseline and understand your strengths and weaknesses, using reports newly added to Lithium Social Intelligence. You can then use the data to understand the impact of everything you do -- new designs, features, content, and processes -- on the experience you’re creating for your users.
We’re looking forward to seeing your results!
For additional information on Value Analytics you can refer to the 15.10 release notes and website, or you can contact your Customer Success Manager.
NPS is a registered service mark, and Net Promoter Score is a service mark, of Bain & Company, Inc., Satmetrix Systems, Inc. and Fred Reichheld.
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Thanks, Cy - and I agree that it can be easy to lose sight of these principles. Maybe we should add this as a item in the annual evaluations that I recommend community managers perform. Not just, how is the community doing, but how are we doing as sponsors and leaders of this community.
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People have asked me what I think about the recent problems at Reddit. A lot of other community experts have shared their thoughts, including Gina Bianchini, Rachel Happe, Patrick O’Keefe, and Chuq von Rospach. But for people who build brand communities, I think a few more words are necessary.
Everyone has a frame of reference. Not everyone knows it, but everyone has it. My frame of reference is shaped by the hundreds of brand communities that I work with every day as Chief Community Officer at Lithium. These communities are different than Reddit. For the vast majority of the companies who create them, community is a critical part of their business, but it isn’t the business itself. In other words, they make money from selling products and services, not directly from operating a community.
They are different in another way, too. Collectively, they generate more than a hundred million unique visitors every month, just like Reddit does. But, individually they are much smaller, ranging from one-tenth, to one one-hundredth, to one one-thousandth the size of Reddit. There are some unique problems that come from massive scale. It isn’t the same when you are significantly smaller.
But there’s another big way that brand communities are different than Reddit. Reddit is dedicated to the principle of free speech. This is a promise — sometimes explicit, always implicit — that Reddit makes to its members. Now what I’m about to say may sound controversial, but brand communities don’t make that promise to their users. They make a different promise. A computer hardware manufacturer promises that people who are looking for help and ideas for using its products will get that from its community. A retailer of beauty products promises that people who are interested in beauty will get advice and how-to information. Both companies, like most other brand communities, also make an implicit promise that you will have an experience consistent with their brand — which means, if you visit the community, you will have a positive, rewarding experience — not a negative, offensive, or irrelevant one.
What that also means is, if you want to debate the superiority of your religion over other religions, you won’t be permitted to do that in a brand community. Not because they don’t approve of your message, but because the topic conflicts with the promise the brand has made to its community.
As our chief scientist, Dr. Michael Wu, often notes, creating satisfying customer experiences doesn’t begin with delivering the experience. It begins with the promise you make about what that experience will be. Fall short of the promise, and you will have dissatisfied users or customers, regardless of any other ways your experience might be objectivity good or even superior to others.
Let me cut to the chase: I have no idea how to fix Reddit. But I think perhaps there are lessons here for anyone who runs a brand community. First, here’s what the lessons are not . For brand communities, the lesson is not that the internet is a wild place and cannot be tamed. That may be true of the Internet at large, but it isn’t — and cannot be— true of brand communities. Because if it were, you can forget keeping those promises.
The lesson is also not that empowering members is a bad thing because they will use their powers against you. You can’t have a successful community without a partnership with your users, and empowerment is part of that partnership.
Finally, the lesson is not that you should avoid relying on key members of your staff because those members may leave, either voluntarily or because you decide they should. Change is the nature of organizations and communities. We have to build communities that can survive and even welcome change, not resist it.
Ok, so are there lessons for brand communities from what’s happening at Reddit? I think there are, and as Patrick O’Keefe notes, they are not new. In fact, they testify to the principles I see at work every day at the most successful brand communities:
Leadership is communication. Communities, like other forms of social organization, depend on leadership to achieve their goals. If you’re in a position of leadership in a business or in a community, you may be doing many things, but if you aren’t communicating, you aren’t leading. Reddit CEO Ellen Pao noted that failure in her apology: “We haven’t communicated well.”
Superusers should know more, and know before. Communication must begin with your superusers — in Reddit’s case, their moderators. Your most active users feel a sense of ownership over the community — and that’s a good thing. Don’t present them with major changes they don’t see coming and don’t understand. Pao: “We have surprised moderators and the community with big changes.” Know more — communicate — and know before — don’t surprise.
Empower your community manager. If your community manager can’t get things done for the community, they will lose members’ trust. Even worse, you will lose your community manager’s trust, and they will “go native” or leave. In either event, you’ve lost the power to lead the community, which depends entirely on trust. Often these failures center on platform issues, as happened at Reddit. “We have apologized and made promises to you, the moderators and the community, over many years, but time and again, we haven’t delivered on them.”
Make no mistake: I have respect for the ambition of Reddit’s mission, and also for the efforts of its better members, moderators, and manager. Don’t be surprised if some more positive lessons come out of this. I’ll be following their efforts in the days and weeks to come.
This article originally appeared on Medium.
