We serve small businesses and are considering the Lithium Community. We'd like to start small so that we can ensure that forums have positive, active conversations before including all of our customers in our community. What are some ideal target audience types or ways to engage the most positive customers right off the bat?
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Starting small is a good strategy. And doing lots of groundwork to identify potential community founders and build relationships with them will put you in very good stead. Not only will you have a solid base of eager people when you launch, but you should also ensure there actually is an audience for your concept, and are able to learn from them what they do and don't want from the community. You would be surprised that many companies spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars building community platforms only to discover that there is actually little appetite for their idea after they have launched.
It's never too early to start this process. Start using other social media channels to start listening, and better still, start engaging and getting to know small business owners. Your ideal "type" is really up to you to identify. But generally in any community you want a wide range of people. You definately need "experts" who generously share their time and expertise with others. But you also do want people who might be classified as "newbies" too and just eager to learn. They will be the ones who ask great questions.
When it comes to launching your community, if you want to ensure a positive start you might use password protection so that only your hand-picked community founders are initially able to access the site. Then when you have built a reasonable amount of foundation content you can go live to all.
Good luck, I hope that is helpful.
Meeting them face-to-face to get a in-depth understanding of their needs, challenges, interests, etc would be fantastic. And if you could start getting small groups of like-minded people together, even better. That way you are building relationships between users - bonds which will be very powerful in drawing people back to the community regularly.
While @JasonHill, as always, is making some excellent points, there is one issue you should consider with a "start small" strategy. I worked with a customer 10 years ago that wanted to run a trial before fully investing in a community. Because they were a large, global company, with significant product sales in a variety of countries, they were able to have their trial community be all of Great Britain. Because they had a lot of customers in Great Britain, the trial was successful and they then opened it up globally. But had they not been so large, it might have been a very different story.
To be successful, communities need a certain number of participants on a regular basis to create the responsiveness and engagement that tells other users that it is a good use of your time to post, because there is a very good likelihood you will get a reply. As you work with fewer and fewer potential participants, the requirement for greater time investment per user increases.
So while I don't know all the details in this case, I'm concerned that you won't have a realistic test of the viability of the community. You need a certain, critical mass of users, to have it really take off. What that number actually is, will vary based on the topics, their interest and importance to enough users, and the committment of the users to participate in creating content on a regular basis. Sometimes it is best to just take more time to plan and then open the doors with as wide a promotion effort as makes sense. This doesn't preclude having a prelaunch period during which you invite specific users to help create content before opening the doors wide to the larger group. But that prelaunch time is just that. It is not a test of the viability of the community. That won't happen until you have done all you can on designing the community for your users, set it up per all of our best practice recommendations for launch and community setup and design, and done a full promotion effort to alert your potential users that the community is now open and available.
Good stuff @RobbL, agree that there is certainly also risk in the "start small" approach. It's natural for people to be hesitant about posting on a community that looks small and quiet. Hence the need to do as much legwork first so you know that the community will be viable, and that these people will want to continue engaging with each other.
Promotion is a very, very tricky one. While it's obvious you need to promote the community early on to draw an audience, a community in its infancy is obviously the worst time for a newbie to arrive as its the least interesting place that its ever going to be. So you certainly don't want to blow your marketing budget on a huge launch. And any marketing efforts you do need to include a very clear call to action strategy beyond just registration. You need to draw people into conversation, creating content and telling others to jump in and do the same. Many branded communities make the very expensive mistake of the "big launch" and then wonder why their community is a ghost town just a few months later. And make sure you avoid incentives like prizes for registering, which are usually pointless as people just register in the hope of winning a prize with no intention of ever returning to the community.
Since everyone else has tackled parts of the question, I'll take a stab at finding the right customers to target. I agree that there are many dangers in limiting your initial members to a certain geographical location or too small of a group. My suggestion would be get your sales and support teams to help find the best global candidates for your community. Your teams have the most personal contact with your customers and are going to be able to help you target which ones have the best potential to be the kind of community members you are looking for. The will know who has the helpful personality and knowledge with your products to kick things off on a positive note.
It also works as a recognition of these customers to be asked to participate and help mold your new community.
Great points and insight shared so far. I would also like to expand on the points @CyJervis and @JasonHill raised and emphasize the core of it: If you are present on your market for a while and have an existing relationship with your customers it's quite likely that you actually already have a community 🙂 It might not have a dedicated home and all the right tools to grow yet. But if you spend a while with your frontline sales and/or customer relations team, they are probably already able to name your Community Super Users without calling them that. Use that focus group opportunity also to gather some inspiration as to what they'd like to learn and see from your company and feed that into your community experience planning.