A friend emailed recently to tell me there was an error in the social media scorecard I posted back in July. I had written, "If all of the content on your site is created by customers, deduct 10 points." Isn't it good to have all your content created by customers? Didn't I mean to say, "add 10 points"?
I was hoping you'd ask.
The answer is no. And here's why: customers quite rightfully think of you as part of the community that exists around your products and services. The knowledge and insight you have into your products is a unique and valuable part of the conversation. Customers expect you to "show up." Maybe more important, showing up helps. At Lithium, we can look at ten years of community data and see very clearly that that communities that have the proper amount of company participation simply perform better than communities that don't. They are larger, more vibrant, more positive, and grow more effectively than communities that don't.
(As an aside, we suspect that there may actually be an optimal amount of company participation, and that participation above or below that level correlates to lower performance. One of our current projects is to mine our data to identify that optimal level for communities of different size, type, and tenure -- I hope to share some of those results in a future post.)
But how do companies participate? Aside from effective management and moderation -- that's a given -- there are three ways that companies participate in their own communities. In order of increasing effort and time required, they are:
Participating in discussions
Let's take them in reverse order. Most customer discussions are primarily peer-to-peer, of course - your forums aren't really effective or cost-efficient if they are simply another direct channel in which customers ask the questions and you provide all the answers. However, in every community there are answers that only you can provide. A common example is when a problem arises that affects many customers. Customers want to know a) is the problem known to the company, b) if yes, is there a fix, and c) if no, is it or has it been investigated. Being able to respond promptly in situations like this tells the community you are committed to the community and to your customers.
Some companies take a more aggressive approach and seek to answer any question that goes unanswered for pre-determined period of time, typically 24 to 48 hours. (In a successful customer forum, average time-to-response is less than a day -- this is remarkably consistent across forums regardless of size, type, and tenure.) But most companies fall somewhere in between -- they answer the questions only the company can answer, and then they provide answers where peers have not provided them only as time and resources permit.
Second kind of participation: events. Of course many companies do webcasts and other live events -- many companies use our chat tool to conduct events around product launches, for example. But I think there's another mode that isn't used often enough -- multi-day, asynchronous events with a company executive or expert. Cisco Systems (not a Lithium customer, just an example I love) has probably done hundreds of these over the past ten years -- here's a few. One of our customers, Pitney Bowes, has an event going on this week, one of three they've run in recent months for their specialized audience of mail center managers. Not only is this an effective way of "showing up" -- can anyone doubt that Pitney Bowes is dedicated to their customers after reading Elizabeth Lombard's knowledgeable and friendly responses? -- but they are also a great way to generate an audience. I always say that it's easy to convince your customers why they should use your community, but it's hard to convince them why they should do it today -- and an event does that brilliantly.
The best experts in an organization may not have time to participate daily in your forums, but they may be able to devote three days to sharing what they know directly with customers in events like those at Cisco or Pitney Bowes. But there's another option for time-deprived executives and experts as well: blogs. A-list bloggers may blog three times a day, but in the real world, an executive who shares his perspective and knowledge even once or twice a month can make a big impact on their community. I like some of the work that David van Toor, the GM of Products at Sage Software, has done with his blog. He shares concerns he hears in conversations with customers. He highlights and responds to comments he reads in the forums. And when he celebrates community success, he invites customers to join in.
There you have it -- three ways to show up in your customer community. Do it today!