Your Community: Three Ways to Show Up

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

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:


  • Blogging
  • Hosting events
  • 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!


New Commentator

Great summary.  I am in the middle of wondering about exactly this issue as my public launch date draws near.


For example, I am considering having a few "experts" in my company posting some initial "seed" information on online forums.  The thinking is that when we initially launch the site, customers will see and read some useful information that is already there, making them more likely to sign up and participate.


Do you think that strategy would be helpful or not?




Honored Contributor



Great post.  I'm really interested in your study concerning the optimal amount, and I hope (type) of company involvement.   Another related study might be on the effects of different types of involvement and some guidelines for healthy ratios amongst the different mechanisms.


For example, PM exchanges with members are sometimes necessary for out of sight guidance, coaching, asides, or exchange of specific information to allow for customer service interventions.   While the direct involvement of the company isn't always visible, there can be noted affects in the subsequent behaviors of inviduals who have benefitted, and I find this to be a two edged sword.  While it has improved credibility and trust within the community, I find that this activity may be creating a malfunctioning behavior pattern of taking issues straight to PM.   This disrupts the desired community dynamic of posting discussion points first in public to allow the community to engage.


I'm sure blogs, direct posts, live forums, etc, all have various impacts on the behavior of the community.   I really look forward to your updates on your study's findings!



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Thanks, guys.  Mark, I agree that PM (private messaging) exchanges between community managers and members are an important part of "showing up," particularly for those 1% of users who are most active.   A lot of CMs experience the downside you describe too - users who will simply PM you for the techical assistance the should be getting from their peers in the forums.  Most of them compose a standard text block explaining why they can't address individual questions and referring them to the forums or other support options, and save it under the Macro tab on the profile page so it's always handy.


And yes, looking forward to sharing what we find.  We'll eventually look at all kinds of participation, including PMs, ratings, etc. 


Johninnj, I always recommend seeding for new forums.  You don't need a lot of content -- users will see that the community is new, so they won't expect depth -- but they will expect freshness, so you should time your seeding so that it's close to or directly on you launch date.  Sometimes people seed a week ahead of time, and then users arrive and wonder why the forums started and then stopped.


Content from your experts is great, but I think the best approach to seeding is to invite a small group of trusted customers into the forums for three to five days prior to launch and asking them to create the seeds.   You'll benefit from any feedback they have, and they will feel complimented that you gave them an early look.  Again, you don't need dozens of posts, but you do need a few contributions in every board to create a "soft landing" for those first users who arrive.  You don't want any of the forums to be completely empty.

Frequent Advisor

Thanks for your kind comments about our Ask the Expert Forum at Pitney Bowes. It was a terrific success in terms of drawing in new users, getting users to post and participate, and giving them a sense that we're in touch with their needs and issues -- a dynamic that's not always in play. A big reason for the successes were that each of these events was focused on business-critical issues that were timely because of changing USPS regulations -- people really needed this info! Also... we sent out a million emails promoting it... 🙂


The problem with focusing on such timely issues though is that users are motivated to visit once... but not necessarily more than that. Our struggle is building on the enthusiasm for the event to turn visitors into regular users and participants.  With each event, we have a more returnees, but are still trying to get up to a critical self-sustaing mass. As a result, we end up responding ourselves to an inordinate proportion of posts which, in turn, discourages users from replying - a cycle that sometimes looks hard to get out of. This is the downside of "showing up" maybe too much -- we have experiences at both ends of that spectrum!

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

You're welcome, Mike.  You make an excellent point that promotion is not a single thing, it's a combination of things, including email outreach and good web site placement, and starting with a prominent link on the home page.  Few enterprise communities succeed without it.   Some companies do so poorly on promotion that they never get a sufficient number of people to even visit the community a first time.   Even then, if you consider 90-9-1, you need 100 users for every one who will become that a strong question-answerer.  That's why companies who get halfway there in terms of promotion often end up in the situation you describe -- enough users to get questions, but not enough to get answers.   Not a fun place to be!



Message Edited by JoeC on 09-12-2008 03:29 PM
Occasional Commentator



Just wondering, when running events is it pot luck that when a question is asked the 'expert' is able to place the answer right after the relevant question, or is there an automatic process involved? Eg:

Question 1
Answer 1
Question 2
Answer 2


I noticed that's the way it works in the Pitney Bowes event referred to above ( 


Or did the expert just make sure that she clicked on Reply very quickly, so that she was then able to write the response to the first question before anyone else had the opportunity to write another post?!


Thanks for any help...

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hi James -


It's the latter - Elizabeth just got to those initial posts before everyone else - as you can see from her timestamp!


If it matters to you that the expert's response come directly after a question -- and I can see why it might -- you might choose a configuration that many companies use for expert events.  They simply configure that board so that users can ask a question (i.e., create a thread) but not answer a question (create a reply).  It's a trade-off - you gain something in clarity and readability, but you lose something by not permitting the community to lend their knowledge and advice.  (Although, as you can see in Elizabeth's event, often the community is not answering, but simply adding another question!)


Hope this helps!



Message Edited by JoeC on 09-19-2008 08:09 AM
Occasional Commentator
That's great, thanks Joe. Makes sense...
Frequent Advisor

There's another way to keep them sorted out which we used on another Ask the Expert where we had very long threads (pages) where the Expert would chime in at the end of the day.  We started out with the default sort of oldest --> newest, but then you could never tell what the Expert post referred to.


In the Lithium admin tool, there's a setting for  "Linear Format Message Sorting Order within Threads" -- set it to "Sort by threading" (you can do this on a board-by-board basis). Then, if the Expert clicks the Reply button on a specific message, the reply will appear right after it.


It has pros and cons -- the pro: when you read through a whole thread, the conversation is obvious; the con: if you pop in once a day to see what is new... you cant find it because the new posts are embedded with their antecedents.

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