As you may have heard, this is my last week at Lithium. Seems like only yesterday I first walked over from the Four Points in Emeryville to our little office near the Amtrak station. The 20-odd people at their desks were silent except for the furious clicking of keyboards. I think I was their first extrovert. (Phil was probably the second.) Thankfully, I was based in Chicago and only visited once a month, or I’m sure they would have had “fit” issues with me.
I’ve always said that what kept me at Lithium for 12 years was the endless stream of the world’s biggest and coolest brands coming through our doors. I knew from previous experience how rare that is, and how hard you need to work to earn it, and how satisfying it is when you do. But as I composed this note I realized that answer ignores the other side of the equation – all the great colleagues who helped, encouraged, and inspired me along the way. So, a few thank yous are in order:
To Michel, our first CEO, who hired me. And to our second CEO (and founder), Lyle, who kept that Chicago guy that Michel hired.
To Nader, my first manager at Lithium, who let me do my thing – but whose casual advice on management and business still sticks with me today.
To two front-line guys, Mark and Robb, who welcomed this outside “expert” even though he knew way less than they did.
To the moderation team Mark helped me hire, including Adam, Andy, Aubrey, Brian, Jon, Julie, Sheila, and Tashina, who taught me that leading a team can be fun, and who all went on to lead teams themselves. So proud of those guys.
To Katy, who asked me one day, “how about creating a certification course?” Eight years, nine cities, and 600+ graduates later, that was one good idea.
To Kirk, fellow hockey fan who shared good advice and his insightful perspective as a Lithium founder on our long drives down to San Jose to see the Sharks.
To our EMEA team, led by Bruno, who made us a truly international company and made me part of that journey – and to Phil, who has kept me involved til today.
To our Sales team, in particular my friends Karen, Neerav, and Greg, who by partnering with customers and selling the value, helped make our company and the whole community category larger, stronger, and more sustainable.
To Blake and Booth, who created our business value team and were amazing partners and collaborators; I’m still awed by the creativity they brought to everything they took on. As head of the business value team today, Grigor has been a great steward of what they created.
To Randy, an amazing programmer who created some of our best internal analytics tools, and who turned Booth’s and my vision for a robust benchmarking tool into a reality.
To all the consultants who do today what I used to be the only person to do, back in the day: Daniel, Eric, Jake, Jenny, Ken, Kerri, Larry, Patrick, Pete, and especially my partners in crime, Lisa and Jon. As I always said when you faced a new challenge or a tough problem: Who better than you to take this on?
To my fellow thought leaders, Michael and Dave. Michael, it was so much fun collaborating on the Community Health Index – you showed me that your algorithm could beat my intuition. Dave, my co-author on Social Customer Experience, visionary, social media guru, travel pal, drinking buddy, and all-around good guy … If I could borrow all your energy for just one day …
And finally, to our new leadership: to Pete and Katherine, who kept me engaged in conversations about our future direction and priorities, even knowing that I wasn’t going to be here to see those plans realized. As an old-timer with a lot of opinions, I really appreciated that. And especially to Mike, who I’ve had the pleasure to work closely with as he created his new CCO organization over the past six months. A true leader if there ever was one. Being part of his team, with my peers Adam, Jenn, John, Heather, Michael and Philippe, has been one of great pleasures of my working life. Couldn’t ask for a better group to finish my stint with, or to take Lithium into the future.
Apologies to anyone I missed (I’m sure there are many). Thanks and best wishes to you all!
P.S.: You probably haven’t heard the last of me. Katherine has invited me to serve as a judge for the Lithys competition this year – an honor reserved for friends and experts outside the company, which I soon will be. And Pete and Mike have both let me know they’d love to have me involved in the business in the future if I so choose (or if my wife wants to get me out of the house). In the meantime, I’m going to concentrate on sleeping, eating, and exercise, and following wherever my interests lead me. Should be fun!
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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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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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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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