Joe Cothrel is Chief Community Officer at Lithium Technologies. He is Lithium’s top expert on community and social best practices and has helped more than 300 companies execute successful social efforts.
He is active on Twitter @cothrel and is a regular contributor in the Lithosphere where he is JoeC .
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Building on Cy and Jason's comments, I agree that the key to managing vendors in the community is to create an infrastructure that enables you to manage them. Cy and Jason have already mentioned a few elements to this infrastructure -- a badge or role that identifies them as a vendor, a set of rules for them to follow above and beyond the rules everyone else must follow, and some kind of training or onboarding to give you the chance to educate them about these rules.
One more thing I'd mention: communicate to the entire community about what this vendor role is all about and how it uniquely contributes to the conversation. This will accomplish three goals -- a) it will help everyone understand that it means when they see the vendor role/badge, b) it will (if you do it right) make the vendors feel like they are special and important, and c) it will make their terms of engagement with the community public, thus increasing the pressure on them to follow the rules.
And by the way, kudos to you for recognizing that vendors are part of the community around your products and services. Good luck!
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This is one of the clearest and most succinct descriptions I've ever read of who we are and what we do. Cheers to Ravi for embracing our mission and joining the team. Great to have you on board!
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Great question. I love focus groups and I'm surprised more communities don't do them, considering how easy they are. Here's are some of the lessons I've learned from helping Lithium customers do these:
In most cases a regular forum works better than a group. Just create a dedicated forum for the purpose, and restrict access to a specific role. If you have a out-of-the-box landing page, just create it at the root - it will appear at the top of the page for those who you've granted the role, and no one else will be able to see it. ( Here's a good summary of the difference between groups and private boards.)
Focus groups work best when you have a stakeholder who needs the info you will gather. For example, the web team might want feedback on web experience leading up to a redesign. A product team might want to collect info on a recent launch. The VP in charge of the loyalty program might want to collect insights the experiences of program members. Having a *reason* for having a focus group, and then having a *face* (not yours) to act as host, helps reinforce the notion that this is worth spending time on.
Needless to say, the group should be time-limited. Three days seems to be optimal -- because people like to post, and them come back and see what others have posted. Also, you'll want some opportunity to read some responses and then ask some follow-up questions. You'll get most of your participation on day one.
Do you have a target audience in mind? Do some outreach a few weeks beforehand -- a post in the community, an email to members or targets -- to get permission to email them when the event takes place. Then plan emails a week in advance, a day in advance, an hour in advance, and end of day on each of the three days. The first three remind people to come, and the next three summarize results and ... remind people to come.
Configure the forums so that all participants can reply but only the host can create a thread. That will create a nice, neat focus-group appearance. (BTW, you do the opposite if you want to do an expert Q&A event -- everyone can create a thread, but only the guest can reply.)
Beforehand, work with the host to create about 10 questions. Post them one by one, every hour or so, through day one. Watch participation - if people are really engaged, you may not need all ten, and can use some on day 2. At the end of day 1, get together with the host, review the responses, and see if the responses suggest any new follow-up questions that the host might use to probe further into the issues or topic surfaced on day 1. This tells participants that you're paying attention. You might also consider doing a post from the host at the end of each day, thanking participants and highlighting interesting points.
Post-event, you want to send a closing email thanking participants and, again, reinforcing the value their participation has. It's rare that focus groups alone will result in immediate changes or results, so it's important not to set expectations that this is an "ask and you shall receive" situation. You should also decide whether you want to retire (hide) or archive (closed to comment, but still visible to participants) the content. Focus groups are usually retired.
It's often really valuable collect all the feedback you gather into a report that can be printed and studied by the hosting organization, or shared with others. You can simply export the data and put it in a doc, or you can create a executive summary highlighting the key points, depending on how ambitious you want to be.
Those are the key points. Love to hear how it goes, and any improvements/departures you make from the usual approach. We're all learning every day, so please share!
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I put together this brief document to capture some of the most common roles I see across the communities that run on Lithium. Probably only a starting place, but might be interesting to see how your current org compares.
Love to see what other folks have to share as well ...
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Hi Marissa -
Seems to me there are three considerations embedded in your question:
Should the idea exchange allow users to submit ideas, or just comment and rate the ideas you present to them?
Should the idea exchange be open for browsing to all users, or just to registered users?
Should the idea exchange be open for all registered users to participate, or for just a subset of users to participate?
Based on my observations, companies get the biggest benefit from allowing users to contribute ideas, in a public forum that is visible to all users and open for all registered members to participate. Allowing all users to contribute ideas means you aren't limited to just those ideas you already know about; making the exchange public makes it easier for all users to see if their idea has already been suggested (or even implemented), which increases satisfaction and reduces repetitive requests; and allowing all registered users to participate simpy recognizes that you really don't know who might come up with the next great idea.
Having said that, we've seen many different configurations for idea exchanges, and I don't think it makes sense to be religious about always needing to be one way only. However, there are some potential pitfalls to be avoided. First, if you do limit participation to comments, or limit participants to a small group, I think you might want to create a time-limited "session" for ideation, rather than just launching it and leaving it open on an ongoing basis. Ideation is somewhat scale-sensitive - you need a lot of participant to really make it useful, because you need a lot of votes to make prioritization possible. You can potentially drive a lot of participation from a small group of people, but only if you do it over a short period of time, and promote the heck out of it. Because a small group generally won't be able to keep the conversation going over weeks and months.
So I wouldn't necessarily say that your internal stakeholders are wrong -- in fact, maybe doing something like a short-term ideation exercise is exactly what they need to "get their feet wet" and start feeling comfortable with the process. Having said that, your instincts about where the most value lies are absolutely right!
Also tagging @CesarC for his thoughts -- he's the guy I turn to on topics related to ideation.
Hope this helps.
And @KaiBoon, sorry I missed your post!
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We don't have a London session scheduled yet Stephen, but you know we'll be taking this course there sometime in 2015. I think we've done more training sessions in London than anywhere else, except San Francisco.
Stephen and Jenn, looking forward to seeing you guys next week!
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Robb and I also want to acknowledge all the Lithium consultants and strategists who provided input and advice for this course, particularly @BrianO, @CesarC, @CharlotteK, @JakeR, @JonathanW, @LisaB, @OliviaL, @PeteC, and @XavierJ. Thanks for your contributions!
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The beginning of the football season always reminds me of my first job out of college, working at a management consulting firm. Among my colleagues was a fanatical football fan who started a weekly betting pool. My coworkers and I would each throw five dollars in the kitty and then choose which teams we thought would win each game that week, adding a total point score for the Monday night game as a tie-breaker. In the end the winner never really profited, because he or she always had to buy drinks at the corner bar on Tuesday night. You’d be lucky to end up ahead. Still, it was surprising how long a group could drink for $100 on “dollar Corona night.” Where are the snows of yesteryear? But I digress.
Soon I settled on a strategy that guaranteed I would win at least once every season. Observing my coworkers, I noted two basic strategies. One strategy, followed by diehard fans, was to complete the form game-by-game using one’s own knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of the competitors. The other strategy, used by those who didn’t follow football, was to pick the same teams chosen by Las Vegas oddsmakers from the Latest Line column in the sports section of the local newspaper.
I watch football but I’m no expert, so the first strategy wasn’t available to me. But the second strategy didn’t make sense either. If I won, so would everyone else who followed the odds. The point-total tie-breaker just made it a lottery, a game of chance. Plus, blindly following the line would take all the fun out of playing.
So here was my strategy: follow the latest line, but then pick one or two upsets. A typical week had 12-14 games, so I just needed to figure out which one or two games would go against the odds. For the upsets, I could use the line to determine which games would be closely fought, or I could just pick on instinct.
The strategy was surprisingly effective, and it was easy, and it was fun.
Ok, so what does this have to do with social customer experience? Well, as in the football pool, I think a good social customer experience strategy bets the line, but picks a couple of upsets.
What does it mean to bet the line? It means understanding what other brands have done successfully. What tools, strategies, and tactics work? Where has the efficacy of a certain tactic been proven? A question I often ask customers when I encounter a novel approach is, “Where have you seen this succeed?” By this question I don’t mean, “If you haven’t seen it, it’s a bad idea.” But I do think it’s fundamental to understand where you know something based on evidence, and where you’re just guessing.
Ideally, your strategy should consist of a lot of proven tactics, but some new or novel things as well. If everything is new or novel, you and your organization better have a high tolerance for failure. I often hear social media gurus say, “If you’re not failing, you’re not trying,” but I meet very few brands who plan to fail. Mostly, brands spend money in expectation of a return. That’s what businesses do.
At the same time, it’s possible to be too safe. I know of one brand with a long-standing, highly successful social support strategy that has engaged millions of customers over the past five years. But the person who runs that effort recently told me that he thought his boss wasn’t satisfied. “He wants to make a big splash. He’s still waiting for the splash.” I think what he meant was, in social, people are often looking for something surprising, something new, something that captures people’s imagination. Those are your upsets. Those are places where you’ll doing something perhaps no one else is doing – or doing in the same way – because your insight into your customers and your business tells you it can be successful.
Needless to say, if your strategy is full of upsets, you can’t win. But the worst thing is not to know. That’s where best practices come in. Go out and find out what’s working and what’s not working. Collect examples from your competitors, complementors, and companies outside your industry. Attend conferences and events. Take advantage of training programs and certifications. That’s how you determine where the odds are in your favor. But don’t neglect to pick some upsets.
When you win -- and you will win -- better check your wallet. You can't get a beer for a dollar anymore.
Joe Cothrel is Chief Community Officer at Lithium Technologies. He is Lithium’s top expert on community and social best practices and has helped more than 300 companies execute successful social efforts.
He is active on Twitter @cothrel and is a regular contributor in the Lithosphere where he is JoeC.
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